39.1 Preview: Katie Cortese

The Ark an excerpt

The Network sends Abe and me to Arbitration separately, thank god. My red-vested producer is new, or at least I haven’t met him yet. “Ricardo,” he says, holding out a small hand with a strong grip. Dark-haired, pencil-lead beard, he’s polite and smiles readily enough, but doesn’t say much, or maybe I’m just talking enough for both of us. Abe says it’s one of my worst traits, babbling. I used to remind him about glass houses—smooth-talker that he can be when he chooses, but we both know that despite where I’ve ended up, my Bible game is weak.
Even though he’s not talking much, Ricardo laughs at my jokes as we stroll the length of Deck 13, which is gratifying. When you’re six months pregnant and about to get divorced on a floating television studio in the middle of the swollen and dying Atlantic, it’s nice to connect with someone, even a stranger. Still, we’re halfway through our brief walk before I realize why I’m enjoying myself so much. Producers can’t appear on screen, so any footage of us will be edited out. I can frown or swear or slouch or pick my nose. It’s a taste of the freedom I’d taken for granted back in Knoxville when Abe I and lived a different kind of life that seems now like it belonged to someone else. Someone in love. Someone who whistled as she took out the trash just to hear it echo in the salty, sea-scented air.
This new dose of privacy, like a return to my anonymous life, is so intoxicating that I can’t stop talking—about the shitty food on The Ark, my swollen ankles, unsatisfied candy cravings—and laugh until my gut hurts in a good way, clutching my rounded middle. I can’t help thinking as I stroll along the sunny deck with a beautiful man that it almost feels like a date.
Maybe that’s why Ricardo indulges me when I point to the elevator instead of the stairs. He checks the time on his tablet, purses his lips like one of the ducks in Deck 18’s menagerie, and shrugs conspiratorially. “I won’t tell if you don’t,” he says.
We squeeze in, elbows touching in the tight space. The lifts are small to encourage people to take the stairs, or so claims The Ark’s manual. “Baby Ruby’s exerting for both of us today,” I say, patting my belly. “I think she just turned a somersault.”
Ricardo gifts me a last lovely smile, flashing teeth white as quartz with one crooked canine, before the elevator dings on 15. “You’ll be fine,” he says, quick and heartfelt.
I step out of the elevator fighting the swell of tears. Out of everything I’ve heard over the last month as we hammered out this divorce, Abe and I, people have said a lot of things, but no one has told me I’d be fine. Not one member of cast or crew. I press the corner my eye until the urge to cry passes. “Thanks,” I say, as the elevator snaps shut, whisking him away.
Abe is already waiting outside Arbitration, which is also, ironically, his work assignment. Seeing me, he smiles for the cameras, which on the ship are every-fucking-where.
“Late,” my soon-to-be-ex says, “as usual.”
“Blame the elevators. They’re slow.”
He raises sculpted, blond eyebrows and reaches for my shoulder. “Could have used a climb, don’t you think, Laura? Your heart’s beating for two.”
My famous temper, another flaw according to Abe, draws my hand into a fist, but I know what Abe’s supposedly doing—playing the villain to keep us high in the ratings.
“Conflict sells,” he’d said two months ago, before confessing the calculated infidelity that sparked our split. We were both crammed in our tiny bathroom—the only place bare of cameras to hide my morning sickness from grossed-out viewers. “I did it for us. You’ll thank me later.”
“I thought you said ‘sex sells,’” I’d countered, numb before the anger.
He’d palmed my belly, barely noticeable early in the second trimester. “We already took care of that.”
Now, Abe opens the door, ushering me into a waiting room outfitted with stuffed leather chairs, wall-mounted bookshelves lined with leather-bound blank pages, and a few plastic trees. Soon Abe’s colleague, an attorney from Detroit who used to prosecute high-profile government corruption back on land, will open his incongruously large door, and my husband and I will take up twin fountain pens to rend our union asunder.
“Hot in here,” I say, fanning myself with a copy of the ship’s newspaper, The Arkives.
