Inside my house, the air is still. I have imagined a place for myself, a quiet room where no birds fly, where children’s voices are a memory, where the squatting inkwell is a point of steady reference in a present of lightweight ballpoint pens. If not quite of my own, my room is still a compromised solitude. I do not have five hundred pounds. I make pennies to my husband’s paycheck. I cook and clean, I smile and inveigh against the weight of the world. I have become the cliché I once despised, the woman whose only mystique is that she is mortal.
But I have imagined a room of my own, though it is invaded sometimes by recipes and bills, sometimes a ringing phone, sometimes an inward collapse of the will. All these things are the stuff of poetry for more attuned selves; to me, they cross boundaries, set up flags. They must be dismantled and shooed away. In their place another life arises. The room becomes a foundry. Little flames rise and fall. A whole sun shines in for a moment. The dark covers the furniture. Nothing goes as required by the clock.
And so, a story. Some of it is true. Mostly it is lies.
I’ll decide, says the Angel in the House, tapping her dainty foot. Let memory tell the story. Above all, be pure.
Memory won’t speak. Instead it dances, hides, capers, and makes a fool of me. It covers where it should reveal. Sometimes it throws the whole bag at my feet—figure that out, it says. The memory-keeper is an American; ten years in this new country has given it a new vocabulary and bearing. It is supremely confident and has excellent self-esteem, but every now and then the immigrant’s voice falters through. My keeper is a fraud.
And so, where to begin? Hosha. Narrator. Room. Walk. Return. A journey motif without the requisite huzzahs. The people are all changed, their spirits preserved like some enduring jelly.
Say “like a Twinkie,” suggests my memory-keeper. They pretty much last forever.
I push him off the table.
The storyteller’s journey is my story, and is not. One day I came to America with a bag, two hundred dollars (not quite five hundred pounds, so we’re circling the room), and a magic key. The fellowship to a university opened doors, but the palace of enchanted wonders was too vast, technicolored in technology and in ambitions that surpassed my own. I had an inkwell in the land of shiny ballpoint hopes, a feathered pen where a computer was a password.
Hosha, muses my memory-keeper, undeterred. Make him six feet tall. Give him a head of yellow hair, like a haystack or the morning sun. Or at least a cheerful lightbulb.
Be nice, adds the Angel. Give him a Sad Past and a Kindly Disposition.
Quiet, I command.
(The memory-keeper and the Angel are canoodling. This cannot bode well.)
The world is full of all sorts of people…
The world is full of all sorts of people. This astonishing fact comes to me one Sunday while I am peeling peaches (such as they are, fuzzy and overripe to the touch) over the kitchen counter, my freshly washed hair neatly turbaned into a peach-mimicking fuzz of Egyptian toweling. The thought bedazzles, demands to be shared in my delight-befogged moment of wonder. So I say it aloud carefully but with passion, savoring the sweet, rounded syllables like fruit.
“What?” asks Hosha, blind without his glasses, unwindowed as a wall.
I repeat the epiphany in dulcet octaves so he might be modulated into its recognition.
“Bloody cliché,” snorts Hosha. He’s given to bad temper in the mornings, even though the sun is streaming in with an eleven-o’clock glare. Some people are just like that, and it takes an internet romance or a lottery windfall to change their gears.
“You’re not a good person,” I say to him, having watched Dr. Phil till all hours. “You need help.”
“You—walking cliché,” he mutters in reply, suspicious of complete sentences before a full repast.
“Walking cliché? The walking part of it is a cliché in itself,” I say. “As in walking encyclopedia or walking stick.”
Not entirely true, of course, that part about the stick, because a stick is a thing. Still, things can be clichés, like my Malibu Barbie, or lawn signs that say the change we need though it’s eight years later and the latest inauguration has swept in a tide of steaming red hats. Clichés aside, the point is for Hosha to button up because it is rude to bat away my attempts at good nutrition and convivial repartee. Hosha glares half-heartedly, squinting through the neon sunlight at what he thinks is me, but is instead the new umbrella stand shooting off silver spikes like fireworks.
