MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
THERE’S an emoji on my phone that I’ve never used, of a shell-pink tower-block building with blue windows. Smaller than an apple seed, crumb-sized—if that—it stands six stories high. Six windows going up: three square, three rectangular. I counted them and double-checked because extra-small things bring out the extra-small person in me who sometimes even triple-checks things; who still chances certainty might exist in asking, “Promise me?”
This emoji is further detailed with a letter H—pink too, but more or less magenta—that hangs on its front and is matched in size by a pink heart floating above the building’s extension; like a shiny Mylar balloon escaping into the sky. The building’s roof is maroon, and an awning, also pink, shelters its two-door entranceway. Unlike the “house” emoji, for instance, this one has zero greenery: no shrubs, no tree. No landscaping. Just a stand-alone building that, until recently, I thought stood for “Cardiologist.” The H and its accompanying heart were an expression of, in my mind, heart hospital. Or heart doctor. And not, as I later discovered while scrolling through an emoji glossary online: “Love Hotel.” I was sure the building stood for all matters having to do with that four-chambered, fist-shaped muscle we carry—that carries us—with constancy. That beats—did you know?—more than one hundred thousand times a day.
Imagine that. Even when we’re pressing snooze and rolling over in bed, folding ourselves into our covers and postponing the day’s bubbling over, and soon after notching cold butter on warm toast, or later coming to a halt as we bound up a flight of subway stairs only to stall behind an elderly woman whose left leg trails behind her right leg—one leaden step at a time—even then, when time decelerates and the relative importance of our lives, of our hurry, undergoes a sudden, essential audit; even then, our heart never stops.
Even when a name I’ve long ignored—blotted from my mind in order to safeguard some good sense—pops up bold in my inbox. Even when I notice three consecutive missed calls from my father and, as if metronomed by doom, fear the worst, my heart does not stop beating.
Even when I hear a sound or count footsteps following me at night, or spot two rats darting from a pile of trash, or hold my breath as Lisa Fremont climbs the fire escape to Thorwald’s apartment while Jeff anxiously sits guard in his wheelchair, watching with his binoculars from across the courtyard. Even then. Even Hitchcock. Despite pure movie fright—how it skewers me—my heart doesn’t stop.
Even when the cab all of a sudden breaks and jerks forward. When anything lurches. Careens. When “Think fast!” trails the toss. When my leg involuntarily twitches and I sense I’ve lost my balance, only to wake up having dozed off. Even when I watched Man on Wire, bewildered as to why anyone would perform such a stunt. Eight passes back and forth. A quarter mile up.
Even when a thought springs fresh in my mind on the subway and solves an essay I’d just about abandoned. On the rare occasion my subconscious welds, language has a gift, I’ve learned, for humiliating those luminous random acts of creative flash into impossible-to-secure hobbling duds. The best ideas outrun me. That’s why I write.
Even in June 2011, when my roommate and I paused Game 4 of the Heat–Mavericks Finals because: CRASH! The sound—the loudest, most intense crinkle—traveled from my bedroom at the front of our apartment, which faced the street. We’d only lived there, on the second floor, maybe two or three months. As we walked slowly down the length of our long hallway, I noticed my window was broken, the glass veined. A single hole in the bottom corner. Flattened on my floor near my bed were the pummeled shards of a bullet. Some kids on the street, my neighbors later told me, had been playing with a gun. My heart clamped and didn’t recoup for days. I slept on the couch, not out of fear—I don’t think—but because, no matter how diligently I swept, I kept finding slivers of glass on my floor. They seemed to suggest it’s okay to be someone who is slow to move on.
Even when pointe shoes flit down the stage like muffled hazard. When a fur coat slides off a woman’s bare shoulders. Or when a kiss on my neck obscures all clichés about kisses on necks and I am no longer human but merely an undulation.
Or when Mariah pleats a litany of notes into “Vision of Love.” When her finale crests and becomes tendency. Even then, my heart upholds.
Or those first ten seconds of “Man in the Mirror.” Right before Michael sings, I’m gonna make a change, and those early notes sound like crystal snowflakes falling on sheets of sugar. Or my favorite: the undervalued “Who Is It.” Jealousy’s anthem. How it thumps. How it’s obsessed. Paranoid. How it’s frantic enough to summon past jealousies, no matter how beyond them you think you are. “Who Is It” is a maze. It’s the sound of being stuck in one. It’s the pursuer feeling pursued. Betrayal can debilitate but it can also animate. It’s how even at one’s most suspicious, the heart speeds up—ticks, twitches, is a grenade—yet never stops.
Or when I meet someone new who loves a movie just as I’ve loved that movie; who speaks at such a clip about it—tenderly, contagiously—that I forget to speak at all and smile like a fool because, now and then, meeting new people isn’t so terrible.
Even when the ATM reveals my bank balance unsolicited. When a stranger’s ringtone is the same as my morning alarm, waylaying me with acute dread midafternoon. When life’s practicalities knock the romance out, and money, time, sense syndicate my passions into bills, deferred goals, and all the boring bits.
Even when a buzzer-beating shot bounces on the rim. When Steph sinks a no-look. When Kerri Strug landed her pained, team-winning second vault at the 1996 Olympics and I watched with my eyes half covered, sitting on the floor of my aunt’s Atlanta home, not far from the Georgia Dome.
Even when I’m startled by an object flying in my periphery. Dust. Refracted light. Anxiety’s UFOs. Or when a GASP! is disproportionate to why I’ve gasped, my heart continues, as ever, pulsing toward its daily quota. More than one hundred thousand times a day. Eighty beats per minute.
Even when I stand naked in my room after a long day of stupid letdowns, when I consider becoming a woman who screams or hacks off her hair, or tosses her purse instead of hanging it. Even then, when nakedness can’t undo the day, when my heart is lodged in my throat and my whole body falls limp—my whole body like my left wrist when I fasten my watch with my right hand. Limp like that. Even then, when I feel completely poured out and defeated. A Dyson in the desert.
Or what about the day MCA died. My heart seemed to chasm because the Beastie Boys were—I’m not sure how best to say this—one of many attributes, albeit a critical one, that firmly positioned me as a younger sister. They were the music my brother listened to with his door closed. The CD he wouldn’t let me borrow. Still now, on those hot summer days when the sun lacquers Manhattan storefronts into something aureate and amber-rich, when the air is impenetrable, blistered, and rank, and when brick tenements on Ludlow evoke whatever decade speaks to your nostalgia, my brother’s copy of Paul’s Boutique comes to mind. What I perceived back then in its cover art was the possibility of New York, New York: a city so in possession of itself that I fathomed an entire kingdom in those five-by-five inches.
Even that winter long ago, when I was running late to a holiday dinner at my friend’s apartment, clueless as to where I’d jotted down her new address but feeling somehow lovely because I was in a hurry, wearing tights that cinched my waist like a secret tension under my shift dress, and bell sleeves that gave me extra wingspan to sail around the corner. Mid-scramble, my then-boyfriend rattled off my friend’s street name from memory, without even looking up from his book, as if he’d been to her place before. Even then, despite the wrench of good instinct—that queasy wave of it—of learning young that having a hunch is, like so many female facets, both misery and boon. Even when I said nothing because Why start something? he’d say. Is there anything less clear than an accusation made when you’re running out the door? When those fault lines inside of us quake on account of all that is built up and unkempt between two people in love—on account of perceptiveness and wariness resembling in tone. Even then, when I felt tremendously sad in my lovely dress, my heart did not stop.
Even when I’m caught off guard by a lathery shade of peach on the bottom corner of a painting at the Met, as if being reminded that I haven’t seen all the colors, and how there’s more to see, and how one color’s newness can invalidate all of my sureness. To experience infinity and sometimes too the teasing melancholy born from the smallest breakthroughs, like an unanticipated shade of peach, like Buster Keaton smiling, or my friend Doreen’s laugh—how living and opposite of halfhearted it is. Or my beautiful mother growing out her gray, or a lightning bolt’s fractal scarring on a human body, or Fantin-Latour’s hollyhocks, or the sound of someone practicing an instrument—the most sonically earnest sound. Or how staring at ocean water so blue, it leaves me bereft. In postcards, I’ll scribble “So blue!” because, what else?
Or even when I hear a recording of Frank O’Hara recite “Having a Coke with You,” gleefully anticipating him saying yoghurt, saying flu-o-rescent orange tulips.
to him and I would rather listen to him than all the poets in the world
except possibly for Dorothy Parker occasionally and anyway she’d hate that
Or the first time I saw Jackie cry. It was December. She was moving to San Francisco, so we spent the day strolling around midtown, stopping at the Rockefeller tree and pointing up at its peak, curious as to how it stood so big. Wondering how trees are made to look immovable once they’ve already been displaced. In Bryant Park we talked about manatees because I’d recently seen an ad in a magazine to adopt one. “For the Holidays,” the ad proposed. “Nature’s Precious Treasures.” Jackie and I both agreed how naturally forlorn manatees look—like underwater shar-peis stuck in some forever torpor. Like they’d already surrendered themselves to their endangered fate. For half a block we pondered adopting one and sharing custody, because when friends move away, what else is there to talk about? Nothing material feels very good. I walked Jackie back to her studio in Woodstock Tower and watched her pack some boxes and determine whether she should leave behind a lamp. I considered taking a pair of purple three-pound weights she was getting rid of. Would I use them? Probably not. But they were purple. And talking about taking them was yet another way of not talking about Jackie leaving. I teased her for deciding to schlep a rusty step stool across the country. She insisted it held sentimental value. It was clear to us we were both in slow motion, appreciating the other person for little reasons, refusing to say goodbye, formally. When I finally did leave, in haste, I realized I’d forgotten my earphones on her bed, and when I hurried back from the elevator and knocked on her apartment door, Jackie answered in tears. Together, in that moment, we could have probably adopted a hundred manatees. Easy.
I’ve felt infinity too, late in my twenties, when I discovered a word in English I’d only ever known in Bengali. Or when I spot, with hours still left in the day, the moon’s hazy thumbprint. How the moon enjoys debunking the day. Or when I clutch my Playbill as I exit the theater, regretful that I don’t see more plays. I’m so vitalized in those seconds—all set to gulp more, to not speak but to stand under the marquee bulbs and grab the arm of my companion as if corroborating impact—that I’m certain, if I wanted, I could walk home from West Forty-seventh, across the bridge and back to Brooklyn. That spiked measure of awe—of oof—feels like a general slowing, even though what’s really taking place is nothing short of a general quickening. The sheer, ensorcelled panic of feeling moved. Infirmed by what switches me on but also awake and unexpectedly cured. Similar to how sniffing a lemon when I’m carsick heals.
Or marveling at the bull’s-eye patterns in a malachite cross section, or the dystopian blots in burled wood, or a dragon fruit’s Dalmatian-speckled insides. All these things temporize me. It’s what Annie Dillard describes in her memoir, An American Childhood. Parents who experience pause from “the unnecessary beauty of an ice storm coating trees,” while their kids—who “bewilder well,” she writes—are simply looking for something to throw. Like when I zone out to cake batter marbling with food coloring in the mixer and my friend’s children whom I’m baking with are only concerned with licking the bowl.
Being wowed by fruit or cake batter, I should add, yet fairly sure I’m okay with never seeing the Grand Canyon in person, ought to disqualify me from ever writing about wonder. Then again, maybe that’s why I’m drawn to wonder: it pays no attention to priorities.
Before I was old enough to discover it was myth, I assumed goldfish were, over time, the architects of their alleged short-term memory. That they’d tailored their recall to fight the tedious circumference of a fishbowl—preserving their sense of wonder by forgetting they were swimming in circles. No matter how lackluster its surroundings, within seconds, all was new again for a goldfish because it had figured out how to repair its sense of spectacle.
There should be a word for the first listen of a new album that is perhaps not great, but good. It’s catchy, carries pathos, is mood modifying. It’s destined to hasten you out the door or score your next cab ride as you cross the bridge. It prompts texts after last call. It resuscitates teenage residue and threatens emotional relapse. An album that, upon first listen, discovers a new, hallucinatory wilderness: a pink desert, pewter trees, emerald skies, clouds that sprint by. Or conversely, an album that singes your periphery. What’s left is what’s in front. Your frame of reference is shot and you are temporarily the most suggestible person alive. An operative.
Is there something to be learned from fast tenderness that wanes just as fast as it forms? Unsophisticated idolatry. A brief devotion to pop songs with nowhere lyrics that repeat one word over and over like a hymn written in neon-tube lighting.
