I had known him for fourteen years, lived with him for six—before I realized how unknown and strange he still was to me. Even after fourteen years he had somehow escaped unraveling while I still continue to check all over my body for loose stitches, for places I fear I may have come undone. It feels satisfying now, even poetically romantic, to remember him in pieces and scenes, singing Neapolitan jazz to himself in a low toneless hum in the mornings while reopening the curtains to let daybreak in, rearranging mugs by color gradient on Christmas Eve, looking over a book of quotes to smile at me when I told a joke to a friend over the phone. These seem sweet, they seem like things you can recount to yourself, things you do not have to explain. They do not give indication of belonging to a bigger picture of us having spent six years capering around each other in a way I can now hardly believe we pulled off, but one that I can understand gave me safety, or at least, some illusion of it.
In 2002, the winter was warmer than anyone remembered it. Whenever anyone got together with anyone, global warming was always spoken of, at some point. The mundane filler for the dimming conversation, the proof of political intellectuality. The occasional quote from the New York Times. It was all a cadenced, cultural ambience.
The world seemed to be getting on with a cozy mundanity and yet I felt different, and unrestful, and because I felt different, this getting-on of the world seemed to become a pretending, two-dimensional stage setting. It seems that way now when I think back on it.
It was that warm October, a slightly sultry, overcast, crowded month, when his mother died. It came as a shock to me to discover that she had existed in the first place, when I heard of it—maybe I’d never really thought about it—but then the memories began to come to me, wherein he had mentioned her, casually and non-specifically in discussion over something unremarkable like the din of the TV or a cup of coffee. I rented a car and drove him, four hours away, the terrain outside the windows becoming sparser and sparser while he sat next to me and looked on ahead. The dead trees along the highway had an Egyptian sort of grace to them and seemed to wave to us hello. I wondered if it was because he was waving at them first. His expression was blank and yet there was something scattered about him, something apocalyptic, an atmosphere of disorder. It seemed to leak and permeate and it made me anxious.
Remade inside the casket, his mother had his same down-turned, doleful eyes and her face had the same look he had had in the car, her hands folded softly on her stomach but with the bones arched—very subtly—in a strange, secretive way, as if clutching at something hidden to the eye. I didn’t look at her again.
After the funeral he came away from his brother and I led him to a café a couple of streets down and bought him a bagel and espresso. He sat there, emptying the little packets of sugar into his cup, then reached over the table for mine. I slipped them over, and felt how his hands were cold as ice.
“Did you like her?” he said, after the espresso was halfway drained.
I looked at him, stopped, having no idea what reply to make.
Then he seemed to realize the absurdity of his question and looked helplessly around, then suddenly began to cry.
I rescued him from surrounding eyes and guided him out of the café. I had not paid for the bagel and coffee which had left my mind then but no one interrupted us. This irked me about him. The world seemed to fold and curve and shape itself to fit around him.
I let him cry in the car for some time and then I drove him back. Something about his weeping, as it stayed with me, was at once indecent and touching, like a new-born mouse, hairless and shivering and utterly grotesque, but which moves you to look at it for the realization of how perfectly, perfectly fragile and frangible it is. I thought of it all the way back, and as a consequence could not really look at him.
The room we slept in was as mismatched and makeshiftedly furnished as the rest of the apartment; I slept in a queen bed I’d got years ago from a junk shop, he slept on an old-fashioned sofa-bed that was covered in an eccentric design of imagery from some sort of mythology, in shades of navy, gold (that now looked brown—or brass, at best) and rust-red. When I’d first seen it I’d had some private misgivings about bad luck and all; was it really necessary to sleep on top of miniature tapestries depicting circumcision rites, gorgonesque creatures holding seances and that sort of thing? But that kind of thing did not at all sound like a sayable thing when you looked at him, so serious and inculpable his expression always was. In time I became used to the sofa-bed and began to see the humor in it.
That night, I felt the weight of him drop onto the other side of my mattress. I considered, at first, moving to his sofa-bed, out of courtesy. Did he not deserve to sleep in a proper bed at least tonight? I asked myself, to justify this pondering, but somehow I could not. Somehow in the tragedy of the past day’s events and the immaculate darkness of the night all my fancies about the tall tales and naked creatures embroidered onto the lining struck me as a singular sort of terror and I stayed where I was, and there was, anyway, enough space for both of us. It also then came to me that he might want my presence, the day had been terrible, human warmth was comforting. Maybe he wanted to talk. Maybe he needed a friend. But he did not speak, and although I tried I could not sleep. The air was absolutely black, the curtains heavy, so much that without touch I might not discern if beside me was a man or something else.
Eventually I felt him stir a bit, felt some of his warmth ripple towards me in the cool winter air. I felt his hand reaching out like a tentative snake’s head, reaching and grasping me. We curled into each other. He breathed deeply and mournfully, like he was performing a rite.