“Feels fine to me,” Abe says, marking up some pages he’d pulled from his briefcase. For the first time, I’m truly glad we’re breaking up. Whether he’s acting or not, The Ark has turned him icy as a polar vortex. Ruby jabs me gently behind my bellybutton like she agrees.
All I asked for in the divorce was to keep our cabin. The Network owns the rest of our assets anyway. Abe conceded, documents were drawn up, and after Marcus sent our signed paperwork to the mainland for expediting, the deed was done. Because the aftermath of our split is the focus of this week’s episode, Ricardo knocks before breakfast to bring me to the confession berth. My hair is shower-wet and I’m starving in a way that makes me salivate for the frozen bagels and O.J. from concentrate in the main galley.
“Good to see you again,” I say, before pleading my case, but he’s politely firm.
“Talk first, eat later,” he says, tugging at the red vest separating him from cast and crew.
“I’m not the only hungry one,” I say, patting the swell of my belly. Since we don’t need money, I’ve stopped carrying a purse and forgot to grab a GoodBody Bar.
He checks the time on his tablet, then sighs, retrieving a raspberry Helth-Square from his pocket, my least favorite. “You’re a life-saver,” I say anyway. It’s good to have friends in admin.
The confession berth is decked out like an old-time captain’s cabin. An electric chandelier sways over a ship’s wheel before a throne-like wooden chair. Along one wall, paper maps decorate a small desk, and a porthole seems to show the horizon beyond a rolling ocean, though it’s just a neon sign. There’s a Bible on the desk too, but that and the zoo on 18 are the only clue that The Ark is a replica of the one in Genesis. Most of the cast are atheist or agnostic, which is to say practical, which is to say survivors willing to embark on the “high-seas adventure of a lifetime” instead of waiting to drown on the dwindling landmass we came from. I miss my hometown, but the place I was born in West Virginia is growing barnacles at the bottom of the Atlantic now. There’s no going home again, even if I were allowed.
I flash the Helth-square’s label at the camera, and am so hungry the first bite is palatable, but by the third it tastes like sawdust again.
Be grateful, I think anyway. Smile. Make them like you better than Abe.
I don’t have anything new to reveal. Just the same old anger for the way Abe micro-managed our lives, never supported my art, and humped an infirmary nurse a half-dozen times last month, but our troubles are so ordinary as to be cliché. Or they would be off-camera. “I’ll be okay,” I start, “but I don’t understand how he could to this to Ruby.” One hand pinches the underside of my knee to jumpstart tears. Of course, he already explained his plan to me. I just don’t buy it. Or not completely. We were newlyweds in the pilot and the first to get pregnant. The first to divorce. We have to keep pushing the envelope, he says, if we want to stay relevant. We’re single-handedly sustaining ratings now, which means we get perks like en suite cabins, extra rations, and reduced workloads, not to mention confessionals, which earn us spots in the credits.
“We could be swabbing toilets, Laura,” he’d said that night in the bathroom. That, at least, is true. We belong to the Network now, for better or for worse. They decide how to use us.
Back on what passes for solid ground, what Abe hated more than global poverty and famine and rapidly rising seas was the way each tick of the Doomsday Clock forced us further into America’s interior. He’s old enough to remember a field trip to New York City before it was evacuated, where he’d watched the Atlantic lap at the city’s new sea walls from the top of the Empire State Building. “Why not coexist?” he’d rant with each move. “Just look at Venice.”
But Italy is now just series of islands in what were the Apennines. Venice, a fairy tale under the Adriatic Sea.
After my confession, I allow myself an elevator ride to breakfast, humming to my little Ruby Tuesday, the one thing I know is real in this made-for-TV boat. The elevator hums along, smooth, efficient. It was Abe’s idea to audition and while it landed us here in relative safety, it still hasn’t saved us from the worst thing. Not from ourselves.
The only thing I look forward to now is yoga. The teacher likes to show me adjustments for my delicate state, mostly, I think, because it buys her screentime—the same reason our Kardashian-lookalike OB cried when she announced the results of my pee test. Everyone onboard has to hustle for love.
