"Do you ever smile so much your face hurts?” Elin asks, speaking over the airplane’s drone.
“No,” Patrick replies, looking out the window. He observes the smog and imagines the billion people living, breathing, and dying below.
“That’s funny,” Elin says, gives a wry smile. “I thought, maybe…”
“Why?” Patrick glances up.
“I don’t know.”
“You say strange things,” Patrick murmurs, eyes returning to the window.
Elin, silent, flips the pages of a design magazine. Somewhere out the window, down there, Elin thinks, something is terribly wrong.
It is not so strange for Elin to say such things. Patrick is thin, and his cheekbones jut out, giving the slightest hint of the skeleton within. It would make sense for his face to tire after smiling. Lately, though, Elin does all the smiling.
Elin and Patrick are architects. Partners of design, more recently partners in bed.
Last week, their boss at the firm called them into his office, an airy room with large, minimalist windows and mahogany wall paneling.
“Great news,” Frank said. Frank had tan skin and yellowed teeth. He puffed a cigar. “Would you like one?” He proffered a box of the Cubans.
“No,” Patrick said, before Elin could ask for maybe a puff, just to see what it was like.
“You two are going to China,” Frank said, grinned.
“Where?” Elin asked. Her heart skipped a beat.
“Why?” Patrick asked.
“The Chinese government has just completed construction on a new, master-planned city in rural China,” Frank said. “They’d like members of our firm to take a look at what they’ve done, give them feedback.”
“Did they ask you?” Patrick asked.
“Yes,” Frank said. “But I can’t go. Daughter’s birthday party.”
“When do we leave?” Elin asked.
“Next week,” Frank said.
As they exited Frank’s office, Elin squeezed Patrick’s hand.
“We’re going to China,” she breathed.
Patrick looked at her, saw the happiness in her eyes, and smiled. This was the last time Elin remembers him smiling.
Now they are riding in the backseat of a car chartered from the train station. Mountains line the horizon, and the foreground is mostly desert, the dirt road winding through the undeveloped land. Elin is surprised; she didn’t think that Western China would look so much like Nevada.
“I just don’t know about this,” Patrick says. “It all feels too much like the plot from Jurassic Park.”
“How so?” Elin asks.
“Big corporation, in this case, big government, asks experts to investigate master-planned park,” Patrick says. “They want an endorsement, and we’re supposed to give it to them.”
“But there won’t be any dinosaurs,” Elin says.
“No,” Patrick says. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be monsters.”
Elin pauses. “You mean monstrous designs?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I mean.”
“At least we get to see China,” Elin says.
“Huh,” Patrick says.
“We get to be together,” Elin says.
“Of course,” Patrick says, turning to her. “That’s what matters.”
Elin is not sure he is telling the truth.
They had met as undergraduates, had shared the same studio space, but occupied it at different times of the day.
Their drawings would be pasted on opposite walls. Patrick’s style was animated, bombastic, his designs soaring and inspiring. They were also impractical and always had to be reformed during the modeling phase, because they were structurally impossible.
Elin’s drawings were rigid and stable, employing lines and geometric forms. Elin’s buildings were always structurally effective and aesthetically pleasing, but something was missing.
Often in studio they would pass by each other. Both admired the other’s work in the other’s absence.
Beyond their mutual admiration of the other’s aesthetic, they did not interact in college. They went to separate graduate programs, and didn’t meet again until the same firm hired them.
When Elin walked into the firm office for the first time since her interview, she saw a diagram on the large drawing table. It was wild, soaring, and wonderful—but still, impossible. Elin walked around the table, examining the drawing, pursed her lips.
“What do you think?” a voice said, from behind.
“Strengthen the crossbeams in the northwest corner. You’ll also need a stabilizer or a few to hold up that ceiling—though those can be incorporated within the overall design so as not to detract from the aesthetic.” She turned around.
It was—Patrick. She recognized his cheekbones, his skinny animation.
Patrick nodded, eyeing the plan. “That’s brilliant – you’re Elin, right? We both went to the Academy together?”
“Yes,” Elin said, running her hand through her short hair.
Patrick smiled – so much, in fact, that Elin imagined that it must hurt. “I think we’re going to have a good time working together,” he said.
Elin walked away, blushed. Patrick was impossible, but she would make sure that his designs were realized.
Now they are approaching the planned city. Cai Hong. Elin has looked up the name. It means “Rainbow.”
