When he goes to get fresh air on the balcony, Phil is immersed in the everlasting dance of the treetops that strain to mask the urban reality of cement and brick. His light red hair may not take any more walks than is fair and necessary; but his mind knows no such restrictions: this greenery hypnotizes him once more, and his imagination runs wild until he sees —feels— the eternally-damp soil of London under his shoes, the lavender twitching in the wind, and the tiny hand of little Colin, who in turn intertwines the fingers of his other hand with Adrien’s.
On the way to the urban farm, Colinho is jogging alongside his parents, chattering about how his first day of preschool went and endlessly asking why, why, why. Phil entertains him by teaching him the numbers in Portuguese, Adrien fills his ears with little French stories, and then they hum Thinking Out Loud, because they always find a chance to sing their song. At the farm, Colinho laughs out loud and starts suddenly at a growl and goes through the names of the animals in all the languages of his universe. When his son craves a treat, Phil realizes he doesn’t know if his choice would be a muffin, an éclair or a brigadeiro, and this uncertainty pulls him out of his reverie.
The interruption does not bother him, however, because the return to reality becomes a delightful limbo where the time he spends in the treetops passes in slow motion. He is struck by how his subconscious always chooses the most British names that exist (today he had a Colin, but yesterday he imagined a Prudence, Thursday a Freddy and before that a Daisy,) and he finds it very funny how right away, he lusophizes them, as if his mother tongue reasserts itself almost indignantly after his years and years of residence in England.
His return to reality becomes complete with the ping of a new email. Every time the name of the social worker pops up on his screen, his heart skips a skip, he crosses his fingers, calls Adrien (“a message from Ginnie”), and the two steam open the digital missive together. They sigh: once more, news without news, yet another joint interview.
They never quite know what the next appointment with Ginnie will bring. Adrien is a bit short with words, but for the talkative Phil there is always more and more and more to discuss. In the individual interviews, over a rambling two hours, he outlined in painstaking detail his favorite uncle’s love life, the feuds that characterize the dark side of his family history, and how his grandmother defied the rigid social norms of 1960s Brazil when raising her daughters. The joint interviews force them to stare deep into each other, to confess beliefs they had not even realized they had before, and to decisively make distant and intangible decisions. And it’s not just exploring each other: with each meeting, Phil and Adrien feel like they’re delving a little deeper into their own depths.
Despite their initial fears, the pandemic has actually given them certain advantages in the process. Meetings with the social worker before the lockdown meant both were obliged to ask for a day off work, arrive with very British punctuality, comb their hair, dress up and conceal any nervous tics that should suddenly manifest. But now everything is much easier, because Skype appointments are easily fit within the workday, haircuts are less scrutinized, and talking from the warmth of home brings a more relaxed atmosphere.
At the last interview, Ginnie warned them that during the next stage they would have to decide the age. In the event that they opted for a baby, one of them would have to stop working for a year, but their company would only grant them thirteen paid weeks, but London is very expensive and they do not have that much savings, but they could pull it off if they moved to a cheaper flat, but moving is a sign of inconsistency and the adoption agency demands rock-solid stability, but maybe with government assistance, but all this would only be affordable for Sir Elton Hercules John himself.
In the next interview, they will have to talk about why they want to adopt. That’s what Ginnie tells them, as well as the date and time, which they confirm immediately. Adrien grumbles and walks back inside; Phil prefers to do his grumbling on the balcony and searches and searches for a slightly less hackneyed reason that he can give. Before leaving the breeze on the balcony, Phil takes one last look outside and feels a certain friction between the overwhelming inactivity of those streets (where nothing seems to be happening) and the elation of the imminent change that will come in weeks, months, a year? Unlike the world out there, their lives are filled with speed and excitement.
Today it’s Adrien’s turn to cook and, since he knows that Phil tends to melancholy, and that he misses the nights out in Camden, he has prepared fish and chips, just like at Poppies, accompanied by a pint of beer and the best songs from his favorite bar, The Hawley Arms, temporarily closed, but reopening today only in a nondescript London home. To avoid dwelling on Ginnie’s questions and the fears, expectations and challenges of parenthood, they catch up on how telecommuting is going: Adrien has been putting together a hummus commercial for the Luxembourg market, and Phil has been collecting drawings from their friends’ kids to appear on the television channel where he works. As their social life extends only to their counterpart, the conversation chosen for this special evening soon peters out, and they cannot prevent the future from returning to their lips, and they find themselves talking of when the three of them will go to Mantes-la-Jolie to visit Adrien’s parents, of what a good example Phil’s loving goddaughter, Lily, will be, when they visit Petrópolis to officially present the new member of the family, of the living room dance sessions to the rhythm of the Spice Girls.
Every night—even Camden nights—the couple watches a show, and today they’re in luck: they have a new episode of one of their favorites. But at six minutes and sixteen seconds, Adrien is already sound asleep, as usual, so Phil has to resign himself to finishing Killing Eve tomorrow, because he knows the moral code of their sacred union has some immutable tenets and thus that he cannot watch even one more scene by himself. More nocturnal by nature, Phil still has a long time before exhaustion will set in.
Since Friends doesn’t do anything for Adrien, Phil spends two episodes stifling his laughter at every single joke, even though he knows them by heart. Between jokes, he glances out of the corner of his eye at his husband, who, when he sleeps, overflows with tenderness and seems centuries younger. Little by little, he curls up next to him, and Adrien’s body turns automatically to snuggle up, as if magnetized within the sleepy inertia of his idyll. At that moment, as every night, Phil falls asleep with the absolute certainty that their bodies fit perfectly, and he remembers Colinho and Prudencenha and Freddinho and Daisynha, and his eyelids surrender to nostalgia for the future.
This house. The one next door. Doh-ba-doo-ba-doo. The curly hair in the wind. The communal garden. A timeless ballad by John Coltrane. The beauty of chaos. Doo-ba. The beauty in chaos. Dream companions who come and go depending on the season and love. Love. Doo-ba-doo. A voice. That voice. Doo-doo. Méli had never before fit so well into a place and, melding into it, she now no longer knows where her skin ends and where the orchard, the stone, the air of her home begin.
And now the arrival of a baby, ba-ba-boo, to that family that is not a family but is a family. Be-bi-boo. Lily and Martin are going to be parents, remember when they told us, we’re going to be mothers, remember? Be-ba-ba. And the bad news about her health, remember when she told, remember, how supportive they were, remember? Love. Ba-ba-boo. That house. Love.
In that house in Toulouse lives music. And politics and love and the tenor saxophone and reflection and love and we’re going to have a baby and creativity and let’s change the world and sickness, ssh, ssh, nothing negative, nada, da-da-da, don’t think about it, sing, play. Let’s change the world. Doo-doo-doo. The piano. Doo-doo. And love. Méli smokes and feels and utters beautiful gibberish with the magic of her throat, da-da-da, and forgets everything that has no place in the house.
When she goes into the home recording studio they jury-rigged at the beginning of the pandemic, her whole body fills with one, two, three, and, and do, re, fa, la; that studio, t-t-tcha, from which several musical projects have already sprouted, tcha. Now there is not so much coming and going and only four live in the house, two couples, all musicians, t-t-tcha, all music, and they create, rehearse, record, rehearse, create, create, t-t-tcha, record. It took her a while to get into a rhythm, to be honest. The musicians she met during the years she lived in Spain and those in France became hyperactive during the lockdown, and at the beginning she would get new videos from them every day. But she was overcome with timidity and doubt. Tcha. Daily. What a talent. What talent? Tcha. And you, Méli, what about you?
She judged herself. She judges herself. Always. There is no judge who is stricter with her. She has started a thousand texts, melodies, rhythms that crowd her throat and begin, but they get stuck, wrong, Méli, wrong, terrible, Méli, they get stuck, they stay, a throat clearing, wrong, wrong, Mélissandre, c’mon focus, girl. She demands so much of herself because the mirror and the videos do not show the glowing aura that appears to her when she sings. She doesn’t realize how her voice rides on the notes of a piano, of a trumpet, of whatever instrument is put in front of her. How it makes love to the notes, her voice. You shine, Méli, look at you. Good. Good, good. Wonderful. But it could be better, couldn’t it? Di-da-di-la-la-la. Two unequal forces confront each other in her being, her inner authoritarian, ta-ta-ri-a, and her interior voice, which struggles tirelessly, to assert itself and get out. To assert itself and get out. To get out. Di-la-la.
Now, Méli has learned to open the floodgate instantly. She lets her primitive voice, her instinct, her guts speak. It comes to her and she sings it, ti-ti-ti, she records it and hides it away, well tucked away, tay-tay-tay, far from that authoritarian self, in a place where she could never find it, nor judge it, because she doesn’t have the key. She has nothing but fear. And when the fear passes, pa-poh-pa, Méli will go to the hiding place and rescue the song. Not today. Tomorrow? No. No-na-no. Well, maybe. Maybe. Maybe tomorrow. Today you learn from others. Tomorrow? Well, maybe tomorrow.
She and Emilio, her boyfriend, are a musical duo. Before the lockdown, they used to trot out the ii–V–I progression on every corner of Toulouse, ba-bop-ba-ba-dop-bop, but the winds of the present no longer permit that. Now they are experimenting with Brazilian music. Lily and Martin receive a government grant for having played more than seven hundred hours and are expecting their baby unburdened by too many financial worries. But Méli and Emilio haven’t reached the required number of minutes, so they are forced to draw from their savings, dop-bop, because they can’t play in bars, concert halls, or parks. For months they’ve been getting concerts canceled on them, months in advance. Ba-dop. Toulouse is silent. Everything canceled, postponed. No, no, no. May? No. August? No. October? No. No. Maybe in 2021 the silence will be broken. January? No. Maybe. The silence misses being torn open by Méli’s voice. Silence is filled with meaning thanks to music, but for the moment the notes are locked in the invisible cage of the communal garden.
The communal garden adores the merriment of all the musicians who inhabit it. Just musicians? Well, musician-ethno-psycho-carpenters. How many are there now? Eight? Ten? I don’t know. Twelve? I don’t know. How many people live in the other house? People come and go. I don’t know. From the garden. From life. Ny-ny-ny. Like when, at the age of two and a half, Méli arrived from Tahiti with her mother, who started out singing in bars and concert halls and parks. That’s how Méli grew up, going from stage to stage, immersed in melodies, and that’s why she now feels, at the age of thirty, that the musical-chaotic-creative house in Toulouse is a home par excellence. People come and go. Méli hasn’t been to Tahiti for ten years. She will go back. Ta-ta-hi-ti-ti. She will go back. She doesn’t know when, but people come and go. They come and go. She will go back. Or not. Ta-hi-hi-ti. She will go back.
They have done everything in the common garden. Everything. Clarinet. Sewing masks for hospitals. Double bass. Cooking competitions. Piano. Yoga, pilates. Saxophone. Packing food for the homeless. Trumpet. The garden is the most ironclad and harmonious present. Remember the concert of Balkan music for the neighbor who couldn’t return to Romania as planned? Everything. Everything. Ting-ting-ing. Everything. The shared garden, the shared house, the shared life. They share everything. The food, the clothes, the joints. They debate, argue, question the government measures. It doesn’t matter. They love each other. Everything belongs to everyone, nothing belongs to anyone. The common baby. Ting-ding-ting-ing. The vegetable garden shines because every morning — if she feels like it, to tell the truth — Méli waters it singing, ding-ting-ting, and merges with the earth and, while the plants occupy themselves with trills, she photosynthesizes.
Shortly before the lockdown, the health problems began, and Méli broke isolation to go to the hospital, and then they discovered the spots on the MRI. The news of the baby was mixed with news of her multiple sclerosis and all the feelings crowded together in that house in Toulouse. Grief. Rage. Happiness. Grief. Happiness. Love. Surprise. Fear. Love. Love. Joy. Fear. Love. Love. Love.
She waited to tell her parents until after the lockdown. She wanted to tell them in person. To her grandmother, nothing. Not a peep-pi-pi. Her grandmother gets too much bad news. She loses friends every month. Nothing. Not a word-pi-pi-peep. She is a very cheerful woman, she does not want to spoil that. Everything remains the same with her grandmother, but her relationship with her parents has changed since they found out. She now calls them more. They give her space. They know that Méli will tell them any news. Pi-pi. They love each other, they trust each other, they stay hopeful.
The music, the orchard, the politics keep her alive. Fi-fi-fa-fa-fa. A few months ago, the police wanted to arrest a girl from the other house for hanging an anti-Macron banner in her window. Then they came up with the idea of filling the streets of Toulouse with questions, and now they go out from time to time to hang posters. Fi-fi-fa-fa. Méli has received scholarships and welfare and thanks those who fought to get them and honors them by fighting. During the lockdown, the government took the opportunity to pass new legislation worsening workers’ conditions. Fu-fu-fu. The struggle cannot stop. The posters don’t say anything outright, they just ask, open the debate, fi-fa-fa, and people look at them and curse them or discuss them or applaud or exchange opinions or reflect for a moment and move on, with the question inevitably trailing behind them. What are my core values? Fa-fa. Can hope be cultivated? Fi-fa-fa. Do you want to return to abnormality? Fi-fi. Do you develop your critical thinking? Fi-fi-fa-fa.
Music, the orchard, politics, love. Love. Da-ya-da-du. Méli owes her mental strength to all those who surround and care for her. Love. She is persuaded, more than ever, of the great power of salvation of love and solidarity at this time. Ya-da-du. Displays of fondness and affection do not cost money. They cost time, dedication, and sometimes commitment. Méli is a composition of harmony and love and encouragement, a whirlwind of musical notes swirling in her throat and exploding in the air, and she knows all too well that in this life we have no choice but to improvise.
The first arrival will be early riser Manoli, the baker, an untroubled pond in an undiscovered forest, from whose tongue words must be ripped; next up is Juan, the one who just bought a little house in the new development, a parrot particularly proud of his ability to speak who leaves one’s head feeling like a drum; later he will have the two sisters, the older ladies who live a little bit up the street, beams of sunlight who always compliment him on the striking contrast of his eyes, one amber and one green; at four o’clock the owner of the bar in Church Square, Mari, will arrive, taking this rare respite from her loneliness as a chance to vent to an audience and inevitably releasing one of those little tears that leave a lump in the throat, but with her self-esteem boosted through the roof by the time of her departure; then the little guy will come in, the young man who works at the lottery, what’s his name, he can’t sit still and gets on your nerves and the only way to calm down is to tune out all sound and count to one hundred; showing up as the day wraps up will be Julito, the school janitor, who appreciates Dioni’s advice and mastery and leaves looking sharp; and squeaking in before the bell, Antonio, the potato chip maker, who brings tranquility and a breath of fresh air, and they catch up amidst the unrelenting banter of solid friendship.
For the first day back, it’s not half bad. It’s been difficult to piece everything together: the phone has been ringing nonstop since he announced the reopening less than a week ago, and he’s had to skillfully juggle clients, because the slightest chance of overlap must be avoided for safety purposes. He is dying to get to work. It’s been hard, so hard. And so weird. At first, he saw everything through his amber eye and took to endlessly brushing the cat from pure nervousness. He would come across him and, snap, grab him in a flash and kill time brushing and brushing, the cat enduring without a meow, with the patience of a saint not at all confident of his own hunting ability. Now, although Dioni could touch the finish line by stretching his fingers, he still has bouts of anxiety and tries to comb the animal, but the cat is no fool, and there is now only an unkempt blur as soon as he spots his comb-wielding master.
At last, the tables are about to turn, and no one will flee his combs — quite the opposite: the people with appointments for today will arrive, eager, as if drawn by a magnet to his brush. He swelled with anticipation just raising the metal shutter of the salon — the dry click of the padlock, the clattering ascent, the sweet chime of the bell — and his spirits have continued rising with each step towards opening. Now his shining green eye surveys the scene: he is passionate about his work, and the masses of untamed lockdown hair he takes as a challenge which will require creativity and drastic transformations, snip, snip, snip. He can imagine today’s parade perfectly: tangles and mangles and ends split to their base and traces of that dye from the supermarket, which saturates the hair and drowns it — look, I warned you not to use that swill, but you wouldn’t listen.
Since he started as a barber at the age of sixteen in the posh Salamanca district and then opened his own business in 1991 in his native Leganes, he had never sheathed his scissors for such a long period. The last week before lockdown he felt certain misgivings and worries, but the virus seemed distant and alien, so when he actually announced the closure of the establishment, he did so in disbelief, and his entire vision of the world was focused through his amber eye.
The lockdown has given him a strange feeling of desolate calm, no longer the incessant bell of the door that opens and closes constantly, the sudden absence of people entering, ring, ring, and leaving, ring, ring, and entering, ring, not straining to keep one conversation going, and then another and another, discovering the silence of the abandoned hairdryers. Overnight, his universe took refuge within the four walls of his home, now also his prison, with all the time he had never had before with Reme and the children, getting to know each other.
Yes, getting to know each other, because before they only crossed paths at dinner time and on weekends, but in the last two months they have done everything together and created wonderful memories; although, of course, there are also moments when he feels a build-up of pressure in his amber eye and flees like a cat from a brush. Then he goes down to the garage for a while, no time at all, thirty, forty minutes, and he follows one step with another and is plunged into the claustrophobia of gas, electricity, water, the telephone bill, condo fees, rent, insurance, property taxes, VAT, invoices, product inventory, self-employment tax, accountants, social security payments for his employee… and then his anxious thoughts drift to his children, whose only concern is high school, hastily scribbling their homework just before handing it in. And he follows one step with another, pacing from wall to wall in that dark, musty garage, and he secretly smokes again, and his thoughts unravel with each step, and he takes deep breaths —inhale, exhale— and returns home with the green eye on fire and with determination to improve his new skills in the kitchen and to play Parcheesi with that well-coiffed family and enjoy the frenetic energy of his son, the curiosity of his daughter, and Reme’s humor.