There are movies like that too. So many. Wherein I leave the theater thinking I’ve just been privy to a masterpiece, and the next day perceive all of its holes, or worse, all of its recycled wiles. I deserve the disappointment. I’m a chump for voice-over and montage, Crewdson-lit suburbs, and all the women in the history of film who’ve flopped facedown onto beds like possessed slats of wood. I am duped by eye contact in a bar that cuts to the morning after. By odd, intensive but unthinking dance moves that approximate aerobics and clinch, for me, what’s charming about a character’s nature. I can’t help it. Follow shots at a house party, where two tertiary characters are having sex in the bathroom and the lead is a lost boy, barely nodding hellos because he’s looking for, not the nearest exit, but the balcony, the girl. These movies in which the characters are so caught up and submerged, they may as well be living underwater where the glow is bleary—where sound gurgles and the world recedes.
Despite everything the movies accomplish, despite these bouts of wonder and alarm, when my heart races, dimples, is weary and deflates, it never exhausts. How is that possible? How does it maintain? Stays going. On and on. It’s percussive. It refuses to emote with me because it’s uniformly at it.
I am—if it’s not already clear—disinterested in actually remembering, since I last learned in school, how the heart does what it does. How it pumps blood, carries blood, effects that lub-dub sound. I’m in no hurry to understand its inner workings. To wrap my head around how it keeps us alive. To do so would require that I render obsolete all those microscopic people who live inside my heart, for instance. Who blow bubbles into soda and set up homes inside our TVs—seeing what we’re seeing, only backward. Who build cozy homes under floorboards. Those guys who, of course, don’t exist. Those tiny people who, as a child, I elaborated on in my mind because it was far easier to make sense of how stuff worked if a thumb-sized human was at the helm. These tiny people turned me on to ingenuity—the essence of awe, or at least my relationship to it. They kept the world feasible.
They were, for example, the characters in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers; a series of books I don’t remember reading but on whose illustrated covers I imparted my own stories. If I recall, the Borrowers used matchboxes as kitchen benches, a spool of thread as a chair, a postage stamp as decorative art. The Borrowers were, I made myself believe, living among us: snatching up my spare buttons and refashioning them as tabletops or winter sleds. I presumed they made bouquets out of broccoli and laid brick with my brother’s Legos, and savored the smell of nail polish just as I did with fresh paint or gasoline. They repurposed our excess was the point.
They experienced the world, I supposed, as I experienced going to the movies: that flash of amazement petitioned, in part, from feeling small in the presence of bigness. In having to arch my neck and fall in with whatever celluloid projection might scoop me up. Like Fantasia’s candy-colored bucolic scape. Flirty, fun Centaurettes. The scherzo humor of meddlesome cupids. Pegasus and his family of winged stallions sailing through clouds and diving into crayon waters. A choreography of mushrooms. Of spinning-top bellflowers and heavy-lidded, red, puckered fish. The whole Esther Williams of it all. The ostrich ballet. Like pirouetting feather dusters; their paddle feet in fourth position. Or Mickey’s broom. How it splintered into a nightmarish army of brooms. How the crash of cymbals, rolling waves, and buckets of water sent me into a panic. Fantasia was, in hindsight, my first experience of art’s all-overs. Of feeling like a casualty to cartoons. Still today, those eight animated segments reify the blunt noise of my childhood anxieties.
There were the characters too. Like Leo’s Romeo, lovesick in a split second. His nose pushed against that fish tank like he’d never seen a real-life Claire Danes.
There was Marisa Tomei’s squeak. Her stomp. Her invention. In My Cousin Vinny, as if contriving a new hybrid of Bambi from Brooklyn, she pronounced deer as dia. Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito was a woman with demands who could disqualify you by merely raising the ridge of her brow. Her eyes semaphore. I was mesmerized.
There was the rattling, rotisserie cook of reentry scenes in space movies. There was the Empire State Building: decisive to Romance. Diners: decisive to killers, insomniacs, to fugitives, to prom dates. To Jack Nicholson and his plain omelet, no potatoes on the plate, a cup of coffee, and a side order of wheat toast.
There was sex before the camera panned away. Or when the camera panned away: sex.
I’d heard talk of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in that infamous interrogation scene, but when I finally saw Basic Instinct, it was her shoulders pushed back on the chair that totally stunned me. I’d never experienced shoulders accelerating my pulse. I’d never seen a pair of shoulders communicate point of view. Liquidate a room of all its men and their presumption. Sharon Stone’s shoulders pushed back were like Whoa.
There was Robin Williams’s radius of funny; of voices; of titan warmth. He seemed to outperform humankind. Somehow anthropomorphic, though that makes no sense. As a kid, I believed he was the only person who could be in two places at once. Who, like Genie, could balloon into hot air, float above us, convulse into the cosmos.
Watching movies was consonant to those scenes where the underdog team walks through a stadium tunnel—where their cleats click as light approaches; the blinding pull of sky and turf, and the phenomenon of soon feeling telescoped and giant, both. Watching movies was, and still is, an opportunity for my heart to rush irregularly while the cost, for me, remains low. Because no matter how afflictive, heartbreak on-screen pales in comparison to that first night of a breakup where one’s only thought is not When I wake, I’ll be alone, but How? How will I wake up?
There’s strength in observing one’s miniaturization. That you are insignificant and prone to, and God knows, dumb about a lot. Because doesn’t smallness prime us to eventually take up space? For instance, the momentum gained from reading a great book. After after, sitting, sleeping, living in its consequence. A book that makes you feel, finally, latched on. Or after after we recover from a hike. From seeing fifteenth-century ruins and wondering how Machu Picchu was built when Incans had zero knowledge of the wheel. Smallness can make you feel extra porous. Extra ambitious. Like a small dog carrying an enormous branch clenched in its teeth, as if intimating to the world: Okay. Where to?
I remember seeing Etta James live at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier during the Montreal Jazz Festival, seven or so years before she died. She performed much of the show sitting on a stool, and even then the stage and the theater could not contain her. We the audience, at capacity, fit into her palm. That was the sentiment. Like still air before it becomes a gust of wind. Like water behind a dam; a snowpack before it avalanches. Like Monica Vitti before she sucks on a cigarette, a kettle before it whistles, Etta James, before she performed “At Last,” was possibly the most compelling example of potential energy. Ever.
There’s might too in the incomplete. In feeling fractional. A failure to carry out is perhaps no failure at all, but rather a minced metric of splendor. The ongoing. The outlawed. The no-patrol. The act of making loose. Of not doing as you’ve been told. Of betting on miscalculations and cul-de-sacs. Why force conciliation when, from time to time, long-held deep breaths follow what we consider defeat? Why not want a little mania? The shrill of chance, of what’s weird. Of purple hats and hiccups. Endurance is a talent that seldom worries about looking good, and abiding has its virtues even when the tongue dries. The intention shouldn’t only be to polish what we start but to acknowledge that beginning again and again can possess the acquisitive thrill of a countdown that never reaches zero.
Groping through the dark is, in large part, what writing consists of anyway. Working through and feeling around the shadows of an idea. Getting pricked. Cursing purity. Threshing out. Scuffing up and peeling away. Feral rearranging. Letting form ferment. Letting form pass through you. Observing writing’s alp and honoring it by scribbling a whole lot of garbage and then clicking in agreement: Don’t save. Exaggerating until it hurts. Until you limp and are forced to rest, and then say what you mean to the sound of thunder’s cannonade; to the lilting hum of ghosts that only haunt the sea, or of Debussy in your earbuds, and the sometimes-style of piano that sounds pleasantly soiree-drunk and stumbly.
Until you write what is detectable but dislodges you. Like the smell of cinnamon. Like sex with someone where your bodies conform, and your hands and legs fold into each other, even if it’s been years. Even if there’s been hate and pitiless hurt.
Thinking of someone the way he was is really just another way of writing. Thinking about someone I was once in love with—how he’d peel an orange and hand me a slice or how his white T-shirt would peek out from under his gray sweatshirt. The way it would curve around his neck somehow made me disposed to him. Thinking about that crescent of white cotton is a version of writing. Thinking about how, once, to make me less nervous before an interview I was preparing for, he pulled his pants down in public. Remembering his smile as my nerves relaxed, and as he pulled his pants up and looked around, is how I write and what I write about, even if it’s nothing I’ve ever written about.
My quick-summoned first love—how everything was enough because I knew so little but felt cramped with certainty—is, I’m afraid, just like writing. That is to say, what can transpire if writing becomes a reason for living outside the real without prying it open. How, like first love, writing can be foiling, agitated, totally addictive. Sweet, insistent, jeweled. Consuming though rarely nourishing. A new tactility.
First love fools you into thinking about nothing else. Into believing a whole city belongs to you; that you can conquer … it doesn’t matter what. Which is, experientially speaking, furthest from finding yourself. Which, let’s face it: can be temporarily curative. Time off. Rescue. A beer. Its froth. Thinking maybe it’d be good to travel. To go to Budapest and pick fights in Budapest, and then make up over a game of Twenty Questions on the bus from Budapest to Vienna.
First love is all sensation and ambient zooms, and letting the world ebb. Like writing, occasionally, it feels combustive. Greedy. It’s unsophisticated and coaxes you into making promises about the far future and imbibing the moment. Into growing gullible fast, frantically so, and forgetting about yourself—about your exception. Writing does the same. It lays siege.
Because writing is, off and on, running smack into Aha! and staring down Duh. Is my function to reach zero and leave nothing in the way of obstructing truth? Or to tender what’s still shapeless? The baggy fit of feelings before they’ve found their purpose. How can I present what’s, for now, finished, while also taking comfort in knowing it will evolve? That these words are only materials; provisions for keeping me observant and hopefully light-footed enough to plan my next project. My next many.
Which is why the mode for labeling a visual artist’s work, when exhibited, has always appealed to me. How the artist’s name and the title of the piece are followed by the medium.
• Oil on canvas
• Tape and acrylic on panel
• Plywood, forged iron, plaster, latex paint, twine
• Wood, beeswax, leather, fabric, and human hair
• Living artist, glass, steel, mattress, pillow, linen, water, and spectacles
• Fat, felt, and cardboard box in metal and glass display case
• Metal and plastic
• Hand-spun wool
• Fabric collage
• Carrara marble and teakwood base
• Red pigment and varnish on paper
• Video, black-and-white, sound
• Dyed cotton, grommets, rope, and thread, in two parts
I find the plainness and economizing record of materials handled calming. Realistic yet not austere, because what corresponds—the words oil on canvas—has everything and nothing to do with what I’m looking at. The disconnect wakes me up. The words plywood, plaster, and twine are deadpan and even grim. Bronze is bodily and somehow lewd. Characterizing a video installation as having “sound” seems like, for whatever reason, a breakthrough. That a glass display case or teakwood base is principle to the piece feels hospitable. “Fabric collage” is pseudonymous.
Too bad this sort of reduction cannot be achieved with books. Tables of contents don’t even come close. Indexes, maybe.
Because writing is a grunt, and when it’s good, writing is body language. It’s a woman narrowing her eyes to express incredulity. It’s an elbow propped on the edge of a table when you’re wrapping up an argument, or to signify you’re just getting started. An elbow propped on the edge of a table is an adverb.
I’ve heard rumors that writing can feel glamorous. But only glamorous, I’d guess, in the way a stretch limo might feel glamorous. No matter the pomp, one still has to crouch inside. Like skulking through a low-lit leather tunnel. An uncooperative space. Writing is awkward work and it’s become clearer to me why friends of mine have relinquished their desks and write instead from the comfort of their beds. Not in bed. From bed. Like sea otters floating on their backs, double-chinned and banging their front paws on a keyboard.
It’s imperative that writing consists of not living up to your own taste. Of leaving the world behind so you can hold fast to what’s strange inside; what’s unlit. A soreness. A neglected joy. The way forward is perhaps not maintaining a standard for accuracy but appraising what naturally heaps.
Writing is losing focus and winning it back, only to lose it once more. Hanging on despite the nausea of producing nothing good by noon, despite the Sisyphean task of arriving at a conclusion that pleases. The spiteful blink of my cursor: how it mocks. The rude temptation of a crisp day: how it bullies. Writing will never be as satisfying as observing someone whom I knew was terrible get caught in an embarrassing lie; as satisfying as the pop! I anticipate when twisting open a Martinelli’s apple juice or when I pour hot coffee over ice come summer or lace up skates in the winter—the firm tug of hooking the top part of the boot. Writing is a closed pistachio shell.
