All Thuy wants is a man who will eat plastic with her, but it is hard to find a man like that in this town. The new rich tech guys think they are too good for it. Thuy has given up on dating, she is too old for this shit. She is a modern woman. She can go out to the garbage patch by herself, eat plastic for two if she wants.
She is exhausted from her customer service job. She spends her day speaking to people who are angry their smart speakers aren’t listening. She needs a vacation. She packs a flask, a snack, and sunscreen for her trip, but there are no boats available at the waterfront. Microsoft has rented out the fleet for a team bonding experience. The boats return in the afternoon, but she can feel the winds have changed.
She goes back to the kiosk the following morning when the winds are more amenable. This time the proprietor tells her Facebook has rented out the fleet. When she squints, she can see coders paddling over a swell. Tomorrow, it’ll be Uber. There will never be a boat for her.
The next weekend, Thuy takes a rideshare to the terminal and boards a ferry to Orcas Island. Her plan is to steal an emergency raft and row out to the patch, but when she gets to the deck where they’re stored, there is already a willowy man in a Google tee sitting in the only free raft. He looks to be in his thirties or forties. Like her—people can never guess her age.
“Do you mind if we share this raft?” Thuy asks. “I need to get to the garbage patch.”
Before the man can answer, she climbs over the railing and hops in.
“Hey, I was here first,” the man says. “I have dibs on this raft.”
“But you’re going to the patch too, aren’t you?” she asks.
The man in the Google shirt doesn’t answer. Instead, he attempts to pick her up by the hips and toss her back on the deck, but he has miscalculated her strength. He doesn’t know she was an amateur boxer in her youth. It is not difficult for Thuy to break loose: one hard kick to his stomach, and the man is on his ass. He nearly bounces out of the boat and into the water.
The scuffle attracts the attention of the ferry security guard, who runs out from the main cabin with a large paddle. He threatens to whack them into the ocean if they don’t vacate the raft.
“He’s the one who wanted to steal it,” Thuy tells the security guard. “I tried to stop him.”
Security ignores her and handcuffs her to the man for the rest of the journey. They are shoved into a small room connected to the ferry’s kitchen, where the hot dogs for the cafeteria are boiled.
“I am a pescatarian and this smell is offensive to me,” the man in the Google shirt shouts dramatically, but Thuy is the only person who can hear him.
“Calm down,” she says. “I don’t want to end up in jail.”
The man tries to sit down, but sitting requires Thuy’s cooperation thanks to the handcuffs. They press their backs up against the wall opposite the kitchen equipment and lower themselves to the ground.
“Are they really going to leave us in here?” he asks. “There are no windows, no bathroom either. A jail cell would have a toilet at least.”
“There’s a bucket,” she says. “I’ll look away, if you must.”
“What if the smell never comes off?” the man asks. “What if we smell like this forever?”
The man says he has never been treated so poorly in his life. Thuy isn’t too happy about the situation either, but she can suffer through anything for an hour. A cafeteria worker comes in to retrieve the hot dogs, apologizing profusely for interrupting. She has mistaken them for lovers. She drops several steaming hot dogs into a basket and runs out of the room without looking at them. Then the ferry motor shuts off and the boat shudders. A few moments later, the security guard with the large paddle escorts them off the boat. He speaks to them as if they are one person.
“We don’t need more crazies,” he says. “No more ferries for you.”
He walks them far from the dock, off of the ferry terminal property and down the road before uncuffing them. Now she is stuck on an island with no way to get home.
“You smell like hot dog skin,” the man in the Google shirt complains.
“You think you smell good?” Thuy asks, crossing her arms.
“What if the smell never comes off?” the man asks. “What if we smell like this forever?”
“You’re really neurotic, aren’t you?” she says. “It’s your fault we’re stuck on this island.”
“You shouldn’t have jumped into my raft,” the man says.
“We’ll be much happier if we split up,” she tells him. “I’ll take this area. You can have the rest.”
The man frowns. He is unhappy seeing Thuy go, even though he has done nothing but complain about her. She walks a bit farther, then heads down through the trees to a nearby beach, where there is a pretty view of the sound. She loosens her shoelaces and sticks her feet into what used to be sand. She remembers the days when beaches weren’t made of ground-up trash. This thought makes her feel old.
She realizes just then that she is sitting near the summer camp she attended in middle school. She hasn’t thought about the place in years. She can hear children playing in the amphitheater in the woods not far from the beach.
She walks over to see what it looks like now. The camp hasn’t changed, but the children seem different, a glazed-over look in their eyes. She’s heard on the news that children are given pills so that they will be productive. She thinks maybe it is for the best that these kids will never know what it is like to be sad. She can’t remember the last time she felt content.