As they approach, what seems a small mirage, a far-off settlement, grows to enormous proportions. Repetitive iterations of high-rise apartments dominate the skyline. Wind turbines surround the periphery.
“It looks like Dongtan,” Patrick says, eyes widening.
Elin shivers. Dongtan was a Chinese planned “eco-city” partially constructed. It had been projected to be finished years ago, but construction had since halted. Once planned to be the size of Manhattan by 2050, it had become a city of ghosts, towers and apartments standing empty. Elin has looked up what Dongtan meant. It means “East Beach.”
They drive across a playfully colorful bridge, across a man-made moat.
A sign that probably says “Welcome to Cai Hong” has an embossed rainbow symbol, commercializing a rare occurrence of subdivided natural light. They drive on a highway, get off an exit, pull in front of a vaguely Forbidden City-esque Town Hall. Throughout their entire drive, they haven’t seen any other cars. Or people.
A chubby man stands at the front steps of the Town Hall and walks towards them.
“Hello! Welcome to Cai Hong!” the man says.
As they exit the car, the wind blows them back.
“Sorry, very windy, it gets here,” the man says. He is middle-aged, and wears a black suit. “My name is Michael Tzu. I’m the mayor here. But you can call me Mikey!” He laughs, and without reaction, he elucidates: “Like Michael Jordan!”
“Ah,” Patrick says.
“We’re architects,” Elin says. “We don’t watch sports.” From twenty years ago, she wants to add.
“Okay,” Mikey says. “Let me show you around. But you must be tired — hungry?”
Patrick rubs his eyes. Elin can feel the weight of the jet lag, but she also feels her stomach.
“Let’s eat,” she says.
She remembers their first date, the conversations they had.
“I’ve never gone out with a coworker before,” she said, looking around the sushi restaurant.
“Neither have I,” Patrick said. “But I feel like I’ve known you longer.”
Elin’s heart beat faster, faster than the pulse of the loud techno music blaring in the restaurant.
They talked about a lot of things, whimsical, and deeply personal.
“What do you want to do with your life? Why are you an architect?” Elin asked.
Patrick closed his eyes. “That’s a good question. It’s hard to explain—” He gestured absently. “I want to create spaces that inspire, that help their occupants, build community, serve their function in altogether novel forms.” He looked up. “That sounds like pretentious bullshit, but I really mean it.” He smiled. “And yourself?”
Elin blushed. “I just want to do something artistic and practical. Being an ‘architect’ just sounds like a good profession, doesn’t it?”
Patrick laughed. “I guess,” he shrugged, rolled his eyes.
There’s a lot of guessing as they try to communicate with Mikey, who has taken them to an “Italian” restaurant. The place serves Chinese noodles, and scallion pancake “pizzas.” There’s no tomato sauce to be found in this place, nor people. They, apart from the servers, are the only ones there.
“You two married?” Mikey asks, slurping his noodles.
“We’re partners,” Patrick says. “In business and personal life. Elin doesn’t believe in the whole marriage thing.”
Elin smiles weakly. She does believe in marriage, but once she said something about her sister’s ugly divorce and Patrick took it too seriously. Now she fears that he will never propose.
“Very interesting,” Mikey says. “Well, I hope you two enjoy your stay.”
“I’ll tell you what’s interesting,” Elin says, red in the face. “This is a city. Where is everyone?”
Patrick pales. “Mr. Tzu—”
“No, it is perfectly understandable question,” Mikey waves politely. “China is rapidly growing nation. We are trying to modernize the undeveloped West. Most Chinese want to live in the East.”
“So why force something on people that they don’t want?” Elin raises her voice, pushes her picked-over plate aside.
“I will show you the city tomorrow, Ms. Johnsson, and then you can make a judgment on our town,” Mikey says. “Please don’t jump to conclusions.”
Patrick stands. “Thank you for dinner, Mikey. We will meet you tomorrow morning.”
Outside, Patrick asks, “What was that all about? Are you okay?”
“Look around, Patrick.” She gestures at the empty streets around them. The wind blows hard, and there isn’t even any paper to blow around. “This is not a town.”
“I know,” Patrick says. “Cities take time to develop. Remember Chaco Canyon?”
Elin remembers. It had been the architectural opportunity of a lifetime — to build an entirely new place from scratch. The wealthy oil billionaire Jethro Baton had asked for the firm to design a traditional, small-town community on a plot of land he had in Texas.