And yet, despite claims, no writer hopes for ideas to take complete shape. Approximation is the mark. Many times, writing that clinches lacks incandescence—the embers have cooled. A need for completeness can, off and on, squander cadence. Isn’t it fun to read a sentence that races ahead of itself? That has the effect of stopping short—of dirt and cutaway rocks tumbling down the edge of a cliff, alerting you to the drop. As the critic, author, and poet Clive James wrote of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: “It reminds me of a sandcastle that the tide reached before its obsessed constructor could finish it; but he knew that would happen, or else why build it on a beach?”
What I enjoy is this. Responding to an artist’s work as if it were a missive. A film can be a fling I’ll cool with sentences I address to the director but that I’ll tuck into this essay instead. I’ve written to Akerman, Leos Carax, Antonioni, to Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor; his sylvan winters and obscene display of periwinkle. Love letters, generally. Essays that do not concern these directors’ works but are addressed to them—in spirit, tone, wash—because these directors have, over time, caused me to bend into shape visions that were long hibernating. How Agnès Varda, for example, introduced me to women with implication. How Varda portrays the defamed—often women—as irrepressible and in control of a mind built for maneuvering beyond convention. These women who perhaps even balk at the word survival and favor instead a far more fluctuant current: continuance.
I’ve written as well to Bresson, Bergman, Rohmer’s girls, Rivette, John Huston because I’ll never get over Susan Tyrrell’s Oma in Fat City. Her boozy pout is a wreck no one recuperates from. She is unconcealed. Her dress’s back zipper unzipping. Her wail: both mother and child in labor.
There’s no use in trying to bounce back from first seeing Giulietta Masina in La Strada. Her globe face is somehow panoramic: a pendant, the highest wattage, “an artichoke.” The sort of face one writes to because Masina was the queen of the encounter. Watching her means paying attention.
I’ve written to Mazursky and Cassavetes and their women sick with an itch, dissatisfied to the point of dancing alone in their homes to music that isn’t so much music but dull pain with a tune. Women with demands that are mysterious even to themselves. Women who are runaways in their own kitchens. Women who are in no rush to respond to a world that’s only conceived them as its consequence. Who experience deep movement by playing air piano. Who are wind-oriented. Who are Gena Rowlands. Who are Jill Clayburgh—bearably, unbearably, lugging a big canvas down the street, alone. These women who brilliantly source endings for takeoff.
I’ve written to Claire Denis, Maren Ade, to James Gray’s New York, to Mia Hansen-Løve’s yearning boyish-girlish unease. To her films as photo albums. To her regard for a person’s things. I’ve written to Abbas Kiarostami’s ballads. His least possible, spare approach to poetry and splayed views that above all are an indication of the times as they weigh on country and personhood, and how the two are prodigiously connected. I’ll send notes, again and again, to Wong Kar-wai. To Wim Wenders and his roads, and those questions that can only occur in cars. To Maya Deren! To Jane Campion! Andrea Arnold! Desplechin! I write to him a lot. To Satyajit Ray, whose character Durga, the mischievous daughter and Apu’s sister in Pather Panchali, is my namesake. Ray once said in an interview that he directs his films “in harmony with the rhythm of human breathing.” I’ve tried writing with that belief in mind, discovering instead how deep inhales and the release of a strong exhale are furthest from writing’s doubled-up glove. Moving pictures are a better match for that kind of subliminal flight.
There are days when I can’t push through my frustrations unless I write to Barbara Loden’s Wanda. To that last shot when the camera freezes on the wilt of her face. She is all at once unused but oh, so used up. Or very used to. Why is it that when a woman is occupied by the voice in her head, or the wear of her day, or the landscape that passes through her eyes like windows on a train, the world assumes she is up for grabs? A vacant stare does not mean vacancy. It’s the inverse of invitation, and yet.
Other times, the art becomes a condition—incredibly fitting. At first glance, my friend Sarah is a Cy Twombly; her favorite painter. She speaks in scratches, keeps dead flowers for weeks. Her thoughts are erratic, sarcastic, rascally. Her lips dark amaranth. Ordinarily, her makeup appears out of focus and, as a matter of course, slightly marked up. Rose-ish. Soft with contempt, as if she’d rather her blush stain than blush. Mid-consideration, Sarah will pause, shake her head, and smudge two ideas. To punctuate what she believes to be true, she’ll raise her index finger as if penciling the air with her talon nail. In her wake, the room drips. Like Cy, there is a touch of the unfinished with Sarah: what’s fraying could be trimmings. Like Cy, where crayon on canvas is so much more than “scrawl”—twenty-one feet of it that requires two hydraulic lifts to install—there are times when my friendship with Sarah invites remove. Stand too close, for too long, and the lines muddy. At any rate, isn’t it lovely to, once in a while, feel small in the presence of your friend? Awed. Fortunate to experience nearness that calls upon space.
Because there is trust too, in feeling small. The letting-in that comes from letting go. Gazing up at the taut tract of cables on a suspension bridge and never worrying Will this hold? Or shooting up an elevator, seventy-four stories high, without feeling much until the doors slide open and you encounter a south-facing view and the precarious pull of a pane of glass.
Nudging my mother’s eldest sister for details while she tells me a story about my grandparents. This too gauges smallness. The muscle that builds from yielding to my aunt Jennifer’s decades, to the scalloped edges of her memory, reacquaints me to my most atomic self: where I come from. Even when I was nothing, I was arriving.
This Christmas, Jennifer recorded a story about her parents for all the grandchildren on my mom’s side to keep forever. She titled it “Such Fine Parents.” The insistence of “Such” is not merely avowal, but love distinguished. She typed out the story and printed copies. She punched holes in each page and placed them one by one in red folders. I received mine in the mail and hurried to read it, only to be slowed down by tears every few sentences. The pull of ancestry. How without stint I could love someone I will never meet: my maternal grandmother. She died when my mother was fourteen years old. I was born sixteen years later, to the day.
Reading about my grandfather Felix, courting my grandmother Dulcie, how he’d ride his Harley-Davidson—“sold off by the departing foreign troops,” Jennifer noted—from Calcutta to the French-colonized Chandannagar, where Dulcie was teaching at St. Joseph’s Convent, was like reading my past, the fiction of those years before I was born, before my mother and her two sisters were born, and have it beam bright and, more critically, become document. I’ve heard the stories. I’ve read my mother’s words too, about Felix’s furniture business, about Dulcie’s fondness for dancing despite being considered a prudish young woman, but for some reason now—as it can only happen in time—my aunt Jennifer’s telling of it flickered on the page. Like the Hooghly River’s “silvering” moonlight that accompanied Dulcie and Felix on their walks before they were husband and wife, never holding hands but prolonging their time spent together on the way back to the convent by “slowing their steps,” my aunt wrote, “as the gates to the school loomed large.” Romance’s silhouette as it’s been recounted to me, the stalling tactics of courtship between Felix and Dulcie, resides in my circuitry.
Rewinding two generations and picturing my grandparents before they were even parents is like watching fireworks backward: tinsel swallowed into the night sky instead of spitting out from it. Undoing time for a moment and expunging myself from the record is, strangely, confirmation of my lowercase history. A remembrance of what’s impossible to remember. A sixth sense I’ve long guessed is special to those who are born with leftover matter ferrying them rearward. We’re the type who ask too many questions—an irritating amount, really. But who ask without claim or exigency. The want is the want and it goes on like that. My prelude was a waltz Dulcie loved to dance. She and Felix then, are like Etta James in concert: potential energy.
On January 8, 1947, they were married. Morning Mass followed by a wedding breakfast, and later, a party. Dulcie’s dress was cut, my mother once told me, from postwar parachute silk. It’s what was available at the time. In the only photograph I’ve seen from that day, the newly married couple’s smile looks ten seconds gone from original mirth. As if the moment has lapsed and the marriage has begun. Dulcie’s white-gloved hand is tucked inside Felix’s elbow so elegantly that conjured quick in my mind are replicas of her hands everywhere: pawing piano keys, buffing brass, folding a handkerchief on its diagonal just so. Steadying her grip on a steel banister as Schroeder, their Labrador, lovingly shoves himself between her legs. Hands like Dulcie’s—long fingers that form a low mountain range from simply resting on the edge of a table—are unmistakable. As with nearly all elegant things, they photograph eerie. The way a rose stem looks arthritic.
In that same photograph, Felix stands tall, square, and sturdy, wearing his pin-striped suit—the lapels wide. Occasionally my mind wanders to that suit and I’ll consider what happened to it. Where is it hanging? Was it folded into a box? Where do wedding suits end up? Was it given away or did it outlive my grandfather like how a favorite reading chair might outlive its person? The sallow tuft of its seat, eternally styled just for one. Tailored pant legs on anyone else become costume: roomy chutes, flaccid, or goofy and squat. I’ll see old men on the street shrinking into their clothes—trousers girded around mini guts, jacket shoulders too stubborn to sag—and I’ll think about my grandfather.
He was a large man whom I only met once, when I was three years old, visiting Calcutta for the first time. I have no memory of the trip, though of course I do. I have unintelligible copy. Recall the texture of chiffon. I have the impression of a city, of looking down just in time to skip over a puddle. The sustained toot of car horns. Of bare lightbulbs hanging above fruit stalls at night and sun halos flecking my vision from having peered up at palm trees, absorbed by how they siphon blue sky through their plumed leaves. While I’ve been back to visit over the years, that first trip is, I wonder, when my memory switched into gear. When I began to pile experiences, grafting them without motive—suddenly hyperaware of the cone-shaped hats on the clown pattern on my two-piece pajamas, or how making eye contact with a stranger could seal that stranger’s face in my mind. How now I have at my disposal a whole catalog of strangers’ faces, for no reason at all.
One image in particular from my first time in Calcutta comes to mind: of me and my cousins, barely clothed, enjoying the hell out of pretend-coiffing Felix’s hair. He’s sitting shirtless at the massive teak kitchen table, noble as ever in an imaginary salon. We’re jumping up and down and standing on our tiptoes, pinching plastic clips into his hair. It’s possible I’ve been described this episode or that it exists more readily as a photograph conspiring to reshuffle my clarity. Like when I use someone else’s keyboard—the letter E is jammed; the space bar’s lost its spring. Or how a cover of a familiar song usually forces further consideration before I can identify it. How, all at once, what I know for sure—the words to a damn song—can feel frustratingly just out of reach.
There’s no use in trying to figure out which came first, my memory of the hair clips in that Calcutta kitchen or my mother’s telling of that afternoon nearly three decades ago. I’ve come around to the conciliatory quality of untruths. Memory fans out from imagination, and vice versa, and why not. Memory isn’t a well but an offshoot. It goes secretly. Comes apart. Deceives. It’s guilty of repurposing the meaning of deep meaning and poking fun at what you’ve emotionalized.
And besides, it feels more covert to have no evidence. To believe that something you’ve experienced will build on your extent—your extent as a person who sees things, and is moved by things—without ever having to prove those things happened exactly as they happened. Substantiating is grueling, monotonous. It’s what life expects of you. Memory is trust open to doubt.
Perhaps they weren’t hair clips but clothespins. Who knows. We were children. Recycled containers were toys. Fonts on cereal boxes provided an exciting new style for drawing the hanging loop of a lowercase g. I played house because keeping busy looked entertaining. The hectic woman was a character in a video game, reaching the next level. Her unavailable stare as she opened and closed cabinets while listening to a child’s tedious story, or, by instinct, sponging the sink’s grime while talking on the phone strangely appealed to me. Perhaps it’s because, as a child, I perceived responsibilities as possibilities, carrying around one of those Sealtest bags of 2 percent milk, pretending it was my baby and returning it to the fridge before it got warm.
To this day, watching a woman mindlessly tend to one thing while doing something else absorbs me. Like securing the backs of her earrings while wiggling her feet into her shoes. Like staring into some middle distance, where lines soften, and where she separates the relevant from the immaterial. A woman carries her inner life—lugs it around or holds it in like fumes that both poison and bless her—while nourishing another’s inner life, many others actually, while never revealing too much madness, or, possibly, never revealing where she stores it: her island of lost mind. Every woman has one. And every woman grins when the question is asked, What three items would you bring to a desert island? Because every woman’s been, by this time, half living there.
What other imaginations decked my childhood? Riches I perceived simply from staring long enough at something plain, and in staring long enough, I was recasting it. At Christmas, the tin of Quality Street chocolates had the allure of, not hidden treasure exactly, but close. Cellophane has that effect. Little wrapped jewels that came with a map I studied close. Purple twist = Hazelnut Caramel. Green = Milk Choc Block. Pink = Fudge. Nobody ate the Toffee Penny. They outlasted the holidays entirely. Even today when I see the nugget-shaped toffees, I’m reminded of how blank those days that followed Christmas and New Year’s felt. How now I often regret not being tucked into bed before midnight on December 31.