She has only a few friends—work colleagues who go out for ramen and beer every few weeks. They don’t know what questions to ask each other, so they converse as if shouting into a void, with no regard to what was previously said. She misses her old sparring partners who talked with jabs. She prefers the taste of blood to the sound of bullshit. But they have moved on to other cities where housing is cheaper. She is lucky to hang on here, with her salary.
Thuy’s family doesn’t approve of her customer service job. They think it is beneath her. They wanted her to be a doctor, and she has only disappointed them with every choice. She is too depressed to help someone else. If only her camp had dispensed those pills, perhaps she would have been the kind of daughter who made her parents proud. Perhaps she wouldn’t have developed such a taste for plastic.
Later in the afternoon she manages to convince a man in a crab boat to give her a ride home. The air smells like salt and clams. The rocking makes her feel calm like a baby again. She is starting to worry she will never make it out to the garbage patch.
Thuy works so many hours the following week that she is too tired to scheme up a new way to the patch. There are many angry customers. But she can’t complain because she is no different from them, a person who cannot be satisfied. So all day she listens.
The next Saturday, Thuy walks past an old arthouse movie theater on her way to dinner. She has many memories of dates here, with artistic men who are too sensitive to write texts that make sense. They communicate in gibberish formatted like poetry, but at least there is a pleasing rhythm to their nonsense. Sometimes before bed she pulls up their texts and reads them out loud until she is lulled to sleep.
At the store with some seriousness
Aged gouda reminds me?
Too skinny, disappearing again.
The facade of the theater remains but it hasn’t screened a movie in a few years. Most of the small shops have shut down due to the rents. The few new inhabitants stroll the ruins on their dates, charmed by the old architecture. She misses the days when her neighborhood wasn’t full of empty shells, when Soundgarden spilled out of the windows. She hasn’t had plastic in months, the longest stretch she can remember, but she has saved her money and can afford to splurge today.
The man stuffs a water bottle into his mouth and chews on it.
She arrives at the conveyor-belt sushi place down the street and eyes the water bottles—so many lined up on the counter, just waiting for someone to eat them. She has never seen this many in one place. Usually they are locked up in the back room and brought out only when someone flashes enough money. Then she sees that the man in the Google shirt is sitting at the counter. These are his water bottles.
“It’s you,” the man says.
“Yeah?” Thuy replies, shrugging.
The man stuffs a water bottle into his mouth and chews on it. He eats three more bottles, then serves himself two blue plates of sushi, then two red. He doesn’t eat the most expensive ten-dollar yellow plates. His frugality intrigues her, but she tries not to let on that he has become interesting to her. She helps herself to a plate of inari, some pickled cucumbers, then eel. She orders only one water bottle. This is all she can afford. She chews on it slowly, hoping to make it last. The man smiles at her. His smile is awkward, unfinished, sort of like hers. He offers her a bottle from his stack.
“It’s on me,” he says. “Have as many as you please.”
She wants to go crazy eating water bottles but she takes just the one.
“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” the man says. “We have some shared interests. Perhaps there is more common ground?”
She doesn’t say anything.
“Do you like music, movies, hiking?” he asks, as if they are all one thing.
“I like movies,” he says.
“My favorite theater closed down,” she says. “The twin cinema up the hill. I miss it.”
“I liked that place too,” he says. “I saw The Royal Tenenbaums there once on a date. A fine film, though the date was weird. She expected me to pay for the movie tickets. Have you ever met a woman like that?”
Thuy shakes her head, though she is a woman like that. She thinks there is nothing wrong with chivalry; she longs for it, mostly because no date has ever bought her a gift. It’s true she hates flowers, but she would like a bouquet just once.
The man in the Google shirt tucks a bib into his collar as if he suddenly means business. The logo on his shirt is now obscured. He tells her his name is Neil. He shoves another empty water bottle into his mouth and bites down hard. She closes her eyes and listens to the satisfying crinkle as he chews.
“I got into the stuff young,” Neil tells her. “Mom says it was in the water. People looked down on her, but there was nothing she could do about it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with plastic,” she says. “It’s human nature to want it. I wish my mother were more like yours.”
“Maybe you’d like to catch a movie sometime?” Neil asks.
“I doubt you will be able to find a decent theater around here,” she replies. The only one left is a big chain that screens the same movie on repeat. The entirety of the film is a single scene in which an unidentified monster stamps out all of Los Angeles. Thuy hasn’t seen it, but she has no interest in movies without a good script. She prefers complex characters who make suffering seem attractive.
Neil pays for her water bottle, as promised. Thuy thinks maybe it would be nice to spend the evening out. They walk over to the old arthouse theater, now an empty brick building.
Neil presses his face to a window and narrates a movie to her. It takes her a few minutes to realize it’s Singles, a film set in the neighborhood long ago. She remembers watching this movie in middle school. It didn’t make an impression on her then, but now she likes the nostalgia of the city scenes. She longs for the time before the music venues were shuttered. She used to see a band nearly every night: Sleater-Kinney, Juno, Sunny Day Real Estate. She misses the Coffee Messiah, the Sit & Spin, the ghosts of concerts past she still carries with her.
