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author | writer
Eyes See What I See
Lips Who Am I?
Ear Find My Work
What’s Your Mood? What’s Your Mood?
CONNECT Talk to Me
Post Woman

 

 

The landlord demanded a security deposit of two-thousand dollars when she moved in, but all Sam had argued with him about was reprogramming the doorbell to her apartment.

‘Can you make it ring like a banshee?’ she asked, and shaking his head yes then no then no again, he chalked up the request to her culturally ambiguous charm.

Sam made the landlord guess where she’d come from but her name didn’t match how she talked and when he asked to see the first page of her passport she just said it was at the embassy. He didn’t know what banshees represented for her, though that didn’t stop him and he still tried. He didn’t know people in some parts of the world don’t speak to each other keenly because their minds are already made up; that whatever worlds there are, are as inert as the people in them. 

When Sam asked her parents for a year abroad, she wanted to cultivate the ability to break ground with strangers. They agreed because she was at least direct, a good sign. Mostly Sam liked to mimic the breeze when she talked, whimsically, without explanation. But since she first moved one year had turned into two, then another, and the years themselves had aged. The sofa’s upholstery had developed an itch around a heart-shaped impression where Sam sat on it to read.

Sam collected books like she wished to collect people. Her prognosis of protagonists was this: while they resembled the people she met, in their fleetingness, without the time for invention, they had little choice but to show up as themselves. For the distance between them, it was easier to perceive in lack as much as receive in excess. Either both hide, or seek. The space between two persons, instead, was lesser – if one was in lack, the other was almost always in excess. A relationship defines the distance between two points in space. It’s distance that tackles vast worlds and makes them travelable; without a gap, a path, a point-to-next, we’d have nowhere to go. 

The rest of the apartment and its things had gotten older. A jewellery box had aged the most. It weighed heavy, overflowing with gilded chains belonging to Sam’s mother and grandmother. Sam had a particular locket she’d put away in the box thinking it was the ugliest thing she’d ever seen. Noorie had gifted it for her twentieth birthday and Sam had kept it all these years, like she’d kept Noorie. Before, when there was no locket, Noorie was there. After, when it appeared in a red velvet box that snapped close like a crocodile’s mouth, Noorie had seemed immense despite her pinstripe posture, which are not transmutable qualities except in shadow monsters on walls. ‘For you, to wear every day,’ she’d said.

Shadows have the inexplicable quality of darkness and foresight. They’re thirsty for a light that can never complete them because if it did, the shadows would disappear. It didn’t make much sense, then, for Sam to let Noorie, the person she was ‘closest’ to, spend the evenings with her after she’d followed her to the city. It was a term Noorie used – it seemed to calm her – so Sam borrowed it, not quite understanding what it meant. 

For Sam it was easier to interpret than it was to name. The semiotics of relationships were less strenuous than their nomenclature. While people liked to name everything, people, things, feelings, and pin down their thoughts like birds shot out of the sky. Sam preferred her protagonists, who tried to outlive themselves but remained transitory, and so she didn’t have to worry about giving any and all parts of them a name. 

Noorie always arrived preening about her punctuality because her clocks were set fifteen minutes ahead of time. Sam was random; she’d set her clocks to world time, like at a hotel or a bank, except she chose Pamukkale, Turkey, and Limerick, Ireland, which she expected to visit in another life. She’d run into the bedroom to put the locket on before answering the door. Noorie would exclaim, ‘You’re wearing it,’ in a high pitch that made Sam want to yank it off and burst her eardrums with it. But Sam would only nod, her eyes riveted on the bottle of wine she’d then uncork with her shoe. 

‘Tomorrow I’ll buy you a corkscrew,’ Noorie said one evening, hanging up her fleece on a rack. Sam slid the bottle into a sock before perfectly nestling it into her shoe, thinking of her round heel and how she’d never have to measure it since it was likely 3 inches in diameter.

‘I like the action,’ Sam said. ‘It makes me feel like I’ve earned it.’ 

‘How many times have you broken the bottle?’ Noorie asked. ‘You have, haven’t you?’ Her voice was pithy, like she’d rehearsed the conversation between them, but really it was the questions she asked – the kind someone was capable of answering, and then feel forced to. 

