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The first time Maria ever spoke to me directly, we were somewhere over the North Atlantic on a red-eye to eastern Europe.
“Don’t mess around with any Brits without seeing a passport first. He might say he’s a delegate, or an important businessman, but he could easily be some Eton kid there on a fancy fellowship,” she said. “This conference isn’t about to solve the world’s problems, and if you’re going to return home full of despair, better not to throw in an STI you got from some seventeen-year-old researcher.”
She put “researcher” in air quotes, and I wondered if that’s how she referred to me as well. I’d been working as her research assistant for a couple months now at our university’s think tank, and it had taken her a full thirty thousand feet of altitude to notice my presence beside her.
“Don’t even engage the GRULACS. All pigs. And don’t say that’s racist—my whole family’s Venezuelan—I know what’s racist.” Our relationship up to that point had consisted of her repeatedly referring to me as “the undergrad” in our weekly lab meetings, as well as a slew of demanding emails, always sent around four a.m. Since the day we’d met, Maria had provoked in me a deep sense of fear and respect. If any sort of attraction had swept through me in the past, it was certainly only in a drawn to that which terrifies you sort of way. Now I closed the book on my lap, looked into her scowling eyes, and nodded. I’d never seen a more beautiful human in my life.
“Japan sent seventy-eight delegates this year. Guess how many are women?” I opened my mouth to speak. “Zero. Exactly zero,” she said. “But they won’t try to get into your pants. They’d think you’re a giant. How tall are you?”
I was five-eleven and a half as a sophomore in college, and I am five-eleven and a half now, but on the day that she asked me, I could not conjure a single number in my head. Had anyone else made this comment, I may have objected to such an odd foray into racial stereotyping, but I had full confidence that if I said anything, Maria would be able to turn me into a bigot in under a sentence of rebuttal.
“Close your mouth,” she said, finally. “What, you think no one has sex at a climate change conference? Nature, power—that’s primal at its worst, babe. Just protect yourself.”
I could feel the heat rising to my skin at the word “babe.” The cabin lights shifted to a dim, surprising shade of purple, the effect being more conducive to a sudden rave than to anything resembling sleep.
I had a philosophy paper due the day I got back to Boston, so I returned my eyes to the book on my lap. What, then, asked Camus, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? Beside me, Maria threw back some pills with her cup of ginger ale and covered her face in a red scarf. One small, perfect earlobe remained exposed. I read the sentence three more times until eventually I sensed that I was being watched.
“Your light,” she said. “It’ll be a miracle if I sleep an hour.”
“Sorry.” I hit off the light. I could barely make out the words on the page. What, then, Sophie, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? he asked again. I really had no idea, but I closed my eyes and tried to breathe as absolutely quietly as possible.
I’ve never been able to nail down my type when it comes to women, but since Maria, I’ve had a bad habit of falling for insomniacs.
The plane touched down at ten a.m. local time, so we changed in the airport bathrooms and jumped in a cab that would take us straight to the national stadium. Even in heels, Maria barely reached my shoulders, but her power to intimidate came from a concoction of attitude, intellect, and cheekbones that more than compensated for her small stature.
By the time we made it through security and down to the plenary hall, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCC was already being applauded off the podium by the hundreds of delegates seated at tables below. Maria greeted at least six people by name as we made our way through the crowded back of the auditorium while I tried to discern just what was going on.
“Sophia,” said Maria. “Sophia!” I’d never heard her say my name before, and it took me a while to recognize myself in the sound. Also, my name is Sophie, not Sophia.
“We were talking about you. Don’t you speak Spanish?” I stared back at Maria and the white-haired woman beside her. “Sorda,” Maria said and rolled her eyes, though in a way I could interpret as flirtatious with only a few cognitive leaps.
“I do,” I said, “but I’m not really an auditory learner.” I had no idea whether or not this was true—what, exactly, was an auditory learner?
“Well, go translate Don Quixote, then.” I took a step left, as if excusing myself from our trio, and she swatted at me with her arm. “I’m kidding, come on.” She laughed and said, more nicely now, “What did I miss?”
“I think this guy is from the Philippines. He’s angry about a hurricane. I think he’s going on a hunger strike until something important is accomplished.”
Maria handed me the cocktail napkin of miniature pastries she’d grabbed on our way in. “I think I’ll join him. Every year the food gets worse.” I took them eagerly, holding the half-nibbled foods in my palm for at least an hour as we waited for the speeches to end.
Jet-lagged, over-caffeinated, and still vaguely nauseated, I passed the first day in a haze. For all this talk of the environment, the conference hall itself was a labyrinthian white void, an enormous space station in which one could forget, altogether, that the flora and fauna of the world existed. At some point I sat with Maria in the corner of a conference room, taking notes for the interview she was conducting with a Bolivian activist, but when I opened up the Word document later that night, every single word was alien to me.
Our group’s other members—two professors and two master’s students conducting research on the UN’S program to prevent deforestation—were staying in a local apartment while we women were put up in the city’s most budget-friendly hotel. Not only was the room entirely red, but nearly every shade of red was represented, so that I had the odd sense that my eyes were suddenly incapable of absorbing any other wavelength. Not that I’m complaining; until a month before, I’d planned to transcribe Maria’s interviews from the comfort of my dorm room. But an extra grant had come through, and here I was, missing all of midterms.
I sat on the red bed and tapped my feet against the red carpet. I surveyed the room. There was no other bed—just the one. This realization was followed by confusion, surprise, anticipation, joy, dread, and finally, intervention. I called down to the front desk and in my slowest, most deliberate English, requested a cot.
