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Jubilee

Story by Marguerite Sheffer (Read author interview) March 18, 2024

Art by Behzad Bisadi

Listen to “Jubilee” read by Tierney Oberhammer.

I fell in love with an improv comedian, after the apocalypse. Neither was what I had planned for myself. When the attack came, we were both with different people, people who died horrible deaths, too horrible to mention to each other, except now, tonight, just once, for the first time, after curfew, after lights out, in the glow of the ship’s vending machines and emergency exits, in his cabin, without clothes, naked, in the most dark we could muster.

His curtains are closed, but there is still moonlight on the sea. The improv comedian’s rank earned him an ocean view: his skills from before make him an excellent teacher. And there is so much learning we all must do.

Before the invasion, I was an interior designer in Kansas City; now I am a cafeteria server with an interior cabin. My expertise, useless—in ochre and rattan and the spring 2024 issue of Architectural Digest—lingers like a vestigial organ. One day I rearranged the chairs in the BlueIguana Tiki Lounge on the Panorama Deck to foster movement and conversation among the survivors. I doubt anyone noticed. But I felt better having done it. Done something.

Until this week the improv comedian was just my instructor, for Military Training 101, on the Riviera Deck in the Teen Zone. Resistance leadership repurposed the laser tag equipment and VR headsets, to provide a base-level of combat skills and screen us for special military aptitude. The warrior we need might be hiding in that midwestern yoga mom, that poet or software developer.

We stood in a circle as he led us in rounds of zip zap zop. In goggles and gloves we yes, and! -ed our way through offensive formations. The simulation was built off real footage from the attack. We flew toward their mothership—as wide as the moon, fanged and gleaming—into the swarm, taking out as many small vessels as we could, chasing, spin-dodging, pincering, racking up points before our screens blacked out and we started again.

When we crept up the leaderboard his praise was unsurprised: there it is—the lateral thinking, the risk-taking, the energy. He insisted we could, enthusiastically and emphatically, even when we had not, yet.

But my scores trended downward. The mothership loomed impenetrable and ferocious. I kept trying to get around it. I wanted to see what was on the other side of this massive thing. They shot me down, again and again.

*

Each of us hoped we were the ones with the secret resolve and pugnacity, the next who would be transferred off Jubilee and into the resistance effort. We all had someone to avenge. We were bound together by grief, by the burden of our luck. Why were we here, with soft serve machines, elevators, and chandeliers when so many others were gone?  We all knew someone better, someone who deserved life more. If they were here, they would know what to do.

My group counseling sessions were Wednesday nights on Lido Deck, in a drained pool. We climbed down the ladder or slid down the slide, and sat cross-legged on the white fiberglass. We observed confidentiality; we committed to each other that we would try for a little while longer. We wailed into the curved white walls, which funneled our echoes up into the sky and over the waves. We sounded like we belonged: new creatures of the sea. We agreed to meet again, same time and place, next week.

*

A few days ago, the improv comedian asked me to stay after training. I’d fallen off the leaderboard entirely. He was concerned; I was embarrassed.

But his eyes were soft. So I told him the truth: how my interior design clients always forgot about the back of things: that in their open-concept floor plans they’d end up looking at the back of that ten-grand couch. High-end furniture has visual interest even from behind —attention to the seams, the lines, the grain. A cheap couch will just be bare, unfinished, rough. It’s a tell, or a point of vulnerability, like the belly of a cat.

“Have you noticed,” I asked him, “we’ve never seen the mothership from the back?”

He pursed his lips. He looked at the ceiling, squinted his eyes.

“I was committing to the bit,” I said.

I could tell he was going to laugh before it happened; it started in his mouth and telegraphed through him. It moved through me, too.

Laughter means something different now. Like whatever alchemy turns paper into currency. Or how this boat became salvation, or how memories become blessings. After our terror and loss, laughter is a new thing, learning to walk.

The improv comedian and I were alone with the VR headsets and gloves scattered around us; still blinking red and blue, like the people who’d worn them had evaporated. But a third thing had stumbled into the room with us; we both saw it. That made us laugh more. What a ridiculous time for something so new, so fragile.

At that moment, the clock started. I’d be leaving soon; we both knew it. My idea might not be the solution, but it was worth following up on, and that was enough. He’d report my strategic potential up the chain.

We’d just found each other, and we had no time to waste.

Since that day we’ve been finding each other over and over. Right now he is asleep in his bed. Tomorrow the Jubilee will reach the coordinates, pull up kissing-close to the aircraft carrier, and I will disembark. Loving each other won’t stop me leaving. It changes nothing. It changes everything.

Your body does some things without your permission, like surviving, like growing a new heart to break. I get out of bed and open the curtains. Moonlight pours in.

_____________________________

Audio performance by Tierney Oberhammer, a writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her work has appeared in swamp pink, The Adroit Journal, Aster(ix), Cincinnati Review, and River Teeth. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Randolph College, where she was awarded a Blackburn Fellowship. In 2023, she received a scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and was named an Anthony Veasna So Scholar in Fiction by the Adroit Journal. Tierney is a member of the Wildcat Writing Group.

About the Author

Marguerite Sheffer is a writer and educator who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her debut collection, The Man in the Banana Trees, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and will be published in Fall 2024. Maggie received her MFA from Randolph College and is a founding member of Third Lantern Lit, a community writing collective, and the Nautilus and Wildcat Writing Groups. You can find her @mlensheffer.

About the Artist

Behzad Bisadi is a photographer from Tehran, Iran.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-Three of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Three
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