Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia, part 1, chapter 1
[Author’s Note: This is the third installment of my new novel, Commonwealth. Read the previous part here. If you like what you see and want to read the next part today, it’s already up on Patreon. You can sign up for as little as $1/month. —Adam]
Back at home, Rae threw out the day’s pile of junk mail, put her groceries away, then set a pot of water to boil on the stove and started cooking.
Outside her job, which was important to her for different reasons, cooking was Rae’s favorite activity. She could clear her mind of the day’s concerns and lose herself in the simple rhythms of chopping vegetables and stirring soup, mixing batter and kneading dough. It was just the right balance of purposeful and calming, like a meditation. That the end result was a delicious meal was a bonus. She had never been religious, but there was something profoundly spiritual about feeding other people, nourishing their bodies with the work of her hands.
As she worked, she consulted a yellowed index card with a recipe in faded, carefully lettered handwriting. Touching it brought back memories of another kitchen, long ago: the yeasty tang of rising bread, the aromas of honey and cinnamon, the feel of strong hands on her own. The nostalgia was a sweet ache, another remnant of a world that now seemed like a dream.
Once the pot was simmering, Rae changed into nicer clothes, then went to the bathroom to do her hair and makeup. She rarely bothered, and real cosmetics that she trusted were rare and precious, but this was one of the few special occasions in her life that justified it. She chose a cocoa butter moisturizer, a warm-toned eyeshadow that had a hint of golden yellow, and berry-colored lipstick. She was finishing up when there was a knock at the door.
“Coming!” she called, hurrying to undo the bolt.
A woman was standing in the hall, holding a covered dish. She had wavy dark hair pulled into a ponytail, eyes that sparkled with vivacity, Mediterranean skin, lips like sunshine. Behind her stood a short, willowy man with an impassive face that broke into a quick smile when he saw her.
“Sorry I’m late,” the woman said, with an exaggerated scowl. “The traffic was terrible!”
Rae laughed, because the clock showed 7 PM on the dot; and because this woman and her husband were her best friends, and they lived down the hall.
“Zoe, Michael, come in,” she invited them.
She tried to move aside, but Zoe moved in the same direction. When she turned back, her friend stepped the same way. After a moment of this awkward, circling dance, they figured out, laughing, how to coordinate for her to allow her friends into the apartment.
Her friends set their dishes on the table. Zoe made a beeline for the pot simmering on the stove, lifted the lid and sniffed.
“Ooh! What’dja make me?”
“It’s red beans and rice, if you have to spoil the surprise,” Rae said, with mock severity. “And there’s sweet cornbread keeping warm in the oven. You?”
“Savory potato kugel and Greek salad with feta. And Michael made his famous spring rolls with homemade plum sauce. Have you heard from Owen? Is he coming?”
“I left him a message, but didn’t hear back. He’s probably off doing God knows what. Like always.”
“Well, we’ll be spared his terrible cooking at least,” Michael said dryly.
Zoe giggled. “Yeah. Some of us grew out of our college eating habits, but I doubt he ever stopped thinking of microwave pizza as haute cuisine.”
Rae tried to roll her eyes, but couldn’t repress a grin. It was true: Owen had made one attempt to cook dinner for her, ages ago. After they had managed to silence the smoke alarm, she had decreed that she would cook for the two of them from then on, and he’d had the good sense to give in.
She set the table and carried the food over in oven mitts. Her friends uncovered their dishes, and a bouquet of delicious smells rose with the steam, mingling and filling the little apartment.
There was no need to stand on ceremony among old friends, and they dug in hungrily. Rae was no slouch, but Zoe was an exceptional cook, and they all had second helpings.
As they sat around the table, telling jokes and reminiscing, Rae felt a wave of nostalgia envelop her. This gathering reminded her so strongly of their college days that the past seemed to shade into the present. The juxtaposition of memory and reality made everything more vivid, more real.