Sam nodded and said, ‘Of course I’ve broken it. I mean, it’s happened. Sometimes the bottle slips right through because my hands are wet. Or I’ve used too much force.’

‘I never get that angry any more,’ Sam added.

Noorie ruffled a bag of chips and a smell of salt filled the air. Sam felt distinctly like she was underwater and her skin had pruned. She put down the bottle still inside the shoe and helped herself to some water till her stomach bloated over her belt buckle. She returned to the wall a more swollen opponent and thumped the shoe’s sole against it. The photograph of her parents wavered portentously above her head but the picture was yet to fall off its hinge. Then the cork popped free, gave an ecstatic gurgle, and the girls sat down.

‘Cheers,’ Noorie said. Sam took a large swig, the purple grapes mixing with her pink tongue and assimilating into her red blood. Noorie held her glass with the repose of a society woman but her manicured nails could not hide her thick hands. She insisted on wearing circulation-cutting gold rings on her swollen fingers like little nooses that threatened to kill her bit by bit. They were in sharp contrast to her bony structure. Sam considered if they were ever in a car crash Noorie would be the first to snap. Noorie’s face was the kind that changed according to the time of day, but she was her brightest self at night as if she was stuck in a reverse ageing. In the mornings she had a stoop that was freckled with her protruding backbone. Somehow she was always unattractive and yet, always around.

Sam wrote love letters for a living.

It began when Sam showed up early and empty-handed to her friend’s sixteenth birthday. She pulled a card out of her coat pocket and said it was the gift. ‘Tremendous!’ the friend remarked. ‘No one writes any more.’ But later she called it ‘overwhelming’ to someone else. She patted Sam on the shoulder and on sensing her stiffness Sam engulfed her in a hug. ‘I’ll never forget it,’ her friend had said. Sam smiled politely because it was how she’d been told to accept praise. 

If it was then Sam realized she had such a skill, it still wasn’t when she knew what to do with it. She’d only let the words perform their labor since words have always known what they’d like to say – about a love, the weather, the number of goodbyes a taxi’s seen, or anything or anyone like them that fit the words’ meaning. The effort was meant to be meager, like turning on a tap. 

Another time Sam waited in line for an iced coffee on a day rolling in and out of sleep like a newborn, fidgeting with the sticky café counter because the man behind her was standing too close. She concocted articulations about time and distance and how she wished he’d scoot just a light year away. When the barista handed her the cup she whipped around with such force her hefty, raven hair knocked off the unsecured lid and she spilled her coffee all over the man. He stared at her chest, barely blinking, then ran his gaze up and down his trousers. Then he started to cry. Sam gasped, not because she was surprised but because she ate up everything she was about to say. She ushered him near the window and sat him down on a chair. Before she could ask what was wrong with him he erupted like a suddenly headless cloud and said he couldn’t say how he was feeling since he didn’t know what it was that fervently poked at his skin – and it was always poking – so whatever little he did say only sounded like words but didn’t carry any meaning. She handed him a tissue but he missed the hopeful note she’d scribbled on it, and when he wiped down his wet face it was re-mapped, covered in ink.

Sam realized not all words knew what they wanted to say. Some were lost, others abandoned, and perhaps some others were only pretending because they were said for their own sake and had to do something. Could she come to their rescue, bandage their broken refrains? So words might also know how they feel, instead of what they must mean, for which there are hardly ever pretenses.

It was a quaint idea too. Words that could feel were rare and special, and they seemed to appear more successfully in librettos and magnum opuses. But who read those any more? People were no longer interested in History, just history – their own. Sam had also found herself guilty of making laundry lists and while counting them off been sucked in by the itemization of a particular sweater or pair of silk pants, anything really that could remind her of time’s passing, where she’d been once wearing those clothes, when she would wear them again, where else she could be that wasn’t here, and now. 

Afterwards, on occasion, Sam considered finishing one such letter that she’d tried to write many times. It had many voices and they all sounded like hers. Like a crowds’ breath, teeming with variations known to occur in saliva. Some have it sweet, others neutral or sour. But because she never knew when it could be finished – it seemed to go on and on like a passion – Sam decided it was best left blank. There seemed to be not enough reason to actually write it, since when she got down to scribing the words the end of them made an appearance before the first sentence, and so the last instance became the first instance and Sam only ended up where she’d started. It may have served her better to draw lines instead – they could go on forever – and you didn’t have to worry about where one began or ended because they all looked the same, and could weigh down the whitest paper because ink does not stain, it percolates. Like masks, and watermelon juice spilled accidentally on concrete, a cigarette butt on skin – anything left unattended for too long. 

