It was after he’d finished the long article on the subduction zone earthquake that Duncan decided he’d like to have sex with another man. No man in particular — he didn’t have one in mind, or even a sort of man he was looking for, or even a strategy to find one. He just acknowledged a tidal pull that had been tugging at his feet for months. This concession came as a great relief, as if a brake that had been held inside of him had eased, and a wheel allowed to spin naturally. The city was full of men. Surely one could be persuaded to give him what he wanted. And one, he felt, would be more than enough.
Duncan looked out of the window of his studio apartment at the ship channel. There were no boats on it. How high, he wondered, would the canal crest? Would it tickle the underbelly of the bridge, or would it swallow the roadway whole, lapping up cars and trucks as the water opened? Would it advance, black and hungry, on the streets of the neighborhood, sweeping along with it everything it could carry? By then much of the neighborhood would be rubble anyway. A greater shaking than any living American had ever felt would make all of the buildings tumble. The entire Northwest would be forced open like a zipper that had gotten stuck. Into the breach the liquid would flood: a tsunami, smothering the shaken city with saltwater. It would come at night, Duncan was sure of it. It was overdue, and it would happen while everybody was asleep. First the great shock and then the scouring.
On his bike ride to his shift, Duncan noticed the men on the street. None of them appealed to him particularly. He felt he might have better luck at the restaurant, which attracted a stylish crowd. But he didn’t like the men in the dining room any better than the ones he’d seen working at the garages on Shilshole Avenue. He looked around and noticed several women who might make the cute-to-kiss list, as Selvi liked to put it in her promiscuous moments. Many logistical and aesthetic hurdles would have to be cleared before he saw fit to kiss any of these boys. Duncan tried to convince himself that a clean-shaven man in the corner in a white linen buttoned-down shirt was a prospect. He looked him over cautiously from the far side of the restaurant. Maybe he’d do. But when Duncan brought him his oysters, his demeanor was so coarse — his movements so inexact — that all intrigue drained out of the room like the stopper had been pulled out of a basin.
In the kitchen, Duncan, perplexed, gathered himself by the oyster tank. He knew he wanted it, quite badly, but he had a hard time imagining it. It was as if the desire had preceded its object. This made no sense to him. His prior urges had always been precise: he’d imagined something down to its minutest characteristics and then contrived a way to get it. This was different. It was a full body craving, yes, but it did not seem to correspond to anything that any one particular man could possibly offer. He didn’t get it. With a steady gurgle, water trickled from pipes into the tiered tanks, down onto black plastic basins containing different oysters from Puget Sound farms. A new shipment from Hama Hama on the Hood Canal huddled together under an inch of rippling saltwater and a film of white bubbles. It was important to keep the water moving. Hama Hama was popular and these would all go fast; none would be left in the tank by the end of the shift. Would the oysters in the Hood Canal even notice as the waters around them rose and swamped the city, or would they sleep straight through the cataclysm? Well, of course they wouldn’t, Duncan, don’t be silly. The subduction fault ran offshore. The earthquake would rip the seabeds to muddy ribbons. Oysters are sensitive creatures. They will die.
Back at his flat that night, Duncan thought of his new obsession (because an obsession he now knew it was). An assortment of unrelated impulses that he hadn’t connected had, in a minute of clarity, coalesced into a pure and single signal. It made Duncan wonder how much of the rest of his life was conceptually disorganized. Strangely, it did not affect his feelings about Selvi at all: it seemed to be running on a parallel channel that did not intersect with his usual desires. The thought of Selvi’s body — her slim, creamy coffee-colored legs under those blue dresses she liked to wear on bike rides — excited him, and he wished that she was here. She was shooting a music festival in Tacoma and wouldn’t be back until Tuesday. Duncan had every reason to believe that Selvi would be supportive and perhaps even encouraging. Gosh look at that hottie, look at that sweetie; that was Selvi on the avenue. So much of her bedroom talk was dedicated to sexual hypotheticals — would he rather kiss X or Y?, the kiss always the basic marker for enthusiastic consent. She liked to share elaborate fantasies and always felt frustrated when he couldn’t reciprocate in kind. Yes, she’d like this a lot. In all the time he’d known her, he’d never dissembled or even misled her. Right now she was probably going through the shots she’d taken earlier that day, accepting and rejecting, her bronze wire-frame glasses bouncing up and down as she scrunched up her little nose in critical discernment. She’d never once failed to pick up the phone, instantly, near-supernaturally, whenever he called.