It was she, Reme, who seized the reins to power through and get all their expenses in order and tighten their belts however necessary, end of discussion. She was also behind decorating the salon’s window for Mother’s Day, as she ingeniously does for all special occasions, and this was going to be no different — we will entertain ourselves, even if in the end we aren’t able to open and the shop stays locked up, because the government ultimately decides that we can’t progress to the next phase, and nobody else even sees the display. It turned out beautiful: those flowers, those colors entered Dioni through both eyes, amber and green, and he still carries them inside, whirling around his stomach. That explosion of bloom made him love his partner more, what great fortune to have her by his side, but don’t tell her, she doesn’t like that sappiness, and he planted a kiss on her lips that echoed in the empty salon, and she realized that he had started smoking again, but this time there was no scolding, because she understood.
This government, well, well, who knows what another would have done, the same or worse. The ambiguous limbo of the early days ate at him, financial ruin stalked him like a fateful storm, and anguish swirled in his amber eye until he tore at his hair and screamed and cried as he paced and paced in the garage. Fortunately, it never got so bad that he had to borrow money from his friends, because little by little he was granted this and that: deferrals on VAT payments, breathe, waiver of the self-employment and social security taxes for March and April, breathe, breathe, concession of discounted rate for water and electricity, breathe, breathe, breathe. And the banks, well, as bad as always, veritable vultures, massive profits only years after being bailed out: he’d been forced into a high-interest loan just to get a little liquidity and be able to make payments.
In recent days he has been going to the salon to set it up and start getting used to the strict protocols: wipes and sprays, disinfection after each customer, mandatory masks, limited capacity, sterilization of utensils… As he goes back and forth, he walks through the neighborhood in disbelief and thinks of all the other small business owners and each shuttered storefront breaks his heart. He wonders how the other businesses are doing, if they managed to apply for aid by the deadline, if they will meet all the requirements, if they were granted it. His amber eye starts to water. He expected rising optimism, but in those streets filled with infection and death, uncertainty and worry reign. Dioni gives a name, surname, and face to each of the victims, because there is no scalp in the neighborhood that has not passed through his hands: his parents were among the first to arrive there when this was nothing more than cottages and shacks and narrow, unpaved streets. Dioni is the neighborhood, everyone knows him. His customers are a second family, and his family helps with the customers. They help each other in their time of need… Lately, people in the neighborhood always want to help, there are initiatives, donations, food drives. He muses that human beings are wonderful, and the green eye begins to sparkle.
The clock is about to strike ten. He puts on a surgical mask and the N95 on top to be extra safe. Reme’s handyman has made him and his employee protective shields that cover their entire face so that they can fix those rivers of hair that will flow in starting today. He has missed it so much… He has spent thirty-six years dedicating himself to meandering through that branch of psychology that involves listening and advising while he washes hairs, snips away — and a little more, just a little bit, to neaten things up, you’re gonna have an a-do-ra-ble cut — straightens, curls, shapes, pins and sprays, from morning to evening, hour after hour.
Manoli arrives with a long mane and asks him to cut it, to cut a lot, because she is going to donate it. He wants to hug her, give her a kiss, but he has no choice but to transmit everything through his voice, a voice distorted by the endless regulations. As he brings scissors to hair, he feels a gust of breath on his arm that escapes the woman’s mask, and a shiver runs through him, but he continues, because a long day remains, and we have to transform fear into rational caution and come to terms with the new normality, and his irises turn to rainbows.
Immensity stretches before their eyes: the infinite orange melts into the blue, which then turns pink, purple, yellow, until the tea-scented darkness begins to make inroads, a darkness that is flooded with soup and yogurt and dates and honeyed sweets and milk; and they eat for the first time all day, with restraint more than greed, grateful for another day of learning.
The party begins around seven in the evening, and there’s no knowing when it will end. Moha can’t remember how long it’s been since they were all together or when was the last time he didn’t have to gobble down these delicacies, barely tasting them — there was always a tour leaving early the next morning, and he had to sleep at least a couple of hours. Those days, when it seemed like he couldn’t slow down for a single moment, not for a miserable second, now exist only in memory. Remember? Up, down, a kiss, another kiss, goodbye, tomorrow we have four excursions, yallah, yallah, yallah. The communal experience of Ramadan with the family (his grandmother, his three sisters, his brother) fills him with happiness.
It is clear to him, fortune is smiling upon him: undoubtedly there is no better place than Merzouga to spend these uncertain times. In the cities, people are packed together and can’t even take a walk without worrying. Just thinking about it sends a shiver down his spine. He cannot conceive of life without the caress of the dunes, without the freshness of the early morning, without the whispers of Dihia in the folds of the wind.
When their hunger is sated, they walk among the hillocks now dimmed and cooled by the night. Whether whispering or silent, they inevitably sink into the overwhelming peace of the landscape. Some evenings, that little slice of vastness surrenders to the wishes of the ghaita, the gembri, the qraqeb, the bendir, accompanied by clapping and singing and dancing, and there is nothing else, no other place, no past, no future, no virus. Inshallah. The silhouette of the tea with sugar decanted from a certain height lingers until the sun’s rays shatter the dawn, and only then do the Berbers embrace sleep to annihilate some of the sixteen hours of fasting that the new day brings with it.
Leaving the dream world, Moha dons his robe, wraps his turban, and slides on his babouches, ready for whatever the new day brings. Inshallah. The desert is emptier than ever. How beautiful to be able to see it constantly only through his own eyes: he takes all this as a lesson to value what he has and repeats to himself over and over again, like the chanting of salah: who knows where this world is going to take us? At least we have time for ourselves, time for ourselves, time.
For now there is no work, but there are chores — buying this and that, feeding the camels, going to the mosque — and he strolls through the town, which is suffused with an unsettling strangeness. Not only have the restaurants and hotels temporarily closed, but there are also residents who prefer to greet each other with words alone. It seems to Moha that the salam labas bikhir is left empty without touch: if something will happen to us, it will happen to us; there is only one death, there are not two. Perhaps if anybody here got infected, the story would change, and he as well would refuse handshakes and kisses and hugs and kisses and kisses.
Ramadan has also changed, because people do not gather in large groups. All right, it’s okay: this family time is more golden than the reflections on the sand at three in the afternoon, when the sun is shining, and it’s 92 degrees, and you can’t drink. But they bear it well, because the scorching heat and desperate thirst themselves are clad in togetherness. It could be worse.
When hunger tears into him, Moha dreams that he is traveling again: he has never left Morocco, but he travels the world through the people whose paths lead to his land. On the rare occasions when he lets go of the present, he misses spending time with tourists, talking to them about the constellations, teaching them the Arabic alphabet, leaving them speechless in the Dades Gorges, showing them how to move their tongues to make the zaghrouta maghrebiya, telling them the traditions of the Berbers — or of the barbers, as he liked to call them, ever the class clown. For every nationality and every language, he has a joke prepared. Perhaps because of a life balancing on a tightrope spanning three worlds, the Berber, the Arab and the Muslim, he has a predilection for cross-cultural humor. Without those international experiences, his self-confidence would not exist, nor his magnificent command of Spanish, which he practices daily with his friends from the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, whom who knows when he will see again, Inshallah. But the insistent messages he sends to keep himself and his business at the front of their minds are answered ever less frequently.
Now the only tourists who come arrive with their own vans, and they rigorously keep their distance. All the better. All things that happen always bring some good. Although he would never confess it, unconsciously he knows that there is a certain beauty in not watching for the thousandth time how argan oil is made, in not having six Spanish women in the van singing David Bisbal at the top of their lungs, in not searching endlessly for cheap restaurants and hammams for moneyed tourists whose first words in Arabic are walo floos, “No money.” He has not chosen this rest, but he welcomes it with open arms while, at the same time, he is ready to return at any time to enjoying the new friends from abroad that life may bring him.
The streets of Merzouga — the orange buildings, the sacks of spices, the daily hubbub, the aromas — follow their natural rhythms. The virus accentuates the sweet leisureliness of Berber life. “You have a watch and you don’t have time, and we don’t have a watch and we have plenty of time,” he always used to say, while peering at his phone out of the corner of his eye to see when the next tour would arrive. Moha always enjoyed trying to make his guests understand the Berber lifestyle, but he realizes that he himself had stopped really living it. Now he is filled with the prodigious harmony of not having to give a single explanation about his culture, of just immersing himself fully into it. He no longer has to submit to Western dictates, which he does not fully understand anyway. And what is the point of tirelessly following demands to the rhythm of tick-tock, tick-tock? It makes much more sense to let oneself be borne along by the suns, the moons, and al-Qurʼān.
In the afternoons, Moha and his friends take videos and photos of themselves jumping from the high dunes, and their wake in the sand is forever crystallized in images. Tourists love these types of snapshots, so he shares them, so that those places will not fall into oblivion. The Sahara of the 21st century is made up of sand, sun, stars, and direct messages, and like, like, like. But capturing every moment is more something for foreigners: his family doesn’t live trapped in the gallery of his phone, but rather in the present of each shared moment. What is the point of photographing his grandmother cooking if the smell is left out of the portrait? Why immortalize his sisters playing if their laughter will vanish without clinging to the image?
There are weeks of fasting left. It seems that this year Moha will celebrate Eid al-Fitr with the whole family. It seems, it seems: nothing is ever certain. Like a good nomad must, Moha lives in this day and will savor every moment until the great feast arrives, which will also be fantastic, as will the days, months, years to come. Inshallah. But those thoughts do not overwhelm him, they simply live in him as peaceful certainties. Now he just sinks his feet into the heat of the sand, feels the gentle breeze on his face, contemplates immensity and becomes engrossed in the purely spiritual.
There is nothing like the luxurious sensation of cat fur on her taste buds. With Isis, it can get quite complicated to harvest those hairy delicacies, but Nut acquiesces to more shenanigans, and so Abril yanks her fur out and turns it into haute cuisine and enjoys its touch and spits it out and swallows it, and it dances and dances through her mouth.
Abril pursues the cats on all fours down the hall. Nut and Isis finally give in. They never learn. Or they do learn, but they forget, or it’s worth it, or they actually enjoy it, or they don’t care, and they are ensnared once more by that modern fur trapper. Nut, more maternal, usually sleeps with Abril, despite the peril of baldness, although there are times when she gets fed up and gives a gentle warning bite or even leaves her side. Isis avoids her more, but Abril still plucks the occasional trophy from her, because the tickles of that fur, its toothsomeness magnified by the thrill of the hunt, are an explosion of flavor.
But cats are not always so easily hooked. When the chase proves fruitless, she settles for other furs: hippopotamus hair tastes like green somersaults, bear locks have a bright pink aftertaste, monkey mane has tones of violet sweetness. But, in the end, the ones she rips from the book clump up in her mouth, and she struggles to swallow them, so she sets out once more after the cats.
For some reason, Isis is more amenable to petting on the balcony, where she likes to relax in the bright Madrid sun. Abril follows her, sneaky, and then lingers there for a long time, regardless of the success of her culinary mission. Since the rides in her carriage stopped, she has adored this space: it is here that the breeze blows, the wind chimes rustle, the colors shine, that clapping and dancing live. And at eight in the evening, it is usually she who initiates the nightly applause for hospital workers.
The people who live in the neighboring apartments play the same songs over and over, over and over again, every afternoon, and Abril enjoys their familiarity and dances to them and claps enthusiastically when they finish. The lady who always called her «little cutie» when they met in the halls is the one who launches the daily festivities with We Will be Together Again, by Lucía Gil, which is a bit sappy, but well, the melodrama goes over Abril’s head, and she never turns her nose up at a chance to applaud, clap, clap. Then comes, by tradition, the turn of that neighbor in his sixties — the one who scratched her with his mustache every time he saw her in the lobby— he plays I Will Survive, and by then Abril is already high and moves like one possessed and sings loudly and to her own tune and claps throughout the song and the sum of the clap, clap, clap reaches the end with tiny enormous enthusiasm. The hubbub concludes every night with the melody of the couple across the street —the one with the rectangular red, yellow, red cloth proudly fluttering from their small window— who insist on playing a song that reminds her a bit of a lullaby but is much more difficult to follow for Abril, who always gets confused and applauds after that part where her parents sing “and King Juan Carlos washes it with soap,” clap, clap, because it seems like the melody ends, but then it starts up again. It always continues. Clap. So much the better, that just means there is more applause. Clap. Clap. Clap.
When daylight savings begins, the neighbors across the street can see the little girl much better at that hour, and they blow her kisses and call out greetings. Abril is very good with grannies, so she returns their greetings with self-confidence, but she still doesn’t know how to blow kisses, so she unwittingly leaves them unsatisfied. Who knows: maybe she’ll learn soon and hurl little bits of happiness back at the women in the form of floating kisses.
Abril is happy bathed by the spring breeze. It doesn’t matter if she is in her bedroom playing with her reflection, or if she is hanging on to her mother while she does her housework: at the mere sound of the word «balcony,» Abril abandons everything and her hands start with the clap, clap, clap, as if pulled by irresistible force. She knows that she must clap her hands, and she complies. Just as she does when she goes out on the balcony, even if it’s not the right time for applauding first responders. By force of Pavlovian habit, the balcony has become infused with that gesture of joy: she spends time in the morning blowing soap bubbles with her mother and clap, clap; she stands in the sun with her father as he reads her a story and clap, clap, clap; she is dazzled by the windchimes and claps her hands and laughs every time the little bells ring, clap, while she bites the clothespins; she follows Isis to the terrace, and the cat lowers her guard, and Abril first claps her hands and then goes rip and yum in the blink of an eye. And at eight o’clock the clapping extravaganza begins, something she would miss dearly if the routine ever changed.
Abril already knows how to say “mama” (quite well-enunciated) and “Ithith” (with a lot of drooling accompanying the lisp), calling those whom she must stubbornly chase to feed herself. She often goes out with them to eat on the terrace —and not only dairy and fur— now that spring is in a good mood, clap, clap; and she gets mash all over her face trying to use the spoon and feels great happiness every time the sun hits her and she never tires of applauding.
Afternoons in the park and at the pool fade into the mist of oblivion, and she no longer remembers how quickly she used to get tired, or that she went to bed much earlier; and she has gotten used to seeing her grandparents via video call and pointing at them and smiling at them to indicate that she recognizes them, and then continuing trying to eat Nut and Isis’s fur. Normality for Abril does not mean going out into the street (street? what street?), but taking naps, eating fur and yet more fur, clinging to furniture, laughing out loud at peak-a-boo, breastfeeding, frolicking in her playpen, and listening to the neighbors’ music.
Abril’s first April is born and dies with the reality of the balcony —the awning with painted oak and eucalyptus leaves, the pink chairs, the dried-up cacti, the windchimes— as her only contact with the outside world. New truths and habits and teachings dance incessantly in her memory. One month is ten percent of the little girl’s existence, so the balcony is no little oasis of open air, but a whole universe.
In all of Navarrevisca, only Aunt Tomasa still retains memories of memories of the 1918 flu, and, until now, they had always seemed to her like tales of ghosts or distant worlds.
The anecdotes were bequeathed to her by her mother, Fermina, and had not cropped up in her thoughts for decades, but for the last few months they have become incessant reminiscences that appear to her even in dreams.
Aunt Tomasa rises very early, opens the window to air the room well, and those gerontological winds that shape her thoughts begin to invade her. At ninety-four years old, every action must be carefully planned — before going downstairs, not to return until evening, she washes, dresses, takes her pills, and makes her bed. Her mother and her mother-in-law died in that same bed, and very likely also her grandmother, Maria, with the flu, because back then in villages, one died at home. Once she is ready, she creeps down the stairs slowly, slowly, because her leg is a little bit crooked, and the descent aggravates the pain.
In order to distract herself from the ordeal of going down, she thinks, step by step, if back then they would have had vaccinations. Yesterday, she wondered if they would have worn masks. And the other day she was assailed by doubts about social distancing. The answer is always no to everything — that’s probably why her grandmother María died of the so-called Spanish flu: because they had nothing, and they didn’t know anything, and they didn’t protect themselves. Or maybe they did, who knows, nobody remembers those times anymore. As always, she reaches the ground floor without arriving at any firm conclusions, but at least the digression is useful for ignoring the pain.
She has her daily rituals, Aunt Tomasa, tidying up the house with energy and flair: she sweeps, gathers the dishes from the night before, and makes breakfast. Today there’s no need to cook, because she still has some croquettes left over from last week, as well as some tomatoes and torreznos that Maritere, her neighbor who keeps an eye on her, brought her yesterday. Tomorrow she will make an armada of empanadas and freeze them to eat them bit by bit.
Her leg is giving her a hard time. No wonder: yesterday she went with Currita to the pharmacy, and then they had a coffee and some churros at Casa Victoria, which filled them with enough energy to walk to Las Pezuelas and reach Uncle Ufe’s door, almost to San Antonio, and the morning flew by.
Today she’s due for a rest. She dangles the basket with her crochet tools on the crook of her elbow, grabs the wicker chair and skips nimbly out the door of her house, where she skillfully positions herself in the sun, her gray hair shining under the gentle caresses of the mountain air. If the town was already slowly fading away even before the pandemic, now abandonment has seized every street.This morning there is not a soul, except for a couple of kittens mewling in famished pleas, feeling the absence of humans directly in their stomachs.
Aunt Tomasa settles herself on the wicker chair, totally molded to her frame, and as soon as she joins the needles, the clinking invokes the figure of Fermina, and those memories rush back to her in a confused whirlwind and get tangled in the yarn. Her mother was always chatty at the loom, as she warped and interweaved, but those words were carried away by the wind and time, because they seemed unimportant.
Fermina survived the previous pandemic but was left motherless at the age of eighteen. Who knows if someone else in the family was infected, who knows at what age the flu took Grandma Maria, who knows how she faced the grim reaper, who knows where she died. Even though they were immediate family, Aunt Tomasa says she doesn’t know who those people are — I wasn’t even born yet, how would I know? She does not sigh, because she is of a cheerful disposition, and she is not worried about forgetting, but the loop of uncertain thoughts becomes unavoidable during these times.