A Bruegel print hanging in our home was essentially my jackpot. I mined that peasant-wedding scene so intently that elements of its narrative details, like porridge bowls, the lip of a jug, that pureed Bruegel red—like tomato soup from the can—and a child in the foreground licking a plate, all belong to my memory’s reel. It’s the merging that occurs from housing a mental archive instead of contending with the sound of parents who were speaking to each other in a strained tone. Of momentarily acquitting myself of childhood grievances: of all the birds we hear in trees but never see, but know are there.
Rarely shelved in our home was a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Some books were just left out like that. No reason, no mind. The mess drove my father mad. I stared at the book’s cover, watching it fade over the course of one summer, where it sat on the edge of a table in a particularly sunlit room. Either the dining room or the living room, the same year new curtains were being sewn at the tailor’s with fabric my mother had brought back from a recent trip to Calcutta. The book’s cover features a painting by the nineteenth-century artist Jean-Léone Gérôme titled The Snake Charmer. A blue-tiled wall, an audience of armed men, a fipple flute player, and a naked boy whose back is to us. A large, thick snake is coiled around the boy’s muscular body. I remember the boy’s bum. It looked real; round like melons. I was only slightly scandalized by the painting because I couldn’t understand why the boy was naked. I somehow knew it was intentionally plotting intrigue. The West’s fascination with the East. I knew this, but I didn’t. The notion was vague. A sentiment I’d heard expressed at home and one that wallpapered our bookshelves—the bindings of academic tomes, somehow bolder than fiction. Isn’t it curious how some fonts appear more dogmatic than others? How italicized neon pink on a book of nonfiction is suddenly: Commentary! Sometimes I think our house was too full of ideas, near choked by them. Other days I’m grateful ours was a house of unrest, because isn’t that what ideas are?
It was a house where adults came and went: for meetings; for tea; to discuss, to organize, to speak with their hands; to flex histrionically about history. My father’s theater group or the South Asian women’s center my mother cofounded. Potlucks. Dinners. My parents had built a home, and continued to build their separate homes later, where ideas circuited the space, and where I gathered what I could or, rather, what I cared for, like the round shape of that boy’s bum on the cover of Edward Said’s Orientalism. At any rate, comprehension was a series of clues. The Snake Charmer’s whole scene looked precarious because it didn’t seem like a painting but a photograph. Rarely does a subject disturb me as much as when it slopes my ability to discern what’s real and what isn’t. Likely because I fear—more alarmingly quick as years pass—the fine line between being conscious and becoming jaded.
I’ve been so young for so long and so old for longer—so heart-wrinkled and naive all at once. So brow-furrowed but heart-open too; a detective. Snooping yet easily sidetracked. I’ll believe anything because I want to understand, yet understanding can sometimes organize itself like a series of false starts.
It’s part of what happens when you develop an optimism that wasn’t inherited, necessarily. An American optimism. A Canadian one. A pop-culturally American one. A North American one. A TV optimism. However you like to delineate your geographies. It’s an optimism of remove. Of untying myself from my parents’ lives by becoming enthusiastic—at times forcefully—about my own. The con-artistry that first-generation kids learn young: to adapt, yet remain amenable to your home. To identify how seamlessly the world expects you to adapt and, as a result, how early you practice pushback. You are born spinning. In dispute. I was my own project.
But memorizing the Bruegel or the cover of Said’s book was part of my practice formed early to repossess. Or to confuse repossession with the distraction it allowed. Zeroing in and slingshotting far were tantamount. For a girl so alert, I was absent. For a girl so AWOL, my insides were a microcosm of raw materials. Or rising sea levels. It really could be either. It’s as though I miscarried all that glee we are entitled to in childhood. At picnics, I was impatient to wipe the sticky off my fingers. Honeydew was a drag.
Because ever since I can remember, I’ve been captivated by life’s second ply. The sharks inside the sandbox. The horror of seeing faces everywhere. On electric outlets. In food. Or how daylight looks curiously divine when it shines underground through subway grates. Or the woman confirmed by her superstitions, who says little and wears sunglasses indoors; who attracts attention like a big house set back on its overgrown lawn.
Moreover, life’s second ply meant envisioning with enough detail, for example, the DJ whose voice seemed to grow out from the radio each morning. Based on how she spoke, I decided she had a fondness for long-haired cats. For French manicures, a glossy lip, and glittered eye shadow. Her face twinkling—communicating at all times—even when she was silent. Makeup as Morse code.
Pip’s eloping understanding of the world; that too is an example of life’s second ply. How on the first page of Great Expectations, he imagines his dead parents, whom he never met: “My first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man with curly black hair.”
Like Pip, my first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things may as well have occurred in a marsh. On an inclement beach where the sky is broth and gusts of wind flare up like shameless hints. Similar to Pip, I might miss the big ideas. I’ll devise another layer to avoid what’s at stake. I care little for plot and prefer a lingering glow, and often flip back a few pages because I overlooked a crucial turn while half reading on the train, distracted by a group of French teenagers who are, by some chemical law or cultural precedent, cooler than I’ll ever be.
Increasingly, I find it hard to read on the train. My mind roams off the page, and no matter what novel I’m reading, I’ll angle instead for its less essential stories; the ones I raffle might spout hope or an image I can more readily hold on to. Like the burnt-cork mustaches Sonya and Natasha paint on their faces at Christmas; that they wear as costumes to the widow Melyukov’s party. The burnt-cork mustaches that Sonya and Natasha don’t bother wiping off before bed, lying awake for a long time, as Tolstoy wrote, simply “talking about their happiness.” What comes to mind when I think of War and Peace is the moonlit sleigh ride on Christmas Eve. The frosty air. Sonya’s fur coat. The earth speeding past and the “magical kingdom” that Nikolai perceives. The kiss that smelled of burnt cork.
There are times when the degree to which I just don’t want to know manifests in, recently, overhearing a man on his phone say to whoever was on the other end, “There’s no proper way to say this.” The man was standing next to me on the corner of West Thirteenth, and because I couldn’t bear to overhear what his next words would be, I dashed across Seventh Avenue, leaving behind a perfectly warm patch of sunlight. As cars zoomed past between us, I looked back at him. He was not so much pacing but pivoting on the ball of his foot like someone who was now patiently at the mercy of another person’s reaction. I bought a small bag of grapes from a fruit stand and started eating them, tasting the filmy dirt-wax of unwashed grapes; pleased that I’ll never know what that man owned up to. That his privacy belonged to him was less an indication of my courtesy and more a combination of other factors. The mystery! Obviously. Judgment too stirs my imagination. It’s awful, but there’s nothing like arbitrary judgment to reposition how badly I might be feeling; how, briefly, a stranger’s drama can recirculate the air.
There’s also the sheer unfeasibility of overhearing as much as one does in a city so dense as New York, without a break—without the truce of silence. Even in elevators you can still hear car sirens. At home, the neighbors are fighting.
I’m fairly confident my compulsion for stockpiling has kept me at a distance from possessing answers to my own questions. I suspend them—the questions, that is—in my writing. I ignore them like I ignore the incessant drip of my leaky faucet; putting on my headphones and turning up the volume. I ignore them like someone who goes to sleep in her bed but hopes to wake up—still in her bed, but in a field with only the clean range of anonymous field in view. As if the field was on another planet where the flora is familiar-ish. Earth-ish. Blades of grass–ish. The breeze, occasional. Where every sound is contained; nothing incoming or fleeing. A sanctuary for my one mode of being that has no name other than it exists as some substratum of myself, from which images emerge and come into sight unannounced. It’s there that the commotion begins. The quietist riot, at first. What’s irrepressible shoots up, and all of a sudden I am life-driven, numb and tingly. Opulent and part velocity. I am on the move and spared another day of panic; of feeling outdistanced. All of a sudden the words are meant. On the loose, but meant. I am individualized. I have my own attention.
How many versions of happiness involve a smile? Are determined by feeling fulfilled? How many versions of happiness require acquisition? My version swears by distraction. By curling up inside the bends of parentheses. I digress, but not idiomatically. I digress intentionally. This piece, for example, is largely composed of interceptions. Starting somewhere, ending elsewhere. Testing the obnoxious reach of my tangents. Likely failing. While I rely, perhaps in excess, on my wad of massed-together nostalgia and unrelated brain waves, my hope is that there is in fact a frame. That conjunctions are accomplice. That awareness isn’t merely a stopgap; that it develops beyond a tally. How a stranger’s laundry line discloses the arrival of a newborn or the week’s absentmindedness: once-white sheets and T-shirts, all flapping in the wind, all tinted pink. And how for some, to-do lists are indiscriminate and often unintelligible. Un-poems:
4. Shirley … Last name?
5. Dried apricots, feta
6. Dinner with Collier
7. Steel wool
8. Find an alternate
9. Email Jonathan
10. Tell Lucy about Lucy, the cream poodle on West 11th with hip dysplasia
11. Consider Halifax; a yellow lampshade
12. A low heel
13. Return her Hardwick, her sequins
14. Walk to the water
15. Don’t forget the pie!!
16. Coconut milk
17. Tell Mama
It’s true too that in childhood fending off the need to adhere was easier if I devised my own rhythm. Whatever I could drum was a drum. Mixing spoons were mics, though I was too shy to sing louder than a hum. Even today, no matter how simple the tune, I’ll ruin it. The tricky jump of “Happy Birthday” continues to give me trouble.
Power line transmission towers were giants guarding the dry, somewhat planetary, outskirts of what lies just beyond city limits. Dal was a moat on my plate of rice. Salt and pepper shakers were united in holy matrimony. I thought David Bowie was Dracula. And Lou Reed was Frankenstein’s monster. I didn’t really. But I didn’t not, either.
And my grandfather Felix was—for one day in Calcutta—my life-sized doll. I hope it was clothespins we were pinching into his hair. Like little soldiers at attention on his head. I’ve never heard a recording of my voice as a kid, but I’d guess my giggle was full of spit, and just a bit carried away.
That first trip to India is blotchy, untidy. Only floret-sized memories bloom. Because unbeknownst to me, I was familiarizing myself with the lineal estate of where I’m from—with the premium of being a jet-lagged three-year-old who was too occupied by the advent of cousins to remember to close the mosquito net in the bed I shared with my mother and brother whenever I’d sneak out in the early morning and play with a bootleg Mickey Mouse toy. He had green ears. His painted eyes looked strung out. Everything there was the same but different. A good lesson to learn very young.
In my aunt Jennifer’s telling of “Such Fine Parents,” she calls Felix and Dulcie “Mummy and Daddy.” Over the phone, at nearly seventy, she still says Mummy and Daddy. There’s a salvaging property to her tone as though my aunt is recovering her first self: daughterhood. When the world was demarcated by two parents and two sisters and a bird menagerie on the veranda. When the act of wanting was, my mother recounted to me, the burning desire for bell-bottom jeans. Like the ones she’d seen in American Vogue while flipping through the pages, listening to the Supremes.
For Easter this year, Jennifer and my mother are taking the train from Montreal to Toronto to visit Lois, their middle sister. It’s her birthday. Whenever the three Chew sisters are together—three sets of round cheeks cushioning the bottom frame of three pairs of glasses—I imagine them making great riches from speaking in old sayings and chattering about nothing in particular, such as a cardigan that was on sale. I imagine them laughing until the air around them bends. I imagine them sitting on a couch, crossing their legs at their ankles, wearing the slippers they bring with them everywhere.
I imagine them young again too. Having not yet crossed the Atlantic, living in their Elliot Road flat; a short walk from Loreto House, where my mother went to school. I imagine them going to the tailor. Wearing cat-eye glasses. Attempting the absurd: to coordinate three smiles in one photo. I imagine them eating hot cross buns and, later, accompanying Felix to the butcher and begging him to save the doomed fate of two ducks, and returning home with pets that now waddle up the stairs.
I’ve long perceived sisterhood as a secret inlet. A relationship whose shape is uniquely undisclosed. As though the world shrinks into a nucleus formed of borrowed clothes and ordained fights, matching prepubescent limbs and terrible haircuts; one sister’s nose invariably more aquiline than the others’. One sister noticeably more dawdling than the others—picking flowers, not combing her hair. Getting sick on her birthday.