She feels a dreamy look sweep across her face. Neil thinks this look is meant for him and kisses her with his coarse cat tongue. She can taste the plastic in his mouth. She licks her lips until she starts to feel a buzz. Is this chemistry, she wonders. She has never felt chemistry with a man before, but now she can’t stop kissing him.
In the morning, Neil shows her his view of the garbage patch. It is impressive. His apartment has a prime view of the ocean.
“You’re so lucky to have that view,” Thuy says. “I would never leave my window.”
Neil smiles. “You know, we could go to the patch together,” he says. “I’ve thought about moving there, starting over.”
“You can live at the patch?” she asks. She closes her eyes and imagines a life of all-you-can-eat plastic. No more feeling guilty about splurging on stuff she can’t afford. At the patch it wouldn’t matter how much she eats; she’s heard the plastic replenishes itself.
“We could get married there,” Neil says.
She considers his proposal. There is nothing left for her in this city. Her friends are gone. She can’t keep working at her dead-end job. She could visit her parents sometimes. She tells him she will marry him.
A few weeks later, Neil meets her at the pier. She brings only one suitcase, a few books and a couple outfits. She doesn’t tell her parents she’s eloping to the patch.
Neil has rented a catamaran with a dining room and a large deck. Thuy is almost twitching from the anticipation of the plastic they will eat. He presses his cheek against hers and tells her the plastic will be all hers soon, that this is the life she deserves. He tells her she gives him meaning. Craving plastic is a lonely feeling, but with her, it’s just social eating.
Neil offers her an amuse-bouche of grocery bag, but she passes.
The journey to the patch takes two days on open water. It feels like an eternity, though she knows they’ll be over the patch before they can see it, because so much of the plastic has broken into bits. Some of it was small to begin with. They’re sailing through microscopic beads of face wash. Soon she sees the first water bottle floating in the big blue ocean, and a few minutes later a few more, then suddenly they are right in the middle of the patch in all of its garbage glory. It looks just like the pictures, bigger even. There are billions of plastic bottles floating among the fishing nets, barrels, and rope. She sees bits of plastic in every color. It catches the light in just the right way so that it sparkles. A beautiful sight, worthy of the cover of National Geographic.
Neil dives off the side of the boat and parts the water between a Frisbee and some flip flops. Thuy leaps in after him, holding her knees to her chest. She never took swim lessons as a child and is lucky she can manage the waves with her head-above-water breaststroke. She inhales the therapeutic smell of trash and feels she has never been happier, except maybe once, at a Dinosaur Jr. show. Neil offers her an amuse-bouche of grocery bag, but she passes. She wants to see what else is out there. He splashes her and giggles.
“What are you giggling about?” she asks.
He pauses as if deciding whether to tell her what he is thinking.
“I love you more than plastic,” he finally says.
“You’re lying,” she says playfully.
“Aren’t you going to say it back?” Neil asks. “Do you love me too?”
“Of course,” she replies.
This is the best day of her life. She could stay out here forever. She doesn’t care that her arms are turning to jelly. Neil promises they will never leave—not unless she tires of it.
But she doesn’t get to enjoy the garbage patch for the rest of her life. She doesn’t even get to enjoy it for a full afternoon. She is chasing after a piece of purple LDPE when she swims into an abyss. She has no idea where she is—it looks like a small sea full of plastic bottles, a sea inside of an ocean, a mini garbage patch.
She calls for Neil.
“You’re in a whale,” he explains. His voice sounds far away. “Try not to panic. I am working on getting you out. I have several bitcoin.”
“What is a whale doing at the garbage patch?” she wonders. Whales are so rare now she has come to think of them as mythical.
Thuy is thrown about, and then there is a large splash from outside: the whale has flown out of the water and crashed back into the waves. Then it is steady—swimming, she thinks. She can hear the motor of the catamaran’s dinghy. Neil must have leapt in to follow her. She hopes he has enough fuel to keep up. He is firing off flares and making loud calls to the Coast Guard. Every time he lights a flare, the whale’s stomach turns orange. She feels fine just as long as she can hear Neil outside of these walls, even if he is panicking. The inside of a whale isn’t the worst place to spend time. It is kind of like glamping. There is enough plastic in here to last her for months, maybe years. They swim along for a while, but she’s lost track of time. She can almost see Neil through the whale’s blubber, but she thinks maybe she is hallucinating because she’s been inside of a whale for too long and it is dark and disorienting.
The rescue team doesn’t appear. Outside, Neil is apologizing profusely. He says he is calling his government connections, the Coast Guard got lost. The whale swallows a huge gulp of water along with a squid, a fish, and an octopus. She will have plenty to eat. The whale is taking care of her now, a chivalrous guy. She will be fine without Neil, she thinks