And those days… How hard they were, my God. Aunt Tomasa grew up among reeds and reels, and from a very young age, her grandfather and her father taught her the art of weaving, to which she devoted herself body and soul until she married her Aurelio, may he rest in peace, a handsome goatherd who captured her heart with the countless letters that he sent her from the front lines of the Civil War. She knitted better than her sister, anxiety personified, no comparison. Aunt Tomasa’s hands filled with peace and patience, and she didn’t break a single thread when she made the blankets for the shepherds. But she didn’t just weave: she also dyed the blankets on the fulling mill and cut them — from fifty meters to twenty-five and then to five and then to two and a half, it echoes like a chant in her — and left them to dry and made them neat and pretty, and she traded them around the nearby villages of Avila with her father. Struggling to heft endless blankets that seemed sewn from lead (especially when it rained) in exchange for cheese or chickpeas or paprika or potatoes or chestnuts or figs or oils or raw wool or whatever there was, sometimes a few pesetas, if you were lucky.
She eats in front of the TV. They say on the news that the people who were spared during the Spanish flu were those who did not go outside and lived in well-ventilated spaces and that they even banned keeping pigs at home. The rich were the ones who survived, of course. Here in the village, there used to be a lot of people and a lot of crude houses of piled-up stones with tiny windows, and there was always a pig in every home, which was enough to keep the pot full for the whole year. And the families lived all together (parents, children, grandchildren), and they didn’t even have running water, just the common troughs, and the streets were swamps. Her mother told her that during that horrible flu, there were days when they could not even carry all the corpses to the cemetery of La Mata, the one down there, the old one.
After eating, she returns to her chair. One by one, Aunt Paula, Aunt Leoncia, Aunt Maria, all the widows who live in the street, come out. Each one with her archaic wicker seat, her social distance, her needles, and without her cards. They miss that more than anything else: the games for hours and hours every Sunday, the heft of the deck in their fists, the dry sounds of shuffling, the triumph of calling “brisca.” They play less and less, because Aunt Felisa, Aunt Fidela and Aunt Rosario have passed away, but they pay homage to them with lively laughter and the occasional random affray.
Now they have to talk to one another each from a different corner, and sometimes they can’t understand each other, but they answer, «What can you do?», and they always end up understanding, because they’ve been keeping each other company since there wasn’t a wrinkle between them. When someone passes by, if someone passes by, they put on their masks. They spend the whole afternoon chattering like parrots, without a break in their weaving and, amidst the bickering, the days fly by, even though they miss the hustle and bustle of visitors whom they can no longer ask in the marked dialect of the village, «Where’s the crew headed?» or «When did you get here?» or «Has your sister arrived yet?».
They are fine, they are careful, no one who lives in the town has died, there is not much danger in this remote village of 200 people. Aunt Tomasa is an oak tree, if it weren’t for the pain in her leg… Although, a few weeks ago, she woke up feeling queasy and nauseous and, no problem, they gave her an injection, they took her to the town of Burgohondo, where there are doctors, and they shoved a little stick in each nostril, and it turned out she was fit as a fiddle, no coronavirus or anything. Who knows if she would have caught the old virus herself, and what tests did her grandmother take, the poor thing, so young, so young. It seems that two or three other women died that same day in Navarrevisca. Surely back then there were no tests or anything.
Today there is mass. From the door of their houses, the aged friends can actually see the shadow of the stone tower crowned with a stork’s nest, but they prepare themselves well in advance, because what a scramble it is whenever the bells ring: ooh, where’s my cane, ooh, where’s my mask? They go in and out, in and out, until they finally have all their gear. And they walk slowly, well apart, without holding each other’s arms, relying on only the support of a cane and the presence of their friends.
And now, you see, you have to do all kinds of things before entering the church: wipe your shoes on the doormat, wash your hands well with that gel that’s like an icicle, sit at practically opposite ends of the pews (one seat yes, one no, one yes, one no, meaning there is no one to give the sign of peace to properly), take the body of Christ in your hand, with a mask for the priest and a mask for the person taking communion. In the end they laugh, the old ladies, because all this fuss lends some excitement to the affair — there have been no changes in the mass for a long time.
At the end of the day, Aunt Tomasa feels happy in her home, in this mountain village. She has to make the most of the days she has left. Autumn is coming, and it’s starting to cool down, and on the news they ramble on endlessly about the second wave, and her daughters want to take her to Madrid, for another possible lockdown. She would not like to return to the months of isolation in the city, when the days stretched endlessly, because the only entertainment was looking at the European royal families in magazines, making socks for her great-grandchildren, and watching the police from the balcony. And, on top of that, when she went out for her first walk after two months of lockdown, her leg hurt something fierce: she was seeing stars, couldn’t take a step. But, my child, I’ll have to give in: if I stay here and get sick, what’m I gonna do? Her Maribel and her Lumi just want the best for her.
She is convinced that it could be worse when she recalls the blurred chronicles of the previous pandemic in the village that her mother narrated to her over the loom, testimony that now dwells only in her memory, because it is not collected in any newspaper library or in any church register or in any other collective memory of this world, and it is sinking deeper and deeper into the mysterious recesses of history. Those memories of memories are hidden like an ephemeral treasure in the oldest person in Navarrevisca, who has just gone to bed to rest her leg, which hurts less when she stretches it. Aunt Tomasa dreams of dreaming that her grandmother survives and tells her everything that happened in Navarrevisca during the Spanish flu.
Hilda looks at her daughter through the window and fills her with light. She’s been regular as clockwork over the last couple of weeks, splendid, a mirror of the universe, without missing a single day. Yazmín experiences it differently every day —with skin flooded, with vermilion fury, with harsh calm, with her spirit in bloom— but she always, always, always comes to the window at around six o’clock to receive the maternal twilight. Because that way, and only that way, does #StayAtHome make sense: without Hilda’s colors, the house still seems like a home stripped of its soul.
Águas de março plays on a loop, which somehow seems inevitable, and Hilda smiles in orange and violet and sings é a vida, é o sol in a pink-tinged voice. Yazmín, however, finds the song gets stuck in her throat, and she can’t unsheath a single note — musical though she is— because lanoite and lamorte are still beating in her temples.
The sunsets of Lima have never been more beautiful. People credit it to this rare respite in the frenetic life of the gray and polluted city, but those are just idle rumors: Yazmín knows all too well that it is actually her mother at the fim do caminho —because she was buried at exactly 11:11 in the morning, with the portals to another dimension open, whence she shines — and that the sunsets will continue to carry her light and her face until she receives a proper funeral. It doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks: she is certain that Hilda Luz honors her second name every day at around 6 PM.
After sunset, Yazmín wipes away her tears and does yoga and then runs for a while on the rooftop, to open her chakras, stretch her body, and try to banish that mistério profundo, but she can’t make it stop being either mysterious or profound.
Hilda always said that the spirit is eternal, and the body is just a garment, and she is now following her belief to the letter and appearing at every dinner in the mouths of Yazmín, her father, her brother, and Celestina —more than a housekeeper, part of the family—because her memory is always evoked at some point by a flavor or a squeak or a word or her favorite fork. And from memory, she passes into melancholy eyes. And from the eyes, she descends to the tongue. And the tongue makes her the star of every dinner. And Hilda is there, there, a promessa de vida no teu coração, chewing, savoring, existing, existing such as she can.
She also insists on appearing in every movie, on every show, in every book: the Aristocat Marie’s eyes invoke Hilda, Khaleesi’s courage is also that of Hilda, Jo’s intelligence is identical to Hilda’s. Everything. Absolutely everything screams «Hilda, Hilda, Hilda.»
Yazmín tries to go to bed early, because she rises at seven for work and because routine is healing. Her mother cuddles her with a faint autumn breeze, and with o corpo na cama, she drifts off to sleep.
Alone in the hospital, due to the pandemic restrictions, Hilda switched off her body at the time of her choosing: she departed on the same day as the equinox and Saint Joseph and was lowered hurriedly into the ground, one of thousands on that day, isolated from friends and family by the plague sweeping the land. Just as it was she herself, and not the cancer, who chose the day of her departure, Yazmín fears that Hilda’s spirit will make the decision to leave when the confinement is over, and she has a recurring nightmare in which the real funeral is completed, and Hilda’s light goes out.
But the next day, Yazmín gets up, and the state of emergency continues unabated, and she works from home and, at around six, her mother bathes her once more in orange and purple through the window.
Chiyo needs some time to herself now. She’ll get a drink at one of Kyoto’s tiny family-run cafes, forget about the whole thing, and write in her journal while in the city’s timeless embrace. Then she’ll be able to rejoin her father.
It’s funny. When it all started, she was forced into loneliness, and she resisted with Zooming and Skyping and LINEing and anything that would distract her from herself. But now she actually sometimes can’t bear not being alone with Kyoto. Just the two of them. That’s all she needs, that’s her true love, she’s realized: her city, full of aromas of incense and the buzz of cicadas and whispers of the past, and that special way Kyoto smiles at her with temples, gardens, rivers and mountains.
Part of her connection to the city is rooted in survival. Japan has been through wars, famines, political uprisings, floods, earthquakes… And Chiyo feels she’s been through something similar. Yet Kyoto has remained an island of resilience – after all, it’s been through, it remains as peaceful and calm as a gentle Buddha statue. The strength of the city and its serenity is what Chiyo clings to when she feels she’s about to break into pieces.
She’s trying to reach that state of mind at this precise moment. After the ritual of the hatsumōde, she’s about to crumble. For her first visit of the year to the Shinto temple, she went with her father, as is their tradition. After praying for the best of luck and prosperity in the new year, it was time for the fortune-telling custom of omikuji.
She tried her luck with her usual cheerful expression —her perennial smile, her eyes sparkling— really hoping for daikichi. However, her little strip of paper turned out to be the worst of all, kyo, a curse that appears rarely, especially on new year’s day. “You must be careful about your health”, “Behave yourself”, “Be patient”, “Don’t expect too much”. The past two years of the pandemic have been terrible for her mental health, so this prediction hardly helped. It made her feel lonelier than ever and deeply sad — the last thing she was hoping for was another challenging year.
“Kyo”, she muttered, near tears.
Her dad looked at her and laughed, trying to play it down: “It is just a game!”
That was not what she was hoping to hear. She really needed comforting, but neither her father nor her fortune nor the new year had been willing to grant it. She certainly could find no comfort in the state of the world. Nor in her luck with love. Her only faithful companion during all this time has been Kyoto, and that’s why she asked her dad to separate for a few hours, promising she’d contact him to meet up again.
It’s a windy day in Kyoto, and the gingkos and the maples dance on a distant hill. Chiyo thinks that when a storm hits a mountain, it’s the exposed, vulnerable trees that fall first. Before, being on her own made her vulnerable, just like one of those trees, but now she needs to be alone to feel strong. It is just a game. It is just a game. Her father’s words sound like pure mockery, like emptiness. Why have they been doing this together since she was a little girl if it is just a game? She’s in her thirties now, it should have stopped years ago if it’s so meaningless.
She walks, surrounded by her beautiful city, who enfolds her. Always enfolds her. It is just a game… It is just… The words start to fade away, and she falls into a meditative state on her stroll, feeling the cobblestones alter her gait and fixating her gaze on the beautifully imperfect wood of the doors and the pure gray of the roof tiles. Breathe in, breathe out.
If being single wasn’t already hard enough for her, the pandemic has only worsened matters. She hasn’t been able to hang out with friends, have a drink with her colleagues, or chat casually with strangers. Most of her face-to-face interactions have been replaced by a laptop or a phone — her entire world reduced to a 15-inch monitor. She’s long sick of that.
Kyoto was sad too at the beginning. Used to eighty million visits a year, the city was left bewildered by its empty streets. When the first state of emergency was declared in the spring of 2020, Chiyo walked through an arcade in Kawaramachi to find everything closed except convenience stores and pharmacies. It was depressing.
Chiyo felt like a character in a post-apocalyptic movie — how could the city be so empty on this sunny day of clear skies and warm breezes? Day after day after week after month, there was nobody in the street. She felt befuddled. Absolutely no one. She would have never imagined seeing Kyoto like this.
Then the signs started popping up all over the city — “closing down” became the new motto of souvenir shops, of coffee houses, of restaurants, and of the hotels newly-built for the 2020 Olympics. This was not merely a financial debacle, but also people’s drive and purpose and dreams going down the drain.
On her stroll to avoid her father and her fate, she stops by Bukkoji temple and watches the smoke rising from an incense urn. She can’t help but think of all the people over the centuries who have sought solace here after losing their loved ones, of the days when prayers and quarantine were the only weapons against disease. At least we now have vaccines, and we understand everything better. At the very beginning, Chiyo had felt hopeless seeing the empty temples. Lonely in her apartment, she went out only to feel the loneliness of Kyoto. And then the two of them, the woman and the city, found each other. Chiyo had visited over seventy cities around the world, so she felt great sympathy for the people who rely on tourism for a living. That’s when she realized she could be a traveler in her own city.
Ever since that realization, she hops on her bicycle every weekend and rides to one or two cafes she really wants to support. The cafes have a soul, Kyoto has a soul, and that is its people, so Chiyo always makes sure to let them know how thankful she is to have places like theirs that make people feel part of a community. She tells them “がんばって”, Ganbatte, to stay strong, and they reply, with a smile, that they will. And then Kyoto breathes in and breathes out, and feels so beautiful, untrampled by milling flocks of gawpers. It hasn’t felt this in a very long time.
And Chiyo feels less lonely when she’s alone with Kyoto. The city has no neon signs or loud advertising to create a simulacrum of life and activity. Silence has driven Chiyo to find a center within herself, and she has gotten to greatly enjoy her own company. Their relationship has been, in a way, a healing process.
She feels like she’s talking to her city by pedaling her bike: “Hey, thanks for having me. I really like you. I would like to know more about you, and I want to spend more time with you.” And Kyoto murmurs back in the wind and tells her stories about the empress Go-Sakuramachi Tennō, and about the monk Shinran, and long-vanished figures who have faced tribulations like those she faces. “Back in 869, there was a pandemic, and the people held a festival to pray for purification…”. Listening to her city over and over again, walking back and forth in the same places, back and forth, she has become a traveler of time.
Today, those stories of Kyoto’s past seem more soothing than the ones about her future. But she’s not thinking about it, not thinking about it, she won’t fall back into that spiral of loneliness and self-sabotage. She just stirs the matcha tea she ordered to go and savors its herbal fragrance. The palm readers have returned to the streets. That’s a good sign, that gives her hope, but today she ignores them. She sits on the riverbank, watching the surface of the water, wondering how many typhoons have riled this placid ribbon, how many times it has risen in anger to flood the city. She can picture all the people placing sandbags across history to preserve the landscape that unfolds in front of her in the present. She feels grateful for what she has —a roof over her head, health, fulfillment at work, wonderful relatives and friends. She can still enjoy reading, writing, cooking and doing crosswords. Covid can’t take it all from her. The zen garden and the sounds of the cicadas and of a stream remind her that they will get through this pandemic, just like the people of this city always have. This city and its culture have survived. It will do so once again.
Her dad sits by her side. He’s been looking for her. “It is just a game, you’re worrying too much,” he insists.
She feels like getting up and walking away from him again. Their relationship has not always been easy. They’ve never quite gotten each other. But she tells herself she must try to stay.
“I do worry. The last two years were very tough for me. I’ve had enough of it.”
After thinking for a moment, her dad pulls out his wallet and tucks a bill in her hand. “Go and try again.”
“What? No, it is a waste of money,” she objects.
“No, it’s not. Just go and get another one!”
She goes to a nearby temple and pays for another fortune. She isn’t quite sure if this one really counts. The miko hands her a bamboo cylinder filled with lots to draw. Chiyo prays for better luck and then pulls out a new omikuji. She gets a different number. Phew!
“Here is your fortune. Good luck with your new year,” the miko smiles, handing her a folded strip of paper.
She opens the strip and reads the fortune.
“I got daikichi!” she excitedly tells her dad, who’s where she left him by the river.
“Ah, ‘great fortune!’ What luck!” her dad says. “It is always better to have a hopeful start to a new year.”
She gazes at the riverbank and thinks that her dad has placed sandbags around her today to stop her from being flooded. The hopeful landscape she is today will live into the future because she’ll just remember to try and try again, until she gets the daikichi she’s seeking.
Lana solicitously offers Vladimir some of her edamame guacamole to soothe his throat. He claimed to be a vegetarian who loves spicy food, but she has learned never to take white people’s word for it on spice tolerance. A scant few minutes after his bold claims, the old man is practically heaving over a tiny slice of red chili.
She’s not surprised. She’s seen this a thousand times back in Malaysia. So she calmly chows down on little pieces of teriyaki chicken, turmeric cauliflower, and a radish while gazing at the kids falling and getting back up and rolling on in the skate park by the Waterloo Bridge. She’d love to light another cigarette to make this moment a perfect one, but smoking is not allowed in London restaurants. She’ll have to feel content about the blue sky, and the soup, and the kids falling and getting back up, falling and getting back up, a cheap metaphor for her own life. She’ll wait until Vladimir’s face fades to a less inflamed tone to rip the silence away, but for now she’s enjoying the noisy tranquility of the city.
They are in the middle of talking about Albert Camus, after Lana nonchalantly mentioned a quote of his she had stumbled upon in an art exhibition the other day, “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” They’ve been chatting over lunch about philosophy, Leninism, Beauvoir, communism, Butler, and Chomsky. Why not discuss another light topic like mental illness?
They haven’t limited themselves to such impersonal matters though. He’s told her about his efforts to avoid going stir-crazy by keeping himself occupied, which is why he’s been focusing on photography, about his deep loneliness during the pandemic, about how his whole family is back in Slovakia, and he barely talks to them.
She tells him she also has a complicated relationship with her family but opts not to go into detail. She leaves unmentioned the part where they wanted her not to be herself because of what the neighbors would think, the part where they disavowed and disowned her, the part where her mom recently called her “Lana” for the first time… while contacting her to ask for money, the part where she has given up caring what happens to her mom. Her mom… There’s a Malay saying — “Look at your mother’s face, and you’ll see heaven.” Deep inside, Lana longs to be able to feel that again. Instead, she just adds without any real context: “Sometimes you help someone who hurt you deeply because life is about being the bigger person, right? And that brings some closure.”