Does the discrete viability of sisterhood rise since birth, sharing a heart like you might share speech patterns? Like a tin-can telephone, but for the voice in your head. As if you have an innate fluency for sharing the blanket so that everyone’s toes are covered. In childhood, having a sister, especially if she was older, meant sharing a wall with—it’s possible—some likeness of your near-future self. Movies, books, the March sisters, all of it, devised a rubric that engrossed me because sisterhood amounted to what I envied: not having to learn how to join. You were already part of something. You could be a crowd. You could troop places. You could be recruited the way a pop song recruits you. You could link arms. Your crowd was loud. You could be the quiet one couched inside the crowd, nodding off to the sound of sisters sneaking in one last burst of energy before bed. You could develop a dramatic flair for fighting. A penchant for doing nothing except to sit in the company of a girl and her mirror; a girl and her closet; a girl and the leeching shame of a mistake she believes makes her undeserving of anything.
You could witness coming-of-age as it revealed itself between a sister and your parents. You could have someone magically absorb whatever terror was compassing your week by lending you her jacket. By saying, “Keep it.” You could have an adjunct mother who braided your hair differently from how your mother braided your hair. You could admire the manner in which your sister establishes herself outside the home; how it was possible to escape the madness that closes in on you from being a daughter with gratitude, but also a daughter who is desperate to slide the ribbon out from her hair and race toward heartbreak; pacifying that initial lacking with, it turns out, even more lacking.
While this isn’t the case with all sisters, with some, when they reunite even for a short visit, the whole world is suddenly younger. An atmosphere of holiday is established: someone suggests a snack right before dinner, and newly received wisdom substantiates an old argument. Everyone drops the possessive “my,” and grown women start talking about Mom and Dad this, Mom and Dad that. When sisters walk side by side, they move slow and talk speedy, and seem somehow capable of time travel. Or perhaps sisterhood is, plainly, a version of time travel.
No matter where I am, when the Chew sisters are together, like Easter weekend in Toronto, I am emotionally solvent. I feel a sense of alcove. I think of the painter Amrita Sher-Gil’s Three Girls, a print my mother framed and gave to Jennifer and Lois many years ago. Like the Bruegel, I know it well. Three girls in salwar kurtas—orange, mint, red—form a corner. As though painted by candlelight, it has an orblike quality. Solemn, no one is smiling. I’m fond of the Sher-Gil because I know it spoke to my mother’s earliest framework. How her context since birth has been “the youngest of three.” The last one to experience her firsts.
When your mother is the baby of her family—when that expression’s been used to lovingly characterize her rank—she shrinks before you, covering her eyes when the MGM lion roars. Socks sliding down her ankles and bunching on the brim of her loafers. She’s focused on a mosquito bite; scratching it until it welts and bleeds. Her voice is higher. It might crack when she asks questions about the fit of things. How the cherry liqueur gets inside the chocolate and if it’s possible to sit on clouds.
My mother has another Sher-Gil print hanging at hers, in the living room above the large Chinese chest we’ve owned for as long as I can remember. Carved into the dark wood is a panorama of flowers, a pavilion, a bridge, some people and pines. Too much story whittled into its wood for me to have ever endowed my own. I used to dig dust from its grooves and smell the metal tang of brass on my fingers after playing with its latch. My mother stores blankets inside the chest. Or old clothes she never wears. Or stuff belonging to my father. I once fished from its contents a pilled Cardinals baseball tee and a paper-thin, plaid shirt with snap buttons. Both were his from the seventies when he was a student at Washington University. I know this because of a picture I found that I keep in a folder of other photos. In the picture, my father’s hair is long and his glasses are tinted. He’s skinny but looks strong. Like he hasn’t yet become the father I know who dwells. Who, when arguing, espouses his point by taking a deep breath and saying, “Look, in the final analysis…”
When I put on the plaid shirt, at home in my own apartment, pulling my arm through each sleeve, I smell the Chinese storage chest that sits under the Sher-Gil in my mother’s upper duplex on Coolbrook Avenue in Montreal. Its bitter camphor odor is the first smell I understood as combative. More than merely attributive, it repelled moths. Those papery phantom pests I used to fear but now don’t mind. Ladybugs, on the other hand …
It’s possible too that the shirt smells like my father in his twenties. The notion of him. He’s on a walk with a friend, somewhere near St. Louis, posing for a picture alongside a creek; finding his balance on slippery rocks. Maybe he was tossing smooth pebbles as if making use of what’s bottled up. Anticipating the plop. Maybe my father had a great arm and could throw far. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen him throw anything, not even a ball. I’ve known him to be hunched over things: papers, his phone, toweling dry our dog, deliberating between pounds of chicken at the grocery store, sitting on the foot of his bed and staring off course between putting on socks, or sitting across from his record player with his head bowed, listening to Sonny Rollins, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dave Brubeck’s airy stalling tactics.
On vacations, my father will retreat to where the view is less crowded, as if in defiance of all tourists, everywhere. He’ll lean his body on a guardrail at a museum and look down at all the foot traffic instead of at the paintings. He’ll later describe to me the stout carriage of one security guard; how her Not having it attitude was more compelling than any of the art.
The shirt smells like my Baba before he was a father. Before he had a baby boy who’d shake his diapered bum to the Bronski Beat. And soon after: me. His daughter whom he calls “the girl,” to whom he’s passed on a reflex for absence. The shirt smells like what I can only describe as a stretch. Those years when you are responsible only for yourself and develop, as a result, a potent sense of anonymity, despite combing the days for purpose. When, briefly, nothing is catastrophic though everything feels precisely gut-poignant, and falling asleep comes easy, and you’re still not sure where to look when smiling. And isn’t that nice?
It smells like those years, between 1973 and 1977, when my father, for a period, was living with his roommate Bruce, painting houses in the summer and working at a jazz club where, one night he manned the lights for Gerry Mulligan and, another time, Charles Mingus. The shirt smells like paint drying and the sound of Mingus’s hard bop, and while it smells like none of those things, it does. In remembering to forget—which is altogether different from forgetting—I’ve picked up other tendencies. Like unlearning in general, but also, I’ve trained my ears to sniff out trails. I’ve trained my nose to interpret sounds. Smells conjure scenes from movies, for example. Basically, and for what it’s worth—not much!—I’m proficient at having my attention drawn away. I’ve adjusted my senses to life’s incoherence. The sweet whiff of gasoline is Tippi Hedren clutching her cheeks as cars explode and birds circle on high; is Angela Bassett walking away while the white BMW burns.
There was a period in college when the sound of photocopiers in my library’s basement was, I’m uncertain why: blue. Perhaps their ceaselessness reminded me of waves. Paralleling the surf and sway, and roll, on loop. Paper shooting out the tray like lapping ocean water foaming on the beach.
Putty brown is, forever, Faye Dunaway’s edged enunciation of “Ecumenical Liberation Army,” because isn’t that whole movie various shades of putty brown? The smell of clementine peels on my fingertips at Christmas is Nat King Cole’s confiding baritone. Sarah Vaughan singing “Lullaby of Birdland” feels like the touch of worn cotton; a rotation of old T-shirts my mother wears when she’s cooking, listening to jazz compilations, snapping her fingers as Vaughan’s voice elegantly ladles the words “weepy old willow.”
And when I hear Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”—that pendulous elegy, sad but sleuthing, like a gloomy gumshoe’s anthem—I smell my father’s plaid shirt. Its collar has since lost its stiff. One button snaps with less snap! It hangs in my closet in Brooklyn, sharing a hanger with two other shirts—an indignity I should fix.
There are so many photos I’ve never seen and questions I do not ask, because seeing them and asking them, I worry, precipitates an end. The difference between collection and memorial has, in recent years, become less clear to me. My instinct to write things down often feels like obituary. And with my parents, a gratuitous gamble with time.
Will I regret not soliciting details about their trip to Nicaragua? The red dress. That straw hat. Yes and no. There are, as ever, the tokens that provide a layout of my parents’ thinking; how they’ve never ceased to interrogate the world and how narrative, as a practice, oils their rationale.
I grew up in a house of stories. The good fortune of having parents who moved away young from their parents—from their initial understanding of the world—but never completely. Who speak in layers and have held, each in his and her way, a belief that symbolism can gel life’s experiences. Can inspire material or an event to get passed down.
Like my brother’s middle name: Sandino. It was winter 1984. My mother was six months pregnant when they visited Nicaragua. In pictures, she is growing out her perm and three months shy of becoming a mother for the first time. She was then, I wonder, a boiled-down combination of cluelessness and fear, prospect, pleasure, thick doubt, and spells of demoralizing blues. Though, knowing my mother’s removedness, it’s possible she wasn’t anything too specific.
Far more than me, my mother is in touch—or at ease—with flows and overflow, particularly, and contends coolly, unusually so, with spats. For someone so angry about the state of things, fist up and ready to fight the fight, protesting and holding up banners or hanging them from her balcony, making calls on behalf of, hosting conference speakers at her home, showing up in solidarity, unionizing the teachers at her college, my mother does seem, on average, unbothered. There have been times when her disposition is equivalent to that of an email’s auto-response away message: a calmly prompt, matter-of-fact no-show. She’s there, but not exactly. My mother has proven that a person can be supportive yet remain unreachable, and how the combination has its virtues.
Despite my interest, there are moments from my parents’ past that do not belong to me. The straw hat was, feasibly, nothing more than something silly you buy on vacation when you’re young and in love, unburdened but married because marriage was made for the ill-prepared. And anyhow, strong winds blow away straw hats, or they collapse and splinter on the flight home. I’ve never seen a straw hat survive the state in which it was bought. Straws hats, in my experience, are whim-things. Unsubstantial.
There are nights when I go to bed a little foolish and pretend the world is a disco ball and that the stars are simply reflected dots. That none of this is too dire and how the impossibility of knowing everything is an advantage. Most children grow up and plan to, at some stage, sit with a parent, a pad of paper, a voice recorder, and listen. Most children, despite good intentions, never make it happen.
Perhaps we’re waiting for our porch. We defer, defer, defer, and make excuses until we’ve won life’s ultimate lottery: the porch. The kind that wraps around. There’s something neutral about the conditions of its build: inside’s privacy, but outside, it’s an extension that stipulates the promise of delay. Imagine if our foreheads had porches jutting out from them? Maybe our brains would experience some reprieve.
On porches, conversation flows freely because silences, while weighty, aren’t strained. The faint interruption of a neighbor’s car pulling up the driveway or leaves rustling, or the benefits of a view in August, kink the air pressure that might exist between two people. A breeze jangles wind chimes and gently jolts us from ourselves. It’s harder to speak selfishly on a porch. Even when it’s hot, no one overheats. Picking a fight on a porch means you’ve missed the point entirely.
So, until then—until the porch or some semblance of it—we put off the pad of paper, the voice recorder. We are self-centered. We are out with friends, yet curious why. We are running late. Mentioning things in passing. Not picking up our phones. Lying on our stomachs. We are ambitious, only kind of. Obsessed to the point of—not boredom—but reprise. We are incapable of writing a letter of condolence. We are vulnerable when it suits us. Taking aim when wearied. Clumsily articulate when expressing intense feelings, like subtitles in a foreign film. We are in the midst of, or have just inched past, our stretch. We read a book that alters us but never talk to our parents about the books that change our fabric, so instead, the weather. The rain. The snow in April.
We are waking up to freckles dotting a person’s back, and leveling that we might be in love—not with this person, but with freckles and downy morning light, because unfamiliar contours before nine a.m. have a way. With someone new, even freckles become spotless. They are a surface blurred and time deferred. Everything begins simply enough.
A friend who is in a play on Broadway recently sent me a picture of her dressing room. On her table are flowers, a patchwork of notes taped to her mirror, a tiny vile of dandelion fluff, a photograph of her aura—purples, some navy. For months now, we’ve been getting our auras photographed at this shop called Magic Jewelry on Centre Street that sells semiprecious stones and healing crystals. For twenty dollars—an extravagance I can’t afford but can, so in that minute I spend it—we place our palms on metal sensors, have our photo taken with a Kirlian-type camera, and then sit and listen as an employee at Magic Jewelry—who sometimes speaks to us in the first-person plural—interprets the psychedelic colors of our aura. Reds and oranges mean one thing—that we’ve been working too hard, we’ve been told—and cooler colors signify that we’re withdrawn and overthinking, daydreaming and negligent of more earthly forces. Habitually, the both of us are purple. Absent and worn-out. Entombed in thought. A distinguishing quality of the women I love, meaning, none of us are bothered by how infrequently we see one another. We have an arrangement that was never formally arranged. A consideration for turning down invitations. We are happy for the person who is indulging in her space, and how she might merely be spending the weekend unescorted by anything except her work, which could also mean: she is in no rush to complete much. She is tinkering. She is gathering all the materials necessary for repotting a plant but not doing it. She is turning off the lights and climbing into her head because that’s usually the move.
