Well, it turns out that I am hyper-fixated on background noises and want to feel them touching my skin and prickling my ears. I must have caught on to that thought or that realization while stuck in the rain one day but it does feel certain in a kind of morbid way. And, of course, I’d hate to admit that there has been a want in my heart for quite some time now; a want for something appealing like stranger’s hushed conversations on Friday nights. In admitting that thought, I become a vulnerable child and who’s to say vulnerability suits me?
I must have been walking home that night. I must have been wearing a faded jacket and a trouser and small shoes but I believe the thought came gently in the way death comes to someone that has been waiting for it for quite some time. The thought that I needed to get the sound of strangers running again in my brain must have woven itself precariously over the edge, tucking me in like November air, reckless against my cheeks, bony from too much touch.
And because I have now come to that conclusion, my heart has regained consciousness. No, I’m not saying it was dead before. If I said that and I believed it then perhaps I would not be here. My heart is a conversation that quite frankly has no end and I like it and I want it and I need it.
Today, after self-consciously leaving the door open, I find Patrick on the floor. We talk about his mother dying and how many flowers he’s had to pick for the funeral. I watch him as he talks and carries on the words the way a detached soul would. I listen as he punctuates the words and as his breaths get caught up in his throat, I nod for fear that he’d stop. Then after a while, he asks me about my husband. It is almost the same as asking about my cat: that fractured smile running around in the eyes, the question hanging loosely overhead.
Abrasively, I tell him that he’s still at work and that he won’t be home until seven. He raises his hands in surrender as if he knows so much than he’s letting on. I smile. I offer him coffee. He declines. We sit on the floor and then he stands and trails his fingers along the wall. I look up at the fan as it spins in circles and wishes he’ll say something. I need another fix, the silence is killing me.
“Will I be a good woman?” he asks.
I look at him and then at his face full of makeup. His hands are groping his chest but they look empty. He is wearing a pink tank top over too-tight jeans. His nails are painted in the darkest shade of blue like the sky at early dawn and he is looking at me quietly, gently, like he’s seeing me all over again.
“You are a woman,” I tell him.
He shrugs and then sniffs and goes to sit on the couch. “I feel like I’m the only one who truly knows me.”
“Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?”
After he leaves and I am bereft of words, I take a piece of paper and write five lines across the page and I fold it in halves, and slide it across the neighbor’s door. Twenty minutes later, from across the kitchen, she waves me. She’s seen it but she can’t talk. Alone, vividly alone, I lie in bed and dangle my feet the way I know my inner child would like and I lift the corner of my lips, achingly, like a beautiful woman.
I am not beautiful. I am beautiful but not in that way butterflies are. My beauty is pretentious, curved out simply by words of people who know too little or too much, like an addict, like a broken neon sign. I stand up and look at the mirror. My face is a reflection of a woman, man, woman who fell in love with poetry and people’s private lives who couldn’t do much about it but hate and love and pretend. And it is good but not good enough.
* * *
Nasari comes to the house one evening. She tells me her husband has traveled and her kids have gone to her sister’s. I tell her that I’m making spaghetti. She asks if she can join. I tell her yes. While we are in the kitchen, my husband walks in. She greets him, says, “Good evening.”
And because he wants to subtly taunt her, he says, “Namaste.”
She nods and watches him climb up the stairs. I offer an apology, she shakes her head. “No, no, don’t you dare apologize. There is nothing to apologize for.”
In the kitchen, we are two women building ourselves beneath cold fluorescent lights, calculating the time it would take to dissolve into minuscule things and float about. She tells me that she’s from India even though I already know. Admittedly, she’s fishing for things to say and I want to thank her for it. It’s like she knows I am an addict and she wants to please me in certain ways.
When the food is ready, she eats quietly by the window. “How do you manage here?” she asks.
I lean heavily against the counter. “With my husband?”
She shrugs. “I mean with everything. How do you manage? I kind of hate my life and where I am right now but you seem so perfect in it.”
I pour her a glass of champagne. It sizzles tirelessly. She laughs. She stops laughing. She arches an eyebrow. Nasari is waiting for me to tell her that I hate my life too but like I’ve said, who’s to say vulnerability will look good around my neck?