He was ready to unburden himself. His finger was on the screen. There was the picture he’d chosen to signify her: not a snapshot of her, but her bicycle, with its bell and its basket and pale purple ribbons around the handlebars. Duncan stopped, turned the phone off, and slipped it into his jeans. Then he went to the computer and began to read about slip faults, and seiches, and deep inundation.
Once the wave was on its way, it was already too late. It was impossible to outrun. Get to higher ground if you can; pedal your bike frantically up the nearest hill you can find, but you will not miss your appointment with the roiling edge of the sea as it rises in white foam to meet the city. Once the shaking stops, there were only moments to go before the water arrives. But what would be left of the roads and trailways and evacuation routes? The quake will scramble the streets. The neighborhood, once legible, would be a maze with nothing but dead ends, and the minotaur’s footsteps heavy on the mudflats.
Yet Duncan also observed, somewhat anticlimactically, that his neighborhood was protected. Ballard stood on higher ground. The strip of retail activity where the restaurant stood and he spent most of his time didn’t front the Puget Sound. No existing computer model suggested that Ballard was at risk for a tsunami. Of course those models were limited by the present scope of science. There’d been plenty of minor earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest in his lifetime; he’d felt the shaking for years and never paid it very much mind. What the article described was something different: an event, long overdue, that would be bigger and more dramatic than anything Seattle, or the rest of America, had ever experienced. An earthquake like that would turn every expectation inside out.
Scariest of all was the prospect of liquefaction. Seismic waves would transmute solid ground to fluid earth. The crust would become butter-cream; buildings that once stood on bedrock would sink beneath the street’s inviolable line. Tacoma’s liquefaction zone encompassed the Puget Sound waterfront and included the entire area of the music festival that Selvi was shooting. Duncan was struck by an image: bands and vans and sound equipments, tents and ticketers and food trucks, all jerked into the underworld by a monstrous act of global infidelity. He could imagine Selvi, camera in hand, her eye on the stage through the aperture, aimed at the horizon as it quivered, and the earth leaping up to seize her feet, pulling her, with chthonic muscle, into the thick silence.
He’d gone into Fremont in search of a man and found nothing. Once again the men on the street, or in the cafes and bookshops, did nothing for his pulse. Yet Duncan’s obsession deepened: he experienced his desire for contact with another man as a constant gnawing sensation at the base of his brain. It was always there, always teasing and distracting him. It was not an entirely pleasant feeling, but if he’d been given the option, he wouldn’t have wished it away.
Online personals didn’t promise much release: Duncan didn’t know how to phrase his advertisement. Classification was tricky. Never in his life would he have called himself a ‘straight’ man — Selvi would have found the very thought risible — but it didn’t seem quite right suggesting otherwise. ‘Gay’ felt fraudulent; ‘curious’ didn’t even begin to get at it. Then there were the many ads that either solicited or offered a specific sex act. They seemed oddly transactional, mechanical and emotionless; removed from the shattering, open-socket craving he’d been experiencing. If Selvi were here, thought Duncan, she could help him phrase his personal, act as a translator between this carnal, material arena and his howling unconscious. That was just the sort of job she liked. She’d be furious, of course, nice and proprietary. They’d both be delighted by her jealousy. Outraged and tantalized she’d be; tickled, attuned. She’d help. But he didn’t call her.