Mildly annoyed by the comparison, I feel the need to retaliate.
“Sour kraut,” I say, though in a friendly way because of good manners and the high road.
“Cabbagehead,” murmurs Hosha dreamily, as if composing a sonnet.
He reflects for a moment, weighing some connection between the words—sour kraut, cabbagehead—but that is just the English teacher in him idly kicking sand in the desert. I whip off my towel-turban and shake my hair loose as is seemly for impending battle, much like the stamping of hooves or the twirling of gauntlets. But Hosha assumes his defeated-owl expression, which can only mean one thing.
“WhereAreMuhGlasses?” inquires Hosha.
This isn’t his real name, as you must have guessed. His name is Heinrich, a legacy handed down from his Nazi grandfather, the grumpy one who wore a red fedora to bed. “How did you get this name, Hosha?” people inquire, and always he gives them the same reply. When he was a baby two months old, his parents awakened to a thunderous sound. Their baby had sneezed beyond all proportion to his weight and age. Like a lightning bolt—HOOOr-Sha! At that pivotal moment his mother rechristened him, certain the sneeze had been fashioned by the Hand of God. Commendable, I think, to follow this train of thought. I once had a geography teacher, Mrs. Ramprasad, who named her newborn Rover after a beloved long-gone pet. Not surprisingly, Rover Ramprasad grew up taking cover at the sight of a feline whisker. On balance, a vigilant approach to cats is preferable to being named after a bodily function for which there is no defensive recourse.
“WhereAreMuhBloodyGlasses?” demands Hosha, the big post-sneeze baby, rattling his crib.
Hosha spent the first fourteen years of his life in England, where the word bloody, as described in the handy guidebook, Interpreting British English for the Foreign Ear, indicates an extreme form of frustration or sophistication, as in “Bloody Hell” or “Bloody Good Show, Old Chum.” This latter example is open to debate because “Bloody Good Show” has shown some wear, now used mostly by postcolonials eager to prove their affinity with upper-class Brits who are mostly dead.
“Off to get the paper,” I say to Hosha, without rancor as is my temperament.
I don’t expect a reply, nor do I get one. Hosha has recovered his glasses from the sideboard and is now buffing his fingernails with my scallop-handled mother-of-pearl pocketknife. He splays out his fingers, wriggles them like crippled spiders staggering in the air. Such efforts at armchair yoga, he contends, improve his concentration.
A strange man in need of help, though it must be admitted that is part of Hosha’s charm. (The other part is that he can pay the bills, which is to me an attraction as comforting as the Statue of Liberty to a shipwrecked immigrant, since I am an out-of-work kinesiologist.)
“Get lunch,” calls Hosha, waving the knife at the closing door. Too late, too late, I am down the stairs and into the open on a late Sunday morning, in search of the newspaper and different people, and the change, at least for now, I need.
Outside, the weather is balmy. I tread lightly over potholes and concrete, my feet tripping a careless dance to the tune of onehup twohup, teedleup whee, which even in the kindest of interpretations is not music. On the other hand, the notes provide a cantata for my feet so I can hoist and step, step and kick, without much attention from the crowds who think me physically deficient. I accept the sympathy of a warm glance or the diplomacy of an averted one with the same carelessness.
Onehuptwohup. I am six years old and in a garden in spring.
There are things to be seen and not seen on the street. Not to be seen is a man in a shiny limo hoisting both feet through the door, ready to spring the world into action. To be seen is a rambunctious dog on a leash leading a middle-aged woman straight into a bush. If the arrangement were up to me, she’d be in the car with the dog, the two of them sipping champagne while the man (fiftyish, with a crew cut and pepper goatee, black briefcase in hand), might end up twirling around on his head for the pleasure of the passersby.