She does feel better since she sent the money back to her family in Malaysia. It is almost as if she paid them off for her escape, and she can now completely walk away from them and from the country that birthed her and then punished her for who she is, that vilifies people like her, that throws them into prison. Because of her status as a political refugee, she won’t be able to go back for at least three more years, but that’s fine with her, because England has been her home now for a couple of years — it has given her the chance to be herself, and what’s more home than freely inhabiting your own body? All this inspired her to volunteer for a housing shelter — she wants to help other asylum seekers and refugees to also feel like themselves here. She knows how important it is for one’s body to become one’s home.
Vladimir’s kind, but he probably wouldn’t understand all this. And he’s not keen on the arts of psychology. He seems to believe in the darkness of the mind about as much as he does in spicy food, and, not knowing how much the woman in front of him has been suffering, he replies to Camus’s quote with a somewhat scornful joke about suicide.
Lana doesn’t take it personally because she’s proud of the progress she’s made with her healing. If anything, she feels sorry for people who are so unaware of their own minds and their harmful patterns, oblivious of others and themselves. Also, she reads him and concludes he is devoid of any hostility or malice. However, just to see how he would react, because sometimes she kind of enjoys pushing limits, Lana considered replying to his jokes by telling him about the thirty-six Paracetamol pills she lined up, about her desperate call to the suicide line, about the cops who have entered her place twice to check on her, about the mental wards, about the diazepam to help her calm down, about her various suicide attempts spurred by pandemic isolation. But then he ate that stupid chili, and now Lana feels like she shouldn’t make him even redder than he already looks.
Immersed in the lack of conversation, Lana transports herself to the first morning she woke up in the mental ward, when the snow was coming down heavily, something she’d never seen before, tropical creature that she is. A sudden desperate need to feel the snow on her face overcame her. But by the time the doctors had finished their evaluations and given her permission to go out, the snow had stopped, and only a trace of dirty brown ice remained on the road and pavement. Just her fucking luck. Never mind — she ran and ran and ran like a child until she was exhausted. When she finally came to a rest, she decided this time would be different. Eight months later, that longing for snow lingers with visceral clarity.
Vladimir seems calmer now. His gray messy hair, his squinty brown eyes, his well-trimmed beard — all of it seems calmer now. Lana won’t tell him anything about her suicide attempts. Everybody else in her life knows she’s struggling, but not Vladimir. She wants him to see her at her lightest, at her wittiest, to see that part of her untouched by borderline personality disorder. As the kids fall and get up again, fall and get up again at the edge of her vision, she thinks of Camus’ quote — “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” —, and then chuckles and remarks as Vladimir takes another gulp of his water: “Since we ran out of milk, I guess killing myself is the better option.”
Vladimir looks at her slightly bemused, then laughs, but she can tell he doesn’t quite follow. Then they are both laughing. There’s mutual understanding between them. It’s almost like father-daughter complicity, but she doesn’t want to see it that way, because she recognizes her pattern of eternally trying to find a healthy paternal figure, and then she’d confront once again that this is something she never had from her own dad and never will.
“I like you, girl, your bluntness, your deep voice, your knowledge of philosophy,” he states. “What was your name again?”
She now feels over the moon. She’s glowing. He definitely hasn’t misgendered her! She’s been on hormone replacement therapy for over four years, and she sometimes still doesn’t pass. But Vlad — I can call you Vlad, right? — just assumed she was a she, and, girl, that feels like heaven. She wants to scream, “Hello, customer service, is this what gender euphoria looks like? ‘Cuz I want moarrr of it! Can I make a bulk order, plz?” But she would give herself away, so she just replies, “My name is Lana Isa”.
These small things are so huge. So huge. And she values them even more since she had an out-of-body experience not too long ago after smoking some pot. That trip changed how she feels about life forever. Her soul got sucked in into a vacuum at an atomic level, hurled into a different realm, and she kept getting sucked in, traveling at the speed of light. Terrified, she realized how small she was, an entity of particles like any other, and she felt the meaninglessness of her existence on the earth. Somehow, feeling so tiny made her feel enormous, and she became a totally different person, valuing all of these small things in life that mean nothing but mean so much.
“Listen, Lana. I’m also a painter. I’d love to paint a portrait of you reading Camus. Would you let me paint you?”
She looks at him, shining in his green sweater, with that kind little mouth of his, and decides not to answer that question. She asks for the check and wants to pay, because it was her idea to have lunch together in the first place, but Vlad insists and insists, and she eventually just gives in. After all, she’s used to men paying for things. Recently she’s been revealing to people that she’s been living a double life as a sex worker for years, because doing it hush-hush has done her mental-health no good whatsoever, and because she’s so fucking talented, but she won’t confess this to Vlad either. Lana keeps it to herself because she doesn’t think she and Vlad are at that point yet, even if this is part of who she is and of her present life. The pandemic didn’t stop her from making extra cash — all these platforms offering video services saved her ass. She’s now putting the sex money away to fund her gender affirmation surgery, because her salary as a programmer is just not enough. This city is damn expensive, girl.
She’s not ready to say goodbye, and she takes him to her favorite alternative gift shop, a place she normally never shares with anyone, because it is her own Hidden Gem in London for buying unconventional gifts. She thinks it is funny how she’s told all of her friends now about her more dramatic experiences but not about this gift shop, but in Vlad’s case, it is the other way around. Today she’s another version of herself. Why did she always keep this store such a secret, but now suddenly she takes this guy? Maybe because she feels sorry for Vlad’s loneliness — she knows that feeling very well. Or is it because they have bonded for real? Or because he laughed at her Camus comment?
After all, they met only six cigarettes ago. She had been taking a stroll in South Bank along the Thames, heading west towards the National Theater, enjoying this increasingly rare warm and sunny day, most certainly one of the last of the year. The sun was just bright enough that she could close her eyes facing straight into it and feel a warm breeze through her eyelids.
She was taking deep breaths to soak it all in and listening to music when a man in his sixties asked her if he could take her picture holding her cigarette with a backdrop of St Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames. She asked why. He replied that he liked taking pictures of strangers. She wondered if he liked to take pictures of sad strangers, if he could even see her sadness, or if she hid it well.
She had actually woken up feeling very sexy. Maybe that was it. Sexy is photogenic. She left her studio after renaming her plants with female and queer names because men are trash: Miss Lolita, Adura, Rapunzel, August, Lil-Cupcake, Farina, Lily, Durjana and Sembilu. She put on a gray over-the-knee skirt and matching jacket with a hot pink top underneath, wearing her hair down and wild. This walk would be her first time venturing out of her apartment after that wanker broke her heart four days ago.
She left the studio where she was supposed to live with the previous wanker (are they trash or whaAaAat?) with no destination in mind, determined only to leave the house so as not to fall into a spiral of depression again. Now that she has finished her master’s degree and is taking some time off from her day job to focus on therapy and recovery, she has more free time to wander around the city. That randomness gave her the room to meet Vlad and agree to pose for him, and to have lunch together.
And now they don’t want to say goodbye because they have both felt damned lonely during the multiple lockdowns, and this warmth is a big deal. She needed a day like this. She’s so glad she wasn’t afraid to talk to a stranger. She tells him, grabbing his arm, “You know, we are so focused on ourselves that we forget the humanity of strangers that we come across in our everyday lives.”
Lana is choosing to be sassy and cheerful and not to tell him all the horrors she’s been through. It suddenly hits her: what has he been through? We all go through shit, and he’s old-ish — he must have been through shitshitshit. Does he also have self destructive patterns? Has he lost someone he loves? What happened to his relationship with his family? What is it, Vlad? Let’s be honest. Or not. Maybe another day. Let’s enjoy each other’s company without digging up our traumas. If only for today, Vlad, let’s keep being strangers, let’s keep talking about Tolstoy and Wollstonecraft, let’s keep it simple, Vlad, let’s look at trinkets, let’s ignore all the shitshishit to create an illusion of perfection only for today.
She’s determined not to ask him about his shitshishit, nor tell him about hers, so she holds a figurine of the Queen and admires how well it is made. The small things, you know? After describing it thoughtfully, she tells him, just in case he’s never thought about it — and because she often needs to convince herself — “Don’t these little details make life worth living?”
Vlad smiles back at her. He seems so serene and good-natured. She wouldn’t like to spoil what they have right now. She thinks maybe it would be better to part forever, to keep it small, to remain eternal strangers, to crystallize this idealized encounter for good. Or would it? This damn pandemic has been so harsh for both of them, their solitudes will retreat at least once more if he paints her portrait. Plus, that would give her yet another reason to stick around here one more day. With Elizabeth II, also dressed in pink and gray, still in her hand, Lana looks directly into Vlad’s eyes and says, “I want to wear this exact same outfit when you paint me.”
Kawa yowls mantras from outside the screen door, and Akiko weaves in these meows bestowed upon her by the Eternal Now, kan-ze-on, na-mu-butsu, and intones the chants that she has recited every morning before dawn for more than thirty years, yo-butsu-u-in, yo-butsu-u-en, with deep concentration rooted in practice, bup-po-so-en, jo-raku-ga-jo, strict discipline, cho-nen-kan-ze-on, bon-nen-kan-ze-on, and an energy redolent more of a brash girl than a septuagenarian, nen-nen-ju-shin-ki, nen-nen-fu-ri-shin.
The Hawaiian sunrise reveals in fits and starts an exuberant explosion of verdure, and the crickets and frogs who have been gossiping all night cede to the birds, who will not rest their throats until the sun sets. Akiko loves this silence full of melodies that makes her home, and for a few stolen moments before the day begins, she pauses to savor it.
For a couple of days now, a niggling concern has been creeping to join her even in the meditation room — she is only human. A truce must be negotiated in the war of the shi-shi before it tears apart the big house, that ramshackle dwelling sufficient for a family of nine when the Hakalau sugar plantation was still active, but apparently too small for these four coddled oafs.
To the stoicism of Buddhist philosophy, Akiko adds the finely-honed patience of someone who has been managing her business and hosting querulous haoles on her property for three decades. She started back in the early nineties, when an acquaintance asked for accommodation in exchange for a few bucks, and Akiko slept on the floor to give him her own futon and a delicious breakfast and reinvested that money in another futon and leveraged that into a bed and then fixed up the plantation house and then built the cabins in the back garden and is now tackling remodeling the whole village. That little empire in the middle of the jungle that she is so proud of is now under assault from a dude who has been prolonging his stay in the house for months because “it’s not safe to look for an apartment with all this shit going on” and who refuses to make the effort to project his piss at the correct angle or at the very least clean the shi-shi that puddles obscenely in front of the toilet. On top of that, the girlfriend of that overgrown lolo has circled the wagons with him. Yesterday, the couple suddenly appeared with a clipboard with a dozen tightly-ruled sheets of paper and mutely presented it to Akiko. In confusion, Akiko glanced down at the pages, which it quickly became apparent contained a painstaking accounting of their housemates’ most lurid crimes: “12/21/2020, 8:37 AM – Knife with traces of raspberry jam discovered in sink, unwashed; “12/21/2020, 2:46 PM – Three anomalous crumbs, likely whole-wheat, detected on southeast countertop. Heightened ant activity.” Flipping impatiently, “12/26/2020, 3:04 PM – Left-side toilet paper roll contained only 1.5 remaining sheets, further search revealed no backup roll queued up on toilet tank,” etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. “Intriguing,” Akiko murmured to herself, one of her repertoire of factotum responses, but perused no more of the densely-inked pages, because one’s time on this plane is short and because, to tell the truth, this lout’s handwriting left a lot to be desired and was not worthy of any additional scrutiny. If she had set eyes on this crooked scrawl before renting the room to them, Buddha knows she would not be here now suffering through this.
This unhinged list was the last straw in a year full of tribulations, a counter-barrage after the girls had left a note gently counseling him not to pee outside the toilet, leaving the 45-year-old sputtering with incredulous indignation at the sheer manifest injustice of it all before retorting that his mother taught him very well to take care of his business correctly. He’d grown up in a house with his mother and four sisters, so do you really think he could have survived ’til now otherwise? Why pin the blame on just him for bad aim, the girlfriend interjected, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the rest of the house relieved themselves sitting down. In fact, he’d even called his mother to report the persecution and vile accusations, and she’d merely cracked up laughing, which proved that the real culprit must be faulty toilet design. Since the urine is no likelier to be his than anyone else’s, he refuses to clean the floor, not with his bad back, so the rich bouquet of piss permeating the entire first story has forced the girls, barely twenty years old, to submit to phallic mandate, regularly scrubbing the moist, fragrant tiles.
Akiko, who thrives under the rigidity of routine, has suffered through enough changes already this year: first she had to stop taking in guests entirely for a few months — if only her fixed expenses had paused as well — then she’d started receiving people on the sly, for long stays only, strictly enforcing quarantines and instructing each newcomer to use a rickety, rusting ladder instead of the path visible from the road to avoid the prying eyes of suspicious neighbors who prowl the town with engraved frowns. After only three decades here, to some she is still suspect, an outsider from Oahu bringing in a parade of strangers with outlandish customs.
The whole situation had discombobulated her to such an extent in the first few weeks that there were days when she didn’t hear her alarm that rang at 4:44 every morning for meditation, and her one unflagging companion in this ancestral practice had to come to her room to wake her up by tenderly twisting her big toe. Thanks to him, she’d been able to cling to routine left tottering by the pandemic.
But one deprivation stings her more than anything else: having to cancel the mochi festival that she has been celebrating on her property for more than two decades, in recent years attracting more than six hundred people from the Big Island and from the whole archipelago, a fixture of more recent guidebooks. How she would like to gather with her whole spiritual ohana at 5 AM to crush the rice for the cakes, prepare floral decorations, chat with the fortunetellers and the breadfruit and poke vendors who never fail to appear, listen to the elders recount fading tales of the plantation, seize the microphone and hold forth on whatever subject crosses her mind to a laughing, appreciative audience, in her element, on her day, at her estate, shaking to the beat of Japanese drums, all while raising money for the cemeteries, the school, the village, her legacy. Unofficially, Akiko is the mayor of Wailea. No, no: the queen of Wailea.
She misses the wonderful year-end festival, but accepts the change stoically, releasing her melancholy to focus instead on osoji, the Japanese tradition of cleaning thoroughly in the final days of December in order to receive each new year with the emotional purity it deserves. It will start in the garden. She has already switched out her meditation kimono for everyday attire — loose, worn clothing, a scarf around her head with a yellow flower attached, long hair gathered in a bun with a straw hat perched on top of everything. She grasps the chainsaw firmly to rip apart the palm tree toppled by last night’s powerful gusts, now blocking one of the dirt paths. Akiko knows that she is six feet tall and 200 pounds of pure muscle, and she is astonished each time to see the tiny, thin woman that the mirror invents.
The queen of Wailea hasn’t set foot in a doctor’s office in 27 years —why would she need to, with a vegetarian diet and monthly acupuncture and massage? — and she not only draws on her strength to take care of her house, but also, as a born leader, she organizes efforts to clean the town’s temple annually and to go every month to hack through the jungle and restore the overgrown Buddhist cemeteries hidden in every corner of the island. She is especially grateful for the last meeting of the year, which coincides with the tradition of osoji, and which, being outdoors, buffeted by the cleansing Hawaiian winds, she has been able to maintain despite the coronavirus.
Surrounded by roosters and hens promenading in the shade of the palm trees, Akiko hefts the shattered trunk into her wheelbarrow, telling herself she will ask the plumber to come around this very afternoon so she can stop thinking once and for all about that puffed-up pissant who should be old enough by now to have learned to make shi-shi.
Her favorite guests are, without a doubt, divorced women in the assuredness of middle age, like the two currently staying in the part of the property where Akiko lives. These women emerge unbowed from atrocious marriages and are filled with an inordinate strength. They know how to change their own diapers, without whining incessantly that their bedroom door won’t stay closed, that the internet is slow, that their housemate is hogging the fridge. Independent and unstoppable, Akiko is reflected in them, and they share energy: there is no woman stronger than one who does not depend on a man. If she only rented rooms to divorced women, she could live the Zen existence of her true inner being and, of course, she wouldn’t have to worry about what proportion of shi-shi ended up in the toilet.
She rings the bells in gratitude and warm aloha for the Wailea ancestors and to summon the ever-growing herd of cats, conditioned to know this clanging is synonymous with bowls of fresh food. Kawa, that immense gray mound whose meows seem infused with plaintive longing, always gets there first, his majestic stomach a bottomless pit. She tells herself that she has forsworn travel in order to care for these creatures, but in reality it is because her soul is tied to the branches of the avocado tree that towers over the back garden, waking her up every morning with the ringing caress of its colossal two-pound fruits on her brass roof.
A couple of nights ago, however, she alone had continued sleeping unfazed when the goddess Pele, after an unaccustomed respite of two years, had roared into alertness, spewing plumes of lava 400 feet into the air, vaporizing an entire lake in a fraction of a second, and rattling every window in Wailea, 40 miles away. Akiko maintains the customs of her Japanese ancestors because of her respect for the blood that runs through her veins, but she is also a third generation Hawaiian who knows all too well the Kīlauea volcano’s cravings for fire, so she doesn’t even blink an eye.
The plumber, a stolid, laconic Hawaiian, arrives at the agreed-upon time because he knows that Akiko values punctuality. He unhurriedly examines the toilet in silence for a few minutes, then finally asks, “So, what is it that you want me to do?” Akiko heads to the kitchen and beckons to the girls. “Honey, honey,” she calls explosively, “it’s time for a shi-shi convention,” taking it as a matter of course that these two coronavirus refugees from California will understand this Hawaiian term of Japanese origin without further elaboration. Somewhat bemused, they follow her, but the import becomes clear as they are led into the bathroom and spot the plumber. “Apparently there is some kind of problem with the toilet, but I don’t understand it too well. Can you kids explain it to the plumber?” They would love to say straight out that, well, the problem is pretty simple — we’ve got a guy here who seems to regard a bathroom as a personal challenge to piss over the largest possible surface area, but politeness grabs their tongues and stymies them. Fortunately, the ever-attentive couple emerges self-importantly from their bedroom at that moment, and the girls are able to refer the inquiry to them. They clarify that the toilet is either badly designed or damaged, so whenever anyone uses it, the pee ricochets and manages to splash between the bowl and the seat, wetting the floor. Fortunately, they have managed to lay their hands on a second-hand toilet of more appropriate design which they have been conveniently storing outside the back door. The plumber need merely swap in this wonderful new toilet and every issue will be solved.