I had no idea when Maria would be back and tried to suppress the jealousy I felt toward anyone who might, this minute, be the recipient of her attention. I replayed that moment when she’d swatted my arm, and then I swatted my right arm with my own left hand to experience it from both perspectives at once, but the angles were all off, and I became deeply and privately embarrassed. I thought about Tuvalu, which I’d learned was practically underwater already, and eventually I fell asleep.
Maria was gone when I woke up from my second alarm, though the bed was unmade and her suitcase torn apart in the corner. I put on my wrinkled blazer and walked twenty minutes through the gray streets until I arrived at the stadium. I was just commencing my second lap around the circular hallway when I heard, “Sophie!” and spun at the sound of my name.
“Well, now, you look quite professional, don’t you!” Professor Beckett’s enthusiasm struck a different chord than usual this early in the morning and in a foreign country. Beside him at the table, Maria poured an espresso down her throat as if throwing back a shot.
“Good morning, Professor Beckett. Maria.” Professor Beckett slid over to make room, and Maria typed vigorously on her phone.
“Now, tell me everything, Sophie. What do you think so far? Incredible, isn’t it? Just the sheer number of people here. Excited, dedicated, eager to solve the world’s biggest conundrum.”
I bobbed my head. “I mean, call me an optimist, but you just have to believe that diplomacy works sometimes. You just have to believe that this is a species that wants to survive, a species that’s really willing, when the time comes, to put aside economic self-interests for the common good.”
Maria let out an enormous breath, and I wondered what had happened in Professor Beckett’s life to imbue him with such buoyant faith.
“Now, who knows what we’ll see this week, but I can tell you right now, there’ll be some very interesting progress on this firewall.”
I nodded reflexively. “Firewall?”
Maria stared hard into my eyes, like I’d asked what the U and N stand for, and stood to refill her espresso. I knew that the firewall was a sort of impasse between Annex I countries, like the United States, who had a century and a half of carbon-intense development to thank, and countries like India and China—nations with huge populations and rapidly developing economies. But I didn’t have any idea what either of these countries actually wanted.
“Philosophically, it’s just fascinating,” Professor Beckett said, smiling now. “There are 401 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—that’s 120 above pre-industrial levels, and about 33 of those are the fault of just the United States alone. I mean, that’s really something, that we can know something like that. That’s the industrial revolution right there. That’s your grandfather’s Model T, that’s your shirt, your egg sandwich.” I looked down to where he was pointing, as if an egg sandwich may have materialized in front of me, and only upon seeing the empty table did I realize how long it had been since I’d eaten.
“Historic responsibility is one of the most incredible puzzles of our era. Do we have a right to say, Hey, China, you can’t build that power plant. We did that fifty years ago and look what happened. Don’t they have a right to their own energy pathways? But what about the cost to future generations? I just don’t know. The climate is just too fragile to accommodate that sort of fairness, if you can call it that. It’s political, it’s ethical, it’s a deeply humanistic problem. The atmosphere is a form of collective memory holding us hostage—the record of civilization’s rise, and soon it could tell the story of our fall. Now, tell me, Sophie, what do you think?”
In eighth grade, a teacher described me as “tremendously smart but not a deep thinker.”
I said, “Maybe I’ll have an opinion by the end of the week.”
Maria, who had returned by now, let out a huff. “You’ll have a lot of opinions by the end of the week. It’s going to be a train wreck.”
Professor Beckett smiled. “You’re a brilliant realist, Maria. I’m so lucky we’ve got you. But I know you’re going to be surprised, if not this year then next year. Or the year after, when all of this work finally comes together at the Paris conference. The climate’s at the tipping point, but so is our willingness to hunker down and figure it out. All sorts of tipping points. Just fantastic.” He gathered his briefcase and gave me an encouraging nod as he departed.
“What?” said Maria, after a few long seconds. I didn’t realize I’d been staring. Few people in the world can look astonishingly beautiful and deeply unhappy at the same time. “Here’s the list of people I need you to track down for me for interviews,” she said, handing me a piece of paper covered in barely legible handwriting. “Unless you want to go sit with Beckett in the plenary hall while the subsidiary bodies discuss financial mechanisms for technology transfer. I hear it’s going to be”—she lifted her voice here—“fantastic. Just fantastic.”
I smiled. I could tell she’d almost smiled back, but then reconsidered. “I’ll track them down,” I said and went searching for food.
After consuming three microscopic Danish, I wandered the hallways, where men in suits sat very low to the ground on red beanbag chairs, with laptops balanced on their bent, wobbly knees. I laughed loudly at one of them and then looked at my phone like it was doing something funny.
After spending approximately six minutes in the back of a windowless conference room with my laptop perched on one arm, half-listening to a panel on appropriate technology and digging for LinkedIn profiles of all the people on Maria’s list, I left the panel and succumbed to a beanbag myself. Only then did I discover the Emirates airline logo on its side. The irony did not detract from the comfort of the beanbag chair, and I tried to memorize my list of acronyms. Most seemed arbitrary at best. JUSSCANNZ, for example, stood for a bunch of countries that were industrialized, not in the European Union, and every so often met up to talk about climate change. In elementary school, I’d been part of a clique that utilized similar exclusionary tactics. I was the second S in SEEKSA, not to be confused with the first S, Sarah Parley, who got pregnant with twins at sixteen.
“By the time you learn all those, we’ll have hit the four-degree mark,” said a man whom I had not, until then, noticed on the beanbag beside mine. He looked my age, peach-haired and noodley. That is, a body like a noodle.
Before I could respond, two tan, muscular legs appeared in front of me. I looked up to see Maria staring down, expressionless. She gave me a nod of vague recognition and kept walking.
“Holy moly,” he said, following her down the hall with his eyes. For the record, I did too.
“That’s my boss. She’s, like, probably the most brilliant person in this building.”