“Life is not for arranging,” says Hosha in his more tempered moments. Full of wise saws is Hosha. Life arranges us, and we are the displays. We pose and freeze. Once he wrote an essay on fate and the many ways it tricks us into beautiful paralysis. Utter stillness like a vase. His professor was unsympathetic. Pretentious, she wrote on the bottom of the last page. And borrowed from Keats. That was her only comment. Hosha took the comment as retaliation for having earlier mentioned his grandfather in a graduate seminar on Holocaust literature. The professor was Jewish.
“She means an urn,” explained Hosha. “An urn is different,” he said, shaking his head in disappointment. “A thing you fill with ashes and set discreetly but meaningfully upon your mantelpiece. A vase is for life, for water and flowers.” Completely at odds.
Once a mouse fell into Hosha’s sock drawer and chewed up his blue linen underpants. Hosha lifted out the mouse, gave it a wedge of cheese, and set it free in the communal basement laundry room. Though this simple gesture was not appreciated by other brownstone occupants, especially those availing themselves of the facilities at that particular time, the mouse did not reappear in the sock drawer, laundry room, or anywhere else we imagined. Mollified by cheese, the mouse left us alone. I demur, but only mildly. Hosha’s point is that the professor was given a slice of poisoned cheese and spat it right back out at him. He sees justice in this act and a reaffirming of the causal nature of the universe. Still, he blacked out the professor’s remark, gave himself an A and wrote Excellent! after it. Whatever our understanding of the moral immensity of our actions, we all have a reputation to consider.
In my garden in Nainital, I am almost eight, and my birthday looms ahead like a red balloon. Run! Get it! cries my father, as I chase a butterfly three days before an uncle dies in a boating accident. On my birthday, the air is somber, full of mourning ghosts who turn out to be aged relatives at the funeral. As good as ghosts for I never see them again, only hear of their passings like wind shifts over water. One early next year, another in late fall, all strung out like a line of paper cutouts. I count my years by their demise, shedding my childhood with their losses. Now, years later, my parents are gone too, drifting like whispers into the ether. My birthdays range the sky in search of them, balloons and ghosts, untethered.
I am closing in on the newsstand where people of all color and manner of clothing are buying magazines. A young man with a diamond nose ring is counting his change loudly as if to impress an audience. An old woman is gazing sleepily at a cover photograph of a young woman with a four-year-old child latched to her left breast. There are no magazines with bold pictures of bloodied soldiers in the desert. A Vietnamese man with black-edged glasses and a three-piece suit is handing over money for a copy of Vogue. I’d have guessed the Wall Street Journal, but what do I know? I live with Hosha, and the ghosts of my relatives and his Nazi fedora-hatted grandfather fill our home with remorse. We speak of them desultorily, our guilt separate, mine smudgy with filial omissions, his fat and glutinous with shame.
Three blocks away the clouds merge slightly.
“Rain?” inquires Hosha when the silence in rooms gets too long. Other people cough or just get up and leave. I am a leaver. Of rooms, of love and dogs, of unmourned kin. I walk into bushes and recover. I do not enter limousines, even in dreams. I am a foot soldier, one foot out at a time. I rarely check the sky and only for wildly morphing clouds, signs of sleet, snow, the unexpected. Hosha is a great one for the weather. Daily forecasts keep him in touch with the world outside and he relays them to the walls, to me.
“Not much difference in the audience,” says Hosha. “At least the walls are nicely painted.”
I am glad not to be a painted woman. I have small feet, arthritic fingers, and a head of shiny brown hair. My nose is sharp and my chin pointed. I could be a weather vane leaning into the wind if the Fates had so decreed. Perhaps I already am one in my second-floor apartment with Hosha, testing my life with each drift of rain.
In my Nainital garden were twelve stunted lychee trees, randomly planted. You had to tread cautiously if you had a dog on a leash. Dogs run everywhere, a consternation underfoot. You, on the other hand, must steer clear of branches so low they almost touch your hands. They hold on to you, gnarled fingers reaching. Perhaps they saw affinity in my fingers. Wood and bone. On the street here are no lychee trees. Sometimes a patch of grass, sometimes a bush, once a bush with a woman in it. No lychee trees.