Patrick designed charming, modernized buildings in the Adobe style—the library, the post office; the main street. He planned for a variety of stucco homes, and the apartments resembled Pueblos. Elin placed everything on an intuitive grid, with small streets to discourage driving and to encourage walking.
As they assembled the plan, Elin could feel her love, her passion for the process of creation. What had been a field would be a place that would be valued by many peoples — and Patrick and Elin would have made it all possible.
The place, what they named “Chaco Canyon,” was more than just a design — it was their baby.
Then came the presentation of the project to Baton.
As they concluded the outline of their plan, Jethro Baton stood up. The older man wore a cowboy hat and boots, but it was plain that they were for show — they had never been worn for horseback riding.
“I love all that you’ve done,” the Texan said. “I just think it’s no good.”
“What?” Elin asked. She started shaking.
“I don’t have enough money right now,” Baton said, shrugged. “Sorry, that’s the way it’s going to go. I’ve hired a conventional developer to make a cheap buck with a suburban tract.”
“But housing prices will go up once they realize how great it is to live in Chaco Canyon,” Patrick said, voice bordering on optimistic.
“Not in Texas,” Baton shook his head. “In Texas people want big yards and big trucks. They don’t want to walk.”
As they drove back to the firm, Elin didn’t talk to Patrick. Once they returned, she took the map of the plan for Chaco Canyon and tore it in half, threw it in the trash.
Patrick said, “Don’t be that way.”
“It’s just so stupid,” Elin said.
“Baton just isn’t ready,” Patrick said. “It takes time.”
“Time,” Elin said. “Screw time. I’m ready.”
Patrick looked away.
Now Elin is walking the streets of the godforsaken city of China, alone. She walks down the streets, windy, and empty. The skyscrapers create canyons, abandoned like Anasazi ruins. Over a store, she sees a rainbow sign, and a grocery bag symbol. She walks into the grocery store.
There are lots of produce, most of which Elin doesn’t recognize. It is funny, Elin thinks, that all grocery stores, even in China, have the same spatial orientation. Produce is on the right, aisles are in the middle, milk and meat are in the back, and frozen goods and the bakery are on the left. She is bemused to find large quantities of Coca-Cola, Honey-Nut Cheerios, and Raisin Bran on the shelves. But still, where is everyone? There are not even checkers in this place.
She walks down the frozen food aisle, pauses. She feels the cold around her, but she’s not sure that it’s just the nature of the surrounding freezers. Slowly, she turns around.
A figure stands at the other end of the hall. It looks to be an old Chinese woman, but her back is facing Elin. The figure does not move.
Elin, shaking, takes a step forward.
“Hello?” she asks. “Ni-Hao?”
There is no answer.
Elin decides to take action. She walks to the woman, places her hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“Excuse me?” she asks.
The woman turns around. The woman has Patrick’s face.
Elin wakes, finds herself in the hotel room, in the hotel bed. She lies far on the right side, far from Patrick.
Patrick is sound asleep.
Shaking, Elin stands, looks out the window, at the city below. Bright lights illuminate a ghost city.
She puts on a robe, slippers, and exits the room. She glances at the elevator and shakes her head. She walks up the stairs, twelve flights up to the roof.
The roof is cold. The wind blows her hair back. She stands at the edge. She breathes in the city, the thin air. Her heart races. She imagines the buses of people, the buses of farmers, herders — people who have no interest in living here, uprooted in the name of progress. One day soon, they will come, be taken to this prison. She was wrong about communities, she decides. No one can make a decision for another person. Not even architects. Not Patrick, not her.
She leans closer to the edge. It’s so easy, she thinks. She sits, defeated by this city, this place.
Patrick calls out. “There you are! What are you doing here?”
Elin smiles. “There aren’t any rainbows here, are there?”
In the shadows Patrick scowls, city lights illuminating his cheekbones. He says, “You say strange things.”
On the drive back to the train station, Elin admires the desolation. She enjoys looking at the awfulness of this place, is bewildered by the hubris of the architects that thought that people would live in this moonscape that much resembles Nevada.
Patrick thinks over the events of the day, the awkwardness of departure. That morning, he had told Mikey that they really had to go, something had come up. He also said, in Jurassic Park fashion, that he had chosen not to endorse the park.
Patrick puts his hand on hers. Elin lifts it, pulls it away. She shifts closer to the window.
Patrick smiles, smiles very hard. He is stunned when he realizes it hurts.
Harrison Blackman is a rising junior at Princeton University, where he studies history, urban studies, and creative writing.