Luuk, pronounced Luke, was a graduate student in Amsterdam and a junior member of the Dutch delegation. I asked to see his passport, but he just giggled. He had to run to a meeting but said we ought to exchange numbers, as if there were a great many things we would have gotten to had he not had to depart so suddenly.
“Most of your delegates are real sticks in the mud.” He pulled himself awkwardly out of the beanbag. “But that’s all right. Obama!” he said, lifting his hand in an earnest fist.
“Obama,” I replied and raised my own fist limply.
Around eight, having not seen Maria or Professor Beckett in hours, I left the conference for the day. I’d connected Maria to over half of the names she’d given me and had even gone down to plenary for the day’s closing remarks but found them absolutely unintelligible, despite the English-translation headphones. On my way out of the building, I took a plastic shot glass of pisco from a woman in a Chile Department of Tourism polo. No one around us seemed to find this woman’s presence strange. I asked for another—for my boss—and threw it back while the pisco woman stared. I did not make eye contact with the activist dressed up as a toucan by the exit of the arena. I tried to remember how my brain used to occupy itself, before Maria came along, and arrived at no conclusions on the matter. The moon hung listlessly over the gray city, and I stopped in the street to watch it.
I spent the next morning in a beanbag chair, furiously transcribing Maria’s interviews from the day before. I was beginning to learn Maria’s vocal ticks while simultaneously spending far less time in her presence than I desired. “Incredible,” she liked to say, whenever something was especially not-incredible. Every time a crowd passed by, I’d look up, surveying the landscape of legs.
Eventually, even Maria’s melodic voice couldn’t assuage my hunger. The moment I stood up, ready to find some lunch, Luuk appeared.
“You grew!” he exclaimed, and I smiled, as if he’d said a normal thing. “Spent all morning in plenary,” he said and wiped his forehead in mock exhaustion. I raised my eyebrows and said nothing. I had the sense that things were getting heated around here, no pun intended, but it was difficult to get any concrete information without asking questions that would reveal my fundamental illiteracy regarding international climate politics.
As if reading my mind, Luuk said, “Don’t worry—half the delegates down there don’t understand a word of what’s going on. Inter alia, what does that even mean?”
“It means among other things,” I said.
Luuk nodded. “Yeah, all right. That makes sense.”
Solar, wind, geothermal, inter alia. Drought, flooding, food scarcity, inter alia. “But that’s about the extent of my knowledge,” I added. I’d applied to my college’s think tank after feeling the vague, underlying suspicion that many of my classmates in the computer science department might just grow up to be ineffectual human beings, contributing virtually nothing positive to society. When I saw the posting for the “Cli-Lab,” I decided I enjoyed nature enough to make climate change research my vessel of ethical anxiety. I’m pretty sure the lab accepted me because nobody else knew how to code.
Luuk invited me to join him for lunch, over which I explained that Maria, while not exactly an activist herself, was deeply concerned with the state of civil society within the diplomatic process. She worked directly with the Least Developed Countries and wrote for scholarly, scientific, and mainstream audiences, and, given her astounding intellect, gift with the written word, and unique perspective as a Venezuelan American with six years of UNFCC participation, she could communicate with the lucidity of practically no one else in the world.
Luuk bobbed his head. “You really like her.” I shrugged. I didn’t really know her, I told him. But articulating Maria’s work to Luuk had made me feel, for the first time, that I might actually have some idea of what I was talking about. And more importantly, it made my preoccupation with her not a juvenile distraction but instead an honorable extension of my own commitment to climate change. If anyone could save us—and probably no one could—it would be someone like Maria, and the single best thing I could do was commit myself—thoughts, actions, and endless hours—to Maria and the necessary work she was doing. I didn’t say all this, of course. Luuk kept looking at my chest as we ate, as if hoping some more impressive cleavage might arrive any moment. Certainly off-putting, though I was glad to have one friend here.
Luuk stood up to grab a Coke, and I looked down at my sandwich, which, like the croissants, coffee cups, and even the forks, was just a little too small. This explained why I’d felt unreasonably large and unreasonably hungry for days now.
“Speak of the devil! Your boss is two tables over, flirting with the enemy.”
I craned my neck around as subtly as possible and saw Maria at a table in the corner, talking to one of the grad students.
“That’s Patrick,” I said. “He’s a forest expert. I spent all of October trying to help him make an interactive tree map of the world.” Patrick was boring but definitely not the enemy.
“No, not him,” said Luuk. “I’m talking about the male model sitting next to her.”
I did another very subtle turn-around. He was, in fact, quite handsome. I shrugged.
“That’s Rick Gilbert,” said Luuk, incredulous. “He’s your delegation’s secret weapon and the biggest pain in the ass down in plenary.” More of a scapegoat than a lead delegate—the guy most committed to keeping American self-interests at the forefront, he informed me.
I asked Luuk why I hadn’t heard of him, then, and Luuk laughed.
“You haven’t heard of anyone.” he said. “If loss and damage doesn’t pass at the end of all this, it’ll probably be that prick’s fault.”
I asked him what loss and damage was, and he opened his mouth in pretend horror.
“I’ve obviously seen the words a lot,” I said. “I know what loss means, and damage, also good there, but I didn’t know they meant anything together, like in a formal sense.”
Loss and damage, it turned out, was the third priority vis-à-vis climate change, after mitigation (stopping it) and adaptation (preparing for it). This was the first year that loss and damage, which referred literally to paying for all the things and places and people being lost to and damaged by climate change, might be written into the official documents.
“Plenty of people want to keep it out of there for a while yet.”
“To pretend there aren’t any losses and damages?”
“Maybe,” he said, considering it. “But mostly they just don’t want to pay for it.” Luuk had to return to plenary, so I followed him out of the cafe and tried to get another look on my way out. Patrick caught my eye and waved while Maria and Rick stared into each other’s faces.