In the years I’ve lived in New York, the women I’ve made friends with seem not unfocused, and not absorbed by what’s next or what happened days ago, but by what is marginally missing. As if they’re trying to place a face when crossing a busy street. Women who seem satisfied when riding an escalator, who never fare well when they run into someone and are forced to reenter the world by speaking in banalities. The women I love reenter the world so poorly. Their elegance lies in how summarily they’ll dodge its many attenuations, advancing alongside the world as if passing their fingers over the rails of a fence and cleverly selecting the right moment to hop over.
They are women who are loveliest when just a little bit haunted or mad as hell on a clear day. Who carefully believe in ghosts and kismet, and are mistrustful of shortcuts. Who laugh like villains. Wake up earliest when the sky is overcast. Who needn’t say much for all to know, tonight, they won’t be staying out long. Who dip their toes into the current, only to retreat and fantasize about the bowl of cereal they’d rather be scarfing down at home. Who, like my friend Jenny specifically, are hot. Who don’t need anyone—including me right now—to depict why. Proximity to hotness can feel like a link to the universe. Your hot friend on a balmy summer night telling you about some good news in her life is—How do I put this without sounding absurd? It’s barometric. It’s love and someone you love’s power growing, and it’s watching the elements cater to a woman who exudes.
I won’t go on more about the aura-photo-taking tradition my friend and I have, because the more one talks about these extravagances, the more they invite questions that cannot be answered. At any rate, some ceremonies exist so long as they aren’t solicited for profound meaning. They are as is, hardly ceremony but what we repeat in order to make sense of how disentangling personhood is. They are nothing to effectuate. A lozenge that doesn’t do much except taste like honey. We get our auras taken in order to blueprint the week or consider why we’ve been emotionally congested, or, for kicks, plot some emotional solvency. We play with life in order to play life, and often all a dark patch means is a dark patch. Figurative, literal, neither, both. Take from it what you will.
So one Monday afternoon, when my friend had a day off, we ambled from midtown to Magic Jewelry, stopping on the way for pea soup. A detail I cannot forget because the pea soup was bright, bright green. Unnaturally so. It’s something we both noticed and continued to address with each spoonful, because even the deepest friendships are liable to remark on the color of soup. Greeeeeen, we said as if it were slime. Delicious goo that seemed to establish our day as one to remember, because from now on bright green reminds me of the soup, which reminds me of my friend’s gold dress that she was wearing with black tights, and how somewhere on Canal we dropped a letter for another friend in a freshly painted mailbox. And how later, my friend ordered apple-flavored sorbet, and me, tiramisu. And at night we ate a box of Thin Mints while she read my tarot, and then, as it happens, we talked about a boy who was once in a band.
Whenever my friend and I are together, our entire mode approximates switchbacks on a mountain railway. The zigzag required to climb. The You were saying that rounds our conversations and never anticipates close, like jelly legs from long walks, but, in this case, breathlessness from having talked so much and lost our train of thought as if losing it were a custom of recovery.
But back to her dressing table. On it, my friend’s continued to collect objects like a curio cabinet of stuff that together becomes something. Her gallery. For the next five months, this parish of miscellany will provide my friend with the familiar. The way bedside tables become altars, and objects become testimonials, and candy bowls in dive restaurants: the perfect manifestation of Until next time. My friend’s dressing table is what happens when the uncollected becomes a village of items, like a skyline formed from a row of shapes: the vile of dandelion fluff, a tube of lotion, a canister of Wet Ones. A yellow rose, now dried and dead, and somehow gilded as if when parched, the rose becomes royal.
There are the lucky few who zone out their windows and stare at brinks. The faraway intrigue of a forest—how it conspires—or the streaked lines of an ocean fringed by its horizon, or a city with more sky than scrapers, or even the informality of a backyard at dawn. But there are those—my friend and I—who can zone out, quite easily, to whatever’s right in front of us, no matter how unspectacular. A poorly painted wall. Its cracks. The ceiling fan’s chop. A woman on the C train pulling her ponytail through its tie, not once or twice, but six times. Six complete loops; her fingers closing into a claw each time. It’d been months since I’d been to a museum, but watching this woman mechanically tie her hair was softly enormous. Like the Apollo, the Lincoln Center at night, Film Forum’s marquee—its lobby, its popcorn, perhaps not its seats. Like Rucker Park; like the screaming woman on East Seventy-seventh Street; like Dyker Heights at Christmas or the psychic with prime real estate and inexplicably zero clients ever; like the line outside Levain; like jumping out of the cab and walking instead; like speakers facing out apartment windows come summer and neighbors watering their plants, and sometimes watering their downstairs neighbors too, and like fire escapes in general; like an old eccentric in monochrome; the pinkness of Palazzo Chupi and Bill Cunningham blue; like a couple fighting for blocks, gesticulating crosstown and finally Cold Warring on the Hudson. Like Eastern Parkway on Labor Day; like Café Edison and Kim’s before they were gone; like bodega cats and a bacon, egg, and cheese—a woman grooming on her subway commute is a New York institution.
I don’t require much to feel far-removed; to impose my wanderings on what’s close. Because of this, my friend and I have started calling ourselves nook people. Those of us who seek corners and bays in order to redeploy our hearts and not break the mood. Those of us who retreat in order to cubicle our flame. Who collect sea glass. Who value a deep pants pocket. Who are our own understudies and may as well have shadowboxes for brains.
We remember the soapy swoosh and high-pressure jets of car washes fondly. Of sitting in the backseat, near-worshipful of its cooped, walled-in chaos. We see a baby, burrito-wrapped in her blanket, and think, Now, wouldn’t that be nice?
Nook people express appreciation in the moment by maintaining how much we will miss what is presently happening. Our priorities are spectacularly disordered. A nook person might spend the last few years of her twenties thinking she is dying. Convinced of it.
Nook people might be terrible at giving and receiving hugs despite often feeling—on the whole, at home and in public—as though we are holding on tight. Nook people sense slight tremors or the onset of a neck rash when faced with people at parties who yell-speak. A nook person catches sight of the quiet cranny at any gathering: the arm of a couch, a sill to perch on, the corner of a counter where the vegetable platter—only celery and ashy carrots are left—has been abandoned. A nook person finds the dog at the party; drinks wine from a mug; sits on the floor and braids carpet tassels only to become self-conscious and unbraid them. From afar, even nearby actually, a nook person can seem like a real bore. The last person whom you want to meet. A fun-killer.
A nook person plays catch-up when someone’s joke lands, embarrassed that her laugh isn’t proportionate to just how funny she thought the joke actually was. That was funny, she’ll say to compensate. Despite her many efforts, a nook person often suffers from a few-seconds lag.
Nook people know the words to a movie by heart but never say them out loud because anticipation is an asset. Because there’s no interrupting Katharine Hepburn when she’s interrupting herself: “Aren’t the geraniums pretty, Professor?”
Nook people can overstate their love for a movie, having only watched it once. They are alert to how some spectacles become basically unbearable the second time. And, well, there are benefits to claiming something you’ve only experienced once as your favorite. It’s useful to have many favorites. So many that you’ve depreciated the use of “favorite.” Favorite. Favorite. Favorite. Who cares? At any rate, substantiating favorites is an absurd practice. The genius of the word is that it’s more of an expression than a word.
Nook people have tricks. For instance, if I’m experiencing panic brought on by someone who leaves me fainthearted, I picture that person carrying with caution a just-filled ice tray back from the sink to the freezer. That image, on its own, can sometimes get me closer to where I’m meant to be. Just beyond the jam. Less impatient to compare myself. If I’m at an impasse and suddenly immovable, and unable to smile, I picture a plot of daffodils; how alien and dumb-eager they seem. Craning the way gooseneck lamps on desks—those too—look keen. I think about Little Flint introducing himself to Jane Goodall. Grown siblings being kind to each other. I wonder if penguins have knees.
Nook people are those of us who need solitude, but also the sound of someone puttering in the next room. Someone working on his project, down the hall and behind a door left ajar. We look away from our screen and hear him turning a page or readjusting his posture, and isn’t it time for lunch? Resurfacing is nonpareil. And splitting a sandwich with someone you’ve said maybe two words to all morning is idyllic. A brief belief that life picks up after a few bites of toasted rye.
Though if I’m honest, the thought of splitting a sandwich suddenly makes me enormously sad. How long has it been since I’ve enjoyed the company of someone else enjoying his food? The way he’d toss chips in his mouth and savor the crunch, and then wipe his hands on his jeans, and smile—not at me specifically, but at this wonderfully unspectacular event: the sandwich, the chips, the crunch, our appetites.
Nook people need relief from distraction’s overall insistence: the trap of everything else. Their ambition is not to be understood outright, but to return to an original peg. To share without betraying whatever mechanism individuates him or her. Perhaps that’s what we call our disposition. How becoming is multipart, but mainly a pilgrimage inward. If you share too much of yourself, you risk growing into someone who has nothing unacknowledged. Those yet-to-access riches that I’d suspect are what tingle when a song’s lyrics eject me into outer space; assure me I can love; can go about and be loved; can retreat and still get, as in both catch and understand, love. Those yet-to-access riches that I’d suspect too are what tingle when a building’s architecture persuades me to notice other systems of proportion.
Or when an Annie Baker play sets in motion a story I’d like to write; an ex I’d like to call; a dinner party I’d like to have and invite Annie Baker to, and Sarah Polley, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Dolly Parton, and Shirin Neshat, my friend Judnick, and Eartha Kitt, were she still here, and one of my heroes, Polly Platt, were she still here too, and my stepfather, Mritiunjoy, because he’s always good company, and my old super Sherlock, from my first apartment in Crown Heights, because he’d get along well with Mritiunjoy; with everyone really. It’s that floating feeling—a light, invigorating sickness—that stems from seeing an Annie Baker play; that makes me want to make stuff instead of make sense, even if it’s just a dinner party, or, quite the opposite, committing to a weeklong vow of silence. Because nook people are turned on by and twig how terribly normal it is to drop out of life occasionally.
What a nook person wants is space, however small, to follow whatever image is driving her, instead of sensing like she might have to trade it in or share it before she’s willing. Her awakening demands no stage but, rather room to store that second half of what she deems her double life: what’s corrugated inside. Intuition’s buildup.
Nook people find it trying to imagine themselves in real-life situations but long to climb into, for instance, a movie still. Into a pasture of wildflowers and tall grass and Merchant Ivory and Helena Bonham Carter’s mane. Into 3 Women’s desert pastels; those lenient yellows and corpse violets. Into Tom Hanks’s Soho loft in Big. Every single frame of Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours, but especially when Sandrine Bonnaire is dangling spaghetti into her mouth while a teenage couple makes out right next to her. Especially then.
Heat’s floor-to-ceiling-windowed Malibu view, because a nook person forever seeks enclosed perpetuity. That Escher-like Beetlejuice house. Its patio. The discoverable mess of Elliott’s closet in E.T. Or Céline’s Paris apartment in Before Sunset. Where she’s making tea and coyly dancing to Nina Simone, looking over her shoulder at Jesse to say, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.”
Nook people are interested in what’s backstage; are especially passionate about the small-scale bedlam of wimmelbooks; seek coats that cocoon; seek windows with shutters; a pattern that reveals itself over time; a vacation alone. Nook people can gently disagree while securing their spark. No. No. Spark is not substantive enough. Their approach. That radiant heat they typically keep stored inside because it functions as insulation.
Nook people love signing with a heavy pen; don’t mind waiting in the car; love sitting on a stack of banquet chairs in an empty banquet hall, feet dangling; appreciate the surprising density of a beaded curtain; the weight of a pile of denim; gripping a large Fuji apple with both hands; the twine of Joni singing, Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling and wish they too could live in a box of paints.
Nook people fall asleep in their palms; are pacified by tucking their hands in the warm seam of two thighs; are rarely sure how they got good at anything; confront despair with a strong drink or by giving up for months, only writing first sentences or returning to a corrupted love; or converting their bed into a life raft, or wearing a thick cat-eye simply to walk to the store; or making innocent decisions like buying a shower radio to cure a bad day, or finding a friend who is folding her laundry and requesting that you sit on her floor while she pairs socks, or suggesting that you donate your bunch of brown bananas so that she might bake the bread.