In those days, engineering projects and rehearsals and pre-med and pre-law classes kept them apart, but coffeehouse poetry recitals and concerts and late nights at seedy bars brought them together. On warm spring nights, they would sneak into the closed student union, using a window in the ladies’ restroom that Zoe had discovered didn’t latch properly, and stay up until the small hours sitting on the old plaid couches, fueling themselves with black coffee and soda from the vending machines, debating how to bring about a better world.
Those happy hours in a golden circle of conversation seemed far more real to Rae, now, than the blurred and compressed weeks of papers and exams. It was a time when everything seemed great and simple, when the solutions to humanity’s problems had been within their reach. When they’d tossed their caps in the air and received their diplomas, they’d walked out with the certainty that they would be the ones to change the world.
“Well, didn’t we?” Zoe asked, as Rae gave voice to these musings.
“Maybe,” Rae said quietly. “Some of us. But not the way we thought.”
“For all you know, the world would be worse off without us. Maybe what we do is more important than we realize. Maybe we’re the ones keeping things from getting really bad.”
“I think I do believe that. But even so, is that all we aspire to? Trying to hold on to what we have? Keeping things from getting any worse? Whatever happened to making the world a better place? We used to be more ambitious, our dreams used to be so much bigger. What happened to those days? Where did they go?”
“Nowhere. We’re still in them,” Michael said. “Is there a morning when everyone wakes up and it’s a new era? Of course not. History is just one day after another. It’s only in retrospect that you see how the world has changed. Or how you have.”
“I can’t argue with that,” she admitted.
Rae eyed the last of Michael’s spring rolls and looked a question at her friends. When they shook their heads, she dipped it in the sauce, devoured it in two bites, and sat back with a sigh of satisfaction.
“Ahh. I wish everything in life was like our potlucks.”
“How do you mean?” Zoe asked.
“Take this meal, for instance. Your kugel, Michael’s spring rolls, my rice and beans—”
“That was my favorite, by the way,” Michael interrupted. “Rae gets my vote for winner this week.”
“What? You’re my husband!” Zoe said, affecting outrage.
“Yes, so we know I’m impartial.”
“As I was saying,” Rae continued, grinning, “potlucks are great because they’re cooperative. Everyone brings their own talents; everyone contributes something. The more people who work together, the better the result. There are so few things that are like that. So many situations force us to work against each other, instead of with each other. It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma.”Zoe was nodding. Michael looked blank.
“The prisoner’s dilemma? You know?” she prompted him. When no comprehension appeared, she insisted, “Come on, we must have discussed it at SSJ a hundred times. I know you were at some of those meetings.”
“I mostly joined to meet women,” he said sheepishly.
“And it worked,” Zoe said cheerfully, giving his arm a squeeze.
Rae snorted. It was true that the membership of their short-lived college club, Students for Social Justice, had been mostly female – a fact she had never been able to explain to her own satisfaction. Michael Chen was one of the exceptions. She was certain his interest had been sincere, whatever his protestations. Beneath his soft-spoken demeanor, he had a deep reservoir of compassion.
But it was also true that he’d fancied himself a ladies’ man, and she didn’t doubt that he had considered the gender disparity a fringe benefit. Before he and Zoe had become a couple, Rae had kissed him once, drunkenly, after a night of bar-hopping. It had never gone anywhere; by mutual unspoken agreement, they had decided they were better off as friends.
“All right, fine,” she said. “The prisoner’s dilemma. Imagine you and Zoe are snatched off the street, arrested by the Metropolitan Police Corporation. They throw you into separate interrogation rooms, so you can’t talk to each other, and shine hot lights in your face. They accuse you of committing a serious crime—”
“Did we do it?”
“For our purposes, it doesn’t matter. But let’s just say you’re innocent. Anyway. They don’t have hard evidence to nail you with, so they make you a deal: Plead guilty, become a witness for the prosecution and testify that Zoe was the ringleader, and you go free and she goes to prison for ten years. The problem is, they’re offering the same deal to her.
“If both of you refuse the deal and plead the Fifth, they’ll have nothing on either of you, so they’ll let you both go with a fine. If you talk and she stays silent, you walk away and she goes to prison. If you stay silent and she talks, she walks free and you go up the river.
