It starts with an Easter Egg I plant, and then I move from there, frowning, thinking over how the light falls on it. Similarly trivial things follow. Angular mason jars skirting the sill. I trace the light back, one large plane of afternoon or morning, but probably afternoon, as far back as I can see to the daily special sign outside (pierogies), the sequence of cover plates in brushed nickel stuck to drywall, to an abandoned weave and discarded beer cans tossed perfunctorily at an overflowing skip in the alley, to the Albanian man in the opposite building with a potbelly halfway down his thigh fiddling with a flange and ball bearings in his bathroom on the second floor, to the flying B on his vehicle outside.
I want to fill up this canvas with all my dreams and fears and doubts and convictions, but what I do instead is create the spitting image of where I live; the Easter Egg a small act of radical protest, a quiet embellishment in a scene it does not belong. Something that makes me feel more worthwhile than a landscape artist making Where’s Waldo cartoons out of the streets of Chicago. It will always end as a grotesque. The light hits the African Violets and the aloe veras and the terrariums and the awkward, incongruous Bentley and the street signs and fading road markings and the sensible graffito and the women left behind, always the women left behind in the afternoon, and then it reflects back towards me upon which I stare, disappointed.
A hankering hits me just in time, as it always does, to create something fantastical, notional, perhaps even utopic. Let me make the brownstones horizontal, the skies underfoot, the sidewalks diagonally leading into warped perspective, the postboxes floating, the libraries towering, police cars cracked in half, the train map swathing the South, an army of vanity stores piled up precariously about to topple, the shadow of roaring crowds looming over the entire painting, a sequence of public housing compounds towering over skyscrapers in an inset. My little Easter Egg protest the only thing that seems perfectly in place in this topsy-turvy mélange creating disorder out of the symbols of bureaucracy which are all in themselves signs of protest.
But no: this is all insincere and derivative and trite. Just make something descriptive. Something scenic and detached, except for my Easter Egg. It was okay to be this sentimental when we were children and oh how I want to bottle it, capture it, paint it, and unleash it genie-like on the community whose approval I crave, in the name of principles I will quietly slip through but elide if uncalled for.
* * *
My phone says Saira called at 10 am. I’m tumbling under the covers, wrapping myself repetitively in the sheets, trying to return to the liminal space between asleep and unresponsive; willing my memories not to leave, capturing, remembering, so as to will myself not to leave them. That crowd of angry, righteous women of which I was a part, posters on chart paper, livid slogans in harsh brushstrokes because who cares when the stakes are this high. I will not keep living like this. I will not shy away from fighting oppression. The brushstrokes on the chart paper were no artworks. My politics was the ugliness of the aesthetic. It is a dissipated belonging, the solemnity and naiveté of which I want to escape. The thickening, claustrophobic sheets close in on me helpfully, the reality of my displacement telling me to throw away the memories. I don’t need guilt, nor sentimentality. What I need is a benzo and a tumbler of whiskey. I must erase all traces of self-hate. I’m a woman of color but a child of privilege, I shamefacedly tell people, hoping my honesty means something, but my identity has already been all wrapped up in the agenda of self-preservation.
I am tired and my nose feels scratchy. There is an onerous thunder in my head so sharp I could pick it out if you opened me up and asked me to point. And a rawness inside because it appears my body has been scraped clean in every hollow tube. I sleep. At some point, he enters the room. I hazily perceive a flash of his jeans and a whiff of his sweat. I thought, probably hoped, that he had peered at me, put his face close to mine.
But I don’t remember and when I wake he is gone along with his guitar case and his share of the books. Viscerally, I only feel relief at the missing Arthur Koestlers. My health is fine, but everything I’ve ever felt feels a million miles away. The evening has emerged with its frigid air through my window, wakening me fully, forcing an exit from the bed. My heartbeat pounds through my arms and my throat, it menaces my face where I feel a distinct and irrational heat. I feel like that abandoned weave, blue and black, shining only in the afternoon sun because at the time the day was young, and so am I, but it’s not afternoon anymore and he’s left, and I have cried so much I am ashamed of myself.