Like the rain. When it burst through the clouds like a new baby Sam wished the showers had brought more than just a re-arrangement of the sky with them. Noorie peered out the window and said, ‘I’m glad I was early,’ as if her being right was ceremonious. Sam observed her thin frame expand through the chalice of the wine glass and sighed.

The next doorbell was timed perfectly with the thunder. Anyone but Noorie was an unexpected visitor, but people were people and the closer they were, they all acted the same. Deyus stood outside the front door, a liquid mannequin, unmoving, as if he was punished, resigned to the quietude of a Kafkaesque waiting, though he’d rung without pause till Sam slipped off the couch to answer it.

‘I had to see you,’ Deyus said, his eyes pushing out of his sockets like he hadn’t slept all night. Sam’s focus went to her own throat, how it circumvented the air especially in company, and clogged, and did not behave as other throats did.

She led him to the living room where Noorie had developed wine-red lips. Deyus and Noorie greeted each other inaudibly and if they stumbled on to introductions Sam didn’t want to know what sort of names they’d use. She went into the kitchen and paused in front of the refrigerator before reaching for a water bottle. A note was pinned to it, crinkled from days of safe-keeping in her pocket. Her handwriting was illegible like a dust devil had flung around and settled ambiguously – that is, not itself – from the whooshing open and close of the fridge door. It read: Where do we end and others begin?

But it was not really written, not yet. Sam wondered when she’d finish this letter for a young woman in her thirties who’d never kissed anyone before. The woman had asked Sam to write something from her, back to her. ‘From me?’ Sam asked, to clarify, but the woman shook her head. ‘From me, to me,’ she said. ‘I want to know what my voice sounds like outside my head.’ It wasn’t Sam’s job to dwell on her own feelings so she thought nothing more of it. She only paused to consider how language could be so beautiful, particularly maudlin when caught out and about on its own, in bite-sized slices leaving the bulk to the imagination – like a little child dropping familiar hands to chase something down the grocery aisles, and then suddenly wondering where their mommy is. 

Small or large, language was important because it helped expression, which is to say what you mean, and mean what you say. This world couldn’t have been built without language. Sam regarded the fridge like a reliable engineer. She pictured manufacturers and laborers in corporate towers pointing at the sky underneath the clouds identifying the whoosis of air, and she wondered if someone told them before they got their jobs that objects are first made out of language, later materials.

When it came to language Sam preferred the use of air herself. That’s how she made things up, out of the air.

A scribe. Sam was a scribe. She wrote things for a living but not for herself. At a dinner someone had introduced her as an author. ‘I publish things on napkins,’ she’d said, correcting the lady, with a straight face. Authors write for themselves. Scribes write for those who cannot. A non-profit authorship.

‘I’ll have a coffee, Sam,’ Deyus called loudly. She remembered how he liked it – two shots, beaten, sugar on the side.

Deyus took a sip, his fingernails crystallized with specks of brown sugar. He used his finger to mix the sugar in claiming the tartness of steel ruined his taste. He didn’t flinch for he was used to the burn. And fingers had their own taste. They tasted like the people that belonged to them. He offered Sam a sip, complimenting the beans as if she’d grown them in the short while she’d gone missing. 

‘I prefer the wine,’ she said.

Noorie helped herself to a handful of chips. 

‘I know, you told me once,’ he said, with a small smile. His free hand lay flat on the table and looked lighter in comparison to the mahogany wood. It looked light in weight too, but Sam felt that if she tried to lift it she would lose the strength in her fingers. She may never be able to lift a pen again.

‘Once is never enough,’ she said, sadly. ‘People lie when they first say things.’ 

‘Not you. You never lie,’ Deyus said. Then he laughed hysterically, and Noorie looked up from her magazine and laughed, and spit flew from his open mouth into hers and then onto Sam’s cheeks. Sam patted down her face to make sure it was still there. 

