I didn’t tell my husband, but there was a part of me that could have lived like that: eating cockroaches in the dirt, catching flies.
Dream Home, 2011, a painting by Kymia Nawabi, whose solo exhibition Soothsayer will open on August 24 at Abmeyer + Wood in Seattle, Washington.
The day after we moved into our house, I waited for my husband to leave for work so I could lie down on our bed, close my eyes, and disappear. I drew the covers over my legs to keep my feet warm; they are always cold, regardless of the temperature.
Sometimes, as a tease, my husband says: “It is as if you are dead.”
“I am,” I say. He cocks his head and squints at me like an investigator.
The bed was soft. I sank into it. I closed my eyes. I listened to the walls settle, to the pipes flex their joints, to the winged animals nestled beneath the gables scatter. I thought of the deserts of my childhood. I come from far away. I thought of that vast, undulating land that draws everything toward itself and returns nothing but stifling heat, biting cold. I imagined lying on the crest of a dune. I imagined the horizon glittering beneath a polished sky. Then the house rose up from its knees and tipped forward like a camel that awkwardly straightens its hind legs before ceremoniously planting its front ones in the sand.
The day we bought the house, my husband leaned against the trunk of the sycamore in the front yard and declared that it would be our fortress. The house had been abandoned. He gazed at its orphaned skeleton.
“We will restore its dignity,” he intoned, caressing his beard.
He marched over to the front door and picked at a few loose chips of paint. He held the dusty, blue chunks to the light.
“We will hire help,” he hummed. I saw his beard move with his mouth. His face was like a nest. The birds, perching out of sight, in the tree, sang. My husband joined in with a whistle.
A month later we moved into the house like primitives into a cave, like king and queen into a castle, like children marching into a game. The house kept transforming: it was armor, shelter, abode, solitude.
I agreed to hiring help, to polishing.
“Look at the coating of dust on the floorboards,” my husband said, sweeping his palm against its caked surface.
I didn’t tell my husband, but there was a part of me that could have lived like that: eating cockroaches in the dirt, catching flies, living in a house with obfuscated surfaces that reflected nothing. I had lost my voice. I had left it behind in that other place. My body had moved through space, through tenses, through frames of time, but I had lost the ability to express myself. I felt at odds with everything, out of step with the world. I felt disoriented, lost. When I imagined myself what I saw was a muted figure walking through the fringes of a landscape, having mislaid herself.
I peeled the covers off my feet and sat bolt upright in bed. The woman we had hired to help was due to arrive soon. She was a foreigner. Her accent suggested that loss occurred each time she expressed herself. Considered individually, the losses were negligible, but their accumulation over time brought to mind a moving image of the walls of the world: the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, Israel’s separation barrier, the invisible Iron Curtain. I thought of all the people who are silenced, chained, imprisoned, oppressed in one way, shape, or form. I thought of how long after they are dead they will be thought of as extinct civilizations, of how the absence left by their deaths will send a ripple through time into the future, of how melancholy scholars will ride those waves trying to understand the origin of the loss. Then, I laughed at myself.
The bedroom was semi-dark. I got up. I saw my silhouette, oval, slumber across the surface of the bedroom mirror. It must have slid across the wall. I sensed my shadow come into contact with everything: fuse with objects, superimpose itself on the plaster, the carpet, the closet door, the hard wood floor which had been sealed with dirt. I descended the stairs. I grabbed the railing as if it were the sure, rough hand of a Bedouin reaching out to me as I crawled down the hump of a camel.
Downstairs, the sun’s copper light was streaming through open windows; it was lighting up abandoned cobwebs in the corners, illuminating old filaments of spit hanging from the exposed beams. I stood in the light. I thought of how camels march toward death without pining for food or water, of how they always look like they are sleepwalking, as if they weren’t real, as if they were a strange dreamer’s projection. I walked from room to room, through hallways, down staircases, hoping they would lead somewhere. Then, I remembered my dream from the night before.
In the dream, I was walking through a labyrinth bordered by hedges. The foliage was soft and supple. The sky was moonless, starless, a black dome that had been drawn over my head. I didn’t weigh anything. I was floating through a world without coordinates. I was lost and free. I had been emptied of all emotion.
The door bell rang.
