THE SUNSET MACHINE by Tamar Nachmany

Mira told me she wanted a sunset machine. 

“Then I could watch sunset two times every day,” she said, looking up from her pillow.

“What about sunrise in the morning and sunset at night?” I asked. She shook her head no.

Later, from outside the door, I heard her talking to the darkness.

“Sunset machine. S like Sinai. U like underwear. N like Nike. Sunset.” Sinai was the hospital where Etgar worked. 

When I got into bed, I opened Instagram, and there it was: the sunset machine. The ad showed a bathroom filled with eucalyptus and orange light. I had never considered that Instagram listens to our conversations until that moment. It was something people worried about but supposedly wasn’t true. I had already been feeling that we were intercepting one another’s thoughts, phones and people.

I bought it and thought about texting Etgar. He was staying at one of those hotels where hospital workers slept for free. The Odyssey, the story of a man on an impossible journey back home, could have been written about him.

Earlier that day Mira had sat next to me on the couch as I spelled out our last name on the phone:

“P as in Potato – E – L – E – G as in . . . Garden.”

“And what prescription are you refilling?”

“Birth control.” I already had two children, Mira and Arieh, eleven and six.

One thing I didn’t realize about motherhood was that I’d still be going through the birth control refill dance for decades, renewing my prescription constantly even though I had been on the pill for twenty-five years. But getting pregnant was highly unlikely under these circumstances. Etgar slept across town. And sexting couldn’t get you pregnant.

I wish you were here, sitting on my face. 

The system came from the military. There was an actual military code, a military word for each letter. But all I could think about was “Potato Garden.” 

When the sunset machine arrived, Mira took a sheet from the closet and draped it over two chairs. Then we lay between them and turned it on. First, we became honeydews, then lush peaches, then ambulance lights. Then, the sunset passed over us, turned gray, and moved on. I noticed how shabby the sheet was. It wasn’t white, it was gray, and a bit of dead elastic dangled off the corner. 

Mira said she liked it but she didn’t sound genuine. 

“It’s awkward,” she said finally. I was proud of her. She had learned the lesson on her own. The sun, the moon, the stars were not there just for us to feel good.

But later, in the middle of the night when I went to use the bathroom, I noticed a girl-sized lump in the middle of the living room, covered in a sheet. The sheet contained an enormous light. It felt like I was interrupting something very private, so I quietly used the bathroom and went back to bed.

Arieh had developed some strange new habits too. Arieh was six and his current obsession was his bedtime ritual. He ate two grapes every night before bed like melatonin. Afterward, he walked to the bathroom, put his special stool next to the sink, and turned on Teethies. Teethies was a podcast that helped kids brush their teeth. The wooden stool, painted with creatures from parables, was a gift from my parents. My parents were in love and they always brought us objects with faces on them.

Arieh was allowed to eat fruit at night because he promised me he would always brush his teeth afterward and I noticed an honesty glimmering in his new personality, an ability to keep his word. When Teethies was over, Arieh would put his toothbrush back into the family cup, rinse his mouth, lay down and fall asleep. 

Even for the luckiest people, it’s a traumatic year. I try to fill it with magic. I tell the kids to imagine that every movement they make is a shape. When we step outside, which we almost never do, I tell them to imagine we are playing a game. The game is to stay as far away from strangers as possible. Mira understands, Arieh doesn’t. The three of us hold hands and create a path with our bodies, dancing and solving geometry problems at the same time. We all have the ability to carry harm and not even know it. It’s a smart virus.

The kids speak with Etgar on the phone a few times a week. The conversations remind me of the ones I have with my relatives who don’t know English very well. It’s really just one conversation over and over. I told Etgar it wasn’t personal. They just didn’t know how to talk on the phone, their generation.

Actually, Etgar wasn’t an English name like Edgar Allen Poe. It was a Hebrew name. In Hebrew it meant challenge.

The sexting had started as a joke. I used to start every day by texting him How are you? And he would tell me what had happened at work. Even the little bit he shared made my whole body tingle with anxiety. At the time, they were all still working in garbage bags, looking into the eyes of quiet patients, scanning for their own reflection.

At first, he’d text me back. Then, he would leave me little voice memos. I think he wanted me to hear his voice and didn’t want to read back his own words. Then one day he asked me to stop.

How are you?

I love you so much but I can’t answer that question anymore 

I’m bad. I’m terrible

I know

I’m doing badly

You’ve been bad. Very very bad

What’s under that garbage bag?