Nook people confuse emotional truth with other varieties of truth. They are a composite of the last person who complimented them and the next person who might ignore them, and also whomever or whatever they consider themselves a child of.
As children, nook people so wished to be forgotten in department stores. Locked inside once the doors were closed. They were very good at hide-and-seek, perhaps even overlooking the game’s reciprocal nature. Because when nook people find themselves lost briefly, they are stunned into a phenomenal sense of peace. Once, as a kid, I took a nap in the woods in the dead of winter because I couldn’t find my way back to the farmhouse in upstate New York where my family was visiting friends. I’d walked in circles and confused my trail of footprints. Disoriented, all I could think to do was take a nap. I slept deeply, which is rare for me. As the sun began to set and as my parents began to worry, there I was snoozing soundly on a mound of snow, palisaded by a forest of bare trees and the holy, cease-fire quiet only nature can administer.
As adults, nook people cower under overhead lighting. They prefer when lamps yoke the floor rather than animate an entire room. They are habitual creatures who fear each time they’re charmed by something, because what if it’s the last time they are charmed by anything?
I keep a miniature pink flamingo on my desk at all times. It sits next to me when I type, like a charm that isn’t a charm but a knickknack that proves I am not immune to superstition. If I lay it flat, the flamingo is smaller than my SHIFT key and just about the size of a date pit. The flamingo is rubbery and painted, and shaded as only mini things can be painted and shaded: so meticulously, so verbatim. It looks as if it’s been zapped small from real life.
When I’m traveling, I tuck the flamingo into my purse. It sits next to a stuffed red heart that my friend—the one in the gold dress on pea soup day—gave to me. The heart fits into my palm—flat-round like a plush pebble—and was mailed to my friend with a box of other novelties, including the vile of dandelion fluff, I think. The heart, I learned, is from Build-A-Bear. I’ve never been to one of its stores or know much about it, but I’ve heard there is a tradition of placing the heart inside the bear while it’s in the workshop. Maybe the employees blow on it? Or ask the customers to? Something like that. Maybe the children make a wish and rub the heart between their thumb and index finger the way adults test the touch of cashmere or gossip about someone’s financial provenance. Either way, there is a ritual. How strange. How sort of gruesome and surgical. The most benign transplant, occurring in malls across America.
I think about my mother again. Young again. I wonder if she did in fact, like me, consider the fit of things: how the cherry liqueur gets inside the chocolate and if it’s possible to sit on clouds. If cracking open scabs and peeling them off like bark on a tree was pleasing to her. If she dreamt about attics and the potential for troublemaking sloped ceilings provide. How everyone in an attic becomes a giant. How someone’s head cautiously ducking under wood beams is, in some way, the universal symbol for explorer. Did they even have attics in Calcutta? Was the concept utterly foreign? Whenever I’ve asked my mother about what I deem rudimentary to child-wonder, like the mystery of attics, the word dampness repeats. Calcutta’s dampness, that is. Like a relapsing obstacle for children born in tropical, wet-and-dry climates. It was too damp for this, too damp for that, she might say. Too damp for attics.
Or what about skylights. Did she have those? Know about those as a kid? How the sky seen through a skylight creates—at least in my mind—a more viable world. Isn’t it cool how a skylight doesn’t bring the blue inside, but instead influences a category of stupor? Everyone is reduced to aquarium eyes. There’s no suspense in wondering what lies outside the frame, because skylights show bias but abet abandon. Bordered and mounted on a ceiling, a blue sky looks especially artificial, doesn’t it? Like a portal elsewhere. Soothsaying.
I think about Build-A-Bear too. Would my mother have cared for one of those toys? Was she a child who hid things in other things? Was she curious about their make? The how? The How?! Had Build-A-Bear existed when I was a kid, would I have begged for one? Probably. The toys I wanted and never got as a child were one of many spites I held against my parents. It wasn’t simply greed but superiority. The rank we pull as children of immigrants, believing our parents are, most days, confused or dead wrong. That they just don’t know. That they’ll get you a version of what you wanted; what’s close will have to do. That they are uniquely assertive in the kitchen and don’t pick up on cues, and smile reluctantly because smiling is the quickest way to appear as though you are aware. To mislead anyone doubting your ability. Especially your ungrateful children.
My sophomore year of college, my father had surgery to repair a valve tear in his heart. The edges were frayed. A vascular-ring Dacron connector graft was, I believe, used to stent the tear. The sutureless nature of it confuses me. While my father has explained how his valve was fixed, my mind is intent on dreaming up floating parts, like a valve that looks like a pool noodle or a ribbed dryer vent, and 3-D doodads rendered into 2-D graphics, and ducts and hoses, and bolts, and whenever I hear the word frayed I only think of jeans anyway.
Still, I do appreciate the consequence of the surgery. My father has since been semiretired from his job as an engineer and vice president for a company that, of all things, manufactures industrial valves. There is no irony to be lost, merely coincidence, and a broad reminder that, after all these years, I still have no idea what a valve does. How it works and for what purpose.
There are moments when I wonder if my ignorance stings my father. If my disinterest has offended him. There’s a degree of apathy inherent to children and how they prefer to recognize, or insist on misunderstanding, their parents. There is too—how can I put this?—an unspoken expanse. The wilds that separate us. An acceptance that love has many versions and one of them is, plainly, the act of not knowing. An implicative bargain between parent and child that leans on time’s mercy. Or maybe it’s the inaction of not knowing. The lulls we favor in order for each member of a family to guard some sanity—to sit through traffic, clear the table without fuss, not ask who was on the other line.
Perhaps it’s useful to classify this particular form of not knowing as different from the more existential crop of not knowing. This one involves more play. I choose to misread the workings of big, vital stuff like the heart, because, by and large, my preference to not know provides me with relief. How reinforcing it can be to create an untrammeled, let’s call it “adjacent self” to my otherwise tightly wound, seeking self, who—much to the pain of anyone telling a story over dinner—is listening but requesting more detail. This other me tolerates occasional caprice; like imagining little men using a pulley-lever system to receive oxygen-rich blood into my heart. To my father’s heart. Gluing together his valve. Grafting and sealing material that looks like a tube anemone.
My father’s father, Amiya Kumar Bose, was a cardiologist. Eminent in his field, my father has reminded me ever since I was a kid. So much so that I now associate the characterization “eminent” as one specific to immigrant parents. One of their many isms—essential to their lexicon of pride. Of keeping the narrative strong and the achievements mantled. Of introducing their daughters as “My daughter who…” As though personhood is fixed to ability. As though parenthood is the practice of immodesty. Because awards and degrees, and recognition, and pioneering efforts in general, fade over time. They lose their shine, and sadly these feats so rarely translate. Masterpieces are paraphrased. They don’t survive the journey or a grandchild’s lopped retelling of them.
Growing up in Montreal, the folklore of family recipes was what my friends hyped. Secret ingredients for baked goods were somehow central. And guarded. But in my family, food was not the great family story. Food was the fabric. The basics. Dinner was elaborate but made quick. There was always rice.
My paternal grandmother, a statistician who’d go to work every day at the Writers’ Building—shortened to Writers’ by most—the red, Greco-Roman–designed secretariat building in Calcutta that housed the State Statistical Bureau Government of West Bengal, which later moved to the New Secretariat building on Strand Road, now that, that fact was repeated to me over and over. My grandmother Chameli was the director. She was in charge of an office of only men who called her “sir.” A detail so ridged into my understanding of who she was that I’ve often imagined an office long and exaggerated, and practically surreal. An office in space. I’ve imagined men standing up from their desks as she arrived each morning; greeting her as she glided to her office in her sari. A woman gliding was—I’d devised—power incarnate.
Recently, my mother recounted a story to me about Chameli. One year, Chameli noted a statistical error in West Bengal’s rice farming figures; one that she deemed serious enough to change. The dheki is an agricultural tool used for threshing and separating the grain from the husk. It’s composed of a wooden lever, a pedestal, and a pestle. Picture a rocket-shaped seesaw; the pestle like a walrus tooth pounding rice. In all village households, it was the Bengali peasant women whose job it was to husk the paddy into rice. While it was work, the work wasn’t statistically counted as such. Those hours spent were negligible; ignored by virtue of being considered everyday household chores instead of hard labor. Chameli disagreed. She saw the gaffe as a severe misreading of numbers.
Here’s the thing. By no means did my grandmother identify as a feminist. Quite the opposite actually. For her, fixing this error was merely a matter of valuing accuracy. For her, imprecision was totally substandard. When my mother told me this story, I thought about my grandmother gliding through her office, perhaps instilling acute fear in the men who reported to her. Scrutinizing their efforts. Suggesting they reexamine their data. The thought makes me grin.
I too was a bit scared of Thama. She could be mean. Often ailing but impassable. At no point would she back down; the sort of woman who is so obstinate that even the knot in her silk scarf looks stubborn, like a bulb unwilling to blossom. She was callous, brushing me aside by asking about my brother’s day instead of mine. If I was wearing a new sweater, she’d ask me if my brother had gotten a new sweater too. There’s a form of humiliation we learn to stomach young in order to receive attention. Mine was clarified by my relationship with my grandmother, whose fondness for my brother was openly warmer, even if her love was evenly spread.
Thama disciplined but seemed detached; a terrifying combination from a child’s perspective. Her wood cane looked like it was up to something. A sidekick. A snake. Nowadays, I regret every second I spent with her where I didn’t hold her hand or tell her I loved her, or showed her what I was reading or shared with her what I was thinking; who I was friends with; their names. I regret my teenage petulance. I regret the displeasure I wore in my posture. The unappealing stink that secretes from teenagers with a bad attitude who slope in their chairs and see only an old lady who’s taking up a perfectly good Saturday in June. I was sad about the mushy, tasteless food my grandmother was forced to eat, but just as impatient that she eat it faster.
I regret how I wasn’t gentler when combing her hair. Or how, more than once, I absently pushed her wheelchair into a door’s frame. Or pushed her wheelchair too hastily back to her bedroom at the Grace Dart extended care center in Montreal East, where she lived the last years of her life. It’s possible Thama would have enjoyed a more scenic route back to her bed—perhaps one that involved escaping the Grace Dart center entirely. Fleeing in her nightgown, somewhere less cold with a garden and trees, whose leaves reminded her of Calcutta sounds. A place too with an infinite supply of Pepperidge Farm hazelnut Pirouettes. She really enjoyed eating those rolled wafers, as if they were contraband.
I regret one afternoon in particular when Thama was asleep in her hospital room, snoring so quietly it sounded less like snoring and more like a person who’d lived many lives, simply breathing. That afternoon, when I was alone in her room, I noticed a vein protruding from her forehead. Like a cord of thick wale corduroy running down her temple. For no reason I can explain, other than some eagerness to touch, I pressed my finger against it. Thama kept sleeping. I touched it again and went further to push the purple blood that filled it, back up her vein, only to watch it rush forward as I let go. I did this a few times as if magic were involved. As if the tiny purple torrent were anything but blood. Kool-Aid. Dye. Beet juice. It was an odd impulse, certainly.
But even in hospitals, sunlight is beautiful. It animates the sterile and that feeling of sick. Brown cups look caramel and all that metal turns mauve, and Jell-O, well, Jell-O wins—it traps the sun. And suspended ceilings are hardly science fiction when the evening light thaws their grid. And the humiliation of loosely tied gowns and bare skin, and elastic waists, even those degradations fade some when the light pushes through blinds and discovers bare skin, not to shame but to warm. And on that day, the sun was beginning to dip and the purple blood was rushing back each time I pushed it up, and why was I doing this? Why wasn’t I leaving her alone, to sleep her many lives? I regret touching her forehead like that, as if she weren’t Thama but a new, random fascination. Her skin was jellyfish-transparent. Her fingers and knuckles were bent like gingerroots. She was fading. Shrinking. As if there were hardly any room inside of her to contain her memories. From here on out, Thama’s memories would be forced out. They’d emit from her. They’d circle above her like cloud cover on a satellite map. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to feel haunted by the draft of vanishing memories. I felt them that afternoon, escaping from her as the sun washed her hospital room with a little show. The sort of glory you only see when something else is being lost.
I was then, in that hospital room, dense about a lot and specifically about my grandmother. About her clout. It would be a long time until I would learn about the statistical error she corrected all those decades ago. A minor detail, but one that wows me. Quiets me proud. A facet of her character that reveals my grandmother’s second ply. She was a scrupulous woman; compulsive about precision. She wasn’t remedying those statistics in order to serve or fight for the rights of peasant women—outwardly, anyway—but because work was getting indexed improperly. It was how my Thama operated. What pressed her. No wonder my father insists on repeating stories about my grandmother. On remembering her like a zipper stuck on its slide. Chameli was a force. She had kick in her until the end, despite grumbling to me that God had forgotten about her.