“Coming,” I said to the woman.
I dragged my hands against the walls the way I had dragged my hands against the hedges in my dream. The walls were damp. I was trying to find the source of the leak. I opened the door. The woman’s face was covered in sweat. I walked her into the kitchen. I offered her a glass of water.
“Here,” I said, but she refused.
“This is because of menopause,” she said, drawing a napkin from her purse and dabbing her face. She had great, blue eyes and blond hair she had braided to the side. She explained that she had just come from an interview.
“An interview for a job I have no time to take,” she said.
She folded the napkin in half and put it back in her purse. She told me about two cats that wouldn’t stop meowing, about her friend who was returning home after eighteen years, about someone who had told her she is beautiful, and then she turned red with shame. I set the water down on the counter and smiled. I understood the connections. Through the window, we saw the neighbors.
Finally, the woman said: “What a hat! And that bow tie!”
We settled into the day’s work. We got down on our knees and scrubbed the floorboards. My reflection emerged on the polished surface. I was surprised by how large my eyes were, how thin and flat my lips, by the long strands of dark hair that spilled over my shoulder like a mysterious fan opening. I got off my knees and went for a walk. A different neighbor was sitting on a rocking chair on her front porch. She lifted her coffee cup as if it were a flute of champagne. Her hair was white, pulled back in a ponytail, and she had a very elaborate nose; it looked as though it had been sculpted by a professional. I watched her lips part.
“Do you see it rolling in?” she asked.
“I do,” I whispered, and then she didn’t know what to say.
The sun had retreated. Now the sky was loaded with rain. It looked bruised. It looked as though it could no longer restrain itself. The wind was swelling. The trees were bending in half as if they had waists, as if they were tired of cupping the sky, as if they needed to survey their spoils. The wind barreled through. In one swift move the leaves skirting the trunks of the trees were raised and rearranged.
I walked carefully through the storm. I felt the blood rush through my veins, the blood from the desert that I carried with me trying so hard not to spill.
When I returned from my walk, my husband was already home. He was in the kitchen. I could hear him speaking. His voice streamed through the house. Sometimes, time moves in great leaps.
“That’s not a cockroach,” he said.
I moved like a ghost. I was standing next to him. He was speaking to the woman.
“Then I don’t know the word,” she said.
“Me too,” he said.
There was a dead cricket on the tile between them and they were busy examining it together.
“You know Pinocchio?” my husband asked. He put his arms around me. Her eyes widened. “This is the creature that is always telling Pinocchio what to do.”
The woman laughed.
I gazed at the counters. They were clean. In the corner I saw a clear vase holding a lily the woman had plucked from the garden. I could see the stem through the glass; it was bent, the way a ray of light bends when it hits the surface of a lake, or ocean. I felt my voice release in weak bands.
“Cricket,” I offered, lifting the creature up by the wings.
When the woman left our house, I asked my husband if he thought I could call my blood by another name.
“What do you have in mind?” he asked.
“I was thinking of referring to it as Memory,” I said.
“Have you noticed how thin the leaves of the trees are lately?” my husband asked. “The light is going right through them,” he said.
I walked upstairs and lay down on our bed. The ceiling fan was on, stroking the wet air. I wrapped my blood around me like a cloak. Soon I was crouching in the darkness, on a desert slope, so far removed from time that even the light of the stars, which had died so long ago, could no longer reach me. I was drinking a bowl of blood. It had been squeezed from my heart. The blood burned my lips. I kept drinking it. As soon as it reached my chest it expanded into a lake and flooded my veins, the way rain feeds back into the world’s rivers. For a moment, it relieved my emptiness. It was so sweet and so bitter.
Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of Fra Keeler (Dorothy Project), and she has just won a Whiting Award in fiction. Her work has appeared or will appear soon in The American Reader, The Believer, BOMB, Denver Quarterly, The Coffin Factory, The &Now Awards Volume 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Fulbright grant in fiction and a research grant from the Institució de les Lletres Catalanes in Barcelona.
Photo © Beowulf Sheehan.
Kymia Nawabi (featured artist) is based in New York. In 2011, her work was featured in a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Her first west coast exhibition Soothsayer will open on August 24 and run through September 26 at Abmeyer + Wood in Seattle, Washington.