Akiko, with her usual boundless energy, springs into action to verify this unfortunate artifact of physics. She fills up a glass of water and decants it into the bowl to simulate an ordinary male shi-shi. As there doesn’t seem to be any perceptible splash to the fallible human eye, she drops to the floor and pats every square inch with her hands in search of fresh puddling, to the amazement of all present and the contained retching of the girls, who know all about the daily rain of shi-shi that falls in these parts. She invites the plumber to check the floor with his own hands, in case his greater expertise in the field will allow finer-tuned detection, but the man begs off politely.
The tenants begin to discuss the conundrum of the dry floor in a civilized manner, but little by little voices rise and accusations start to fly. The micturating martyr defends his honor vigorously, and remarks start to get personal. The plumber shifts his weight awkwardly in the background. Akiko suddenly gives two authoritative slaps and the group instantly falls silent. “Let me think for twenty seconds; twenty” she orders with her index finger pointed and immediately the woman enters into a state almost of trance, unconscious of the ten eyes trained on her. The idea comes to her at once, as in a revelation. It is brilliant. Yes, yes, of course: brilliant. How could it not have occurred to her before? Why on Earth were they fooling around with glasses and water? Soon the mystery will be solved, and she will be able to spend time on matters that are truly worthwhile, like petting Kawa.
“Honey,” she says to the titanic tinkler — she knows the name, age, and profession of every guest with precision, but she always reverts to this universal form of address, “Honey,” she repeats, “Here’s what we’re gonna do. Can you just quickly do a little shi-shi in front of the plumber? Then he can see exactly where things go wrong, and he’ll be able to fix it.” Akiko pronounces this with the rigor and conviction with which she guides her meditations; and only amazement paralyzes the girls’ laughter, while the girlfriend and the plumber don’t know how to react, and merely turn expectantly to await the the response of the ungainly urinater. He totally freezes for a few endless seconds, the tortured inner workings of his thoughts playing out on his face, before, finally, he mumbles in that slightly-addled baritone that drones for hours each day to an apparently enthralled audience, rumbling through the walls of the house: “Oh, hell no, hell no, I’m not going to do that”. Akiko cannot fathom this refusal, so convinced is she of the faultless logic of her solution.
As the eyes continue to bore into him, the lavatory lawbreaker nervously fills the silence, tripping over himself to give explanations. Sure, he has to go to the bathroom three or four times every night, and sometimes he feels a little pee trickling down his legs in the dark, but that doesn’t mean it gets on the floor and hell no, he’s not going to clean it, the same thing happens to everyone. And of course he can’t pee sitting down because that’s undignified, and it would be completely unfair to single him out and make him go to the outside bathroom, plus it’s impossible because he might step on slugs.
As he rambles idiotically on, the words blur into a senseless hum in the background of Akiko’s thoughts. She jerks herself from her musing to abruptly stem the chaotic, splashing stream of words with a “mahalo, honey” and appears in another place, because it is time to light the candles and incense in the shrines she has scattered around the property and to ring the bells for the cats to feast once more.
After the evening yoga session, her ideas on dealing with the situation finally crystallize completely. If she were to think purely in economic terms, after almost a year of operating losses, perhaps the wisest thing would be to keep tenants no matter how boorish, but Akiko grounds herself in the plane of the immaterial: she is breathing, so she is blessed. And, since she requires nothing else, she sends off an e-mail to the couple announcing that for next month, they will have to find accommodations with a toilet more suited to their needs. On December 31st, osoji is at last complete: Akiko has finally fully cleansed her house and is ready to welcome in the new year.
By now, the odor of abandon and decaying food has almost dissipated from Mischi’s apartment in Queens. She has been paying rent for a vacant apartment since her death, and now Ruth and her son, Mark, have come all the way from California to dust it off, to expel the mustiness, to empty it of history and the tangible void of the last few months so that it can be returned to its owner.
Everything has remained in disarray since the beginning of March, because when the sudden news of her mother’s death sent Ruth rushing to New York, she took care of only the barest necessities, confident that she would be back within a couple of weeks to arrange everything properly. It had never crossed her mind that five months of purgatory would pass before her return. Yes, the virus was filling the news even then, and New York was already giving hints that it would become one of the world’s epicenters, but it still seemed like a distant, foreign scourge, not quite real. Collecting the ashes from Staten Island, she faced the same views of the Statue of Liberty that had greeted her mother arriving on these alien shores. Her curiosity aroused by a church she’d never noticed before, she entered on a whim, and the remains started to writhe within their urn, because it seemed Mischi’s repulsion to Christianity survived even incineration. Back at the apartment, she recited the Kaddish, the prayer of the dead, with a minyan formed of the hodgepodge of nonagenarians and former employees Mischi hadn’t been nasty enough to drive away permanently. She ended up kissing and hugging these near-strangers as if everyone had forgotten that in these times, death lurked in every breath.
Ruth performed these obligations by ritualistic instinct, relief growing as she closed out this chapter of her life so full of fighting and anger. Eager to be done and feeling slightly dazed, she threw things away with abandon, emptying the apartment as quickly as possible. Later, when she realized that in her cleansing frenzy, she’d thrown away all the death certificates she’d just paid for, she allowed the thought to cross her mind that maybe her anger hadn’t yet been completely surmounted. The one thing she kept without a second thought was the suitcase that Mischi brought on the Gripsholm, the Swedish ship that carried her to a new life in New York. In March, Ruth set this luggage in a corner and there it remains, oblivious to the march of history and the absence of Mischi. She still doesn’t feel ready to face whatever’s inside that shabby and enigmatic suitcase and has been postponing opening it all week long, knowing the memories it holds might shatter her.
Perhaps she’ll open it today, taking advantage of being on her own, since Mark set off for a Saturday in Manhattan and shows no signs of returning. Both mother and son deserve a break today, after a frenzied week trying to dispose of the seemingly inexhaustible stores of books, documents, tchotchkes, furniture, clothing, medical equipment, and now-obscure devices that accumulate over more than half a century of a life in the same apartment. Who’d have thought giving valuable items away could prove so difficult? Ruth has enjoyed strengthening her relationship with Mark over these days, but now she is lured by the idea of solitude, which seems to her like a chance for the long-awaited closure to the mourning that has clouded her since spring. She will say goodbye for the last time to that apartment where she spent most of her childhood and adolescence with her parents and sister, all of whom, it hits her, now exist only as memories, many staged within these four walls.
Mischi made her exit at the right time; how awful it would have been for her to live through the pandemic. And what would Ruth have done? Expose herself repeatedly to the menacing, panting crowds of airports or just move in with her mother? Both options sound potentially deadly, and just the thought sends a chill down her spine. Fortunately, Mischi died exactly as she wished — at home, suddenly, painlessly, after a long life, able to claim moral victory over the cancer the doctors had said would kill her in three months all the way back in early 2017. This defiance of death was almost to be expected, because by the age of eleven, she was already a reluctant expert on the necessities of survival, leaving behind all friends and family to escape to England on one of the first trains of the Kindertransport. But a week before she’d died, she announced on a phone call with Ruth that she was more than ready to leave this world behind too, and she finally did so at the age of ninety-two.
Over these days that mother and son have been confined to the apartment in Queens, they have erected a giant, chaotic pyramid on the Persian rug out of every document that exudes the slightest whiff of interest, and Ruth’s goal for today is to do a thorough winnowing.
She is eager to plunge into the maelstrom of paper because the written words are stitching up a wound that has gaped open for decades. For some unknowable reason, Mischi spent more than thirty years bad-mouthing her as greedy and conniving, even threatening to disinherit her in later years, as if determined to perpetuate the pain she had suffered when her own father did the same to her.
Hence, Ruth was astonished when she read the will in March and discovered that Mischi’s last testament contradicted those lacerating, inexhaustible curses, not only granting her daughter her rightful share of the estate but giving her absolute power as the sole executor. This unanticipated posthumous gift was a tremendous emotional reprieve, a far cry from the single table and lamp granted to Ruth in an earlier will tauntingly shown to her by her mother.
Now she sits before an overwhelming epistolary expanse and reads and reads without respite. Through her hands pass dozens and dozens of angry letters from forgotten battles that took place between 1952 and 2016, and she separates them into two piles. On the right, she places the letters returned to Mischi which trace her fierce advocacy for Black civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. She had already known the broad details of her mother’s education campaigning, but the deep commitment to fair housing was all new to her. On the left, she puts the Byzantine labyrinth of correspondence relating to her attempts to recover the family businesses, real estate, and works of art, in a struggle that spanned seven decades, with restitution of pennies on the dollar granted in spurts and dribbles. At the age of eighty-eight, her life already behind her, she received a tidy sum from the German government that allowed her, in her 90s, to finally discover the pleasure of spending money. Inextricably intertwined with this saga is her ultimately futile fight to recover her rightful share of her parents’ estate, traced in drifts of letters from a dozen different lawyers. Ruth has always wondered what led them to disinherit her — an impossibility in German law, as Mischi later discovered — because, from the correspondence she comes across, it seems they never stopped caring for their daughter.
Just minutes ago, she discovered a letter from 1944, in which Dr. Hilde Lion — founder of Stoatley Rough, the English boarding school for German refugee children where Mischi spent the war years— assures Lily and Hermann Matthiessen that their daughter loves to receive news and photos of them, that they don’t have to worry about any lack of affection, and that she is a good-looking, tall girl, very practical, and “quite capable to organise.”
She finds a diary of Mischi’s which she skims through, skipping whole sections, until she comes across a 1959 entry in which, exhausted and lovesick, Mischi contemplates suicide. Ruth’s first overwhelming impression is how much her mother truly loved her father, and the letters she’s found demonstrate that this endured until the end, even decades after their separation. But she can’t help the nagging realization that, conversely, Ruth and her sister, Irene, are mentioned only in passing, as if they were irrelevant to this decision… her mother has been ignoring her for even longer than she thought.
She tosses the journal away in a moment of ire, and peers out of the corner of her eye at the Gripsholm luggage, as if now she has seen everything she needed to, she is ready. But something is still holding her back: she knows her mother treasured that suitcase for decades. It’s ridiculous, because Ruth has never felt intimidated by objects, but she cannot open it yet; she does not feel strong enough to face its contents, maybe because of the weight of history.
Instead, she grabs a small file cabinet labeled “Kochrezepte” that proves to hold the recipes of her great-grandmother Helene Dobrin, Mischi’s beloved grandmother who was killed in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp near Prague. Helene and her husband Moritz founded the Dobrin Konditoreien, which quickly grew to many branches across the ritziest neighborhoods of Berlin, so successful that it became a fixture in guidebooks and even literature of the epoch. Family legend has it that Helene introduced the banana split to the German capital, and she was unquestionably a savant with desserts, so Ruth strokes the autumnal pages and vows to cook Schokoladencreme and Zitronen-Eis and Kastanientorte when they return to California.
Suddenly, an envelope with a small note pinned to it drops from the file cabinet: “Last letter from Helene to Lily before she was sent to Theresienstadt.” The ink is still crystal clear, as if written yesterday, but it is in German, the precise, old-fashioned cursive on the pristine onionskin so elongated that it resembles Cyrillic. Ruth is almost relieved that the message is indecipherable for now, and she places the letter next to the green passport with a large swastika that Lily used to flee to the United States via a tortuous journey overland through wartime France, Spain, and Portugal.
Generations of a family reside in these epistles flooding the Persian rug, yellowing papers with ink spilled in love and anger and confession by people who now must be conjured out of this correspondence that oscillates between futility and transcendence. They speak of music, literature, food and all the routines of a life, but the letters also served as a means for Ruth’s father, Stanley, to reveal his homosexuality, and for her sister to tell her that she has terminal cancer, shortly before her death at the age of forty-five. At this remove in time, there is indeed a curious flattening in which the mundane has become as important as the momentous.
Ruth is besieged by so many simultaneous sensations that no single emotion can break through, and she feels absolutely nothing except dread of that brown, battered suitcase. She focuses again on the letters: she reads them quickly, with a curiosity that is both historical and familial, and she is especially amazed by those from the post-war period, how in a single letter, Mischi is able to casually mix book recommendations with news of relatives killed in Auschwitz, and the pleasure of a night at the theater seeing The Rivals with the the horror stories of her grandfather Moritz about surviving Theresienstadt.
Among the countless letters between Mischi and Stanley, who couldn’t resist painting their love in ink even when living under the same roof, Ruth stumbles upon love letters to Mischi from a boyfriend in the 1940s, Hans, never mentioned by her mother in 70 years, yet apparently a key figure of her youth, and of her life. There, another side of Mischi appears, vivacious, chattily romantic, reproving him lightly for calling her “sweetheart” and “honey,” blaming pernicious American influence on newly-arrived Hans or perhaps a heat wave addling his mind. In a letter written a month before the end of World War II, Hans resorts to German words and uses the affectionate nickname “Mischilein,” expressing his impatience to be reunited with her in New York, which he describes as an amazing and dizzying city, as well as a place full of fruit and chocolate, so unlike England. He tells her that he has met with Lily and Hermann who, after so many years of separation from their daughter, are forced to ask this stranger whether she is tall or short, fat or thin, beautiful or ugly, straight or hunched. And Ruth suddenly makes a connection in her mind and realizes that this Hans is the same person as that mysterious figure who finally convinced Mischi’s parents to bring her over from England and reunite her with them.
A curious and slightly jarring phrase jumps out at her. Hans assures Mischi that he has not said a word to her parents about her “slightly fat hams”. At first it seems vaguely insulting, especially since Mischi was always rather skinny, if anything, in her youth, but then she sees its sweetness. This is clearly the inside joke of a playful young couple (likely born in the awkward transition from Germanophone to Anglophone), repeatedly endlessly by flirtatious lovers who see a lifetime before them, until suddenly it is never repeated again. It was never intended to be seen, seventy-five years later, by the prying eyes of someone who exists only thanks to the disintegration of that romance.
After surviving all the stresses of a year apart, why did their love collapse so quickly once Mischi rejoined him in New York? Perhaps she didn’t marry Hans because for her, New York was always supposed to be a blank slate. She fervently refused to play the role of the pitiable Jewish refugee and strove to disassociate herself from anyone else who had escaped the Nazis. Driven by an instinct for self-protection and rebelliousness against her family, she preferred to marry the most Aryan-looking man she met, an intellectual Christian from rural Indiana, and to celebrate Christmas with her daughters instead of Hanukkah.
The explorer on the Persian rug also comes across less exciting but less distant messages, fallen into the oblivion of forgetfulness, and the Ruth of the present stares into the eyes of the Ruth of the past, who, apparently, was already obsessed with food and J. D. Salinger and casually bandying about Freudian terms to describe her feelings at the age of nine. But what surprises her most is to read how she and her mother joked with each other and talked to each other with love, and it brings her back to the first 20 years of her life, when she had admired her mother so much, before everything soured.
Mischi’s cooking is one bright memory Ruth has always been able to cling to. She opens the freezer, where the last taste of her mother awaits her, and the soup that Mischi froze the previous Passover still tastes like youth and life all these months later.
After this culinary reconciliation, Ruth returns to the fray and grabs a few more folders. She knew Mischi always had some aspirations as a writer, but she had no idea how complex her poetry was, or that she had gotten interest from publishers about short stories and even a novel. How could she have hidden this part of her life from her daughter? She finds a rejection letter from an Annie Laurie Williams, who regrets being unable to publish Mischi’s story, Exodus, but expresses great interest in her upcoming novel.
Ruth reads the first sentence of the novel, apparently untitled — “When the Jacksons did their customary entertaining on Saturday nights, Harriet Jackson underwent a complete metamorphosis” — and falls into the reader’s trap of wondering if Harriet is an alter ego of her mother. She leafs through the sheets and jumps from page to page until she reaches Harriet’s suicide, and she is stung once again by Mischi’s attitude.
She turns around and sees only photos full of inhabitants of the past which, instead of saddening her, suddenly make her feel an enormous gratitude for this world-wide caesura. Plunged by Death into dissociation, confusion and uncertainty, she has been able to take refuge in silence, isolation and freedom from distractions, the perfect ingredients for a generous balm, all of which she would have lacked under normal circumstances, since in American culture everything must be overcome from one day to the next, because it holds no place for mourning.
Seen as a unified story, the pile of documents floods Ruth with sympathy, compassion and appreciation. With the safety and perspective of time, reified on the Persian carpet of that apartment in Queens, her mother has been transformed into a literary character with multiple names — Marion, Mischi, Mischilein, — a stranger with a fascinating life that her daughter was often barely aware of. It seems to her that this post-mortem portrait exudes intelligence, humor and sensitivity, and Ruth forgives her mother all the years of threats and negativity.
Now she feels emotionally ready to face the suitcase. Ruth carries it next to the window to illuminate it clearly and, even though she’s not normally one for photos, she snaps a couple as a memento, because she’s afraid the valise will crumble in her hands. She wipes off her glasses, takes a deep breath, smiles, and steels herself to open the case, knowing she can take any painful memory or discovery. She has History before her eyes and feels powerful confronting that suitcase which bore her mother’s dreams and sighs on the long boat ride from Liverpool to New York and the unknown. For a second after it falls open, Ruth’s brain can’t process what’s before her eyes, and then she giggles helplessly as she realizes the case is filled entirely with the tackiest Christmas decorations she’s ever seen.
After all, Keza has been exercising omnipresence for some time: why should one more city pose a problem? Saturday kicks off with a job interview over Zoom that she’d told Ganza would finish by 12 at the absolute latest; three quarters of an hour past noon, she’s still there, her tongue coated with the minutiae of her value as a computer programmer, pert as ever, full of assurances that the location is ideal. If she’s hired, she’ll be in Seattle right away, yes, yes, no problem, it’s practically next door, there’s nothing tying me down here.