“What a handsome couple,” said Luuk, pointing me in the direction of a panel about geoengineering, which proved a perfect opportunity to stand in the back of a dark room and contemplate Maria’s and Rick’s elbows touching across the table.
I must have absorbed a great deal of knowledge on geoengineering since I told my dad all about it that night over Skype, and he was quite wowed by the image of saving the world with artificial clouds sprayed out of airplanes.
Then he said, “I’m really proud of you, kiddo, and your mom would have been proud too. I know it’s a contentious issue, but you just keep reminding them, 97 percent of scientists are in full agreement. At a certain point you just have to trust the experts.”
“Dad,” I said. “Nobody here doesn’t believe in climate change.”
“What are you all arguing about then?”
I told him it was very complicated, but he didn’t like that answer. “Like, what we’re all going to try to do, emissions-wise. And, like, how expensive it’s going to be when everything’s awful, and who’s going to foot the bill.”
My dad nodded. He had no further questions, which I appreciated, since I had no further answers. We were about to hang up when I heard the door click. I didn’t want Maria to walk in and see me staring at a computer, vacant and useless, so I said, “Have you ever had pierogies?” and my dad said, “Of course I’ve had pierogies,” and then we said goodbye and I love you again, just like we had a second ago, without discussing the pierogies any further.
“Boyfriend?” said Maria when I shut the laptop.
“Dad,” I said. “I don’t have a boyfriend.” This was emotionally, but not actually, true.
Maria looked at her own raised eyebrows in the mirror. “Then who’s that boy you’re always wandering around school with?” On the few occasions I had run into Maria outside of the lab, she seemed incapable of recognizing me, so the fact that she had noted not just my presence, but also the presence of a person attached to me by the hand, came as a revelation.
“Oh, Charlie. We broke up. About three weeks ago.” I’d been waiting for a good time to inform Charlie of this change in our relationship status. I was still waiting.
“I guess I stopped liking his face.”
She spun around to face me, as if the idea of breaking up with anyone, ever, under any circumstances, was beyond comprehension.
“I mean, I realized I don’t like a lot of faces. Like, half of all faces in the whole world.” I wondered if I would one day, years from now, recount this moment as my coming-out story.
Maria laughed. “You really are strange.” She said it like a compliment, and I wondered if there was some way to add that Charlie was a senior, just to make it clear that I was not against dating older people. But then Maria opened her computer on the bed with body language that signified socializing was over, and when I asked her how her meeting had gone with the Alliance of Small Island States, she said, “Oh, you know,” which was such a preposterous answer that I almost laughed.
I considered sending Charlie a goodnight text out of guilt. I’d told him the Wi-Fi was terrible, and he wouldn’t be hearing from me much this week. The fact that he believed a UN conference in a first-world country wouldn’t have adequate internet led me to think he either (1) had already accepted our forthcoming break-up or (2) was as daft as I sometimes believed him to be and, therefore, undeserving of my emotional energy. These were unkind thoughts, so I put them to bed.
I listened to Maria’s keyboard noises. My skin felt different, knowing she was in the room with me. It’s not that I hadn’t fallen for a girl before, just that I had repackaged them all as anomalies, ignoring the larger pattern. Also, none of these people had been Maria.
“Maria?” I said, from the cot, astonished by my own boldness. “Are you married?”
Nothing. I sat up in the cot and saw the white string of earbuds caught in Maria’s hair.
Sleep was now impossible. I flipped onto my stomach and grabbed my book. Sophie, all great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning, Camus informed me. That was very nice, though everything that followed was sad, and eventually I was too tired to hold the book open.
“The consequences of climate change, they’re not unilateral,” said Maria. She was speaking that afternoon on a panel about gender inclusivity, which she described as “so broadly defined as to be entirely useless,” and we stood outside the conference room, waiting to be let in. “Feminism means understanding that,” she added.
I didn’t want to admit that I did not, in fact, understand that and only agreed with feminism in a passive, obvious sort of way. Instead I said, “I was thinking about what Professor Beckett said. We talk about responsibility in a national sense, but what about gender? Like, it’s mostly men who were in charge, and greedy, and made all the decisions, and mined all the oil, and made all the profit. So maybe the blame needs to be redistributed or something.”
That morning, we’d left the hotel and walked to the conference together for the first time, and as we waited in security, she’d looked me up and down and said, “That’s a nice cut on you.” Since then I’d been trying to determine which of my cuts was, in fact, nice. My haircut? My sweater? Now, Maria stared at me once more, as if slowly translating my words in her head.
“You’re not wrong. But send all the men to the gallows, huh? Didn’t know you were such a little radical, Sophia.” Then she reached her arm up toward me slowly, as if she were about to put her hand around my neck or touch my cheek, the way women reach up to tall men they’re about to kiss in movies, and I felt my big feet shrink and wobble, and then I sensed a slow, tickling hand move all the way up my spine and realized it was not Maria but, in fact, my own ponytail, which she had tugged out of my shirt from where it had probably been stuck all morning. When I eventually regained my faculty with the English language, I thanked her, but Maria was out of earshot by then.
For most of the panel, Maria just sat there looking younger, prettier, and more discerning than everyone else. I tried to catch her eye, but it only happened once, and there was much less latent sexual tension captured in the look than I’d hoped for. Sometimes she’d whisper to another woman, who, according to the schedule, was one of Latin America’s leading indigenous rights activists and lived with near-constant death threats. But after a woman my age in the audience asked a question that began, “I hope to be a CEO myself, one day,” Maria’s eyes rolled back into her head, and I knew something was coming.
A Canadian delegate smiled down at the girl in the audience and said, “Empowering intelligent, kind young ladies like you is one of the most important—” but by then Maria had had it, and she leaned forward into her own microphone and said, “Come on.”