I’m supposed to empty my mind and let thoughts pass like clouds during class, but the sequences are where I get my best thinking done. Today, we’re opening our hips. I squat with everyone else, sneaking peeks at the roundness housing my daughter, Ruby Ransom Haskell. Her name is all Abe and I agree on now. That and our eagerness to meet her when she arrives sometime before The Ark’s first Christmas, almost a year after setting sail from the port of Knoxville, dodging the occasional fishing vessel trawling for amberjack and flying fish and the few other species that have acclimated to the salty broth where we’ve landed them.
“Warrior One,” my teacher croons, floating toward me in harem pants. I assume the position while her fingers butterfly up my lifted arms.
When we first heard about The Ark, I couldn’t imagine trading privacy for a one-way trip designed to amuse a shrinking American populace, but the harder Abe pushed and the emptier grocery shelves grew, the more upside I saw to guaranteed meals (billed as organic), free health care (to exploit the drama of serious illness), 24/7 security (Big-Brother style), and a shelter impervious to rising seas (the only true perk). By the time we shot our audition tape, cameras seemed a small price to pay.
I pulled out all the emotional stops for that performance, building up to sobs over the fire that vaporized my parents’ retirement villa, my sister who vanished in the California earthquake, and a brief span of homelessness after the West Virginia tsunami. All that combined with my modest reputation in the art world and Abe’s good looks secured our spots in this “experiment in sustainable survival on the high seas.” I cried again when they called to tell us we’d made it.
“Belly breaths,” the teacher says, “find freedom in the pose.” We’re in tree, mid-sway from a nonexistent breeze. Her cold hands land chilly on either side of my expansive hips.
“Sorry,” I whisper as I lose my balance and almost crush her. “Clumsy.”
She pats my hair, smiles vaguely toward the ceiling toward one of those black domes—like the security cameras in King Neptune’s Loot, where I used to shop for refurbished treasures reclaimed from the sea.
“Yoga is a journey, not a destination,” she says, gliding off to correct another wobbler.
I watch her go, voluminous white hair like a shroud. She’s an extra from the lower decks and probably lives in a cabin that sleeps six with shared bathrooms and no natural light.
I’ve only been down there once, for the required tour—which didn’t include Decks 1-8, the underwater ones off-limits to both cast and cameras. Supposedly, they hold labs where vegetables are grown hydroponically, and waste is recycled into fertilizer, and meat substitutes are cultivated, but after the first month—which lured us into submission with fresh produce, decadent entrees, and desserts I dream of still—we’ve mostly been fed Helth-Squares, GoodBody Bars, Munchables, ramen noodles, and military-style field meals in four flavors (vegetable chili, beef stroganoff, chicken Kiev, and cheese ravioli). All manufactured by subsidiaries of the Network. Everything’s vitamin-fortified and free, but I bet the menu will get pretty old by the time I’m wrinkly enough for them to light my floating funeral pyre.
We haven’t had a death yet, almost ten months in, which I think The Network’s peeved about. After all, we air opposite Space Cowboys, the show set on Mars where two people died already. And that’s not even factoring in Abyss (set on a submarine, popular among North Korean War vets), or a third in the works about a colony of hot air balloons and zeppelins.
Whenever I get depressed about Abe—or miss chomping a fresh, crisp apple—I remind myself I could be back in Knoxville processing Floridian refugees, never sure if our sixth floor apartment would survive the next flood. Be grateful, I tell myself, again, then settle into Warrior Two and breathe and breathe and breathe.
It’s midnight on a Friday when Abe knocks on my door. “It’s your estranged husband,” he calls as I’m thumbing off the lock.
“I have water or Apple Joose,” I say once he’s ducked inside.
“Water,” he says, “and some Noodle-Roos.”
That’s my cue to throw two soup rations into the microwave to scramble the mics. Two Noodle-Roos give us seven minutes to whisper more or less freely.
“How’s arbitration?” I ask, handing him a glass.