Before I left for America, my mother gave me a beautiful pearl-handled penknife, perhaps to show me that lovers and strangers must be kept at bay. On my first attempt at dormitory cooking, I sliced my third finger almost all the way off with this knife. The University Hospital nurse thought I was a fool. Only immigrants slice tomatoes with such heedless heft.
The street at noon is temperamental. Sometimes it empties quickly as if a flying saucer were spitting beams of destruction from up on high; other times it fills like a jug about to overflow with honks and screeches. Right now it overflows.
I can’t cross the street to the newsstand because the traffic is mad dogs on the loose. Lunchtime, and the restaurants in the square are filling their bellies with hungry Sunday-walkers.
Hosha’s sadstory is not his story at all. He appropriated it because it gave him cover.
“When I was thirteen (fourteen, twelve, he changes dates) we lived in London.” This part is always the same and full of foreboding. “We lived just off the East End in a grimy row of flats, in a three-room apartment, really a clump of interconnected bedsits, because that’s all the rent my father could afford.” (I always look sympathetic. Truly, who can live surrounded by walls and little streets with no way out especially if you are an immigrant from the War with no money and English that gutters down people’s ears in spits and gargles?)
“One day,” says Hosha, “while we were looking out of our living room window onto the alley behind the burned-out theater, we saw a woman sitting squarely on a man.”
“Impossible!” I cry, for such a response is required to embellish the moment.
“I was looking out of the window with my mother and baby sister ”—(who died of meningitis, but that story was told only once)—“when my father coming homeward from his job as an assistant shop manager began gesticulating oddly from the street. At first I thought he was having a heart attack or possibly readying for song as he did so often while in public places in Germany—my father, my ham—but he was drawing our attention to a very large woman sitting atop a very small man at the L-turn in the alleyway. Some might see this moment as crude or sexual in nature, but if you were there, you could tell it was neither. She had her skirts spread over him so all you could see was his white face with a ginger mustache under a mountain of gingham, and he said in tones that carried clearly across to us, ‘You’re my man, Joanna.’ And she said, ‘I would never doubt that, Horace.’
“At this point,” says Hosha, “my mother, my sister, and I shut the window and did not look out again, but we remembered that moment for its sheer beauty.”
“It’s not your story,” I say, jealous. “It belongs to Horace.”
“I made it up,” says Hosha. “Not the story, but the moment, and it kept me alive through grammar school. Sometimes even now I close my eyes and think of what it must be to be the woman, the man, or both of them at once, so random and fisted in a heap.”
Of all his England stories, this is the one he likes to tell. I want to hear the Loss-of-Sister story, the Parents-Retired-in-Devon story, the First-Love-was-an-Italian-Girl story, the Coming-to-America-Without-Funds story. The Meeting-Me story. I wonder if they don’t touch him anymore, or hold him too closely. “I think you’re lying,” I say, “because you won’t tell the other stories,” but Hosha shakes his great head of yellow hair as if to say, you know nothing. That much is true, I must admit. Hosha is six feet tall. He speaks German and English. He has a PhD in restoration drama and a job at a community college. We met at a farmers market reaching for the same tomato. We were hungry in indeterminate ways. We both needed help.
“Tell me about your little sister,” I said to him once late at night when he was almost asleep and susceptible to confession.
“When she was three,” said Hosha on cue, as if talking to the walls, “she fell ill. I was babysitting, looking out of the window at a tree full of strong branches, when her fever went up and she gave a cry. Like the mewling of an alley kitten. The trees outside looked like prizefighters, arms lifted in the air. I thought it might rain. As I watched the clouds and waited for my mother to return with the doctor, my sister died. I was holding her in my arms, but I couldn’t help her. She was everything to me, but she was gone.”
Then, because he had told me a story with an ending, Hosha arose abruptly to brush his teeth. It seemed to add up, even when I held out my arms and he ignored me.