Much as he tries not to eavesdrop, Ganza overhears each of Keza’s promises, and the mere thought of her departure saddens him. He tries to focus on cooking: he long since finished the mimosas (they will be watered down), the pancakes (they will get cold), the fruit (it will go brown), the scoops of ice cream (they will melt). His patience is wearing thin, but he knows that this is a great job opportunity for her, but he doesn’t want her to leave Nebraska, but in reality it’s less than four hours by plane, but he’s tied down here, but it will be a great place for an electrical engineer once he can go, but he hopes she stays, but hang up already, goddamnit, but.
When Keza finishes, it’s obvious that the interview has left her drained, but she revives herself with that watery, cold, browned, melted and love-filled brunch prepared by her Ganza. The culinary shortcomings go unmentioned, and they thoroughly enjoy the start of the birthday weekend, despite the incessant pinging of notifications, which Keza ignores, but which irritate Ganza: so much beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep. Keza doesn’t even bother glancing at her cell any more: at nine o’clock at night in Central Africa, her aunts have finally finished the daily grind and are free to flood her with advice in the form of photos and memes and videos and copy-pasted texts full of painful misspellings about how to wash your hands, the benefits of eating meat, anti-epidemic robots in hospitals, the evils of thinness, the horrors of too short a dress. And they also send selfies, many selfies, every day, with lighting and perspectives that would inevitably accentuate (or create) double-chins on even the best of aunts. Not all are really her aunts, of course: in Rwanda, every baby is raised in the bosom of the community, family or not, and the women involved in that upbringing are generous enough to bestow their precious advice ad æternum, no matter how old the baby grows. The non-aunt aunts of WhatsApp are the antonym of silence.
Despite the aggressive beep-beep-beep, the volatile mix of champagne and vitamin C starts to have its effect, but just as things are really progressing, a call comes in. Ganza tells her not to take it, come on, it’s not your birthday until tomorrow, but she knows all too well how the twenty-four hour phone and internet packages work in her homeland: if she doesn’t answer now, they may not talk for another week or two.
It’s Keza’s mother. You know the drill, shhhh! I couldn’t wait until tomorrow, how is Maine, very good, very good, quiet, here it’s the same ol’ same ol’. Her conversations with Mom verge on the soporific, now more than ever since she fully dedicated herself to lying as a narrative form — before, at least, the half-truths gave her a rush of adrenaline. She recounts to her mother what she would be doing in Maine by reproducing her day in Nebraska, changing the backdrop a little, imagining herself confined in solitude in that apartment she hasn’t seen in weeks. She no longer gets nervous when they talk because she is at peace with this compassionate white lie. In case Mom calls that day (since it is winter in Rwanda, she always asks if it is cold), Keza has gotten into the morning habit of checking the weather in the city where she pays rent but hasn’t set foot since March.
Keza considers it perfectly normal not to reveal the whole truth about her romantic situation, which is still tender, uncertain and fragile, but to lie about the weather somehow seems to her the nadir of shamelessness, because that would be to deny nature. Feeling Ganza’s skin is also part of nature, but it happens in a modest recess, not exposed to the totalitarian sun and wind. She would never do that to her mother, so in Omaha, Nebraska, she always dresses in accordance with the meteorological whims of Portland, Maine, remaining faithful to the woman who gave her life, even if it means sweltering occasionally. Besides, science assures her that both cities have temperate continental climates, so who’s she to quibble about 10 or 15 degrees?
Keza changes the subject as quickly as possible: everything is fine here, everything is the same, the usual, how about you? Life in Rwanda has changed with the virus, of course, and at first she was interested in keeping up-to-minute on all the daily ins and outs, but now it has all begun to blend together: the family businesses are still struggling to stay afloat, people are swarming around without masks or remorse on their motorbikes and in church, and most are living hand to mouth. Dad likes to think he’s the one saving the day because he’s bringing some money in here and there from those ventures he’s always tangled up in that Keza and the rest of the siblings are kept blissfully ignorant about. Mom keeps things running smoothly: she doesn’t merely do housework — that’s a perk of the rich — she works at the gas company, has savings, and ensures her husband thinks that yes, yes, without you, we couldn’t manage. So the usual, but with a pandemic in the background.
Her parents are not really aware of what is going on in the United States — Dad is not at all aware, let’s not delude ourselves; he never calls. They know about historical slavery and stop telling us about it: they have no idea about the current injustices. They’ve never heard of George Floyd, much less Breonna Taylor, and Keza doesn’t tell them about #BlackLivesMatter, or protests around the country. What for? To make them worry? Everything’s all right, Mom; the usual, Mom.
Her mother knows the basics: that Keza works from home (home? “home”), that she does something with computers, something, that Ganza exists, that he is a Tutsi, obviously, that it hasn’t rained today. She doesn’t need to know anything else: delving into the intricacies of daughters’ lives is overrated.
Keza mentioned him once months ago, a friend, and then didn’t breathe a word when she moved 1,000 miles away to hunker down through the uncertainty and loneliness of the pandemic in his house, all timelines accelerated. At the beginning, she always made sure to Skype from in front of a white wall, to avoid arousing suspicion, but little by little she has managed to assemble a reproduction of the living room of her apartment in Maine, a stage designed with a click, so perfectly identical that Keza moves through it, phone in hand, with a mixture of comfort and repulsion. She doesn’t know why she has gone to so much trouble; in the end her conversations are made up of pixels, echoes, endless repeating, and what, what, what?
Today, lying seems unusually daunting for some reason: she invents a parallel birthday in Maine, where her sister still lives, and recounts to her mother in great detail the plans they have together, but soon she gets caught up in the fabrication and is able to visualize every detail, even the color of the non-existent confetti at her imaginary celebration.
They end the call, and so much dissembling leaves a bad taste in her mouth. No matter — she’ll steel herself by the next call and continue to hide her omnipresence and talk about the weather, gaslight her mother if she remarks on anything off about the furniture and patiently explain once again (and again and again) how to activate the front camera.
Keza is living in a joyful glow. She really cares about Ganza, but it must remain a secret, because she has grown up listening to “don’t go out with a boy until you’re married” and “hide your fiancé from your father until the wedding day.” And that’s why she must omit him, separate him from the world shared with her mother. By verbalizing an imaginary reality in which she is single and confined in solitude, she has unwittingly created a double life that overwhelms her sleep-weakened defenses to erupt into her nightmares.
They’ve barely been dating for six months, but for Ganza this is the most special weekend of the year. He gives her his first gift: a surprise dinner with friends on the terrace of the African restaurant downtown, her favorite of the city. The evening starts with gloves, mask and air kisses and inevitably ends with photos of abandoned social distancing and santés with spit-covered glasses. The cherry on top of a perfect night is his second gift, which the whole group gets excited about: traditional Rwandan outfits with matching prints. The couple quickly changes in the bathroom, making them look even more hopelessly like lovebirds, and their garb ends the night stained with toasts and laughter.
They sleep spooning, without taking off their soiled clothing, in an improvised, unspoken, and enveloping gesture of love. Keza lives in flyover country, pays rent on an empty apartment in the Northeast and has her sights set on working on the West Coast. Sometimes she gets lost in nocturnal musings, questioning the tangibility of her existence, but today she drifts off with the absolute conviction that her true home lies in that secret embrace.
She awakes to the pleasure of a foot massage, a barrage of celebratory kisses and the smell of coffee and reheated dinner leftovers. Keza rouses herself and looks at the outfits that now mark their unity as a couple, and she feels happy and calm. Her objectives for today: tranquility and repose — no work emails or competition over who folds the laundry faster.
Although on Sundays they usually start the day discussing current events with mouths full of solutions and breakfast, Ganza tries to keep things trivial, steering the conversation away every time a fraught topic comes up, because today is a happy day, we should talk about something else; today you wanted to relax, right? But Keza argues that there is nothing more worthy of her birthday than words, their only power, in fact: as temporary residents of the United States, they cannot risk going to demonstrations, since getting involved in any hint of politics could easily end up in deportation. They can’t even feel secure walking in their residential neighborhood at night, because they are at the mercy of any white neighbor who deems them suspicious and calls the police.
They love to see the system finally teetering, but they have to resign themselves to a struggle from the shadows and take solace in talking about what’s going on around them, watching videos of police brutality, stirring up consciousness on the Internet under pseudonyms, patronizing African American and African businesses. Their trench is built of those little gestures. They want to help and participate, because they have become a part of this country over the years, even if they don’t plan to stay forever, in this place as full of opportunities as of contempt, this place that has defined their identities from a perspective they never could have conceived of in Rwanda. They both reject from the core of their beings any possibility of raising children in a land where merely to be black is to be in constant danger.
But for now they see no reason to return to Rwanda: their careers are going well, each of their siblings is scattered in a different country, all their friends have emigrated, and every visit means hundreds of dollars in gifts. When they return, in the future, it will be to open their own business, but their present is located somewhere in the vastness of the United States. Better not to protest, no.
Ganza is right: on this day it is better not to think about any of that. Forget it, it doesn’t matter, the agenda for today is to immerse herself in utter relaxation. But in the midst of her mani-pedi, Keza remembers the pepper spray that the police used against demonstrators last Thursday; as they watch a matinee, a racist comment from a man in the street a couple of weeks back races through her mind; and even trying to read a book (with the incessant beep-beep-beep symphony in the background), her eyes glaze over as she reaffirms to herself that people only listen when there are riots, and she feels devastated that she cannot be there.
It is only when they cook the special birthday dinner together — isombe, ubugali and waakye — that Keza becomes completely immersed in the glow of tenderness that has been a gift of the lockdown and stands watching Ganza dipping the sorghum leaves. She forgets about Seattle or Portland and for once is fully present in Omaha, and the scene radiates so much beauty that it becomes an oil painting: the blending of colors, the perpendicular light that divides his face, the shadows that infuse the cabbage and tomatoes with drama, the atmospheric perspective created by the sfumato of yucca flour.
The still life is shattered by a sudden ringing. As soon as she picks up the phone, Keza has a mysterious premonition that her mother is no longer living in ignorance. She feels ridiculous, tiny, insignificant. She doesn’t know how she knows, but she knows. A hunch, what do you want me to tell you, kid? The thought lasts for a second — should I tell her or not? — but then she returns to constructing a simpler life, thanks her for the well-wishes and focuses on the staccato questions with precise answers: no, Mom, not at all cold, not at all, the weather here in Maine today is gorgeous.
A storm like this is unheard of at Kilstonia during the dry Oregon summer. Strange to see the pounding rain; only this morning, the baked cloudless sky had set off in stark shadows a beaver brazenly gorging himself on the willow tree on the island. Vera’s willow tree. She jumped out of bed, 81 years and recent foot surgery at once forgotten, grabbed her .22, unlatched the lock to the balcony, paused a brief instant to avoid spooking the critter, and edged the door cautiously open. Resting the gun on the railing to avoid any unwanted trembling, she closed an eye to aim carefully, mumbled “I got you, you little bastard,” and shot him to doll rags, one more witness to her excellent aim.
While she was at it, she picked off a couple of passing nutria, an exotic invasive species with no business in these parts. The beaver may have a bit more local cred as the state animal, but he should have thought more about the responsibilities which accompany that honor before sinking those blunt teeth into her willow tree. Blasting those animals away filled her with peace. Vera already has enough to bear with the geese blanketing the shore of her lake with shit, the birds pecking at her corn, and the deer invading her garden every time she forgets to latch the gate. What a glorious morning.
That happiness was shattered when Vera remembered that the bridge was being repaired, and leaving the animals there to gaze at the sky might mean an unbearable stench in a few days, because it’s hard to guarantee the prompt services of a vulture or a hawk. Normally she would have asked Steve to collect the inert animals, but her husband was still inert himself, and she decided that, in the end, it would be less trouble to take care of it herself than to spend all day begging him to. Anyway, she knew very well it wouldn’t take long: she gathered her gray hair in a ponytail, grabbed the boat, rowed the thirty feet to reach the island, seized the beasts by their necks and, once back on terra firma, tossed them into the woods to be eaten by a fox, a lynx, a cougar or any other carnivore that should take a liking to these nasty creatures.
When she got back to the house, its 10,000 square feet imposing even amidst the natural splendor stretching out in every direction, Steve was impatiently waiting to go on their daily morning stroll to pick up the mail, on many days their only lifeline to civilization. When he heard about Vera’s spree, though, he took an unusual step: in case they crossed paths with any hungry animals lured by the sweet stench of his wife’s victims, he fetched the hunting knife that usually only accompanied him on late night walks.
As they returned home under the clear blue sky, Vera felt a sudden sharp pain in her temples and told Steve that a storm was brewing, but he sternly disabused her of that misconception with that universal reflex of husbands that always drove her to desperation. Fine, let him think whatever he wants, time will tell. She can’t be touched by negativity, because pacing the paths of those 40 acres that are her corner of the earth cures her of all ills: she has always dreamed of having her own forest, and now she has much more than that at Kilstonia.
As they do every morning, the couple work on the New York Times crossword puzzle, side by side, the effects of the coffee mingling with the rush from solving the trickiest clues. Vera was surprised that Lidia the spider was not in the kitchen, but she didn’t take it as a bad omen at the time. What did begin to arouse her suspicions was that, in all the hours and hours she spent tending the garden, she didn’t spot a single arachnid among the daisies, the roses, the delphiniums, the achillea, the lilies, the hollyhocks, or the columbines. And this despite painstakingly searching for them because, in the tradition of the Czech community of Baltimore where she grew up (still the foundation of her vision of the world seven decades later), spiders bring good luck.
This mysterious absence sent a chill down her spine, intensified by the dark, bruised clouds lurking in the west that merged with the tops of the dozens of pine trees encircling the house. She remedied this by wrapping herself in her favorite sweatshirt, which reads “My body is a temple (ancient and crumbling).” She continued busying herself with her wonderful flowers, where today not one bee was buzzing, playfully, to bathe itself in nectar… “Ježíš Marjá,” she exclaimed. She had been so fixated on spiders that she had overlooked the complete disappearance of insects. She listened intently: there was no bird song either. She shook her head. Ježíš Marjá, Ježíš Marjá. When she swore, the words always came out in Czech.
Curiosity outweighed any real concern and, since there was nothing to disrupt her habits, at four o’clock in the afternoon she sat down in the sunroom with her book — she was currently immersed in the mammoth History of the Persian Empire — a white wine and soda — to help her relax — and a bowl of potato chips, such a treat that she broke them into progressively smaller and smaller pieces to stretch them across time — something her brother taught her as a child.
That’s when the storm arrived suddenly, a violent barrage of hail assaulting the skylights with such force that Vera felt dazed, transfixed for several long moments before staggering to her room to take her second nap of that strangely dark day at the end of June.
Now, the couple of retired aerospace engineers is quietly cooking dinner, but the storm and Vera’s headache rage unabated. So powerful is Steve’s sweet tooth that Vera expresses love through fine pastry, but today she just wants to do something quick and dirty so she can get to bed and sleep all night long. Steve’s warm voice and the meticulous narrative style he learned as an only child in a bookish Jewish environment massage Vera’s aching temples. Her husband recounts his day and laments lacking time to do everything he wanted: he played the piano for a while in the music room but not the violin, he played chess online but didn’t read, he did a few push-ups and weights in the attic but no abs, he grumbled at length while reading the President’s latest tweets and jotted a couple of notes but didn’t add a single paragraph to his book Feeling Our Universe. Same old same old.
The coronavirus has barely tickled them. There have been a few changes, of course: they can’t receive visits from their children and grandchildren, or hold the music camp they’ve been hosting for years, or attend the monthly Eugene Atheist luncheons, or play string quartets, or meet with Cottage Grove Community United, the group they founded to upend the area status quo, already triumphant in shutting down the infamous “fascist knife shop” (two of the owners recently convicted of hurling rocks through the windows of a synagogue). They miss the energy of group creativity, activism, and family, but the routine, the essence, is still intact.
Vera rubs her temples, and Steve recommends that she take an aspirin and heads to the first floor to fetch it. Five years younger than his wife, he is concerned about her health and takes zealous care of her, especially now: Vera has already made it through six or seven bouts of pneumonia, so the virus would strike her mercilessly. Steve does all the shopping so that Vera needn’t come into contact with people at the supermarket, but he’s not too worried about Laura, the woman who cleans the house every week, or Jake, the bipolar gardener who lives illegally in the cabin next to the barn, the rusting hulks of his cars covering the lawn, and whom they’ve been politely inviting to vacate the premises for some time without effect. After all, Vera has been practising social distancing all her life — thank God for her Central European origins — and she still has excellent hearing, so she doesn’t need to get too close to anyone.
The clouds cling to the treetops of Kilstonia and drape the entire sweep of the heavens without diluting their fury, and by 7 PM, an unusual greyish darkness has already fallen almost two hours before sunset. The first blackout hits when Steve is descending in the elevator, aspirin bottle in hand, but it doesn’t last long, and he escapes the funereal claustrophobia within a few minutes. Neither of them is scared, because they live with the simple conviction that fear is not a useful recourse.
For dinner, they have spaghetti in a thick sauce overflowing with meatballs. No calorie counting or fad diets here — the blood of generations of butchers run in Vera’s veins, after all — but they eat so gracefully that neither of them allows a single drop to escape onto the spotless white tablecloth, still immaculate and unwashed after hundreds of meals. Under the flickering chandelier, Steve tells her how salt was a monopoly of the Spanish royal family from the Middle Ages until 1869, prices tyrannically raised when unforeseen expenses arose, such as a war or the fancy for one more palace. Vera has been intentionally undersalting her cooking for decades because Steve never asks her to pass the shaker without unearthing another tale from the annals of salt, apparently endless, of which she never tires.