“Biggest excitement was two drunks fighting over a girl who’s dating another girl, and a mother who wants to emancipate herself from her ten-year-old. Even in the middle of the ocean, people are shitty to each other.” Abe flops onto the sofa where Ruby was conceived.
Even if he was only screwing the nurse to up our intrigue-quotient, it’s hard to believe he didn’t enjoy parting thighs still taut as saran-wrap across a bowl, or fondling a flat belly. “Yes,” I say. “The world over, people are shitty.”
“Don’t be pissy,” he says, swigging half his water.
I take the armchair. In here, it’s easy to forget we’re circling the Atlantic on steam power from superheated sea water. The technology is state-of-the-art. If we run out of anything, it will be food before fuel. Unless there’s really a Garden of Eating tucked away on one of these decks.
“What do you want, Abe?” Waiting, I origami a copy of the week’s activity roster. My painting class is listed under the rehearsal schedule for Our Town. We all stay very busy.
“What, no foreplay?” he asks, reaching into a pocket to retrieve a bag of gummy worms, very verboten. The sight brings saliva to my mouth.
“It’s late. I teach at nine a.m.,” I say, making every effort to resist, but then he selects a worm and traps it between his teeth, chewing sensuously. I grab the bag without eye contact.
“Fine,” he says, winking as he swallows. “Maybe I want to reconcile.”
“Get back together? You’ve got to be kidding. We’ve barely been apart.” I fish out a worm and decapitate it, shuddering at the sugar rush. We’re supposed to eat in the main galley so they only give enough rations for micro-meals, and sugar is off-limits as it’s part of the luxury that landed humanity in our current pickle. Lawyer or no, though, Abe has a nose for contraband.
He grins. “Not now. Eventually, for Ruby’s sake. A touching reunion after her birth? Falling in love with her makes us love each other again?”
“I’ll think about it,” I say, chewing, savoring, wanting him just to shut up. But now he’s the pissy one, looking at me over the rim of his glass like it was me who had the affair.
It makes my stomach turn, the thought of sharing a bed again, kissing for the cameras, but it might be necessary. Unnamed cast only become valuable when one gets injured, commits a crime, or when a landbound relative takes to her deathbed and they’re summoned to the confession berth for a teary testimonial about wanting to go say goodbye. They can’t, though. No one can. It’s in the contract. If the ship goes down, metaphorically, and we get cancelled, we just become cogs in the Network’s other machines. Lucky ones might end up with a bit role on Shore Wars, remaking house boats to sell them for a profit, or we might don hairnets in a Helth-Square factory. On The Ark we’re sitting pretty, so we’re all motivated to keep the show afloat.
“What are you working on now?” Abe asks. “You’re so sexy when you’re painting.”
“I’m not very inspired these days,” I say. “Plus, there’s teaching—”
He snorts and it’s hard to blame him. My students are bored former housewives with no casseroles to bake, no children to homeschool since they all go to a one-room deal on 17, and no rugs to vacuum threadbare. We’ve been painting plastic fruit for three weeks. The Ark needed cultural enrichment, the head producer told us when he called to welcome us aboard. I’d made some waves with a series of underwater still-lifes of my now-drowned hometown painted from photos but glazed with a green lacquer so everything appeared submerged. They paid my half of the bills when Abe and I were dating, but he never got them. “Wow,” he’d say whenever I showed him a new canvas. “You really captured the way everything is fucking wet underwater.” He thought it was funny, but after a while I stopped showing him my work.
“You’re the love of my life, Laura,” he says now, dropping one of two remaining worms into his gullet, “no matter what this place makes us do.”
“So you say.”
He shakes his head so a hank of blond falls into his eyes. Early on, he’d seemed too good to be true. There were flowers and dinners, but worse, there were heartwarming elementary school productions of The Wizard of Oz. Outdoor retiree a capella concerts. Cooking classes. Ballroom dancing. Once, a chopper from Seattle to Vancouver, neither of which had yet been swallowed up. We camped for three glorious nights on the peak of the Golden Hinde. Anything I mentioned in passing, he made happen. I thought, here’s a guy who listens. Now I know that’s all he does, storing up information to subdue his victims.