If I take it off and show you I’ll get very sick

Then don’t show me—tell me

Imagine me in a garbage bag

The sweat dripping down my legs

Thinking about you all day long

With my rock hard cock

If it was between your dick and a respirator I think I’d choke

Keep going

Is it hard?

It’s always hard

 

I woke up in the morning, fed the kids, worked, and then it was dark out. The sun rose but we never saw it because we were inside. Then Mira would use the sunset machine, thinking that no one could see her. Arieh would eat his grapes. And then it was morning again. After night comes morning. Morning morning morning morning morning. Sunset. Night. Potato Garden.

One afternoon I walked in on Mira watching sunset on the toilet. The bathroom was red— ambulance red, firehouse red—and Mira’s face above her phone was pale and blue. It looked like a darkroom, the sunset machine peering over her like the red light that watches a strip become an image. She yelped and slammed the door. Sorry, I whined, but she didn’t forgive me.

Later, we were all sitting on the couch when I noticed a red circle of blood on Mira’s pajamas. I was so surprised I didn’t say anything. Eventually, we all got up and went to bed.

 Mira used the sunset machine. She retired to her room. And then, covered in blood she didn’t even know about, her hormones moving quietly between her dreams like men on a dark construction site, she slept.

 

That night, I Googled “sunset machine side effects.” But I couldn’t find anything. I had gotten my period when I was thirteen. Mira was only eleven years old. 

Potato Garden. Premature Girl.

Mira stopped using the sunset machine under a sheet. She lit up the entire room. I did the laundry hoping to find her pajamas but I couldn’t see a spot of blood anywhere. Maybe they had been crumpled into a ball and hidden with her other important, secret things. The sunset machine bathed Mira in red. I lay in my bed with my door open and secretly watched it with her.

One night, I walked out of my room at dusk. She was lying on her back watching the ceiling transform. When it was over she simply lifted her head and looked at me. And we watched one another in silence.

We began a nightly ritual. Once Arieh was asleep, Mira would light up the entire apartment. She’d lie on the couch and I’d stand behind her. One night, she turned around and whispered, mom. I came and sat next to her. She gestured for me to come closer and we lay down together side by side.

“I think I’m in love,” she said.

“You are?”

“I think so.”

“What’s his name?”

“Daemon.” They had started messaging during class and realized that both of their fathers were missing. Now they talked a little every day.

“Is he cute?”

“I don’t know,” she laughed. “I’ve never seen him.”

“What do you mean you’ve never seen him?”

“He keeps his camera off.”

 

Mira fell asleep and I lay in the dark thinking about the black square that Mira loved. A lot of kids didn’t show their video in digital school because they were embarrassed to show their homes. Mira had a crush on one of those holes, those absences. 

She fell asleep so fast, I didn’t have a chance to make a confession of my own. But if she had stayed awake maybe I would have told her that when I was about her age I also had a crush on a hole. There was a boy in my class with green eyes and big black eyebrows. Something about his eyebrows just did it for me. My grade had taken a class picture and we kept a copy of it at my house. I cut my crush out of the class photo and put him into my notebook so I could look at him all the time, but my parents found the photo and its devastating hole and deduced my love over dinner. They adored the photo with the hole in it. When I asked them to take it off of the refrigerator they looked distraught. So we kept it up there.

How did I grow up so long ago, during a time when I had to keep a thumb-sized photo of my crush’s face to remember what he looked like? This story sounded crazy in the world we lived in today, where there were so many pictures everywhere of everyone. And yet we had come full circle, and now my daughter had a crush on a hole too. Maybe it was genetic. My crush’s camera had gone dark. Etgar.

 

You in your spot on the couch.

Always in my spot

And where am I

In our bed

In your mind, where am I?

Sitting between my legs leaning back

Facing or away?

Away. Watching the TV

With my ass against your inner thighs

Yes. Your back pressed up against my cock

Sharing an ice cream

You let a drop run down my naked back

And lick it

 

Mira has a crush

But they’ve never met

And his camera is off

Actually she’s in love

I wish I was there to see it. Arieh?

Very quiet

You’re in love with a hole too, aren’t you?

Would die without it

Good

Pour some sugar on me, sweetheart 

Lower me into the dark

 

The sunset machine seemed to be accelerating everything. Days were slow but months blinked. We ordered bras. We put huge boxes of pads in the cabinet. We watched the sunset. Pads came in sizes. I ordered extra-extra small.

I worried about the sunset machine. If I put my hand right in front of it would I see my skin wrinkle? Would tumors grow in my armpits? Getting older meant I would lose my parents soon, which was scarier than thinking about tumors. I mourned it every night before bed, then forced myself to sleep.