So resigned was Duncan to the failure of his ad to attract any attention that the torrent of propositions he received astonished him. It had been such a threadbare personal. Many men replied with the same urgency that he’d felt, but found no way to express. Something must have gotten through. Yet confronted by the personal stories — and in many cases, the freshly-photographed naked bodies — of these men, Duncan found it impossible to sustain sexual interest. He couldn’t figure it out. Men in need disturbed him. Male desire — the desire he’d been swimming in — repulsed him. Feeling like a terrific hypocrite, Duncan deleted all the replies and trashed the nude pictures, and then signed back on to the service and erased his advertisement.
The next day, the restaurant prepared to receive a large shipment of oysters from the Slip Creek farm on the foggy northern waterways of the Puget Sound. This was, Duncan noted to himself, a dangerous place to be during a subduction earthquake and tsunami. Rex, the fat deliveryman for Slip Creek, was a friend — or at least they’d always gotten along very well ever since Duncan had taken a daylong bicycle ride from Bremerton to visit the fishery. Rex lived in a small houseboat on the creek with his boyfriend. They didn’t seem like the sort of people who’d bother to read articles about earthquakes — or was that rude classism speaking? Duncan volunteered to go down to the ship channel to help unload the boat. He thought it right to warn Rex about what was coming. But soon they were talking about something else.
“I can’t imagine a pretty thing like you would have any problem.” Rex had a curly greying beard and a wool cap pulled down over his ears. Though it was early summer in Seattle — the longest and sweetest days of June — it still got cold on the Sound.
“Well thanks for saying so.”
As Rex looked on quizzically, Duncan explained his conundrum. No kid, he said, I never felt that way. I always knew what I was after. Wet sacks of expensive oysters hung from his muscled arms. His shirt was soaked.
“Could be you’re just not gay. Did you consider that?”
“I don’t really think of it as gay or not gay, you know? I just know what I want. Or what I think I want? It’s very confusing.”
Rex laughed. Duncan felt that he wasn’t being taken seriously. The hookup apps, he was told, had ruined everything; the thrill of the chase was gone. That indispensable link between physical lust and homoerotic longing — developed through angled glances and private gestures and nurtured in bars and clubs and private parties — that had been severed. What Duncan needed to do was set his misgivings aside and try it. See if you like it. Chances are you will because what’s not to like?
“Can’t tell you where because I’ve been long out of the game,” said Rex. “But I figure there’s an embarrassment of places for an enterprising kid to cruise.”
A fleeting encounter. A nameless man out of the mist — someone Duncan could meet, touch, kiss, experience, and then, wordlessly, leave behind. It couldn’t happen in a bookstore or a movie theater, he knew that: those places were too seedy. Public parks, too, felt compromised. There were too many eyes in the city. Ideally, he’d get out of Seattle altogether: bicycle to another town and a rendezvous in the backseat of someone’s old-model car, smelling of cigarettes and pine freshener, and press his bare skin against the vinyl seats. Or surrender in the locker room of a public swimming pool. That night, with unsmiling determination, he searched the Internet for listings of hookup spots in the area. Tea rooms and truck stops, the undersides of overpasses, sheds and spare rooms. He was open. He was going to sing himself through this no matter what. It was ten o’ clock at night but it still wasn’t really dark — some of the stars brushed weak ray-lines across the sky, but the mast lights of the boats in the channel outshone them. The low hills of Magnolia looked stunted in the dim summer night: scabby, no bulwark against the water. Duncan returned to the computer and posted his blunt solicitation on a message board. All quiet in the Emerald City, exhausted by his impatience and bewilderment, Duncan fell asleep in his chair, under hard computer light.
The blink and shimmer of a direct message woke him up. A man had answered his ad. A rectangular message hovered at the bottom corner of his screen. In the window was one word; well, an alias and a word.