Saira calls and the ring tone is persistent and cloyingly sensible, like her, so I have to pick up.
How are you, she asks, are you eating? Everyone’s been calling you.
I’m fine, just give me some space.
She wants to argue. We’re your family, Alia, we’re just worried about you. You can’t decide to not talk to your family just because you feel like it.
I’ve just been sleeping, I say. Sleeping. Not thinking, not gallivanting, not protesting, not doing dangerous things. Just sleeping.
Saira uses her best weapon: Well, Meera wants to know how Alia Khala is. She hasn’t heard your voice in months. Do you want to talk to her? She’s right here.
Sometimes I feel the only reason I deem myself worthy of going on is because of Meera; she is the stubborn part that will always remain lodged in me, unflinching. She sits on my windowsill, me hugging her from behind, 2-year old Meera smiling unabashedly at the camera. He had gone with me to visit Saira that time. His specter haunts my memories of that visit as if some phantom force has scraped its grimy fingernails over all the past which I miss more for its taint, and my face heats up because it’ll never happen again.
Of course I do. Put her on the phone.
Okay, I will, she says. But before I give her the phone, Alia, I’m here. Come here. Why are you on your own?
Because I want to be. I’m not some helpless damsel Saira. I’ll be fine.
She is quiet.
I’m sorry, I say. I’m just a little…adrift, but I’m fine. I have things to do and places to be. He does not define me.
After I hang up, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of crippling failure but I try to put it out of my mind. I tell myself that have to try. I may fail to capture whatever it is, the mood of the uprising or whatever grandiose, lofty ideal I’m trying to pin down on to a canvas, but it will be worth it even though I know it is puerile to think myself capable. The chill through the window fails to bring down my temperature, even in my tiny shorts and oversized t-shirt. I feel small and slight. Nobody ever thinks a person, especially a woman that small and slight could ever be important.
I climb through the sheets again, running my fingers over the bed on his side. Maybe next I should start with just the image of a single person stretched out on a king-sized bed: loneliness the way everyone experiences it—an empty bed.
That might be just enough sentimentality. An inch more would make it second-rate, maudlin. It’ll be my next Easter Egg.
I’ll go to Saira in a week. Even though the last thing she said to me was: Alia, even an independent girl like you cannot escape heartbreak. Maybe it comes with the territory?
If she had been in front of me, I’d have wrung her neck.
The next morning, I clock in at the library half an hour late. They will dock my pay, but I don’t care. I catalogue books, mark new shipments, send new orders, respond to inquiries by graduate students about archives, sometimes pretending not to listen. Simon, a skinny, freckle-faced English graduate student and an aspiring writer, has been glancing over at me tentatively over a literary journal he has been reading.
Can I tell you about a story I just read, he asks. It’s so creepy, I have to talk to someone about it.
I nod. It’s lunch time.
It’s actually based on a true story, he says. The story goes: in 2013, a man and his wife, both avid hikers, took their one year-old daughter on a camping trip somewhere in Wisconsin. There was a bad storm their first night they hadn’t anticipated and it lasted all night so they abandoned their tent and tried making their way back to their car through the woods. Somehow, through the pouring rain and breaking branches—at least this is how the dramatization depicts it—the wife lost her way. Separated from her husband, holding her baby in her arms as she wailed for her husband, she searched for hours without a flashlight, unknowingly moving further into the woods. Something happened in the woods that night. When the sun rose, the man found his wife lying face down on the ground, alive but in a catatonic state next to a mound of wet soil. She had buried her daughter alive.
I was confused. Was it a good story?
Yeah, I think so, he says, furrowing his brows. It was. I don’t know how much of it was real, because how could they have known exactly what she went through and how she did what she did, but there’s this unsettling ambiguity to it, and not in a Blair Witch kind of way. The real-life woman was institutionalized. It’s just that with the story—I don’t know what’s real. It feels like a shot in the dark as to the actual truth. The bare-bones facts of the case don’t justify the narrative. It feels…speculative and disrespectful. But here it sits in this great literary journal.