Her eyes tart and out of focus, she reproached him without a word. Deyus continued smiling, like she was not there. He had a small face and small features, like his eyes were a second chance for him to breathe. But he could manage sweeping looks and whenever he looked at her he could take her in at a single glance. Sam could not help but feel herself shrink. 

‘I don’t pretend to know the truth,’ she said. ‘So yes, I lie,’ she said, getting up.

Deyus bowed his chest forward and said, ‘Down here the rest of us are fine with what we know. So we never stop talking.’

‘What do you know?’ she asked. What do you know? What do you know? What do you know? What do you know? It was uncomfortable to be in the presence of someone who could pretend to draw you like a line – straight, forward, then on and on.

‘That I think about you all the time,’ he said, leaning out of Noorie’s earshot. I think about you all the time. I think about you all the time. I think about you all the time. I think about you all the time.

Sam had trouble scanning the lyric for the right stressor. Her uncertainty dulled his speech and made him translucent, so when she stared at him her eyes fell through his body and onto the painting behind him. She liked him better, she realized, when he was also not there.

Sam could have asked Deyus to leave. Noorie was unlikely to leave for at least a few more hours. But she had disappeared into the background, as if between her and Deyus she’d allotted the turns they’d take in engaging with Sam. It was, perhaps, a kind gesture because Sam couldn’t take them both at once. 

Deyus put his hand on her knee the way one stops a leg from shaking but Sam withdrew her knees to the other side of her seat. He also had small hands, and small other things, but his fingers were prickly, electric to the touch. She moved because she could not stop. If she stopped moving she’d feel his touch on her knee and then it, he, her, would become all too real. She’d never finish the woman’s letter because she’d no longer know what to say, from her back to her. 

The letters were getting harder to write. It was as if language too had aged, become over-familiar. 

‘What’s this?’ Noorie asked, crouching awkwardly on her knees to retrieve what Sam noticed, with a loose breath, at first, was the cork. Noorie had also noticed the pile of unfinished letters in the way that animals are alerted to the wind. Sam wished she hadn’t because if Noorie asked for a love letter, what would she say? Surely not anything she’d already written down because the expressions that belonged to the others were ageless – they transcended the moments they were written in, the people they were written for. To Sam, they were all strangers. 

But Noorie and her loud chewing, predictable and unwelcome visits, and creative misconceptions about Sam’s best features were all dated, old. And Deyus was full of conceit, how he chased and tried to possess her. Noorie and Deyus had failed time. Sam realized she’d been the one to name them. Though she meant to hide it, she ended up leaving traces everywhere.

‘They’re clippings, from newspapers,’ Sam said suddenly, looking down at the carpet. 

‘Of what?’ Deyus asked. He’d finished his coffee; it had ripened his breath and made him sound duller, dim.

‘Of missing children,’ Sam said.

Sam watched their eyebrows rise. With Sam it was hard to tell. She never lied, but everything she said was made-up.

‘Missing children? Why can’t you collect buttons or something?’ Noorie said.

‘They’re clippings,’ Sam corrected her. 

‘Comme çi, comme ça,’ Noorie said. Her French matched her red lips. 

The start to these letters had little voices, wanting to grow and growl. The missing inner children of the people Sam wrote for. A buoy-like phrase hiding an ocean underneath, inner children with the vocabulary of adults. Herself, the books she read.

So, no, Sam was not lying.

She let out a long breath, sour from holding it in. She thought back to the man in the café and poured herself another glass of wine.

‘Some night we’re having,’ Sam said, pointing outside. The weather was an equitable distraction. Everyone liked to talk about the weather.

Sprawled on her sofa, Deyus and Noorie had replaced her imprints with their terracotta-colored, clay-flexible bodies. They’d slipped into a curve that perfectly matched their shapes, threatening to snap if she moved them.

So she got up, moved instead. She did so quietly, grabbing a coat, stuffing the letters into her pockets, pretending it was just the kitchen she was escaping to. In the elevator she thumbed down the letters, catching sentences at random like a fisherman, with some skill and some luck. Out at sea she felt herself falling into neglect, behind the dark clouds, somewhere in a private architecture, where Noorie and Deyus couldn’t find her. 