“But here’s the tricky part: What if you both take the deal? Then they can break their end of the bargain – after all, you’ve both pled guilty, they don’t need either person’s testimony to get the other! Let’s say in that case, you both go to prison for five years.
“You see the problem. If Zoe betrays you, you might as well point the finger back at her. That way, you get five years instead of ten. If Zoe stays silent, you’re still better off, selfishly, betraying her. That way, you skate free without even a fine. No matter what she does, it’s better for you to talk. And she can reason the same way and decide that it’s better for her to talk. But if you both talk, you both end up worse off than if you had kept quiet!
“That’s the prisoner’s dilemma. And it’s not just for police interrogations. This pattern shows up over and over, in all kinds of moral dilemmas. Selfishness beats cooperation. The people who make the altruistic choice are suckers; the people who think only of themselves come out on top. But when everyone acts like that, it makes us all worse off than if we had agreed to cooperate.
“And that’s what’s wrong with the world,” Rae concluded. “It goes deeper than money or law or politics. It’s that virtue is punished and selfishness is rewarded. Whoever made it this way did a lousy job. The incentives are the wrong way round.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in a creator,” Zoe observed.
“I don’t. Not that kind, anyway, not the bearded white clockmaker in the sky. I’m an engineer. I design things for a living. And I’ll tell you this: I could have done a better job. If I wanted the world to be a good place, a moral place, a place where people are happy, I would have set it up to reward people who make the right choices and punish people who make the wrong ones. The fact that it doesn’t work this way is part of the reason I don’t believe in a creator. I’m sure anyone who could build a universe would be at least as smart about it as a girl from Queens.”
Zoe looked pensive.
“Unless the creator made it this way deliberately. To make it our task. To put the responsibility on us. That’s what I believe. Tikkun olam. Mending the broken world through virtuous deeds.”
“And you think a creator like that is worth believing in? He gave us a defective gift and puts it on us to fix it? Even though he’s the expert and we’re not? If I did that to you, you’d call me a bad friend, and you’d be right.”
“But how else can we learn? How else can we grow? If we’re born into a perfect world, there’s no challenge, no opportunity. We’d be like the little dancing figures in a cuckoo clock, the ones that shuffle out every hour, strike the bell and shuffle back along their tracks – always doing the same thing, never changing. Maybe true goodness is something you have to grow into. You can only understand it and appreciate it once you’ve overcome the bad parts.”
“Then how does this creator of yours understand what goodness is?” Rae shot back. “Did he have to learn it from someone else? Did he have to overcome adversity? If not, why couldn’t he make us the same way?”
It was a friendly argument, and a familiar one. They had repeated it many times, without rancor but without either changing the other’s mind.
They both looked at Michael.
“You’re the tiebreaker, dear,” Zoe prompted him. “What do you think?”
“No fair,” Rae said with a snort. “As you reminded us, he’s your husband.”
Zoe gave her friend a sweet smile, then exaggeratedly batted her eyelashes.
Michael looked from one of them to the other, realizing the rock and the hard place he was caught between. He grinned, shrugged.
“I think it doesn’t matter whether the world was created or not,” he said at last. “The world just is. We have to take it as it comes and learn to live in harmony with it, instead of trying to impose our will on it. That’s what my dad always said, anyway.”
Rae and Zoe looked at each other.
“Taoists,” they said in unison.
It was growing late, and tomorrow was a work day. Despite Rae’s protestations that she was the host and cleaning was her responsibility, Zoe and Michael helped her clear the table and wash and dry the dishes. It was after 10 by the time her friends said their goodnights.
Rae did a last, cursory tidying-up of the apartment, yawning as she put the dry dishes away. She felt a deep, burning weariness, but she welcomed the feeling. It was a satisfied exhaustion, the afterglow of a nearly perfect day.
I haven’t had enough of those lately. That’s something I have to fix, she thought as she climbed into bed. She was asleep almost the instant her head touched the pillow.
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