I instinctively dislike his certainty that he must be reading things right. So I say: I don’t know about that. I’m a painter, not a writer. But this is why it seems to me that most stories would be better off as plays or screenplays. Stories are so manipulative. I don’t give a rat’s ass how many contradictory emotions you were feeling over five pages. A good actor can communicate a range of human emotion in one reaction shot or expression. Or dialog. Make these writers write for film and let’s see how they fare. Maybe that’s why you think it’s derivative: it’s sitting in the wrong medium.
Simon shakes his head. He clearly doesn’t think that’s a sophisticated response, or a satisfactory one. I know he just wants validation that famous literary journals publish subpar work so he can feel better about his lack of headway, but I’m too tired to do that both for himself and myself. Sometimes I’m just too tired to let go of my memories of forgiving men for even a second.
Time yawns ahead, just like every other day. I clock in, clock out, walk home, forget to eat, sleep. I clock in again, and again. The week I promised Saira turns into months, and then more months. My heart isn’t in it. I don’t know where it is at all. I’ve convinced myself that somewhere under those covers, between all these sheets I haven’t changed, I do care.
The sheets are white with black outlines of cartoon animals. Birds, frogs, giraffes, monkeys, elephants. He used to call them nanimals. I found it so endearing, I would laugh and kiss his face every time.
* * *
Every slice is a higher step of fear. Alia is en route, and I’m slicing potatoes for shepherd’s pie—her favorite—and potato salad and mozzarella sticks. I hope she still likes mozzarella sticks. Grinding meat, chopping vegetables, the risible fear of Alia is passively inching through my veins like dark clouds assembling over the kitchen counter: the knowledge of the effect of her presence on me. Keep chopping, strategizing, filling up every minute of the remainder of the day.
Alia has always scared me. It’s not that I don’t love her. I’ve loved her ever since I can remember, since my first memory of her. The spitting image of Meera, tearing away at plants in the garden, smiling gleefully as she tore up a whole patch of soil and rendered it bare. In middle school and high school all the boys couldn’t keep away from her. They would not resist any opportunity to advance on her like a pack of wolves, to mug around her aggressively, sexually, make sudden motions, simulate sexual positions. I would always be there facing them down, her always behind me, always nonplussed, until of course she grew up and talked them down herself, only making herself more appealing in the process. I could just watch at that point.
So now I’m cooking for her, the potatoes are almost done, the pie should go in soon, the cheese has been grated and placed in a bowl, do I have enough drinks? I know I’m over-compensating. She’s my sister and I love her, but I do things the way I do to temper the knowledge that she despises me. For my conventionality, my submission, for what she thinks I chose, things she will not give voice to but pierces through with her many silences, with her attire and her flippant view on normalcy. Political only as far as the accidental tumbling into an ideological topography defined by the derision of all that is worldly is political. Does she love anything more than she loves her own misanthropy? Could she love Meera if you took all that made Alia away from Alia? I feel terrible for thinking all this of my own sister, of course, but I can’t help it.
Over on the couch, Meera is coloring furiously, her curls almost down to her waist now. In her concentrating brow, I see Alia. Not a cartoon villain, just different. Of course Alia loves her and me. How could I even consider otherwise?
The layering is done, into the oven it goes. When will he come home today: before or after Alia arrives? It is important she come first. Upon seeing me after a long time, she always insists on at least an hour of conversational distance after the long and maybe dutiful embrace. If he’s there when she arrives, it will mean one more night of sniping. He has never liked her, nor she him. She disguises it better than him. I hope that the time that has elapsed since we last saw her, just over a year, will have softened them both.
I receive her text and wait outside my door for ten minutes until she appears down the hallway, walking in her shuddering, clunky manner, her jet-black curls flowing over a casual denim jacket. She’s always been so beautiful. Today she glows. She smiles through the side of her mouth as we embrace. Her hair smells like apple and cinnamon, her cheeks, her hands so familiar I could cry. She smells like home.
It’s so good to see you. I’ve missed you so much.
Where is my little jaan?