Duncan knew Snoqualmie. It was the site of the most spectacular waterfall he’d ever seen — not the biggest, or the highest, but the one that seemed like the most purposeful concentration of waterpower, a tall pour with a purpose. Snoqualmie Falls tumbled from the first line of Washington mountains to the piney brown floor of the coastal valley. It was a gate to the metropolitan area. He hadn’t been there since taking a high school field trip, but he remembered it all well: the crableg-crooked root systems of the gigantic trees, the bite of the spray-saturated air, and especially the titanic hammerhead of the falls itself, which crashed to anvil earth with an unnerving peal. There was a place there, said the waterfountain. Follow the guidelines I give you, write this down, turn where I say. Go into the woods. There’ll be plenty of cover. Some men know about this but not many. Show up hard and ready. Be there tomorrow at noon. I will. I am what you are looking for.
They exchanged photos. Duncan clicked and opened a blurry shot of a man of indeterminate age, shape, and expression. He felt it incumbent upon him to respond with a picture of greater clarity. Leaning back in his chair, he set the timer on his computer to snap a selfie. As the countdown flashed on his screen, he undid the top three buttons on his shirt. The waterfountain went wild for it. He must make the trip tomorrow. Well, maybe he must. Maybe he *was* what Duncan was looking for. The night seemed to say so. Snoqualmie would be a four hour bike ride from Ballard — and not an easy one, either. The last leg would be a brutal uphill climb. But he could leave early in the morning, do what he needed to do, quench his thirst, and be back in time for his evening shift. And if he arrived a little late, that would be okay. He hadn’t taken a sick day or fudged a shift all year. Yes, everything seemed to be aligning properly. Bike all tuned up and ready to go. Songs on his playlist. Nothing better to do with daylight.
In the dark Duncan switched the sound off the computer and watched helicopter footage of the Tohoku tsunami. In a great black blade the wave swept across roads and terraced farmyards, knocking houses askew, sluicing detritus, erasing the landscape, converting orderly fields into primeval chaos. Water ate everything, slowly, mercilessly, like a giant animal devouring something small and helpless. It was the indifference of the ocean — the sheer inevitability of the destruction — that made Duncan unable to tear his eyes away. The camera found a police car parked stoically on a low bridge. Water swept underneath. The far side was nothing but churning ocean. It rose and rose. In a minute the car was submerged. Tops of tall trees, trunks drowned, reached for the sky for a final time. Then they, too, fell under the wave.
Duncan woke with a start at six a.m. Had he really promised to bike all the way to Snoqualmie Falls? What on earth had gotten into him? Well, technically, he hadn’t done anything; he’d just exchanged pictures with a man in a chat room. One linked to a place where men liked to cruise for sex with strangers. Duncan placed his hand over his heart. It was beating harder than it should have been. The top buttons of his shirt were still open, just as he’d left them after snapping the photograph. The picture he’d been sent was still open on his screen. There wasn’t much to see: the face, which was already blurred, was angled away from the camera. The background was grey and misty: it could have been taken at the waterfall. With no points of reference in the shot, there was no way to tell if the man was large or small. He could be a giant — or tiny as a trouble doll.
The phone had slipped from the desk to the chair and on to the floor. Duncan picked it up and called Selvi. He was struck by an odd thought: what if she’d gone missing? What if he left messages and she never called back? But after the customary ring and a half, she picked up.
“Duncan?” She sounded groggy.
“I woke you.”
“It’s ok. It’s ok! It’s… wow, it’s early. But I’m glad to hear you. I am so sorry I didn’t call, I’ve been inundated. You know how I get.” He did know.
He told her he missed her. Are you getting great shots he heard himself ask, although his voice sounded a bit far away to him. Tell me about the shots you’re getting. Selvi described one that she wanted him to see: a howling longhaired musician in nothing but body paint. She shot him from below. Very sexy. Sorta sexy.
“It’s fun. It’s been fun. But I’m way sick of it now. I wanna come home. Two days. Oh, Duncan, we’ll have fun when I get back. Won’t we?”
He said they would.
“So Selvi, I might ride up to Snoqualmie today.”
“The waterfall? That’s… that’s a long ride. That’s hours.”
“You may as well cycle to Tacoma.”
“I just wanted you to know. In case I go. To Snoqualmie.”
“Duncan, are you ok? You sound sort of funny.”