The room went quiet. She lifted her eyebrows, as if surprised by her own power to silence. “Is that really what we need most? The world is burning, but what matters is that the CEO of Exxon is a woman? Who cares about giving power to the already privileged,” said Maria, waving her hand at the girl. “What matters here is that women in vulnerable countries suffer disproportionately. I don’t want to rise to power as a woman, standing on all the broken backs of the women beneath me. We’re all fucked, but poor women, black and brown women, the ones in the most vulnerable regions, they’re the most fucked of all. Why is it so hard for us to come out and say it?” Maria held up her hands and then dropped them on the table, making a loud thump that reverberated through the speakers. The exhale of one lone mouth-breather echoed through the audience.
I wish I could say that the panel then devolved into a heated roundtable of radical feminist debate, but instead the conversation just plodded along awkwardly until eventually some music resembling the Olympics soundtrack brought everyone to their feet. Thankfully, I spotted Maria heading for the door before the woman to my left could capture my hand and pull me into the collective-dancing portion of the panel. I followed Maria out the maze of stairs and through the catering exit. Spindly, gray trees obscured whatever view we might have had of the city’s brutalist structures rising up in the distance.
Maria lit a cigarette. “It all feels like a spectacle sometimes—and for nothing,” she said. “I was there in Copenhagen, and I’ll be there in Paris in a few years when they sign this thing. It’s all so watered-down by the time anyone takes out their pens. Fucking waste of the world’s time, all that back-patting.”
I watched Maria smoke. I had no coat and nothing to say. Maria seemed to disappear into her head and then, a few moments later, return. She eyed me up and down, and I thought about how I’d never wanted to know what anyone was thinking more than I did right then. I forgot I was cold for a second and stopped shivering. I knew there was something in Maria that I couldn’t point to, some sort of way of being in the world that felt familiar to me.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“You’ve had a long day,” I said. “I wanted to keep you company.”
“Not here at the service entrance. Here at the conference.”
I took in a big breath of her smoke and tried not to cough. I said, “I don’t have many memories of my mother, but I do remember this one year we had a big snowstorm, and the snow went all the way up to the top of the first-floor windows. This was in Minnesota. My mom and I went out with the dog, and I started to build this cave, like packing everything down until there was this perfect little dome of snow, and I sat in the dome with my dog, Lucy, and I remember it was warmer inside the cave than it was outside, and we could see the green of the pines popping out above the snow. I had no clue where my mom went. It felt like she’d just disappeared. And I sat in the snow with Lucy, and I waited for her to come back.” My throat started to shrink in the cold air, and I didn’t know whether I really wanted to cry or really wanted to keep from crying. I said, “I was so sure she was coming back that I wasn’t scared one bit that she might not. And then she did. She came back.”
I looked out at the white sky. It wasn’t snowing here; I knew it wouldn’t. I said, “It comes from some distant love, I think. A gratefulness to nature, maybe? Or just some hope that the future won’t really be so different from the past, or at least, that it doesn’t have to be.”
I could tell Maria was looking into my eyes, but I didn’t meet them. The sense that I had said something compelling, or moved another person in any possible way, felt very new to me. Maybe the first time in my life that I’d ever done that. Maria stood very close to me; I could feel her heat.
“Jesus,” said Maria, tossing her cigarette onto the ground. “I’m sorry, but nostalgia? Really? I’m so sick of the fucking nostalgia. The white Christmas bullshit.” She turned away from me and shook her head back and forth, and I felt my intestines tie themselves up into slipknots and tug their way through my body. “That’s very pretty,” she continued, “but you’re going to be fine. Your kids, they’re probably not going to die from climate change. Your grandkids? Sure, maybe. But we’ve got droughts drying up whole languages. Food scarcity turning kids into orphans. Now. Not in 2050. Right now. We’ve got blood on our hands.” She was talking very fast, and I knew if I moved my body even a little I’d throw up onto the pavement. “It’s genocide, that’s what it is, genocide,” she said and then pulled out the phone that was buzzing loudly against the coins in her pocket.
“Shit, I have to get back in there,” she said, almost kindly, and then she was gone.
I found the nearest bench. I pulled The Myth of Sisyphus out of my bag just to give my hands an activity. I read mindlessly through six pages until, eventually, Camus said: Sophie, so long as the mind keeps silent in the motionless world of its hopes, everything is reflected and arranged in the unity of its nostalgia. This line seemed like a particularly timely taunt on Camus’s part. It was obvious he and Maria were now ganging up on me and my silent, motionless mind.
The word genocide had lodged itself in my throat like dry ibuprofen that I couldn’t swallow. I held my breath until the ping of a message came through on my phone over the distant Wi-Fi. Are you awake? Charlie asked, clearly ignorant of time zones. I opened my book again. Sophie, this world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. This seemed like as much of an apology as I could expect from Camus, so I forgave him. At a certain point, I was too cold to read about the will not to kill oneself, so instead, I just sat and wondered why the sun was taking so long to set today.
I spent the last two days of the conference in the dark back corner of the plenary. When one of the delegates began speaking French, I put on my translation headphones, turned the volume low, closed my eyes, and imagined Maria sneaking up on me from behind as I walked back to the hotel late at night. I felt her taking my hand and apologizing for her outburst, which had really just been misplaced anger at herself for being distracted by her passionate feelings toward me during this crucial diplomatic moment, feelings that—she told me with her thumb grazing the bone of my cheek—she nonetheless had no choice but to act on the moment we arrived back at our hotel room, naked beneath multitudinous shades of red.
“Good morning,” said Luuk, pulling the headset away from my head and then letting it go with a smack. I felt the scene in my head dissipate into embarrassment. I couldn’t determine if I was mad at Maria, mad at myself, or just filled with a gaseous sort of shame that obscured all other feeling.