From inside the apartment, Meera’s caught wind of Alia Khala’s presence and runs towards her shrieking with joy, barefoot, arms akimbo, her coloring book on the floor. Alia picks her up and holds her, carrying her inside as I grab the rest of Alia’s luggage and place it in her room. She caresses Meera’s ears and kisses her cheeks, talks to her, asks her questions. Bustling to keep everything in order, I steal glances at them and feel proud. Do all people feel this way when two people they love dearly express affection towards each other? As if to think, arrogantly: I made this happen, I am responsible for the extra love in their lives. They should be grateful to me, not each other.
They lay together on the sofa, Meera pulling at Alia’s hair, climbing on top of her, showing her the coloring book. When Meera tumbles off the sofa, Alia grabs Meera from behind, as if to squeeze all the love out from herself and on to Meera’s little body. Alia’s talking to both of us, but preparing the food I’m a million miles away, thinking: I have all these questions about love, about whether anybody truly loves me or in the way I imagine. What if I die before they are answered?
The front door lock turns. He’s home early. He enters just as I have begun to lay the table. Seeing Alia he says hello.
She is effusive. It’s so good to see you! How are you? How’s work going?
It’s been okay, you know, stressful as always.
Distracted, he’s pulling on his tie in child-like, frustrated movements.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you all.
Yeah, great to have you. Excuse me, I’m just going to change. Long day.
As we wait for him to start eating. I’m taking a closer look at Alia who is jabbering away, as is Meera, their words and phrases wrapping around each other. In the refulgent hallway, she looked radiant and beautiful, but in this sobering closeness, she looks pale.
Tell me how things have been, really, I say. And don’t say nothing because I know that’s not true. Have you been seeing anyone?
She looks puzzled. Seeing anyone? No, of course not. Nobody since him.
No, no, I meant a therapist.
Oh, that. Well, yes, I tried that. It was okay, nothing earth-shattering. About as helpful as a conversation with Ma.
Maybe you should get a different therapist then. I know people who’ve had to go through…
No, Saira, I don’t want any more therapy. I don’t want to talk. I feel like I’m better just distracted. Why does everybody act as if therapy isn’t horribly patronizing. It’s like I’m a complete child. I cannot be deconstructed irreducibly. Nothing makes complete sense. We can always be both one thing and its opposite.
I’m pretty sure therapists and psychologists know that the scope of human emotion is complex, I respond. That’s probably what they learn, how to deal with complexity.
But who cares what I’m saying. She’s playing with Meera now, her monologue done and dusted, no jousting to be entertained.
Let’s dig in.
Oh god, it’s been ages since I’ve had shepherd’s pie, Saira! It looks delicious.
It was nothing, I say. I’ve actually been hankering to make it myself for a while now. I get these cravings, and I just have to make something Ma used to make.
So, he says, what are you up to nowadays Alia?
Alia, who has been letting Meera eat off her plate, looks up, taken aback.
Well, I’m still in school, she says tentatively. One more year.
I take a sharp breath, my back arches slightly in response to the impending confrontation.
He raises his eyebrows. Really? Saira told me you took a semester off. Won’t that delay graduation?
Well, yes, probably. But to be honest, I don’t need this degree that badly, I could just go off on my own. I’m sticking it out to meet people, but I don’t need to go the whole hog, really. I have lots of friends who are better off for dropping out.
Ah, he says, chewing slower than normal, gnashing his teeth, completely unaware of how blatantly this tic gives him away.
So, you’re just going to waste that money then?
Alia doesn’t reply. I stay quiet. Chastising him will only encourage a spat, and she, unlike herself, doesn’t seem to be egging him on.