“It’s not perfect, Nasari,” I whisper to her. “But I think that being lovers makes it beautiful. It is infinitely perfect.”
She nods and adjusts her shawl around her hair. She has braided it. She never braids her hair. There is a scar, small, on her chin and the side of her face.
“Please don’t ask,” she says.
When morning comes I find myself by the kitchen window. My husband has finished dressing up. He comes down for breakfast. I lay the scrambled eggs in front of him like an offering. His tea is cold.
“What was she doing here?” he asks.
“She wanted something,” I say.
“I don’t want to see her here again.”
But she will keep coming if she wants to. Julius has been coming for months even though he’s told me Julius isn’t welcome into our home. He has his reasons, he’s said.
“He is a man who wants to be a woman,” he said. “People like that are not welcome here. He is a man and must stay like that. Do you get that? He shouldn’t come here.”
Julius comes at noon, bringing with him a box of chocolate and Ovaltine biscuits. I soak the packet of biscuits in a glass of milk and sit to watch the dizzying rays of the sun. It perches carelessly against Julius’s body so that his caramel skin makes me want to touch him.
“When is her funeral?” I ask him.
He swallows. “My mom? We are going to hold it two days away. I hate to think I’m taking too long but…”
“I want to be there with you,” I mutter.
He arches an eyebrow. He knows I can’t come. “What about Kelvin? He won’t let you and you know that.”
“What if he does not know I came?”
Julius squeezes my hands as carefully as he can and smiles and fails. “He will kill you if you come.”
When morning comes again, I wander out of the house. It’s been weeks since I walked out and, lord, it feels good. I pass by Nasari’s home and waves. She does not wave back. Later I find that her husband had been by the door, watching, learning that she is not as chaste as she appears. Then I skip and run and move past Becky’s laundry and Albert’s Bakery and slip past the new Italian restaurant with the fancy awning and the blue-eyed waitresses.
I have concluded that being at home and watching the sun and wondering why I have such a fragile womb, unable to carry a child, does not suit me. Sometimes, I wonder if I qualify to be a woman without a child but who knows? I haven’t said it aloud in a while.
I sit in a chair and watch teenagers skip past, their hairs tangled and full. A woman walks her dogs across. They don’t bark. She looks like a Karen but she could as well pass for a Katherine with a K. A young girl feeds ducklings. She laughs loudly as if she holds the world in her little hands. Her mother is on the phone. She is talking quietly in Spanish.
Dònde estàs? Where are you?
No la voy a llevar a casa I’m not taking her home
I don’t know much Spanish but I want to ask her to let me take the little child home.
I’ll teach her what love means. I’ll clothe her. I’ll want her.
Kelvin would send her out, of course, if he finds her. I’ll keep her safe. When they leave, I pick myself up from the bench and hurry home. Kelvin is not home yet which is good. I find that today has been good and it soaks through my skin hurriedly.
On the day of the funeral, Kelvin does not go to work. He tells me that he has a headache and wants to lie in bed and drink tea and cuddle and fuck. I make his tea and hand him two tablets of paracetamol. He sips slowly and taps the bed, says to lie down and pretend that I’m dead. He says that it turns him on. He says take off your pant and your shirt, don’t move and say nothing.
I have a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach but I pretend that I am dead and unable to breathe. After a short while, he slumps on the bed and starts to breathe heavily. His sweat is on my body, baking me with shame.
“Go and clean yourself,” he whispers.
I take my time washing his sweat and cleaning the pain away. I should have been at Julius’s mother’s funeral, holding him and kissing his cheeks and telling him that he is going to be a wonderful woman if he so desires. Instead, I am here and it hurts and I want to listen to a stranger scream. I want another fix. No, I need another fix and I am desperate for it in ways that I think are impossible.
At noon, I sneak back into the kitchen and eat cookies, and cry. It is impossible not to cry; impossible not to hate myself for the life that I have been living and it wrecks me and I wish for forever. I suddenly wish that I have everything I have ever wanted in my open palm and thinking about old lives that I have never tasted is blinding and selfish but it is the way it is.
Kelvin tells me that he wants to cook dinner tonight. He says that I need to relax and watch him. I think that he’s too happy but I nod and sit, cross-legged, and observe. He burns the food and then orders pizza. It’s 9:38 pm in London.