Our baby could fill those arms, bring all those ghosts together.
My stories don’t add up to much at all; they have beginnings, middles, and ends. Some have morals, or at least recommendations. If we all love one another, we can be happy. When climbing trees, don’t miss a branch to show off or you’ll need antiseptic liquid on a cotton ball. Neighborhood picnics can bring the community together. My stories have a big white house at the center and a happy, singing father, and a mother who makes omelets at two in the morning if you so desire. My stories discuss birthday parties, trips to the Vale of Kashmir, and secret clubhouses. My stories are spiced with words like pavadai, shehnai, gulmohor, and ghazal. The exotica dazzles me, but leaves Hosha cold. This is depressing because I need to see my exotic past through his eyes to fully appreciate such splendor, otherwise it’s all just clothes and flowers and music, much as anywhere.
“You’re a reverse Orientalist,” says Hosha, when what I just wish to do is experience myself as a creature of the local imagination.
I cook him mutter masala, dosa-sambhar, and vadai.
“Just like my mother made in Bavaria!” cries Hosha, and indeed he believes this observation, having reworked his past into pastiche.
Tell me your happystory, demands Hosha.
I’ve come to a new and alien country, I say.
It’s about the same.
You’re either a total liar or completely truthful, muses Hosha.
I am pleased to be a total-complete, much better than halves and partly.
In a stroller ahead is a fat baby waving a rattle that sings “Wheels on the Bus.” Her young mother seems slightly askew with bouncing the stroller over sloping grassy mounds in Rittenhouse Square Park. We have no children because Hosha has A Problem, the nature of which we don’t discuss. It has to do with liquid in a test tube and much sad shaking of the head. “Sorry, sorry,” says the doctor, “I’ll be back.” And he is in a minute with printed forms and hope, but I cut my losses. We’ll adopt, we promise the doctor, but we don’t. In our brownstone, it’s all we can do to swat away the clichés. We grow quiet-eyed and purposeful.
The baby considers me appraisingly like a real estate agent.
Lovely little package, my mother would say.
The baby chews on the tassels of her white cap with embroidered strawberries.
Strawberries are like lychees, fat red teardrops, the blood on my second finger that flowed onto the nurse’s white uniform.
Stupid immigrant, she said, or perhaps not. Maybe it was stupid implement, meaning the knife.
Or perhaps not. I didn’t ask her to repeat it.
“Arab terrorist,” the nurse had said, swabbing at my open hand.
“Beg pardon?” I inquired politely.
“I’d rub the wrist,” she said, swabbing, swabbing. “It helps deflect the pain.”
So many years later, I see the nurse through a filmy curtain of other people’s blood. Whatever she said, the war now makes our language into playtime where everybody is tag. Where our language is a bloodied soldier in the desert. Where our knives stick up like rifles in the sand.
The baby watches me closely while her mother rummages through a battered black purse. Out comes a tissue, very orange. Hosha likes the unexpected and will appreciate this moment. The baby sneezes. On cue, the mother dives down with her tissue parachute, then up again. Some quick mission has been accomplished, but the baby is enraged and bawls loudly.
In the clear air I see my father swimming through the ether, trailing red balloons. Oneup, twoup, tweedleup. Whee. He is singing to the tune of the Indian national anthem. My mother floats over him like a benediction. As I wave and call to them, their forms dissolve in air.
The newsstand man sees me calling out and waving at the empty sky. He looks around as if for help or possibly the authorities. No trees line this street. People must have branched fingers because they lift one up to me, each the second finger. Surrounded by bent bone, I am encased in claw. I blink to clear my sight. The baby ignores me, chortling at her pig-plump toes, while her mother says, “There now!” and smiles encouragingly at passersby. Isn’t she darling?
(Here is a part I must mention. I have withheld the information because it runs a nasty countercurrent against my smoothly flowing story. Not a confluence of waters here, but a confrontation. Hosha has found another love. He has said that she is Better than me. Gentler than me. And Richer than me. Though this part he doesn’t say. BGR off, I think.)