You know, when I was doing my MBA—you’ll remember this Saira—there was this acquaintance of mine who you remind me so much of. Also an artist. He used to have such grand dreams. He lived in the apartment next door and he used to say such strange things. This one time, we were at a barbeque together and he told us all a story about this wedding he had attended. Some WASPy family out in the, Lord knows, Hampton’s or something, I forget. Anyway, he met a man there and they dated for about six months, but that man inspired a series of art pieces. They were basically installations of wallpaper that filled up the entire wall of a giant square room, but the wallpaper…it was so bizarre. It was floral but the flowers were painted next to human organs. You’d see a bean-shaped kidney on one of the walls, or a pink nipple protruding from a ripped areola a foot from the floor. In parts, he’d textured the walls with human hair. There was gut and genitals and ripped lips everywhere, just mixed in nonchalantly with daisies and petunias and gardenias. I went to his showing and hated it. It was so morbid. And then six months later, at this barbeque, he was telling this story about how an ex-boyfriend had inspired him to do that. Mind you, the showing went really well, it got great reviews. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s doing very well for himself actually. But I find that so mind-boggling. His boyfriend inspired him to make art of blood and guts?
Alia had been listening closely. That actually sounds pretty good, she says, goading him. What’s this guy’s name again?
See, he exclaimed happily. I knew you’d like it. Don’t get me wrong—all respect to him—he must have worked crazy hard for it, as ludicrous and self-indulgent as it was. But him attributing divine inspiration to his ex-boyfriend! God, it just made me want to shake him and tell him to get a real job! Start being useful for god’s sakes. Maybe that would’ve inspired you more than a boyfriend did.
Inside, I know I need to instinctively get up to pick up Meera who has fallen silent just as her father began to feud with Alia using an old friend as a proxy.
She says: All right. Let’s cut to the chase. At heart, I know you think that pursuing art or waiting to make something meaningful is ridiculous and useless, and you know what, I think I agree with you on at least one thing: it is a privileged man’s game. Only well-to-do people can afford to dabble in paint and canvas and installation and lighting and studios. Maybe if we truly want to do that, we should all get real jobs. That’s true.
He scoffs. That’s an understatement!
I’ll give you that, she says, rising with her empty plate and taking it to the sink. But, tell me, all these high-minded ideas about how only some kinds of people have real jobs, those who play with money and people’s futures and who consider hobnobbing on the company card and soothing their poor little investors’ fears part of work: why is it that only people like that deserve to find their work legitimate, their methods righteous? Why do they tend to be the most selfish, and the most terrified that people will take away their money or their jobs or their precious vintage homes? You may find your friend despicable, but frankly, it doesn’t matter how he got inspired. I can respect it no matter what it is. Sounds like he made something that meant something. In any case, sounds like a better person than that other kind.
He snarls: Oh and you’ve met everyone have you?
All right, that’s enough, I say, cheerily, the inappropriately empty-headed Stepford wife in this household battle. It’s Meera’s bedtime.
He’s bursting forth with more last words, but Alia has washed her hands and slipped in to her room.
So now I’m going to have to hear about it. About my selfish, entitled, self-righteous, prissy little bitch of a sister who thinks she’s such a bleeding heart but really she’s just freeloading off my parents’ generosity. What will she ever do? How long before she comes begging us to pay her rent?
My head is spinning, I stare at Meera as he shouts, my body reverberating with every wave and crest of his gnarr. I imagine him bellowing operatically, in falsetto. I’m standing in a crowded auditorium, watching my husband the Italian soprano looking like Gaston from the cartoon Beauty and the Beast, and it fills me with pleasure to see him that way. Meera seems calm enough. Her father shouting isn’t too of the ordinary. I’m so sorry, I cry out to her in my head, floating back down into my dreary room of toys and coloring books and 1500 thread count sheets and closets of ties and tailored suits and shoes.
Eventually he falls asleep, his anger put out by my silence. I slip into Alia’s room.
Hey. Sorry about that.
She doesn’t look up. Sorry for what, marrying a prick?
Her words, no prelude or lead-in, hit me like a brick in the face. I well up instantly, always the quickest calling card of Alia’s brutality. She’s right and also so wrong, but I’m so tired and afraid so I just sit on the floor next to her bed. All that cooking for nothing. Chopping vegetables, cooking meat, layering meat and potatoes delicately for hours, for this? For Alia to point out my defeat, and for him to attack my sister when really he wants to hold Alia up as evidence of my own defects?