“I’ve seen Maria down here exactly once,” I told Luuk, who had returned to typing numbers into his phone calculator. I’d determined that “delegate” in his case meant personal assistant to an actual delegate.
“Who?” he said, not looking up.
“Maria. The person I work for. The reason I’m here. I know she has all these people to meet and activists to interview, but she’s just given up on this whole process. I’ve barely seen her once in, like, two days.”
“I’m just tired of doing all this work for someone who doesn’t even care.”
“Unlike you,” said Luuk, “slaving away on the climate’s behalf!”
“Well, at least this room is where shit actually happens, you know?”
“Is it?” Luuk finally looked over at me. I still didn’t know if it was, but spending all this time in the windowless auditorium with important people up there waving their gavels had started to convince me that maybe something could actually be accomplished.
“She could at least come support her boyfriend.” I’d only seen Maria and Rick one more time, and it had been right outside the US offices. He was smiling. She was laughing. The permafrost was melting. I didn’t say hi. An extensive internet search revealed that he worked at the state department and had some shady connections to a “sustainable” technology company. He was also much older than his Abercrombie aesthetic suggested. I still didn’t understand why he seemed capable of creating such diplomatic obstacles, and I told Luuk as much.
“Just wait,” said Luuk. “I’ve only been to one of these, but it turns into sleep warfare. The poor countries, the ones that’ll really suffer, don’t have the kind of numbers that the rich countries do. The rich countries eat gourmet and sleep eight hours while their buddies take over. Then, all of a sudden, the text goes from binding to non-binding, emission limits turn into aspirations, and all the people who actually have skin in the game are too tired to do anything about it. And then the gavel sounds, and that’s it, folks. The best we can hope for is that some of your guys get wined and dined so hard they sleep through plenary,” Luuk said, grinning.
“Amsterdam’s a rich country,” I said. “Why aren’t you guys the enemy, too?”
Luuk looked over at me. I sensed that I’d disappointed him greatly. “Sophie, Amsterdam is a city. It’s also two meters below sea level.”
That night, I accepted Luuk’s invitation to a nearby beer hall where we were joined by two of his friends—Davy from the Congo and John from Ireland. John was missing many buttons, and Davy looked at me with exceedingly passionate brown eyes. I don’t mean that I was the object of his passion, just that he had such a surplus that some of it was bound to overflow and land on unsuspecting young women. I knew they were activists without Luuk saying so.
“Sophie,” said Davy, in a melodic voice. “How did you get involved in this world? You’re just a student, yes?”
I’d made the mistake of ordering some milky, local drink that tasted like biscuit batter. I held the cup to my lips and tried not to panic at the memory of Maria asking me this same question two days before. An oversized chandelier glowed above us, and the tight walls were plastered in fading magazine pages written in a language I didn’t understand. It was so good to be away from the non-place of the conference arena that I thought I might never leave this stupid bar.
“You know that feeling when you have something really big to do?” Everyone looked at me, waiting. “Something difficult, like a big philosophy paper or something. You force yourself not to think about it and say you’ll deal with it later, but with each day you don’t do it, it just gets harder, and you’re spending so much energy trying not to think about it, and then you’re living your life and doing all these other things, but deep inside, the fact of it down there getting worse makes you anxious, but you don’t even realize what it is you’re anxious about?” They were nodding now. “I guess that’s how I’ve always felt about climate change.” I wasn’t sure if this was true, exactly, but I’d certainly convinced us all of it.
“Fascinating,” John said. “And at a certain point, it starts to infect the collective unconscious. What does it mean for the whole developed world to feel that all at once? To collectively ignore the thing that’s just too big to look at? I think it’s why the world has turned so crazed lately, why suicides are on the rise . . . ”
“My mom killed herself when I was six,” I said and took another viscous sip. “Not because of climate change, though. I mean, it was because of me.”
I was obviously drunk at this point. Luuk laughed nervously and Davy appeared sympathetically alarmed. John just stared into me, imploring.
“That sounds dramatic,” I clarified. “It was postpartum depression, just took a few years.” Then I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do. “Sorry to bring the mood down. It’s really not a depressing thing; I’ve had fifteen years to talk it out.”
Luuk smiled on my behalf. “I feel guilty, of course,” I went on. “I help my dad as much as possible. But, like, is guilt useful? Is it really my fault? And does guilt really have anything to do with whether it’s actually your fault or not?” It felt nice to say some words out loud to a bunch of people who were already bummed out about bigger things than my mom dying and whom I could continue bumming out without ever having to see again. “I guess it’s all a matter of historic responsibility, right?” I said and smiled to myself. Being quite drunk, I was unsure if this was a ridiculous analogy or a profound metaphor, and, based on their faces, Luuk, John, and Davy didn’t seem to be sure either.
At some point in the night, Maria came in surrounded by people in suits. The one closest to her, whose face was obscured, was blond and broad shouldered, and I shifted a little in my seat, hiding behind Davy.
“Slut,” I said in a whisper. I was very drunk. I did not mean it. I hummed, trying to camouflage the word in other sounds. From across the bar came a loud, flirtatious laugh, and I knew it belonged to her. I repeated the word “JUSSCANNZ” in my head in as many accents as I could think of so that I wouldn’t start crying and nodded enthusiastically when Luuk suggested another round of alcoholic pancake batter.
Many hours later, I walked home through the dark, early morning fog, and the air smelled like snow. I remembered that day again—the one I’d told Maria about—but in my head, the snow was already melting into wet ice, and my mother looked down at me and Lucy with dark, empty eyes. Maria must have left the bar long before us because she was asleep when I got back, and I turned my phone volume halfway down in the hope that I’d sleep through my alarm but still feel like maybe it wasn’t really my fault.