But evidently, others could. People. They were everywhere, climbing buildings, roaming streets. Sam found a blurred shape, her neighbor, Eva, on the front porch overlooking a cross-section of un-serviced streetlights and a litter of trees. ‘Want some? It’s good for your skin,’ Eva said, blowing steam off her Styrofoam cup and offering it to Sam; it was boiled cardamom in water. It reminded Sam of a frozen lake bubbling underneath its snow-capped top.

When Sam asked Eva why she was standing out in the rain, Eva said she’d been watching from her window and had the sudden urge to climb on top of the sun. She didn’t want any of her bones to break, only to touch a candle’s flame briefly enough to want to slap the hand away. ‘I’m waiting for morning,’ she said.

Eva rubbed her fingers over her taupe skin, deflecting back to cardamom and how it was the nature of things to behave differently, say, when they were ingested and when they were applied on the body. Sam took a sip of the hot water and found the cardamom cooled her stomach, even unknotted it a little. Her own fingers were inter-laced loosely, protecting the letters from the rain, like schiffli fabric undecided on how far apart the seams should be.

Then Sam let go of the letters and caught hold of Eva’s wrist. ‘Let me see,’ she said, not caring much for the feel of her skin. She only wanted to compare how her own skin appeared against Eva’s. Eva, with her twenty-eight white teeth and pink gums, who had lost six teeth to extractions but pretended she’d been born that way. She had a lousy bite because of it, and when she used words with the letter ‘F’, like ‘friends’, they tended to whistle out of her mouth.

Sam eyed the sullied image of a tree across the street, underneath the sky, where they all sat. The sun was sulking a little, slowing its arrival, and both the trees and her hands remained darker than usual. A flash of lightning came and the tree’s green-ness popped into view. She saw that it remained green, and she pink, before black overcame them. 

Waiting for the morning, Sam and Eva sat without words between them, in the sort of luxury that is foreign but will soon become old. 

Eva stretched forward, bending over her calves to touch her flexed feet, ready like she was about to jump. But the sun came up over barely a whisper, and the sky’s walls around them lightened and the grass looked like it had broken into a river of blue, like it had spilled water on itself.

‘You can let go of me now,’ Eva said. Sam considered her touch was failing. 

‘We missed it,’ Sam said, sadly, to which Eva assured her she’d try again tomorrow. 

Some spirited mynahs cackled like hyenas. Everywhere there was something wanting to be other than itself. 

Sam massaged the crinkles of a letter on her knee, for a man who’d missed too much and had had enough. 

Out loud she read: I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant. 

‘That’s Sartre, you know,’ Sam clarified. 

‘You didn’t write that?’ Eva said. 

A mynah screeched. 

You didn’t write that. You didn’t write that. You didn’t write that. You didn’t write that.

In memory it had the voice of a song. Never to be wholly forgotten, only sporadically remembered – not at will, not without a tune to carry it. 

‘I did write it,’ Sam said. She made fists with her hands and circled them in the air.

Eva touched her shoulder and felt something cold and slippery around Sam’s neck.

‘Such a pretty locket,’ she said.

‘I must have forgotten to take it off,’ Sam said, feeling her neck blindly.

‘This girl came by in the morning, but you were out. She said she was your sister and asked if I had your keys,’ Eva said, deflecting again as if she’d not heard her, as if Sam was distant, disappearing or disappeared. ‘I asked her why she doesn’t have your keys.’

Noorie didn’t need keys because she could find a way to let herself in.

‘She comes every day,’ Sam said, yawning. ‘Whether I’m here or not.’

Eva smiled and stood up, shaking her head like a wet dog. ‘Good morning,’ Eva said, cheerily. 

Sam returned to her still-full apartment to find Deyus and Noorie still asleep. Watching their eyelids roll back with sleep prowess they looked motionless like sleeping fish tousled occasionally by the current. Here they were and weren’t. It was confusing to both see them and not see them at the same time. Except they’d moved, two ribbed fish interlocking their fins, fighting against the current. On the sofa, where Sam usually sat on it to read. They must have awoken, talked, touched – in a way Sam had not seen them do in her presence, like they’d been waiting for her to leave all along.

Sam clutched the locket in her fist and yanked it off so the chain would break. She waited till the sun was high noon and Noorie was awake to call the jeweler.

‘It’s broken. The chain’s broken,’ she said, loudly, watching Noorie pile the wine glasses into the sink, breaking one of them with her thick fingers.