 I contemplated running water over the sunset machine in the shower, breaking it for good. Instead, I placed it in a canvas bag, tied a scarf around my neck, and put on my helmet. I wrote a note for Mira in case she got up in the middle of the night and explained that I would be back and that she should call my cellphone if she needed anything. Then I got on my bike and headed for the ocean.

As I biked, the sunset machine turned itself on, like it sensed danger, my bag glowing desperately in every direction. The sun set and set and set. I hadn’t gone outside in a long time and the night was intensely pleasurable, like nicotine, the sky so clear and empty that the moon had a glowing halo. I didn’t have gloves. The gears were cold in my hands.

When I got to the pier, I walked to where the sand was damp and frosty in the cold. I leaned down and placed the sunset machine where the land touches the water, where the languageless ocean becomes human adjacent. Wave after wave washed over it. I texted Etgar You up? and waited. It had never seen the ocean before, never seen the sun. But the light wouldn’t go out. All around me the ocean was black, except for right where I stood, where the sunset machine sparkled gold through the water, illuminating its own small world.

The cold did something to my brain. It made me sharper. I realized that I hadn’t heard from Etgar in a week. Or had it been longer?

I put the address and directions to Etgar’s hotel into my phone, loaded up the dripping sunset machine, and got onto my bike. I had to find him. I didn’t even know where he was.

As I biked, I imagined Mira speaking the directions into my ear like a GPS. In five-hundred feet, keep right, mom. I imagined her sitting behind me, us riding to the hotel together.

  When I got there I checked my phone. There was no new activity. No texts, no calls.

Suddenly, I noticed a woman in scrubs standing in front of me like a mirage. She opened the hotel’s front door and I felt a perceptible lengthening, as though the sunrise machine had extended the length of a second and kept the door open just for me. I walked inside.

The air of these hallways was like poison. This was where the healers who cared for the sick walked, slept, dreamed. They talked their poison into the atmosphere. Well, it wasn’t their poison. It was ours.

I found Etgar’s door and knocked but there was no response. I knocked again. Inside the room, I heard silence. I pounded and yelled, even though people were sleeping. I didn’t mean to wake them but  I also needed sleep. After all, I was one of them too. I kept my children alive. Mothers cared for people all the time, even though we weren’t called healthcare workers.

A young man stepped out of a room down the hall. He was wearing a college sweatshirt and boxers and a blue surgical mask. The sunset machine was still shining crazily in my bag, sending light in every direction. It passed through the fibers into my armpit, up through my hair.

“He’s probably at the hospital,” the man said.

“But how do you know?”

“I don’t know, but if he isn’t answering he’s probably at the hospital, or he could be sleeping.”

“If he was sleeping he’d hear me,” I said. 

I worried that I might be endangering the man with the sunset machine, prematurely aging him, and tried to shield him from the light. Then I laughed, remembering that I was the one in danger, that I had to keep my kids safe. I felt my ribs tighten. We had each put our particles into the air, like two hands touching and climbing a rope. 

“Let me get your number,” he said. “If I see him, I’ll call you.”

When I got outside it was dawn. I biked home. This is it, I whispered to the sunset machine. This is the sun. This is what you mean to us.

In the morning, I woke up to a text from Etgar.

Where do you want me?

 

One night, while we were watching the sunset machine Mira asked if she and her crush could go on a walk together. 

“I won’t get sick,” she said. “I promise.” 

I said yes, but that I would walk her to their first date because I had never even seen him. We met at the entrance to the park. I wouldn’t have noticed him if he hadn’t leaped into the air and waved as he came towards us. He looked shy, kind. He had huge shoes and tiny ankles and a delicate shadow on his lip. 

They’d develop acne. They’d start to smell. They’d buy one another Sour Patch kids, the individually wrapped kind that cost twenty-five cents. I said goodbye and walked home, birds chirping behind me.

Then one night, the sunset machine was nowhere to be found. And Mira was in her bed, presumably sleeping. I walked loudly across the floor so Mira would know I was awake, so she might show me the sunset machine again. But nothing happened.

The darkness, which had been perfect before, was empty.

Later, in bed, I saw a shape in my doorway.

“Mira?”

“I had a bad dream,” Arieh said. He climbed over me and lay down by my side. I felt his breath on my shoulder as he drifted back to sleep.

My phone lit up ever so slightly from the bedside table. I lifted it to my face.

I’m coming. I’m coming. I’m coming home.


Tamar Nachmany is a fiction writer and technologist. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and has been a writer-in-residence at NM Poetics and The Artists and Climate Change Incubator. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter at @tamarshmallows and at tamarnachmany.com.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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