The conference was supposed to end the next afternoon, but it did not. All day I listened to them argue over perfect synonyms. A nation must “propose” but not “intend” their “contributions” instead of their “commitments.” Six p.m. arrived and then, instead of celebratory closing remarks, an hour-long recess was announced, after which a new session would commence, and the talks would continue long into the night.
Sleep warfare, what did I say? Luuk texted me from somewhere else in the building. I told him I had a ticket back to Boston for the next morning, flying solo this time.
Fuck! Luuk messaged back. Then how are we going to stop climate change?!
I hadn’t seen Maria all afternoon, and she hadn’t touched a single Google Doc in hours, which meant that she was either exceedingly busy or exceedingly not. I took a forty-five-minute nap on a beanbag chair and then sat next to Professor Beckett in the back of plenary, desperate to find a thesis statement for my philosophy paper. I opened a page at random, hoping to spark my brain into virtuosity. Sophie, to abolish conscious revolt is to elude the problem. I recalled how, the night before, I’d dreamt that Maria was at the top of a mountain, and the moment I made it to her, before we could kiss, I’d slip on a rocky ledge and fall back down again. The dream felt so completely devoid of latent content that I was embarrassed by my own unconscious. Sophie, Camus went on, permanent revolution is thus carried into individual experience. Living is keeping the absurd alive.
“Do you know much about Camus?” I asked Professor Beckett.
He frowned. “Remind me. What did he say?”
I looked down at my notes.
“The world is irrational and hopeless, and the human heart longs for clarity, but it’s better not to kill yourself, and to just think about that paradox instead.”
Out on the floor, some delegates rose from their seats and huddled for a moment in what seemed like a dramatic, fruitful deliberation. Then they sat back down, and from up on stage, the executive secretary rejected their motion with a swing of her gavel. I didn’t return to the topic of Camus.
The night wore on. None of the big guys—Canada, Australia, the US—wanted in writing just how much they’d have to pay or how much they’d have to keep their emissions down to stay below two degrees. Even Ban Ki-moon looked haggard and unhappy, and he’d only swooped in for the last two days. I’d been watching Rick Gilbert’s head all night from the back of the room as he whispered into the other Americans’ ears every few minutes. After he spoke into his microphone to oppose some proposition about the Green Climate Fund, I finally asked Professor Beckett the obvious question: “What’s his problem?”
Professor Beckett’s face turned very serious, and he said, “That man might consider himself a pragmatist, but he’s a pain in the ass. Big Oil has got him by the balls, just like the House and Senate.” I laughed louder than I should have, and Professor Beckett turned back to his laptop, blushing.
When I eventually took a lap around the convention center, searching for espresso, I ended up in a white tunnel covered in exquisite photographs of trees, and I stared into a baobab. Its trunk was stout and gnarled, like a hunk of ginger, and its green tufts of leaves were lit up golden on their undersides, and the sky faded from deep blue to white, and the grass was hot and dry beneath the arches of my feet. I felt the hot sun on my scalp and the mucky lake bottom and Lucy’s claws scratching across my thighs as she swam, and then I remembered the paper cup of espresso, lukewarm in my hand, and realized that the warm glow across the plain of baobabs was coming from a lightbox behind the photograph. It was the first plant I had seen in days.
Back in plenary, I kept hoping to spot Maria. My neck was sore from compulsively craning it around the hall, trying to find her face. Eventually, with little else to do, I opened up an audio file I’d already transcribed, just to hear her voice. 21:49—I already knew the moment I was looking for; I’d marked it down the first time. “Well, how do you maintain hope, then?” asks the Norwegian interviewee. Maria pauses, her voice gets very soft; for a second, she’s someone else entirely. She says, “What makes you think I have hope?”
I replayed the interaction four more times and would have kept on listening if I hadn’t been interrupted by a text from Luuk inviting me out for “a toast to the apocalypse.”
“You can go to bed,” Professor Becket told me, as we split a blueberry scone. But my flight was at ten a.m. There was no point going anywhere. You’re missing the biggest party of the conference! Luuk texted, with a picture of John doing a tequila shot. It was weird that they were all out drinking, but also, I got it. I was so bored and unhappy—there’s just no other way to say it.
I sent him back a picture I’d sneaked of the Guatemalan delegate falling asleep against his microphone for just a second. Not funny, just sad, I added, a minute later. Just to be clear.
Eventually, a new day dawned, and the talks continued. Professor Beckett gave me an unexpected, but not unwelcome, hug and said he’d see me back in Boston. The day was unseasonably warm, especially for seven in the morning. As I passed the stadium’s parking lot, I saw a man in a suit seated on a stone bench with his head bent over his knees.
It took me a moment to realize it was Davy. I remembered, at the bar, repeating Professor Beckett’s words, that historic responsibility was a fascinating humanistic problem. Davy had laughed. “No, it’s not,” he’d told me. I had not asked him to elaborate. I knew he was right.
Now I watched his shoulders shake. I tried not to stare. The only people I’d seen crying this week were delegates giving theatrical, impassioned speeches. I kept walking. The city was silent. I wished I’d gone to a museum or tried a pierogi.
I already had my suitcase in tow, prepared to head straight from the stadium to the airport. But I had time to sneak back to the hotel and take a shower if I didn’t wash my hair. I imagined walking into the hotel room and seeing Maria for the first time in what felt like days. Where have you been? I’d demand, impassioned. The AOSIS delegates can barely keep their eyes open while their islands sink into the ocean, and you’re here—what—napping off a hangover?
I imagined her staring back, first offended, then forlorn, then her eyes softening into something closer to admiration, perhaps even desire. I walked faster in the direction of the hotel, my suitcase bouncing on the sidewalk behind me. Bold action—that was what everyone had been saying all week. Urgency, courage. Not pathetic, incremental baby steps. Not sitting around hoping.
