There were many people in the lobby of the Bestland Hotel, but Uri was looking at the chandelier. It was as wide as a park fountain, but it spilled with crystal facets instead of water, making Uri—a slight man with a cheap haircut—feel vaguely dizzy under its shine. The hotel had been booked by a very prominent board of directors for an international scientific conference. He found it funny that men who were in charge of grant funding for his department always seemed to have good taste in hotels with chandeliers.
Uri was representing his company as an experienced frequency-measuring equipment lab technician, or, he feared, as a man whose job was quickly becoming redundant to a lab whose budget was being sucked up by other labs who could quench the military’s thirst for weapons development. He felt like a frog in a pond that was being baked into the earth. He needed to find his chance to jump. And so the long, out-of-country flight with an economy class ticket. The kiss from his wife at the airport. The jetlag. And the mild nausea from the shine and spill of cut glass over a lobby full of men speaking loudly.
He walked toward the bar, looking for a glass of real water. On his way, he spotted something familiar. It was a loudly-printed, orange paisley shirt, worn by a man with curly hair. Uri knew only one man who would wear a shirt like that to a professional conference.
“Marc!” he exclaimed to the man. The two had worked together two years ago on a collaborative project between their two countries. “It has been years! How are you?”
Marc turned from the conversation he was having. “Uri! My friend!” he exclaimed, grabbing Uri’s hand and pulling him in close. “Let’s go,” he whispered. “I need to gracefully escape this conversation.”
Uri let Marc steer him further into the crowded lobby until they reached a spot too inconvenient for Marc’s former conversation partners to catch up with them.
“What was that? Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“Not a big deal. Just some people trying to convince me that I need to do more work for them for less money. A lot of people are willing to push your nose to the grindstone, but not willing to pay you enough for the ointment to put on it afterward.”
“Oh dear.” Uri lowered his voice a little. “Are you also having hard times? The news makes it seem like things are going so well for your country, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they…there is a lot of talk where I work. Many people are saying that your country is the place to be right now.”
“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way,” Marc sighed. “I bitch too much, and I should be thankful.” He ran his hands around the rim of his cocktail glass over and over while speaking. “I have work to do, and it’s useful work, or at least my supervisor has told me so every time I’ve tried to take a day off this past summer! But I’m sorry to hear you’re doing badly.” He had a desperate look, Uri thought. Like a man who did not want to hear any more bad news.
Uri pulled up a false smile from some dusty corner of his being and tried to adopt his friend’s flippant tone. “Maybe I complain too much too. Maybe it is not so bad. And at least we do not have to suffer through eating your food. You are a physicist, yes? Are you sure that the things your women are calling ‘meatloaf’ is actually matter?”
“Wouldn’t know what the women are calling anything these days, would I? I’m not married.” Marc clapped his arm with the free hand that was not holding the cocktail glass. “Tell me Uri, don’t your people still eat horse meat?”
“Only on Sundays. Every other day, it is rat.”
As they talked, the two men migrated away from the crowded lobby. They paused in a side hallway by a Coca Cola vending machine, which was possibly the only thing in the hotel that was not covered in department-store brocade and crystal fittings.
“It really is good to see you,” Uri said. “Actually, I have been thinking”—he paused and stroked the names of the glistening drinks on the machine’s buttons—“of taking some time off from work and traveling. I think it would be best if the kids got to leave the country. Maybe before they are too old to enjoy traveling with their parents.”
Marc nodded, but Uri could see that the sympathies of parenthood were uninteresting to him.
He paused. There was sweat in his hair and under his arms. This was it. The moment to jump. “I know my wife would like to meet you finally. Do you think maybe we could stop in at your place for a few days, see the sights, and even give your food a fighting chance? She likes to joke, actually—my wife—that I used to talk about you so much when we worked together that she wondered if Marc was a woman’s name in this country, and I was cheating on her.”
“You’re a cruel man, Uri, if you want to put a woman and children up in my sad bachelor’s apartment,” Marc said, laughing. “But really, there’s not a lot of room. I’m sure the conditions just wouldn’t be fit for them to want to stay. And also, I’m involved in a pretty big project this fall. I’ll be spending a lot of time working. Not really the standards you’d want for your vacation home.”
“I think you underestimate how much my wife hates to spend money. Her passion for saving money is almost as incredible as her cooking.”
Uri maintained strong eye contact with Marc, until Marc flicked his eyes to the vending machine. It would have been too easy, he thought. You cannot try to make the women and children save the sinking ship.
“What are you working on? I have to admit, though I’m ashamed, that there just isn’t that much work for a man in my field anymore back home. Maybe I could even help you out with this project. We could be partners again.”
“I’m sorry, pal, but I really am in deep on this project. Technically, it’s confidential stuff, with a lot of international interest, and I’m not even very comfortable talking to you about it, much less having people around my apartment all the time from whom I have to keep it secret. I’m really sorry. Really sorry, I just can’t.”
“That’s perfectly okay. We couldn’t impose ourselves if we weren’t wanted. Perhaps we can have dinner sometime anyway,” Uri said. His eyes were flat now. Marc fished around in his pockets until he found enough change to buy a Coke. The machine grumbled and turned its wheels but didn’t spit out anything.
“You were right on with what you said before.” Marc was rubbing his neck quickly. “This really is a good place to be in right now. I think all the economic stuff… I don’t know. I’m no expert on that kind of thing. If you give me shares in a company, I’d probably ask you ‘Where’s Sonny?’ but I think it’s safe here. I do. I’m sorry to kick you out into a hotel, but I think you should visit. We can talk about your research.”
“Oh yes, my research. Can’t say much has changed. I’m still studying things you can’t see with instruments nobody wants to pay for.” Uri attempted one last smile. “I should really get back to the conference and try to be charming, I suppose. Maybe I will see you again someday soon.”
A day later, Uri boarded a plane at the airport and got off in his home country. He did not notice very much about the ride, except that it was long. It was his last.
A few months after he failed to secure any grant money for his laboratory at the conference, he was let go with the budget cuts. These cuts also sent the machines he had been working with for fifteen years to a scrap metal processing plant, where they were turned into aircraft parts. Not parts for commercial aircraft. For military aircraft.
Uri was watching out his window when those planes came into the air over his city. He wondered if the instruments in the planes that contained the metal of his laboratory equipment were any more sensitive, if the metal was endowed with any special finesse from the hours he spent slaving over it to understand the frequency of the universe. He was imagining that the metal beasts felt a shiver or a vibration from the presence of their former master when the bomb hit the city, leveling everything, blowing clouds of concrete dust and streams and streams of broken glass.
When Marc watched the news on the night of the bombing, he was sitting in his armchair, bouncing his legs and smoking more than usual. He watched every night lately, looking for cities and names.
He’d left his job a week earlier, first becoming stubborn and aggressive, then dropping out altogether. “I won’t do it,” he had said to his supervisor. “You don’t know the right frequencies.” But he had done it. On that night, the planes made from Uri’s equipment sung like tuning forks with the frequencies from the override protocols that Marc had helped to develop. Their pilots could not regain control. A man somewhere in Marc’s country pushed a button, and Marc watched on TV as the planes’ dark bellies yawned open and loosed their cargo.