The bedsheets rustle and Alia comes down beside me. Her face, so hard and so callous just a second ago has softened. She puts her arms around me and I cry a little into her sleeves and her bosom as she holds me. She’s never held me like this before. I cry out of failure, out of envy. I haven’t forgiven her, but I will let this go and do this for the first time because I’m tired and I need to cry.
When I stop, I notice that her eyes are wet too. I sense that something else is wrong.
What is it, Alia, I ask, touching her face. Tell me please.
She looks down at the floor, our pyjamas brushing up against each other like when we were children.
Saira, those months I didn’t talk to you. It was…I got pregnant. And then I took care of it. And he left. I just couldn’t talk about it.
I’m silent. My sobs turn into quiet shivers. She deserves my silence. This time I hold her.
Okay. It’s okay.
She’s not crying. She doesn’t need this show of affection, I know, but it’s the only thing I know to do. I’m not holding her because of her. She’s letting me hold her patiently, waiting for me to be ready to know that I’ve done my duty as a sister, that I’ve shown adequate empathy.
The most heartbreaking moments in my life keep happening at the most indifferent moments. I only remember them as painful in retrospect. In real time, they come out of nowhere. They cut through normalcy, apathy, ordinariness; when moments turn they seem over-wrought and self-serious. And then when I think back, my memory has excised that ordinariness. I can only force the complete memory out when I’m tired of my own emotional narrative.
* * *
The next morning, I wake up before everyone else does. I look at myself in the mirror. I look like a ghost, my eyes puffy and my hair stringy. First, I will clean up, take the dishes out of the dishwasher, do the laundry. Then he will wake up for work, brusquely take his coffee and leave. We rarely exchange words in the mornings. All will feel sterile and empty until I go to Meera, and it’s only then that I will feel truly awake.
We need to do groceries so I can make lunch and dinner. I get a call from work. Laura wants to know how many days I’ll be away.
Just a few days, I say. My sister’s here and I’m a little out of sorts, but I’ll be back soon.
Okay, she says. I’m holding down the fort, but things are tight around here. Everyone’s getting itchy, the delays are getting longer and longer. We got a few complaints about service from customers and everybody’s really on edge.
I think to myself: we’re just fucking florists, not the world’s food suppliers. I give her a few directions, ways to keep the system going without me for just a bit longer.
Alia emerges just as I finish getting ready, rubbing her eyes, her pyjamas covering her feet, trailing behind her. Ma would always get frustrated at how Alia’s pyjamas would fray at the ends because she’d shuffle around the house with her feet inside them instead of pulling them up. Some things never change.
I’m going to get some groceries, do you want to come? Maybe we could grab something to eat?
Okay, she says, still yawning. How long?
I was hoping ten minutes. How long do you need?
Half an hour?
Okay, we’ll wait. I put down my bag and decide to read to Meera. Nowadays, she keeps wanting The Velveteen Rabbit. As I read, she asks me what scarlet fever is. She never asked me the first few times we read it.
Alia emerges an hour later, a little more pulled together, but not altogether too much. She must have spent most of the hour lounging about.
Okay, all right, let’s head out then.
We stop at Whole Foods, where I grab a trolley. Alia, can you take care of Meera please? I don’t want her to wander.
Unencumbered, I do my groceries. Brie, pepperjack, gouda? Turkey bacon? Are we out of bread? Wait, let me do the vegetables first. I get lost in the aisles of different-colored shapes and sizes, ambling through. I’ve learned to quite enjoy grocery shopping. If I’m going to do the work, might as well mix it up. It’s not as if anybody notices if I use brie or gouda except me.
My trolley is soon half-full, stocked aplenty with things I do not need, ingredients I am purchasing only to dampen as much I can the blaze that will reign over tonight’s dinner, cheeses I will barely use, foods Meera will never eat. But they make me happy anyway. Sometimes playing the Stepford wife is fun if you let it be.
When I’m done, I cross the aisle I’m in to find Alia and Meera. I stroll three aisles down where Alia is standing opposite the cereal boxes, staring straight ahead. Her eyes seem to be dilated out of some connatural fear. She’s alone.
Alia, where’s Meera?