“This girl is your only real competition,” he says, kneeling by my chair to rub my stomach in proprietary circles.
“She’ll know what you did. It’s all on tape.”
“Not if we reconcile,” he says. “I know it will be tricky—taking me back—politically, but I’ll have my image rehabbed before she arrives.”
I grip the chair’s hard padding. “Is that all you came to say?”
He chucks me under the chin, fondly. “Just keep being angry,” he grins. As the microwave dings, he plants a kiss on my forehead before I push him away to fetch the noodles.
Abe stares gloomily into the cup’s searing depths then. “You’re right,” he says for the mics. “I shouldn’t have come.”
“Abe—” I say, but he presses two fingers against my lips.
“You eat mine, for Ruby’s sake,” he says, dashing out before I can respond.
I stand with a Noodle-Roo in each hand and let my eyes close in a way that I hope shows inner conflict. Whatever he’s working on, whatever the new plan is, I know I should be wary.
It’s a month before Abe’s image massage starts to work, apparently at my expense. It’s eerie the way I can walk by any group of blue-hairs playing four-hand bridge without fielding even one question about kicking strength. We’re not allowed to watch episodes of The Ark, and I don’t want to appear a bitter divorcee, so I have to couch my questions carefully, starting with my yoga teacher, who seems vaguely Buddhist, and therefore friendly, or at least neutral.
“I hope Abe’s making new friends,” I say to her after a sunrise class, following Yolanda while she snuffs out the incense. “I don’t want Ruby to have an outcast for a father. What’s the saying, ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind?’”
“Most people think Gandhi said that, but there’s no record of it,” she says, stacking blocks with her back turned. I watch with a hand at my throat until I’m sure I’ve been dismissed.
            I’m still looking for clues a few hours later when a shape separates itself from the wall by my door, causing my heart to double-clutch before I see it’s just my OB. It’s unusual to see her out of the infirmary, but not against the rules since she’s a named character now.
“Dr. Dewer,” I say, “is something wrong?”
“Inside,” she says, glancing over a shoulder like an amateur spy.
I usher her in. “Tea?” I have some mint and chamomile from a care package. We’re not allowed to receive mail, but occasionally a producer will throw us a bone. I don’t know who let this one through the filter, but Ricardo’s the only one who winks whenever we cross paths.
“No,” she says, knitting her glamorous brows. “I’m here on business.”
“What’s wrong? Is it the baby?” I clutch my stomach but no equal and opposite pressure leaps to my touch. It takes a Herculean effort not to shake Ruby into motion.
“It could have waited, honestly, but since you were anxious about the glucose test I wanted to tell you it’s normal. Everything is progressing well.”
I’m more confused than relieved. I wasn’t worried about the test. We have so little sugar onboard I never believed I was at risk for gestational diabetes, but then I remember the gummy worms. Of course, this new iteration of Abe does nothing kind unless it serves his own interests. The whole ship probably thinks I’m an unfit vessel for The Ark’s first birth by now.
“What a relief,” I say anyway, sinking into a chair. The real question is why Dr. Dewer tipped me off. During my appointments she’s never been anything but brisk and professional.
“I didn’t want you worrying. Stress can be just as dangerous as smoking or drinking,” she says, hugging me with one arm and pressing a square of paper into my hand with the other.
“I can’t thank you enough,” I say, balling the note in my fist.
Sitting on the toilet after she’s gone, I try to interpret her doctor’s scrawl. On a printout of the actual test results, which are, indeed, normal, Dr. Dewer has written: “He said you ‘cut him down’/drove him to cheat. Still loves you, but you won’t take him back. Plus, gum drops?”
Fucking Abe. I flush the note, making sure it disappears. Colluding could get us banished, so writing that note is no small thing. I want to trust her, woman to woman, maybe even friend to friend, but good will is only one of the things on this boat I’ve found to be in very short supply.

 

 

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