In the same week in August 1966, Steve discovered and named the comet Kilston and gave a ride to a funny, intelligent blonde girl whose car had broken down in the Berkeley hills and would become his wife ten years later, after a decade-long soap opera involving irresolute sisters, the Summer of Love, and three children thrown in. The comet will not return for another 180,000 years, and his love for Vera would not repeat any sooner.
For dessert, they have toast with Plum Impeachment Jam from the 2017 summer harvest, lacking flavor for Steve but leaving Vera content. That’s when the generator explodes.
“It seems like the Donald isn’t a fan of his jam,” declares Vera, who never loses her cool, but they immediately get into an argument about whose turn it was to fill the propane tank — yours, no, yours, no, yours, yours.
Well, we’re not going to fix this tonight: Steve scrounges around for some candles, clearly with no intention of going to bed, but Vera is not up for any nonsense — there is a storm pounding outside and inside her skull — so she climbs step by step by step up the majestic double stairway, supporting herself with her cane and the bannister (when was the last time she dispensed with the elevator?). Before she gets into bed, she gives herself a quick sponge bath and goes out on the terrace to admire the vast moonless night from the balcony: what extraordinary beauty, that absolute darkness that does not exist in the city, and that she had never known until moving to the kingdom of Kilstonia.
She sleeps peacefully and, at around one in the morning, in the midst of that dream where she shoots zombies from the balcony as they lurch towards the house, their faces uncovered, their coughing virulent, their hands clutching “Trump 2020” signs, she is awoken by frenzied footsteps ringing on the metal spiral staircase by her window. She peers out and sees Jake, waving a shotgun with crazed blue eyes popping out of their sockets, in what looks like another one of his psychotic breaks. Not again… She calmly draws the curtain, opens the door to the hall and proclaims with that authoritative echo that is a gift of grandiose architecture: “Steve! Go out to the east wing and see what the hell is wrong with Jake.”
She tries to get back to sleep, because she has a couple of zombies left to deal with, but the loud notes of the piano reverberating through the floor ensure that she can’t sleep a wink. What a drag. Steve clearly didn’t pay any attention to her at all. She grabs her cane and heads downstair — step, step, step — engulfed in inky blackness illuminated sporadically by relentless flashes of lightning. She reaches the bottom with a stumble and raises her cane up high so the grandiloquent excoriation that Steve is about to receive for not dealing with Jake will be more theatrical. She opens the door to the music room and the piano stops playing. She tells herself that it must be the ghost of the music camp that will never happen this year, and she lets out one of those guffaws which only one’s own unsurpassed wit can elicit, and it rumbles through the walls of the mansion and mingles with the thunder.
But Vera only believes in one ghost, that of her mother, who haunts her from the morning, when she carefully arranges everything in its proper place, through the afternoon, every time she finishes a task with iron perfection, to the evening, when she performs her washing ritual (hands, face, and feet) before going to bed.
When she closes the door to the music room, she hears Paganini clattering from the radio in the dining room, and Vera is led there by blows of her cane and lightning. In the brief pallid clarity of a flash, Vera sees a red gush that has ravished the cleanliness of the tablecloth and fleeting legs dragged across the floor. Fear grips her for the first time in decades: she has not known terror since fleeing her mother’s wooden spoon after revealing her engagement to her first husband.
She doesn’t know how to react. She flicks the nearest light switch, as if to illuminate her house and her mind, both immersed in darkness, in the nightmare of Steve’s blood on the tablecloth, of his feet now disappearing from her view through the glass door. Nothing. Should she climb stair by stair by stair to retrieve the .22 from her room? How could she have left it upstairs? What a blunder. But there’s no time to go back for it: she could lose Steve. A sudden Socratic epiphany blazes, and she remembers the wild hemlock she’s been trying to dispose of for ages, but which she subconsciously has always known she’d eventually resort to.
She creeps outside stealthily. The sky roars, the rain drums down ceaselessly, the branches of the garden mosaic writhe and turn to snakes, the raven Cicero croaks his long-winded discourses without respite, the wind chimes abandon their delicacy and howl with metallic fury, Vera tears the hemlock out with her gloved left hand and ponders how to administer the poison. Of all the possibilities, her favourite is undoubtedly shoving the herbs up Jake’s ass, but she realizes the logistics may prove tricky — although, well, as a child she threw a boy twice her size into a hole when necessary to defend her brother: no doubt she’ll manage to make it work now. She’ll have to improvise based on what she’s given. That bastard Jake, clinging to them like a limpet, unabashedly calling himself one of the family — pah, as if they didn’t already have family to spare with five children and seven grandchildren — with his gun collection filling his illegal hut, worse than a thousand hungry beavers or nutria. She, like the police, had believed him when he claimed his wife woke up in the middle of the night and shot herself, but now she is filled with doubt. She remembers the crimson stain, the slack feet bouncing, the protruding eyeballs of a maniac with coronavirus (I mean, he never wears a mask, this guy). Hemlock. Up the ass.
Vera, limping in sandals and socks and a white nightgown, her hair disheveled, spots movement in the pond, like a struggle, and advances quickly under the pitiless rain, taking advantage of the fact that the noise of her footsteps is swallowed by Cicero’s incessant harangue and the hooting of the owl from the windowless barn. The shadowy figures of the two men are battling for their lives amidst the water lilies, and Vera remembers Baba Sklutskem, draped in muck and algae, that club-wielding water spirit lurking in the depths of lakes to drag men to their death, who appears with her mother’s face, and the vision makes her recoil and turn around. Steve calls out Vera’s name.
Her Steve, her beloved Steve, the apple of her eye! She will sniff his tie-dye shirts every day, erect a shrine in his honor in the geographical centre of Kilstonia adorned with orchids and marshmallows and chess pieces, cry every time she sees the North Star shining in the sky. Ježíš Marjá, Vera, save your husband, your mother is long dead and lives only in your daily routines, and Baba Sklutskem exists only in folklore and certainly isn’t welcome in Kilstonia. Vera tosses away her cane and runs with an agility she’d thought long-gone; she thinks of the red blood on the tablecloth, of the dragged feet…
Vera, Vera! Steve keeps yelling, and the yells fill her with such fury that she crushes the hemlock into juice. When she arrives at the shore, panting, Steve turns casually to her and informs her with the greatest tranquillity in the world that Vera’s shrieking about Jake startled him so much that he had soaked the tablecloth in stewed rhubarb, that he was forced to eat the entire bowl so it wouldn’t spoil with the fridge off after the generator explosion, hehe, some people might think it was too sweet to eat plain, but the final bite hadn’t lost any of the relish of the first bite, fancy that, an entire bowl, well, until she’d made him upend it! That Jake was hysterical and lost, and that Steve had to soothe him by explaining the magical essence of our gentle universe, how everything is connected and how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That Jake suffered a real shock when he got wind of this, and Steve had to drag him into the lake so the icy water would bring him back to his senses, because there was no other way to revive him, look how calm he is now, our dear Jake. That the two of them are tangled up in the pedicels of the water lilies, though in no danger, but the hunting knife has sunk to the bottom of the lake, so a pair of pruning shears would really come in handy.Because of her unwonted exertion, Vera’s hips, left knee, right big toe, and upper eyelashes hurt, and she is drenched with rain and foaming rage. Now she would love to use the hemlock on Steve instead, via the same orifice, but she can’t, not for lack of enthusiasm, but because it has all disintegrated along the way. Vera, who had avoided the pinch of fear for more than sixty years, peers down on the miserable duo crouching damply among the plants and melts back into the storm, illuminated by a continuous explosion of lightning bolts: Ask Baba Sklutskem to help you out, or perhaps I could cut off the stalks from the upper balcony with my .22, but I can’t vouch for my aim at night, so maybe you lovebirds had better manage on your own, and after you’ve gotten out, the two of you can see to it that the tablecloth is sparkling by the time I’m up for breakfast, because there’s no place for stains in Kilstonia. And she departs screaming an endless flurry of Ježíš Marjás at the top of her lungs.
It was all caused by that fateful office durian party and his resulting binge. And the worst thing is that Ong himself had come up with the idea, inspired by the arrival of June and hoping to cheer up his coworkers, their palates plunged in sorrow and longing for vanished flavors.
The arrival of the king of fruits is always an occasion of joy, but in this year of culinary deprivation, Penang’s favorite delicacy has become manna in a desert of monotony and isolation. That’s why, when Ong showed up this morning with those disposable plastic packages of durian — well-wrapped, well-sealed, no smell on the bus, no smell — his coworkers had greeted him with eager cries.
His few coworkers who were still there, that is — many had asked for indefinite unpaid leave to avoid infection or because of the political instability, who knows. But now is one of the most joyful periods of the year, and they gathered round a couple of tables — eight feet apart, disinfecting every package, not passing anything along — and enjoy the savory, sweet, creamy fruit, its smell permeating the air, attaching to their hair, their clothing, and their souls. Durian, like love, is meant to be shared. With so few left to share with, though, Ong ended up gorging himself, entranced by the irresistible seduction of that fruit fatal.
Even in this rare moment of bliss, Ong couldn’t resist complaining. What misery, what misery it has been for his taste buds. And his coworkers are going through the same suffering: nobody knows how to cook, what’s the point? They live in a culinary mecca where buying food crafted by a specialist is cheaper and quicker than getting tangled up with pots and pans at home. A colleague, mouth full of durian, heart full of desperation, recommended a brand of frozen dim sum which is quite edible when boiled at home, don’t be close-minded, it does the job, and they laughed at this perversity, and each returned to his job.
Ong, mesmerized by the demands of his belly, can’t get his favorite dim sum restaurant out of his head all afternoon and hasn’t done diddly squat. What’s it been, eight, ten weeks now? Without being able to sit in a restaurant. Now they do let you, but with contact tracing and social distancing, and eating out means being immersed in a viral paranoia that clouds and dizzies you, and it’s impossible to enjoy anything.
He sits there, in that grey building in an office park in the Free Industrial Zone, gawking foolishly at his computer, caught in an obsessive spiral in which all he can focus on is tasting one of his favorite culinary treats again. But first, he has to send invoices in English, dim, record the last air freight of the day, sum, authorize the departure of a shipload in Malay, dim, negotiate prices in Hokkien for transport on passenger-free commercial flights, sum, explain in Mandarin to a Singapore importer the problems of meeting the voracious demand with the current meager supply, dim, because, if not, the shelves of the supermarkets will be empty, sum, and he will not be responsible for such an atrocity.
With difficulty, he wraps everything up and leaves once and for all, no longer able to resist the urging of his insatiable stomach, which, though already full of durian, insists on tasting dim sum. Although his mind may tell him that a bland slop is all that awaits him for dinner, his stomach prevails by projecting mirages before his mind, of laden carts groaning under a dizzying array of neatly-arranged plates amidst a halo of light, surrounded by the dingy colonial charm of the colorful shophouses of central Georgetown, where the best dim sum in the country is eaten.
Ong feels feverish, but suspects that the sensation is fruit of the visceral gluttony that is whipping him with psychosomatic fury. It can’t be anything else; as usual, this morning, before he had been allowed into the office, they had taken his temperature, invited him (invited him, ha!) to apply an anti-bacterial gel and check in at the entrance, with his name, ID, hour, minute and second of arrival, exact temperature and practically his brand of underwear. And, anyway, well, he doesn’t have a fever. Neither he nor anyone else. He touches his forehead and perhaps there is a slight burning, but nothing, nothing. There’s no virus whatsoever. This is all just a result of culinary nostalgia, no doubt. He grabs his things with a calmness grounded in his own conviction that all is well. He shuts all his paranoia in that scrawl-filled notebook which he puts away in his briefcase with all his fears and locks up, suffocating the panic behind the lock.
He goes out into the street, and the humid 90 degrees pack more of a punch than ever. There’s absolutely nothing wrong. It’s rush hour and prices on Grab are sky high, so, since he’s feeling so well, he heads to the bus stop and unsheathes the weapon he needs for such an inexplicable whim: patience. He’ll take the bus to Komtar and then continue in a taxi. There is a very long line, which at first intimidates him, because it reminds him of the lines that formed when they shut down the city a few weeks ago, and people began to pile up in front of the police stations to apply for the necessary permits to make interstate trips. Then chaos had seized dominion little by little, with police checkpoints on every road and those government edicts that even their enforcers did not understand, and nobody sure how to behave. The emergency alerts issued by the government, which were pushed to all cell phones in Malay only, with shrill alarms that seemed to announce a nuclear strike, not only spread panic but also deliberately excluded two thirds of the island’s population. It was during those days that he realized that this time it wouldn’t be like the SARS and MERS scares, that this was something huge, which in recent weeks had already wrought radical consequences on the economy, on freedom of movement, on Malaysian politics, on his nerves.
But this line can be blamed only on rush hour and the embarrassing scarcity of 301 buses. Wait, wait, he’s starting to sweat. Is the fire from within or without? He rubs his face against the cold glass of the shelter, slowly, with a cat-like gesture that he hopes nobody sees. At least the street is awash with the sweet smell of durian; despite the virus, it seems like every trunk is loaded with the fruit, and stalls have sprouted up overnight along the side of the road. He focuses on that fragrance as a survival method while cooling his forehead.
Finally the bus arrives and he ends up last to board, because he doesn’t like crowds, much less of contagious people (like him?). Before climbing the stairs, he gathers his strength and puts on his best “I don’t have a fever” face. The driver takes his temperature once, frowns, once again. Ong smiles grimly (as if his mouth were visible through his mask) get in, c’mon, get in, it’s only a few tenths of degrees, and acknowledges the favor with a terima kasih that is more like a sigh.
He pretends to sit tranquilly, collapsing next to an old woman who doesn’t seem like she can see her hand in front of her face, so she probably won’t be judgmental about Ong’s sweat. He presses his face to the cold glass again, his relief only spoiled by his own thoughts: he grows even hotter at the thought of that devious coup d’état supported by the sultan himself and orchestrated to take advantage of the COVID outbreak and seize power from Mahathir after instituting confinement, even though this is still a democracy, right? even if they didn’t vote for the new prime minister, even if now Muhyiddin has consolidated power, even if it doesn’t matter anymore, because you have coronavirus and that’s that, admit it, Ong, death is kissing the back of your neck, you will disappear from the face of the Earth and leave the living to squabble over freedom.
Don’t cough, don’t cough, watch an episode of Normal People on your phone and relax. But he can’t lose himself in the show and is obsessed with the idea of not coughing, and although he doesn’t really need to, he starts coughing like a Sabah coal miner, and the old woman asks him if he is all right while she edges away and pulls out two tiny plastic battery-operated fans to try to push the virus away. The ingenuity and the futility of this gesture somehow seems adorable in that moment. Ong has an urge to lay his head on the woman’s shoulder, but he holds back, and his stomach starts screaming “dim sum, dim sum!” as if he weren’t teetering on the edge of his grave. The young man is so moved by the etymological origin of that term — “to gently caress the heart” — that his stomach triumphs once and for all in the internal debate between dying while eating or dying in bed.
His favorite restaurant is far away and, as the fever continues to rise, it begins to seem more and more irresponsible to go; besides, it’s more than ten kilometers from his house, so legally it’s not even permitted, even though he’s already done it twice by dodging the police, Admittedly, he didn’t have coronavirus back then.
He should just go home directly, but that recommendation of frozen dim sum from his co-worker pops into his head. Since he is going to die anyway, it is worth one final effort, on a smaller scale, even if it is for frozen dim sum. He will get off in a couple of stops and go to the supermarket, that’s it, in and out, without infecting anyone, without talking, without looking at anyone. At home, the only thing he has to eat is his plants — and he would never do that to his babies. This specter which is haunting him will not deprive him of one last culinary pleasure, no way. He’d kill for that delight.
As he passes from the icebox of the bus into the sauna of the outdoors, his glasses fog up, and the blur makes him feel even dizzier, so he buys a teh tarik with extra ice from a street vendor who shouldn’t be there, but he is and, well, he looks healthy, and Ong pays without infecting him. He waits in line at the AEON — it’s short, there’s no longer so much precautionary hoarding — something he would never subject himself to if this weren’t his last meal, because he hates lines, he hates them, but he manages to lose track of time thinking about what he would give to see the Kek Lok Si temple or the mangrove backwaters of Balik Pulau once again, to go walking with his ang mo friends along touristy Chulia Street and introduce them to the world of curry mee (without telling them that in Penang it’s served with pig’s blood), to take another walk through the jungle to the beach, even to have his food stolen by monkeys again… But above all, he would love to ride his bike along the trail of durian orchards, bathing in that pungent smell that brings him back to his childhood. Once more, just once more. His eyes flood with liquid memories as he sticks the cold plastic bag to his forehead, what pleasure, what delight, what relief, and tears, sweat, and condensation mix on his face.
When his turn comes, he downs his tea in one gulp, dries himself with his sleeve, and enters the supermarket, all in a single movement, and the combined coolness of ice and air conditioning courses through his body in a chill that leaves him terrified and reminds him that the icy hand of death is still clutching at his skin, but he is convinced: he will fulfill this Dim Sum Mission if it is his last act on Earth.
At the entrance, he carefully puts on his “neither hot nor cold” face, and the guard scans the temperature of that forehead frozen from street drinking, no problem, enter, enter, the lie sticks. The guard asks him to fit his mask tight, tight, tight, puts a sticky, disinfecting mixture of soap and water and spray on his hands, sticks a number on his body that he will have to display at checkout and makes him register with a QR code to monitor the time he spends in the store: fifteen minutes, not-one-sec-ond-more. He beelines to the frozen food section, grabs a bag, pays — but doesn’t anybody respect safe distances in this line either? — exits and presses dim sum glaciers to his forehead of virus and fire. A blink of an eye: that’s how long he takes.
Now all he has to do is get a taxi, a Grab, a MyCar, a trishaw, whatever. Soon he will arrive home and kiss his mother, his sister, and his plants one last time. It’s sad, but what luck to be able to see them all.
Two drivers kick him out without explanation as soon as he gets in the car. That’s it, it is obvious to everyone that he has coronavirus, and he has become a pariah. He bites open the bag, tries to eat a frozen dumpling. That’s it, his time has come, there’s no doubt about it: nobody in their right mind would put that in their mouth, what a shitty last meal. He spits it out. The third driver also rejects him, but at least gives him a reason, gesturing to the sign on the headrest with a crossed-out durian, familiar in public transport across the Malay peninsula. In the enclosed space, every surface and fabric would be impregnated with the powerful smell.