“It’s early. I’m good.”
“Ok. Ok face. All right. Well, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do…”
“…unless I’m there to do it with you.” It was her customary sign-off. He finished it with her.
It was not quite the beautiful morning that the forecasters had promised. Mist hung thick in the air and a sharp breeze blew off of the Sound. By no means were these optimal conditions for a long ride, thought Duncan, as he pedaled through Fremont toward Lake Washington and the city limits. Seismologists believed that the lake was prone to seiches: huge vertical upwellings of water generated by shockwaves. Of course for seiches to be generated, there’d have to be a subduction zone earthquake. The first shock would be the warning — a loud bang that felt as if the world had inverted. Then the entire Northwest would be yanked like a sheet three hundred feet to the west and way down. The city would fall off the continental table, a bottlecap kicked to the floor by a crazy cat.
On he rode through pretty Bothell and handsome Redmond, past the Microsoft campus and tracts of new two and three-story houses all built in the expectation that Seattle would remain standing — that the rug would not be pulled on the region and the lives of the people who lived here, and the buildings would not fall to the liquifying earth in a heap of tinder. Duncan saw the landscape as it would be: houses shorn from their foundations, trees uprooted and sleeping flat among the rocks, blasted there like the forests after the Tungutska meteorite, Wormwood the destroyer on the loose in the emerald hills. He bicycled by in a blur, pulling the day along with him.
As Duncan climbed toward the mountains, the weather got worse. Soon his hands were slick with mist, and stuck to the foam handlebars. Condensation clouded his glasses, and his riding shirt stuck to the small of his back. He wished he’d brought a towel. The pedals felt slippery, and the gearbox on his Kestrel began to fidget and whine. The long muscles of his legs were rubberbands ready to snap. He gritted his teeth, puffed out his cheeks, and blew. By eleven o’clock he’d made it all the way to Fall City, and he noted with some satisfaction — and took it as a positive sign — that the sun was fighting its way through the fog. An alert-looking woman with light brown hair cut in a bob shook out an umbrella in the car park beside the Beverage Stop. As she slipped it under her arm, she stared straight at Duncan as he cycled by. Could she sense, he wondered, that he was there chasing sex? Some cloud of pheromones giving him away? How was it, he wondered, that rather than stop to talk to this appealing woman, he’d continue to uphill to make his date with a man he had no reason to believe he’d even find appealing? It made no sense. But there was, he had to admit, an awful lot happening that he didn’t understand.
Halfway up the final hill Duncan could already hear the rumble and rush of Snoqualmie. He realized, too, why the woman had stared at him: he looked a mess. Duncan checked his look in the frosted mirror of the disused rest room and information station that served as a rendezvous point. He looked as if he’d been pulverized by the waterfall. Strands of yellow hair were splayed across his forehead. His damp and overheated cheeks were a ghastly shade of purple-red. To his horror, he realized that his lip had split in the right corner. His front teeth were streaked with blood. A few hard paper towels were left in the dispenser. Duncan tore them away and scraped them across his face. They smelled of wood smoke and disinfectant, and they scratched more than they absorbed. The spigots in the sink squealed as he turned them, but no water came out. He checked the toilets. A stall door hung crooked in its frame. Nothing in the toilet but stubbed out cigarette butts. He regretted finishing his second and last bottle of water as he cycled through Redmond, but he had been very thirsty.
Car wheels on the dirt path that led to the information station suggested that Duncan’s partner had arrived. He ran a shaky hand through his hair and stepped out into daylight. Behind the wet windshield of a pickup a man murmured into a phone. Duncan could see the rough outline of his body and the muted glow of the screen. He took a few tentative steps forward. He was still sore from the long trip.
The man turned the engine off and got out. Muddy boots made contact with the gravel. He looked at Duncan as a jeweler might see a stone: through an appraiser’s loupe.
“You don’t really look like your picture. Was that an old picture?”
“I took it last night.”
“Sorry. I’m just a little messy. Sorry. I bicycled up here from Seattle.”