Alia looks at me with confusion. She was just right here. What…
Did you see her go anywhere? I look around, then leave the trolley and skip through the aisles, looking for Meera. She’s not in the candy aisle, or in the soda or the cheese or at the deli or the bread or the meat or the grill. I call her name once, twice, five times, and soon they turn into yelps.
Where did she go? I force a Whole Foods employee to put out a call, even as fear rises in me like lava from somewhere in my womb.
I’m outside the store now, jogging, tumbling through errant trolleys, in the parking garage, across and between vans and sedans and minivans, across the bushes and brambles, yelling Meera at all of the houses around the store. All these strange houses with strange people, some sitting outside on their garden chairs staring at me as if I were mad. Someone’s taken her. I am mad. I’m hearing the echo of my own voice. Every step I take, I make a full circle, pan the whole view.
There is a flurry of seismic activity that I think I’m making, like I’m bringing the sky down with my fury. Even after I am hoarse and my throat feels like it will burst open from the constant chafing like a knife plunging its way out from the inside, the echoes of her name ring in my head. I make it two blocks east and then back, one block west and then back; deciding between north and south, squinting at the streets, looking for someone running with Meera.
I keep running. The cracks in the sidewalk seem to open up in front of me, my legs get twined in the gnarly outgrowths of unsheared hedges and shrubs, my vision in the heat blurs. My phone in my hand, I’ve made the emergency call. Everything that can be done has been done but I still have to run. I’ve willed the cracks and branches away.
From the corner of my eye, Alia is running behind me, grabbing my arm, trying to hold me down. Why is she running behind me? Why isn’t she trying to find Meera? I hate her so much I push back, pinning her to the ground before crashing into her face.
I feel responsible for everything. I can make the sky fall if I want. I can bring anything down, change the tides of rivers, rend families apart, hold them together, play parts, break characters. I see the bruises of my intent. Sirens blare in my head. Am I am making them blare? Is that real?
* * *
I’ve run out of symbols of protest so I’ve decided to stop with the Easter Eggs. I haven’t painted a stroke in months, mostly because I realized nobody but me was stopping me from releasing myself. I’m sitting on the craggy rocks at the lakeshore, where at this angle I can see the entire periphery of Chicago, the buildings jutting out thoughtlessly. The city looks like it’s living under the shadow of a giant hovering monster.
Winter has arrived in full force, small pockets of Lake Michigan are already ice. I’m still in my shorts and my face still feels unreasonably hot so I dip it in the water, hoping to be forced into sensation by the temperature change, but nothing changes. I watch the bubbles from my mouth emerge to the surface. All those months back, I had found her wandering behind the store, not in front, but I can’t know for certain anymore. Are these memories I conjure to absolve myself? Who knows where she is now? I didn’t even know where I was then.
I remember at eighteen being transfixed by Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours, her final descent in to the water, the ripples moving away from her body as the water accepted and her body resigned. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. To leave willingly, to know the end is nigh, to have agency when you have been allowed none. That memory guides me as my face remains underwater, my feet, like hers, sliding along the river bed. My heart is somewhere there, farther along, somewhere among those pebbles. There’s a storm coming, a real storm where the tides are so high I let myself go with them instead of fighting it. Time is moving fast, and my body with it. Water pelts water, the monster above the city throbbing with its flood. I remember nothing, or I choose to remember nothing, moving at the pace of a tidal wave towards the space where I can’t remember him or Saira or Meera or that everything was my fault.
My heart is somewhere close, and maybe the people I have lost inside it. The dirt and water and pebbles afoot near the shore have already opened wounds on my feet but I’m moving on, closing my eyes, looking for it instinctually, cripplingly, like the woman who buried her child. Through the tide and the rain and the undulations before I move underwater, I can picture her, burying a part of herself, throwing in the blanket, covering it with soil, repetitively making the same motions as her hot tears mingle with the cold steely rain, again and again, until time and temperature and guilt are imperceptible.
Kamil Ahsan is a writer based in Chicago. His writing has appeared in Dissent, Salon, Aeon, The Rumpus, and others.