In that blessed instant, Ong suddenly realizes that he reeks of the cursed fruit and this triggers a memory of the suffering that punished him for childhood overindulgence in his beloved durian. His mother and aunts had nagged him endlessly, telling him he mustn’t eat too much, because the potent durian is “heaty,” leading to a yin-yang imbalance which dries secretions and causes coughing and fever. With panic in the air, he hadn’t even thought to blame his suffering on gluttony. His face floods with joy at this last-second reprieve, and he uses the entire remainder of his anti-bacterial gel to wash his hands and mouth thoroughly and conceal the odor.
He gets into the fourth taxi unchallenged, relaxed in his fever, leaving behind the stress and anxiety caused by pondering these totalitarian times and the uncertainty of the future. His conquest of the false coronavirus fills him with assurance, and he immerses himself in the happiness of this moment by resting his forehead against the icy-cool window until he drifts into sleep.
Andrei dreams that once again his hands are a blur as he plays Rachmaninov’s preludes to an adoring crowd, the frenzy creates a gale that rips the socks off the pot-bellied, mustachioed man in the front row, and the performance ends with the piano bursting into flames from the hammers’ unrelenting assault on the strings.
Recently, he’s had the chance to play the pieces that have been languishing on his to-do list for a century, with time on his hands to practice for hours and hours on end. Days pass in the blink of an eye as he coaxes virtuosities out of that piano without an audience in the corner of his living room. Since he is forbidden to leave the house, he must be diligent in ensuring that his talent remains at the forefront of people’s minds, so Andrei records himself and records himself and records himself, striving for perfection on each and every note, hoping to receive the endless ovations from enthusiastic audiences that sustain him, if only virtually.
He watches the videos several times — the flying fingers, the waving bangs, the jumble of friendship bracelets dangling from his wrist, the glasses precarious on his nose, the pajama pants, the thirty-three years barely marked on his face — and assures himself that this incarnation into sound has retained all the sublimeness of the original composition. He settles on the version he thinks is best suited to Carnegie Hall and, on his 22nd viewing of the chosen video, the composer whispers to him that if he really intends to flaunt his talent by playing Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat Major, Op.106, the “Hammerklavier,” it might be wise to avoid looking like a hobo, with those polka-dot pajamas and frayed cuffs. Perhaps he could suggest some nice velvet court robes shimmering with gold and silver embroidery? Andrei silences this insolence because he’s sure Ekaterina Voznesenskaya (Katia to her friends) loves his bohemian look, a true artist totally absorbed by his own genius and isolation. And is Ludwig really one to talk, anyway? That unruly mop of his always made him look like an escaped lunatic.
It’s good, very good, the “Hammerklavier” video. If he plays like that on June 8, 2021, he will officially establish himself as an artist. For sure. Perfect rhythm, ideal harmony, optimal hand positioning… And, on top of that, it’s cunningly recorded to show him from his good side, for when people see it, for when Katia sees it.
Before he uploads it to Facebook, he puts water up to heat in the samovar and, from the kitchen window, overhears the neighbor trying to convince his girlfriend to move to Moscow once and for all. Andrei cocks an ear: for weeks he has been following the trials and tribulations of this couple and their dramatically vapid dialogue, as if ripped straight from an STS soap opera. The accusatory shouts begins, the water starts to boil, I won’t go to such a dirty, ugly city full of proud muzhiks, he searches and searches for his favorite cup, they progress to another kind of screaming, he puts the zavarka in, listens for a little while longer, pours the water into the kettle, he will never understand make-up sex, lets it steep, closes the window, sweetens the tea with jam.
He doesn’t know how he should caption the video. For the clip he posted on May 10th, he wrote, “Shortly before the corona era,” to remember one of his final concerts in a venue with an audience — dressed to kill, back then, yes: with his bow tie, his maroon suit jacket with navy blue sleeves, his tartan pants in gray tones. Katia had liked the video and every single comment made on it: “Thank God for Andrei” from Nina Golyshevskaya, “Incredibly beautiful” from Steve Kilston, “Rock star” from Marina Kononov, and “Hope you’ll be able to visit us soon” from David Lischinsky. Katia had clicked like, like, like on everything. And she herself had chimed in with, “Excellent” with one, two, three, four, five exclamation marks. Whoops, six. Six exclamation marks.
Katia has been reacting to everything Andrei posts lately: a surprised face for the video playing Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, star eyes for the shot of him in Baltimore from two years ago today, broken hearts when he uploaded endless photos of a desolate St. Petersburg under a cloudless azure sky, a thumbs up for the musical and culinary memories from that palatial Oregon mansion, green hearts for the selfie accompanied by an Oscar Wilde quote, a kiss for his short recording of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 4, a crying face for the photo of a soldier playing the piano in front of a tank with who knows what war as a backdrop.
But what touched the musician most deeply was when Katia watched the video of the piece Solitude 3, composed by him, himself, the future superstar Andrei Ivanovich Andreev, who will soar to worldwide renown with an hour-long standing ovation in Carnegie Hall, nearly fainting from a surfeit of glory, with his wife of the future weeping tears of joy from the loge and remembering that comment she’d made on May 14, 2020: “A true reflection of solitude.”
In the end, Andrei posts the video with just the title and popular name of Beethoven’s piece accompanied by the appropriate YouTube and Spotify links, eschewing musical note emojis or any such frippery, and waits expectantly before his screen. After five and a half sips of tea, Katia’s reaction arrives. She comments with an emoji of a bouquet of flowers, conveyed to Andrei by the taciturn OZON delivery driver who hums Fanny Mendelssohn’s Nocturne in G Minor through his mask as he sullenly slams down the package with the socks Andrei ordered several week before.
He arranges the colorful socks on the white table in the living room, each pair exactly one vershok apart, and takes 3D photos of them. He already has his complete outfit for the Carnegie Hall performance (unless he gets too fat, which at this rate…), but he’s still missing the most important element. He has just received ten striking pairs with stripes, checks, diamonds, and color blocks, and he likes them all, but he can’t settle on one in particular. He puts on his suit, his shirt, his bow tie, his shoes and starts swapping the socks in and out. Nothing – he still can’t choose. He places a mirror to one side of the piano and plays while wearing every possible chromatic combination, peeking at himself out of the corner of his eye. Nothing, nothing. He records a video of himself on his camera, searches in a sound effects library for applause to play at the end of each piece, to add authenticity — what can he say? He is addicted to that tightrope sensation of performing to a large auditorium with every error final. No dice. He strips off the rest of his clothes to perform sporting only socks: first this pair, then that pair; recording, mirror, peek, bow. It works, it works: the yellow ones with black squares are perfect for Carnegie Hall.
Perfect? No matter that he already posted the Hammerklavier video today: he’d better share the 3D photo on Facebook, see what people say, see what Katia says. He’s not going to mention the performance in New York, just in case it gets cancelled. He’ll ask casually, “Which ones would you wear for a big concert?” If Katia picks the red and black gingham pair or the white ones with two-tone triangles, he will forget her forever and create a Tinder account and all her emojis will pass in one eye and out the other.
But Katia comments immediately: “No contest, the yellow ones!” And then Andrei, from his home that is peacefully immersed in a silence as absolute as John Cage’s 4’33”, walks hand in hand with Katia through the streets of St. Petersburg and shows her the Rimsky-Korsakov school, where he teaches two days a week, and they eat borscht and pelmeni and stroll along the banks of the Neva, clothed in granite, her waters interlaced with fair bridges, past isles bedecked with dark-green parks, as they whisper verses by Alexander Pushkin and kiss each other for the first time in one of the countless stars on the domes of Trinity Cathedral and enter the paintings of Elena Figurina and Galina Khailu in the Erarta Museum, and Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor serves as a soundtrack, and they recall the time of COVID-19, already discussed in the past tense, what anxiety, when all the concerts were cancelled, and it seemed like the government wouldn’t aid artists, and no networking could be done in person, and we communicated with emojis and solitudes.
He travels back to the present hypnotized by the turtledove that lands on the windowsill every day at 7:46 PM and coos and purrs and twitters the Gavotte by Ella Adayevskaya and stares at him until hitting the final note and taking flight. The day’s last light is fading: he should have some dinner, study a little French, and read Zinaida Gippius to try to avoid thinking about June 2021.
Carnegie Hall keeps the concert on the calendar, a halo of hope shining around the date, but Andrei is aware that time deceives; it seems like only yesterday that he sat down in front of the piano and, with no prior training, imitated by ear what he’d just seen that older girl do. Almost three decades have passed in allegro vivace: twelve months more will pass in a sigh — and who knows what the world will look like a year from now. If he has learned anything in the last two months, it is that time does not exist, that the present and the future are only tinged by aspirations or fears or hopes or dreams, and that only Chopin’s nocturnes are clad in iron certainty.
Strawberry and cream tarts, lemon bundt cake, artisan tiramisu, blueberry muffins, Dutch apple pie, chocolate eclairs, cherry cobbler, cinnamon rolls, and bread, bread, and more bread. All expired, but it’s better than nothing.
Each time he readies this cornucopia for his people, it fills him with excitement, but ever since the chase and the $130 fine a few months ago, there is always the nagging concern that maybe this time will be another disaster.
He has just left the only supermarket that responded to his pleas — the Albertsons in South El Paso from which he has been taking a daily cartful for the past five years — and he realizes he is already feeling unusually tense. Will they let him cross? He arranges the surplus and expired products with the restraint and methodical efficiency of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s already become rote: he arrives every day at the loading and unloading zone, passes through to the bakery and pastry section, collects everything his compatriots don’t want, to be taken to those who can’t choose what they want, puts it in the cart, and distributes it among the coolers he always carries in the trunk.
Calm down, calm down, he sips water, exhales, gets in his pick-up truck, murmurs a rapid prayer. His nerves are on edge after three border crossings in a single day last week. Normally things aren’t so hectic, but it appears that, in these times, perishable goods have lost their attraction for American shoppers, and they pile up, pile up, pile up and usually land in the dumpster.
He buries his anxiety, starts the engine, and heads for the border, temporarily imbued with the tranquillity of hope and faith. That journey of barely five minutes is filled with the faces he will hopefully see today. First appears little Maria Fernanda from the orphanage, whose parents were murdered a couple of months back, but is always full of affection, seeking to be hugged, embraced, cradled. Then he decides he will leave some bread at Angélica’s house, partially repaired after another rampage of her teenage son, who sniffed glue as a kid, and then went on to marijuana and then cocaine and then meth. Wresting his thoughts away, the visage of Rahui comes to him, Rahui, who himself lives precariously in the Tarahumara settlement, is always eager to help unload the pick-up truck and distribute food to his neighbors. Just before he arrives, there flashes into his mind an image of that wryly upbeat woman everyone calls La Perrita, who loves chocolate and dirty jokes and who was thrown by her children into the teeming chaos of the overcrowded psychiatric hospital after she fell on the train tracks and lost both legs and an arm. Merely thinking about them fills him with warmth: the loneliness of a childless divorce vanishes like smoke when he arrives in Juarez, when he joins his makeshift Mexican family. He sees them every week, they kiss and hug (nowadays much less), play, pray, sing, laugh and even celebrate together at Christmas and Easter. God willing he will be able to get across. God willing.
Agents on both sides of the border have him firmly in their sights. While returning to the U.S., despite a digital trail of his countless arrivals and departures, is usually a breeze (because it’s his own country, and he has the SENTRI pass for trusted travelers), Mexico often poses problems. As he approaches customs, Jeff plans how to proceed. He could try his luck in the «Nothing to Declare» line, but if he pulls a red light, he’ll need to explain all that food, and things will get tricky. It’s better to play it safe. There are five entry points at the border — he knows them all too well, after 23 years of experience. To lessen suspicion, Jeff tries to repeat as infrequently as possible, keeping a running mental record of which is due. Although controls are less comprehensive in this direction, Jeff is often accused by officers of carrying too much food. Through painstaking trial and error, he has determined what is likely to be considered an acceptable amount — two four-foot containers per trip, three at the most — but today they may say even that’s too much. Then he will have to go back and wait for another day and try to distribute the food to the homeless people he finds in El Paso or to his neighbors, because food banks only accept donations of non-perishable food. As a last resort, Jeff will eat what he can himself before it goes bad, but what the supermarket discards is already on its last legs, and not a single eclair more can be crammed into the freezer. What can he do: sometimes the trash is an inevitable fate, and his thoughts always turn to his children whenever he’s forced to toss the spoiled food.
He’s approaching that high wall that’s been steadily growing since 1819, and Jeff can’t stop sweating. Come on, you’ve been doing this for years and years. There are a couple of cars ahead of him. No comparison to what it’s usually like; the border closed on March 21, and only those considered essential can pass. He’s essential, in theory, but they can refuse him on any pretext.
If they don’t let him through, he won’t try his luck at another checkpoint. He would hate to repeat the experience of last year’s pursuit and ticket, when he was carrying four coolers loaded with pastries and the agents wouldn’t let him cross, and he switched to another entrance and initially managed to get through, but the first guards had tipped them off, and he was commanded to stop, and he started singing loudly to feign incomprehension, and they chased him down with a truck, and they dumped him back in the United States and screamed at him, and he had to pay a fine of $135 to boot. And 2300 pesos goes a long way on the other side. No, if they don’t let him pass, he’s not going to gamble again. Now he treads carefully: better to live to fight another day, even if he has to throw away precious expired food.
The border gets closer, closer, and Jeff tenses his shoulders, squeezes the steering wheel with his hands, prays and prays that they don’t give him any trouble, turns down the K-LOVE music that always accompanies him, fits the yellow cap over his gray hair, adjusts the tiger-print mask (better to leave it on, right?), readies his passport, and hands it to the officer with gloves and caution and his blue eyes glowing with supplication and prayers crouched at the corners of his lips. Will he manage to get across?
In general, he knows the weak points and proper approach for each of the border patrol officers, who don’t give a damn about the starving people in their country or the children wasting away in orphanages. However, the agent he’s drawn today, Jorge Lopez, always keeps him guessing, because depending on what side of the bed he woke up on, he sometimes displays compassion, sometimes blazes with fury; and he’s just as likely to dutifully process the official food transportation tax as he is to cough with the self-importance of petty authority to elicit a bribe.
Jeff forces his eyes into a smile and says good morning, how are you, sir, thank you very much. To avoid any sign of weakness or concern about his lengthy entry record, he concentrates on mentally plotting his course for the day. Before starting the deliveries, he will head to kilometer 27 to buy meat, milk, eggs, and fruit at S-Mart. The cash, cobbled together from various donors as well as a sizable portion of the profits Jeff makes from his own eBay store, provides for a decent haul of fresh food. On recent trips, he’s wandered bewildered through the richly-stocked supermarket aisles: piles, mountains of toilet paper gleam under the fluorescent glare, because this battered city can’t afford the luxury of descending on stores like locusts to hoard for a catastrophe. In these times, a full supermarket is synonymous with thousands of empty cupboards and refrigerators. In Ciudad Juarez, hunger and drugs kill many more people than any damn virus.
Officer Lopez addresses him as if they haven’t faced each other two hundred and forty-two times previously, and Jeff responds with restrained friendliness, and Officer Lopez asks if he has anything to declare, and Jeff mentions the three coolers full of bread and pastry, and Officer Lopez peers at him with puzzlement and examines the vehicle with eyes filled with the eternal suspicion of one who works every day in the uncertainty of discerning good from evil.
Suddenly, this inspection, now so routine, seems to him like an oasis of calm, and he is flooded with a sense of tranquility. Let God’s will be done. What truly worries Jeff is that the lords of this jungle will exploit the situation to lure in and conscript the most desperate for the skirmishes of their lethal trade. In April, obligatory social distancing was imposed in Mexico and more than 70 percent of the large factories in Juarez closed. Now many are on the streets and dying of hunger: staying home is not a choice, but a privilege.
On top of everything, this virus has the cartels pissed off, because most of the ingredients for making drugs come from China and the ban on shipping goods from the Asian behemoth is, in this land, a ban on getting rich. Incensed. The closed borders are decimating the drug routes. Downright infuriated. A few weeks ago, five gringos were executed, including a school teacher Jeff had been working with.
But Jeff doesn’t fear these thugs, and he drives around quietly in his pick-up truck, with his Christian music and “You have a friend in Jesus” on the license plate, telling himself, repeating to himself, that the bad guys may not fear him, but they fear God. At sixty-seven years old, maybe what he should really fear is the virus, high-risk group and so mobile, but what terrifies him much more is that his people may not have anything to put on their plates.
Agent Lopez regards Jeff with apathy: it seems that today it will be the official tax; two, three hundred pesos per cooler, he will have to pay. Times aren’t so hard now really: the health crisis doesn’t stop civil servants from drawing their salary, so Jeff is only forced to cough up a bribe a third of the times he crosses the border. The situation always gets worse after federal elections, when every departing president has the nasty habit of emptying the state coffers and leaving the customs agents trembling. Since they won’t get paid anything for three or four months, they forget to ask for the official paperwork to be filled out, and their mouths fill with absurd sums, knowing that the flow of gringos will feed their families when the state can’t. There’s still a year or so to go before the next election, so, putting aside morals, Jeff is essentially indifferent: he just declares what he’s carrying, and the cost of the bribe ends up equivalent to that of the tax — only the pockets in which it ends up change, but that’s not his problem. He just wants to get to the other side.
He waits as the agent fills out forms, signs such and such document, pays for this, that, and the other, and finally crosses the border to his second home, that city forsaken by God and man — without drinking water, without sanitation, without paved streets, and without hope — and sighs with relief. Jeff is determined that he will not stop — he will keep on making his three weekly trips in this pick-up truck that has only seen El Paso and Juarez and that already bears 300,000 miles and tarts and cake and tiramisu and muffins and pies and eclairs and cobblers and rolls and bread and life.