Soon he will be leaving. Papers, glasses, stories and all.
The street is momentarily flying-saucer empty. The shops have opened wide maws and swallowed everyone on the sidewalks. There’s only the noonday sun and a headache so insistent my eyes are flames. From the curb, the baby’s mother sees a small woman with lavish hair smiling at her daughter.
“No hablo Español,” she says sharply.
“I’m from India,” I tell her. The baby laughs delightedly at the hilarity of India.
“Oh,” says the mother. She turns her head to see me some other way, then gives up the effort. The information, in all, has neither pleased nor annoyed her.
“I know some people from India,” she says, and we ponder this information together as if it were a nugget of pure truth.
“They’re Hindu,” she adds in a friendly sort of way.
“Do you, now,” I say, finally, “know some Indian people?”
But the mother has forgotten me and fusses with the diaper bag. Holding up baby’s bottle full of beige milk, she squints at it in the sunlight as if reading the mercury level on a thermometer.
I shift my attention to a more receptive audience.
“Have to go,” I inform the baby in Jolly Santa–tones, “to buy a newspaper.” The baby crows at the sheer joy of buying newspaper, but her mother shakes out a pink parasol and off they go.
I give the man at the newsstand four crisp dollars and he hands me the New York Times. “No need for change,” I tell him.
“That’s good to know,” he says. “Most people want even a penny back.”
“Oh, it takes all sorts,” I tell him.
“Ain’t that the truth!” he says. But he’s looking at me strangely, as if I’m a sort beyond the all.
▴ ▴ ▴
This is Ending One to my happystory.
I have the New York Times under my arm. There is so much news and so much to know. I must hurry back to Hosha, who is waiting unsuccessfully for lunch, so we can discuss the war’s latest events. We will sit together on a sofa and read the funnies. We will scoff at all the literary reviews, especially Hosha who has not yet finished his great novel that will change the world. When the three-o’clock sun is riding high, we will be asleep. At five, we will make dinner, and at six thirty sit down before the television to absorb the news from our favorite anchor whose hair mimics an oiled nest. Small words will fly out of his mouth and loop between our rafters. The trees outside our windows are mighty oaks with strong-armed branches uplifted like triumphant prizefighters. Through the branches, a cool evening wind will blow, puffing its way into our little rooms. When babies or parents shake out of the leaves and float by the windows, we close the shutters, because they are so loud—and if I might say—rude. We live a quiet life with red strawberries for dessert and a stuffed velvet Chihuahua on the mantelpiece. Before we retire to bed, we brush our teeth with even swirls of red-and-blue-striped toothpaste.
“Think it’ll rain tomorrow?” asks Hosha, scouring the sky between the branches.
“Sour kraut,” I say, because I think I love him.
Then we fall asleep and lie as still as vases.
Ending Two is simpler and to the point.
What happens is this. I walk up the stairs, and here in the armchair is Hosha, glasses askew, mouth wide open and snoring gently, waiting for lunch or for a miracle to change his life. No lunch, but a miracle is possible. I put down the newspaper, pick up my mother-of-pearl knife dropped by his side (so beautiful still, with scalloped handle) and run a clean sharp line across the palm of my right hand. Up, up, comes the blood, tender as wisps of smoke, and when the lines fill in, I turn to Hosha and place my palm against his clueless chest. What bloodied shapes will we find when I take away my hand? A smudge in red, the shadow of a mouse, a Nazi grandfather in a red fedora, a lychee tree—and because good things come in little packages—a sleeping baby. I have no idea. All things add up to air. But here we are in case he never wakes, my hand pressed warm against his beating heart, the scalloped knife still lovely and so latent, and sleep, like love, a passage through the night.
But I am a good girl.
The Angel hovers at my back. Choose Ending One.
They lived happily ever after.
And say “like Twinkies,” commands my memory-keeper. They last forever. Say “they lived happily ever after, like Twinkies.”
I lift my feathered pen.
And so of course they did.