“Remember when we used to rewind these with a pencil?” I asked Dan, holding a cassette tape in my hand.
“How long did it take someone to get all their laundry done with this?” Dan turned over a washboard quizzically.
We were at an industrial salvage store on Hamilton Avenue. Aisles and aisles of used building materials: lumber, tiles, mismatched toilet supplies, scathed furniture, dusty tables missing legs, drawers and cabinets without knobs, doors and windows in all shapes and sizes, huge vintage chandeliers dangling lope-sided, from the shabby metal ceiling, missing arms, and crystals, and sockets, their wires coiling around them, like great gutted fish. There were old school desks, church pews, and broken down pianos, their keyboards disturbing toothless smiles. Then we saw it. Six feet and slumped like an unconscious drunk on a battered swivel chair. Sewed from thick flesh colored canvas cloth, and filled with sand. “Do you think it’s an old fashioned sex doll,” I asked Dan. A balloon like head, jerked backwards, its features, when I came close to examine them, were roughly drawn with what looked like a sharpie, mean staring eyes, the nose was too long, the mouth a scribble with an uncouth mustache on top. It’s large and strong looking hands were more defined, with realistic thick fingers, that can almost grab.
First we made jokes, and called it Fred. “Poor Fred” we said, “is he crying?” Two thin lines were drawn from the dummy’s tear ducts all the way down to the sides of its lips, like a stream of tears. “Fred! You’re heavy!” I said, as I tried to carry it off the chair.
“I think it’s a grappling dummy,” Dan said.
“A grappling dummy?” I asked.
“Yeah, you know? Women use it to practice self-defense.”
Everything changes. Fred is not a poor old dummy, the lines running from his eyes to his mouth are not a stream of tears, they are crude scars, nail tracks from when his victims fought and clawed him off. He’s not lifeless, merely asleep, and those hands, large, cruel and violent-looking, can pin down a body, they can wrap around a neck, muffle a screaming mouth. Not that I ever forgot, but to be reminded today that I lived in a world where Fred exists, made this 70,000 square foot warehouse stiflingly small.
The next time we meet, I take Dan to Lakewood Park. We agreed, after our friendship developed into something romantic, that he takes me to his favorite place in Cleveland, and I take him to mine. But I’ve seen Fred and the lake changes. I planned to tell Dan about how I imagined the lake is made and remade: the dog walkers, the joggers, the cyclists, the stroller pushing mothers, drew different personalities from the lake. But the lake is not as alive as I remember it. Fred exists, and a woman somewhere is walking down a street at night feeling threatened.
I wasn’t sure of anything anymore, was the man next to me kind, or was her opportunistic? After more than a year of friendship, I was the one who initiated. “I think about you,” I texted him. The pandemic made us go on several hikes together with two other mutual friends, and we talked. I thought maybe Dan had depth, and that I liked him.
But now I didn’t want to tell Dan how different times of the day inspired different colors from the lake: its blinding shimmer in the morning, its terrible depth in the evening, and in-between, an endless battle of teals, turquoise, and indigos. The idea of Fred made the pendulum swing violently inside me, I loathed Dan, then gaped at how similar love and hate were in their weight, in their intensity, in their inconsistency, in their ability to coexist like the black and white in the yin-yang symbol. I searched his face for a clue, but he only smiled, his good-natured eyes shone, and danced in the sunlight sometimes hazel, sometimes green, elusive and ever changing like the lake.
People passed us chattering: a young pretty mother alternated between English and something sounding like Farsi, her two small children responding in a perfect American accent.
An older man fumbled with a camera drone. A tall, burly, grey-bearded man, he put the drone on the ground and it came alive, the powerful spinning props created a small tornado, sending tree leaves in all directions, it took off towards the calm glittering lake, like a massive robot insect, its master guiding its movements.
“My dad can fly a drone better than that,” a small boy says to drone man, in breathless excitement.
“Oh yeah!” drone man responds, amused.
“Tommy! Come throw rocks in the lake,” the boy’s father bellows, a tanned, athletically built man, his dog, a caramel-colored pit bull, docile with sweet eyes.
“The lake actually looks pretty today,” a jogger exclaims to her partner, and he agrees.
The flying camera only sees the lake from one perspective, the perspective in which drone man points it, it can zoom in, it can zoom out, it can also take a panorama shot, but there’s always an angle to which the camera remains blind.
“You’re quiet, you okay?” Dan asks me.
“Yeah,” I say.
Above us, a couple of seagulls cry, a family of geese glide gracefully on the shimmering sheet of water. The sun casts its golden beams over the lake, the water burbles and ripples. The sunscreen I sprayed on my bare arms earlier in the day serves as cooking oil, my skin is red and sizzling.
I planned to stay with Dan and watch the sunset, but I want to leave now, the lake is tired, I think, tired of being everything to everyone.
Fatima Matar Fatima Matar migrated to Cleveland with her daughter in early 2019 after facing prosecution in her homeland Kuwait for her political and religious views. She writes to understand and paints when language fails her. Her writing has appeared in The Wry Ronin, Acumen, The Journal, Angelic Dynamo, Further Monthly, Fleeting Magazine, Bad Language, Staples Magazine, Word, Jaffat El Aqlam, and Oyster River Pages. She posts audios of her writing on her YouTube channel.