I love you, I’d say. The lobby of the hotel was empty at this early hour. I love you, I repeated in my head. No, I would obviously not say that. How about You’re amazing. How about I’ll push back my flight. I’m your research assistant, and I’m good, damn it! Just tell me what you need.
The enormous red lump in the bed was not Maria, but it took me a few confusing moments to realize this. Discarded clothes covered the room, and none of them belonged to a woman. I wanted to open the shades, but my top priority was to keep this lump from waking. I could hear a song coming from somewhere in the room and circled the bed quietly, where I found a pile consisting of a wet towel, wool blazer, and pillow. I reached in to find the buzzing phone, but that just made the noise louder, so I pushed the whole pile further beneath the bed. I studied the large, pale arm protruding from the comforter. Up close it looked pallid and dead, covered in thick, blond hair. The lanyard of Rick’s delegate badge was tangled over an empty bottle of Scotch like a necklace. I felt all the blood moving through my body, fast and hot and livid, as I packed up my backpack, and then I clicked the door shut behind me and took a cab to the airport.
I finished my philosophy paper on the connecting flight to Zurich, only to discover that my flight home was delayed, turning my two-hour layover into six. I didn’t think about Maria or Rick. I took the bus to the city center. I certainly did not think about anything involving the two of them together. The streets of Zurich were wonderfully cobblestoned, and it was snowing in a way that was perfectly unobtrusive and only delightful. Every direction I looked, there were fancy children singing carols or twinkling lights strung up over storefronts. I was tremendously moved and likewise appalled.
I went to the Kunsthaus and found a bench in front of a Munch that was not The Scream. It was green and blue with snowy peaks and wobbly, leaden trees and clouds that looked like birds. A man sat down to ask me a question in a language I didn’t understand, and after he got up, a woman sat down and told me the man’s question had been “Young girl, why are you weeping?” Since it seemed the woman was only recounting the incident, not asking the question herself, I didn’t provide an answer.
I slept the entire eight hours back to Boston and would have continued sleeping upright in the customs line if the man behind me didn’t lift his badge from around his neck and point to mine, smiling.
His name was Boris, and he was a Belgian delegate delivering a talk at MIT. “No rest for the wicked!” he exclaimed. He was smiling at his phone and told me the talks had finally concluded, as if that had been the impossible goal all along, just to get these people to stop talking, for God’s sake.
“Oh yeah? Any news?” I asked.
“Nothing too unexpected, but nothing devastating either.” He brought the phone closer to his face and began a litany of numbers all ending in billion. “And loss and damage,” he said. “Well, it wasn’t designated as the third pillar, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any mechanism in place to fund it, but it made it into the text. Didn’t think that would happen!”
He smiled at me lecherously, as if I, the undergrad, were the obstacle they’d been forced to outwit. “Looks like you Americans finally gave in. Didn’t even send in your Golden Boy for the last hour.” He nodded me forward, toward the open customs booth. “A success, in my book. I can’t even get my family to agree on dinner!” Then Boris waved, frantically.
I remembered that arm protruding from the hotel bed, useless and pale. It seemed remarkable to me that a man like Rick Gilbert could just miss the closing deliberations, but when had I myself ever found it possible to say no to Maria? I considered giving Boris a hug, but the rest of the line was staring at me, impatient.
“Happy New Year!” I called out instead, and I meant it, though it was only the last week of November.
Five years later, I sat in a Columbia lecture hall next to my girlfriend, Ravit, whom I had dragged to a lecture called “Fourth-Wave Feminism in the Age of the Anthropocene.” She was finishing up law school, and I was working for an app that tracked campaign finance, and in the years that we’d been together, the US had signed the Paris Agreement, left the Paris Agreement, and more importantly, revealed itself at every moment to be a flaming, spewing outhouse of ethical decay, offering, each morning, some new moral crisis to lament.
We sat in the third row, waiting for the panel’s speakers to appear. Ravit asked me how, exactly, I’d come to know so much about the nebulous state of toothless international climate politics, so I sighed and began.
By the time I finished this story, the lights had dimmed.
In the past few years, I’d cut my hair, stopped slouching so egregiously, and learned how to dress myself. I didn’t expect Maria to recognize me in the half-full audience.
After the conference, I’d gone home a few days early for Christmas and missed our final lab meeting of the semester. Maria hadn’t come back to Boston in January, instead finishing her dissertation from Geneva, where she’d already been hired by some European organization.
Thirty minutes into the talk, the moderator asked a question about “radical solutions,” directed right at Maria, and she looked out at the audience, mulling it over.
“Maybe it’s a matter of rethinking demographic delineations,” she said. “We’re at 415 parts per million. We’re looking at a four-degree rise. We can’t call feminism some ancillary movement. Patriarchy, Western masculine theology—that’s right at the heart of this problem.”
The moderator wasn’t satisfied. “So, then, what exactly do you suggest?”
Maria shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Hang ’em all? Take the 95 percent of global wealth owned by men and put it to use trying to keep this species around?” The room laughed. Maria sat back in her chair. She pulled her eyes across the row of seats and landed, finally, on me. I waited for her to smile, and then, she did.
Ravit leaned into my ear. I turned my head to listen but kept my eyes on the stage.
“You’re right, she’s hot,” said Ravit.
“Shhh.” I lifted my finger to my mouth. “I’m trying to listen.”
About the Author
Bryna Cofrin-Shaw is a Brooklyn-based writer originally from Northampton, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Brown University, where she studied climate change politics through the lens of the arts and humanities, and Hunter College, where she received her MFA in fiction. Her work has appeared in Epiphany and American Literary Review.