“From *Seattle*?” He was astounded. Then he laughed. “Boy you must really want it bad.”
The man was quite a bit older than Duncan expected him to be. The hair at his temples was grey and the rest was slicked back and thinning. He was small and wiry: maybe five and a half feet tall; his teeth were moon yellow and large and he wore thick glasses and a hearing aid. All his movements were loose and independent like a front porch wind chime. There was nothing about him that would have made Duncan look twice on the avenue in Ballard, or even notice as he walked by. Yet they were not in Ballard: they were atop a mountain, in a clearing cordoned off from a side road, with the spray of the waterfall billowing up from behind the thick stand of pine trees. They might have been the only two people in the world. Duncan had no idea how to begin to please this man; worse still, he was estranged from any possible motivation to do so. But he wast too far to the middle of the whirlpool to try to swim back.
“What? Oh, that’s, sorry, that’s just my legs are tired.”
The waterfountain gave Duncan a sideways look.
“You bring rubbers?”
“Rubbers. Condoms. You bring some?”
Duncan admitted that he hadn’t. Do you have any, he asked the man. I sure do I always do. The waterfountain sighed and walked around to the back of his pickup. He pushed down the back flap, patted it and motioned to Duncan. Sit. C’mon hop on. A dog was curled up asleep in the flatbed.
The man sat down next to him. Any moment the touching would start. Duncan steeled himself.
“Obviously you’re new to this. That’s alright. Let me tell you a few things that ought to hold you in good stead. First of all don’t be going to pickup spots in the woods thirty miles from where you live. That’s just not wise is it. Place like this is really for rougher guys than you. I mean look around you. Most important you always have to play safe. Most guys are good hearted but they won’t always tell you the truth. Don’t want to be spreading something nasty. No way. Bet you have a sweet girl friend back in the city don’t you.”
Duncan said nothing.
“Married seventeen years and no complaints.” He twisted off the cap of a bottle of water and took a gulp. “Planet isn’t really built to accommodate people like us huh. The things we need.”
The waterfountain pressed two fingers against Duncan’s cheek and traced the line of his jaw. The touch felt diagnostic. You looked a fright when I first saw you he said. But clean up and you are really so adorable. Fragile. Bet the boys in the city love you.
A phone rang. He took the call and left Duncan alone. From the back of the truck he could hear the gurgle of his voice. Then the man came back. Look I got to run. Remember what I told you, okay. Take care of yourself. Then he drove away.
Reprieved, Duncan sat on a ragged stump with its back half savaged by ants. The sun had come out and it was finally a nice day on the mountain. Billows of mist from the waterfall caught little rainbows and tossed them up into the day like confetti. It was the great prismatic outdoors, the gorgeous Pacific Northwest, tall and challenging like a sitka spruce. What a crazy person I have been; what a crazy, strange, unjustifiable excuse for a person. What on earth was he doing on the mountain? How could he possibly have considered endangering Selvi? The prospect of damaging her made him shudder. We are always more than what we think we are — another one of her homemade aphorisms. How attractive she was: how cute, delicious like a tray of muffins and honey. At once he realized how desperately he wanted to see her and how treacherous these days apart had been. She liked fun; he would get straight back to Ballard and play with her plenty. It was possible, he thought, that all of this had been done so he’d finally have a racy story to tell her — although this time, he’d gone far past the point of what she’d consider amusing, or even permissible.
There were footsteps. A man stood in the clearing. He was neither tall nor short, young nor particularly old. He’d jostled the rope chain blocking access to the information station; behind him it whispered back in place. Duncan noticed his sweater: blue grey and tight across his upper body. He didn’t need to shake the chain. He came toward him. To Duncan he smelled like grass and warm metal and something else he couldn’t place. The man brushed Duncan’s forearm with the back of his hand as he walked by. An insect buzzing began on Duncan’s lips and tongue. He felt himself open like a crocus. Into the thick pines the man went. Duncan followed.
– Tris McCall