I felt his hand on my chest, pressing deeply against the elastic of my skin. He began to count my ribs and whisper the numbers like hoarse and secret incantations, which seemed to float up and hover in the night, humming, waiting. I felt as if the impact of his fingers might crush my ribs and drive them, like daggers, into my heart. Then, abruptly and suddenly, he stopped, and turned the other way, and became still except for the soft rise and fall of a sleeping human body, and I was left naked and solitary with the cold filling and settling into the impress of his fingers upon my body.
For the rest of the night time seemed to slow with even more vehemence, the minutes viscous and heavy, but morning came still abruptly and I feigned sleep while he got out of the bed and went on with his quotidian curtain-opening ritual, and I noted how with him gone, the bed seemed huge, huger than it ever had before.
By the time I got off the metro in front of the crockery store I worked at, that morning, it was drizzling slightly.
“Chipped” was what the place was called, which I’d secretly maintained, from day one, was utterly ridiculous. It wasn’t even like we sold antiques, in which case it would still be ridiculous but perhaps make a bit of sense, but we didn’t. It was all perfectly new, comfortingly ugly porcelain and china for the most part and some nicer sets stacked inside glass shelves but they had styled the place like it was some sort of a vintage store; dim lighting, dark wood paneling, old-fashioned arched windows with the paint peeling off the sills. Everything was rushed in together and close and the entrance had a shutter, which lifted, during the day, left everything open to the elements. To me it seemed that all this pretense just made the shop look dusty rather than rustic. It was a bit vile, like China-Gucci.
Sofia, the owner, was smoking on a stool outside the entrance and sloshing the rain with her bare foot, and nodded to acknowledge me. The driveway to the store was a bit angled so the water always pooled up right in front of us, even if the showers weren’t very strong. On rainy days one of my jobs would be splashing the rain away with a big plastic wiper. I went inside, intending to retrieve this from the back of the store.
The newest employee we’d hired was plugging an umbrella into the rusting iron holder (probably another aesthetic consideration) next to the counter. She was a small, plump woman, a bit direct but I didn’t know much about her. She wore a lot of bright floral, colors that hurt your eyes.
I opened my mouth for a greeting but she spoke first.
“You’ve brought muddy shoes in the store.”
I swallowed the restless and beating annoyance that I felt, and went back outside and wiped my foot on a bit of dry concrete sidewalk under the shade.
All day I splashed back the water at the world at intervals, took plates out of the shelves, put them back to the rhythmic clinks of the china, in the middle. It was stupid to me that people would still think of buying crockery in the rain.
All day I felt spastic and strange. The world around me seemed diminished to something less lucid, brand-new and theatrical. I felt at the cusp of some altering moment in my life, felt that the past weeks had been building up to it and in the overwhelming shadow of it nothing much seemed to matter, like my life had suddenly become merely a rehearsal, and a terrorizing and suicidal sort of apathy had set over me that took me over like a stupor of morphine. I wondered was it too early for a mid-life crisis? Maybe I was just going to die sooner.
I wondered if something had to change. Something needed to end, and something needed to begin.
It was hours after dark when I got home, and it was raining again, heavier this time. The streetlights made strange white holograms in the splashing water under my feet. I felt surrounded by ghosts whenever it rained, the ground turning to glass, imitation light shows, the world warped and twisted in the glimpse of an alternate universe splashing under its feet.
I didn’t see him when I entered the apartment and did not try to look for him. My bones had become suddenly leadenish and all I wanted was to go to bed. I undressed, gratefully throwing off my damp clothes, and lay down, falling asleep almost immediately.
Again I woke with the weight of his body on the other side of the bed. Then I felt the tips of his fingers reach closer, like a practiced arrangement, a rehearsed solo. I had the vague sense of having been waiting for them. His fingers on me seemed in a strange way to diminish me, they made me aware of the thinness of my skin, the flat nearness of my ribs, the uncomfortable awareness of the skeleton underneath my flesh, made me feel vulnerable and paperish. His touch reduced me to the wire-frame construction of my visceral body.
I wanted to overpower him, to have him underneath, to count his ribs like he counted mine—I was slightly smaller, less fit, but I knew him enough to know that if I did a thing like that he would not protest—but I couldn’t stop listening to the sound of his voice, and so he held me there in a hypnotic state, holding my breath so I could concentrate on his fingers descending on the rungs of my ribcage. I listened to my breath become eventually synchronous with the motion of his hands. I felt a beating of wings inside of me. I felt an impalpable hunger. I felt myself give over and fall under control.
The next morning I did not wake at dawn. When I came to, a little while before noon, the startling midday sun was struggling to squeeze in from the sides of the curtains, which were heavily, fully drawn.
He was gone. He had taken everything of his but the sofa-bed, which that night I slept in for the first time in my life.
Abeer Arif lives in the suburbs of Faisalabad. Her interests include writing, physics, and socializing with the neighborhood cats.