My father’s repetition, especially with regards to his family—especially when it comes to excellence—is fundamental to his speech pattern. As though his thoughts accrue but cannot prosper without checking in with what came before. Like his body domiciles the past. His tone is, time and again, commemorative—which I’ll admit can grow tedious, though with parents it’s good to keep one’s cool. (Something I have yet to learn.) To heed one’s frustration, because aren’t we all disquieted by what we’ll leave behind? What we won’t. Aren’t we all overrun by the blotting-out that is inevitable? How every year we claim that this year went by faster. What was realized? Did I connect? If I’m mostly—often only—the sum of what I’ve noticed; should I keep better track?
Did I discern between admiring and enjoyment? Did I try on a dress? Even once? Did I disturb some peace? Experience some peace? Was I strong physically? How many times did I say yes when I should have said no? Can someone, please—anyone—devise a “no” that clarifies how no serves many reactions? How it can deliver beyond its blunt, single unit of speech? A “no,” for example, with less glare. A shallower, vaporous “no.” A “no” that riffs off “nope” but is more nimble.
Did I drink less? Sleep more? Eat more? Was I a body? And did the boundaries of my thighs and the span of my arms inform my flight, or were they limbs only? Swinging, stretched, crossed. Folded around me and furthering that feeling of deadweight when I wake up in the morning and think, Again? When I wonder if it’s possible to deplane from this week; from this period in life.
Did I listen to Tidal in its entirety instead of “Shadowboxer” on repeat? Illmatic in its entirety? The Miseducation without skipping over Lauryn’s interludes? Did I recover from the minor tragedy of gifting someone I love earrings she will never wear? Did I finally admit defeat and stop photographing sunsets?
Did I properly mourn my mother’s maple tree? She loved that century-old tree. It was, in a word, providing. When the city cut it down in February because of a vertical split they deemed dangerous, she sent me an email with the subject line: “our tree—RIP.” Attached was a picture from the scene outside her living room window. Our snowy front lawn powdered with sawdust and two city workers in neon orange, severing fallen branches into smaller logs. The tree’s stump looked irrelevant. And even though I couldn’t hear the violent, hacking buzz of their saws, I could. A vibration that tapers and starts over, tapers and starts over, like a terribly fatiguing and stubborn goodbye. This will be my mother’s first summer without her maple. But summer is not intended for withouts. So what now? As with all endings, nothing suits. In July we’ll play Scrabble on the balcony; unprotected, in view. A sudden rainstorm will no longer feel abundant. The green is gone. That magically indistinct quality of dancing leaves and their shadows, and how it’s impossible to tell where branches begin, end, and reach, unless a squirrel darts or a breeze gets rowdy. Will we miss the tree or move on and grow accustomed, and tolerate this new opening as an understanding?
What new habits did I develop to cut myself off from the world? When will I learn that those habits are, it’s possible, delimiting me from innocuous connections. Someone to sit next to on a couch too small, flipping the pages of a book too big, where the pages graze my sweater’s stomach, and I can’t pin why, but the whole small-big ratio of pages grazing my sweater creates an impression of secrecy.
Someone to wish well before his trip to Tokyo; to call when I can’t sleep. To share a bowl of blanched almonds with, sitting on stools—small again too—that force my knees to bend at right angles, which feels somehow athletic. Which is, by nature, suggestive.
Someone to provoke me; to watch Game 7 with; to accompany to a gallery where I don’t care for the art, but oh, how I love being in the vicinity of someone I confide in daily, whose posture is distinguishable, even under the lumpy mass of her winter coat, her scarf, the infantilizing fit of her boots. When will I learn? Nobody knows you’re thinking of him, of her, of our walk along the Thames, eight years ago I think it was, after seeing Peter Doig’s white canoe at the Tate, unless you call or write and say so.
This year, was I competent? Did I referee my whims or elaborate on them? Did I express gratitude? Feel the potency of night? Accept an offer to stay over without reciting the many excuses I use to screen my doubts?
How quickly did I quit my diary? How many ballet documentaries did I watch? Re-watch? What is it about ballet documentaries?
Why, come spring, do I get restless and talk at the people I hold nearest, dearest, instead of talking to them? Did I love extravagantly? Kick the ground, rip the lining, get loud with bourbon, rest my head on someone’s lap and fall asleep? Did I paint? Or use pencil crayons to shade the shy carriage of a pear? Did I enjoy the short-term taste of believing an idea I had arrived at was rare?
Or maybe it’s beneficial to abandon abstractions about how it’ll all come into being and subsist, alternatively, on touch, smell, Doreen’s laugh, Satyajit Ray, a poem’s scald, my stepmother Lisa’s compassion—her Irish scones too. Miniature awakenings that, with any luck, open one up to love or let go of one’s servitude to external validation. Miniature awakenings that keep me vulnerable to moonbeams and allow feelings to pathfind. To return to an original springboard and jump off again. And then again. Remember the feel of wet cement under your feet at the pool? Of shivering in line and climbing the ladder. The splash! How ordinary it became to splash. And then climbing back out, and shivering and dripping. The cool redundancy of doing the same thing over and over because summer’s inculpability meant it was possible to become your own encore.
When my father repeats himself, he is not just reminding me of his parents’ lives; my father is coerced by the rubbing-out that comes with remove. How it can rarify a family’s history. Nobody was going to tell your story unless you told it yourself. And nobody was going to remember it unless you repeated it enough for your story and for your memories to develop their own rhythm.
Because memory is lying in wait, and then, out of nowhere, something blisters. Builds. Sails. Memory is especially choral if the story recalls a childhood pet. Like Duane. My father’s spitz, named after Duane Allman, who one day in Calcutta raced off the balcony and fell three stories, landing on a herd of sheep crossing the street. Duane survived his fall, and I’ve heard that story about the sheep-shaped trampoline again and again, and I’ve often asked it be retold despite knowing it by heart. My parents’ histories, those quiet storms and units of time—the flying spitz, the mischief at St. Xavier’s—sound better when they tell it, because there will be a time when they are no longer here to tell it.
History is not indelible. History hardly exists. History is a pool of questions that begin with “Whatever happened to?” History is not—on its own—staunch. History is not the number of suitcases you moved with, the plants you carried with you, the people you left behind. History is an obligation that ages you. It trips you up. It skulks and grovels, particularly for those trying hard to move on. History is the daughter repeating to her friends that you moved with two suitcases full of LPs, or that you fell in love and knocked on his door and announced you were moving in—with your plants, of course. With not much else.
Time’s erasing duplicity, the lost elements, an uncle in a photo whom we only know by his nickname or an earthquake where the walls shook for minutes and Elvis, my cousin’s tabby, hid between my legs, and all these things, like a daughter who might not grasp or care for certain connotations, who for years assumed the word eminent was boastful instead of accurate, these are the reasons we repeat.
Born on Christmas Day in the year 1900, my grandfather died a month short of his seventy-fifth birthday, three or more months into Indira Gandhi’s declared Emergency. That my father’s father would never know his son had two children is a sorrow that doesn’t loom, so much as, sporadically, I get the sense, my father is hit with the hypothetical: Imagine he could have met you. There’s an understanding that my grandfather would have liked me. Loved me, sure. But liking is altogether different. It’s gentle. Almost chewy. Liking someone is taffy.
The moment one hears that sentiment expressed—that someone who has passed would have enjoyed you—one begins to carry it. I heard it young, and I became, in little ways, curious about what in me he might have found interesting. He would have, I’m convinced, asked me about my friends. Pronounced their names fondly. One of my top five favorite sounds: when my family enunciates my friends’ names with an odd emphasis on certain syllables. Rachel became Raaaaay-chel. Collier is suddenly French, like the word for necklace. My friends India and Echo have been tagged together and confused, and I rarely insist on correcting the mix-up because how are parents expected to keep up? They shouldn’t have to. Elana is pronounced “Uh-La-nuh,” which seems correct enough, though there’s a trace of casual melody in my parents’ accents, especially my mother’s. So even “Elana” sounds like the name of a song by a seventies folk band my mother might have listened to on tape.
Over the years my mother has mentioned in passing how she thinks my father should have, like his father, been a doctor. He is, it’s true, the first person in my family anyone calls when there are questions about a cough, a lump, an ongoing pain. He knows what to do, how to heal. Who to call. The next logical step. He accompanies his aging friends to physiotherapy and, at night, to the emergency. He sits and waits. He fills prescriptions. Buys them new pants when, in sickness, they’ve lost weight. And new ones when they’ve gained it back, to mark the occasion. He cares for those not lucky enough to have grown children. He gives rides. Buys and delivers bags of basmati rice.
When there was a tear in my father’s valve, I wondered if he missed his father; if he spoke to him in his head and went forth with a small amount of heritable wisdom. If in those days leading up to his surgery he was, once again, a son.
The day of his surgery, I sat in my college’s dining hall clutching my phone, waiting for the call from my stepmother where she’d say, choked-up but relieved, that everything went well. I was with two friends who were talking about another friend, and I remember thinking how noisy friends can be. How they are, at times, battery-powered clamor and emotionally expensive, and briefly I wondered, Why have friends? Why sit through their noise when what I needed was an impossible silence. There’s no such thing as the silence one needs. It doesn’t exist because need is loud. So I sat and listened to my friends and clutched my phone, and then, without noticing it, a tear slid down my cheek. My nerves had burst but my face was numb. My friend reached her hand across the table and touched my arm, and what’s more, she didn’t ask why I was crying. She barely made eye contact. We were each other’s tolerable silence. Energy between two people can feel the opposite of energy. The most muted, beloved bailout.
In the late John Gregory Dunne’s book Monster, in which the critic and novelist recounts his experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood, cowriting scripts with Joan Didion, his wife, many sections are devoted to Dunne’s weakening heart, and the cost—both financial and physical—that powered and metered his work. In the interest of covering the price of doctors’ visits, tests, and hospital bills following his first collapse, in 1988, while speed walking in Central Park, Dunne needed to remain a member of the WGA in order to benefit from the union’s health insurance plan. Consequently, Didion and Dunne wrote movies: The Panic in Needle Park (1971), an adaptation of Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1972), A Star Is Born (1976), an adaptation of Dunne’s Black Dahlia murder case–inspired True Confessions (1981), and Up Close and Personal (1996), of which the eight-year, twenty-seven-draft saga is detailed in Monster. “We’ve written twenty-three books between us,” he told The Paris Review in 1996. “And movies financed nineteen out of the twenty-three.”
In 1991, Dunne underwent aortic valve replacement surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian and recovered in the hospital’s McKeen Pavilion. Throughout Monster, Dunne avoids indulging in every writer’s more obvious belligerence; our fixation and phobia with End. How to ward it off in our work and still conclude with presence, hope. A hatch. Even when Dunne describes first fainting that crisp February morning in Central Park, the episode seems cursory. “I was stretched out in the middle of the road rising behind the Metropolitan Museum,” he writes, describing regaining consciousness seconds after his collapse. “A stream of joggers detouring past without looking or stopping, as if I were a piece of roadkill.” The image would be gruesome if it weren’t for the Met. For the joggers. For the whole uptown mise-en-scène. Or perhaps it’s gruesome because of it. Life could end—conk!—at any moment, and uptown joggers might treat you like New York roadkill, and hours from now, the Met will be mobbed with tourists wearing sensible walking shoes. And you’ve been swatted down, and tomorrow the joggers will return, running faster, having improved on their times. And the tourists—still in town, wearing their sensible shoes—will be riding the ferry to Ellis Island or eating pastrami at Katz’s.
Though, in a rare moment of self-reflection, Dunne describes the replacement valve’s clicking sound and how it signified “reassuring proof [he] was still alive.” This newer, louder heartbeat was a reminder of his impermanence and how in illness, what’s been assumed can no longer be assumed. We develop a habit of converting the everyday into souvenir. Of holding off what’s meaningless. That, or we veer off script. Illness compels us to ad-lib. As Katharine Hepburn once suggested—again Hepburn because she’s never far from my mind—“Wouldn’t it be great if people could get to live suddenly as often as they die suddenly?” To live without delay. To come to just as tersely as death comes for. I’d like to think Hepburn—who I’m now picturing in a photo I’ve seen of her riding a skateboard wearing a white pantsuit—I’d like to imagine she meant, despite all of its concerns, that life should be lived unusually.
The clicking from Dunne’s plastic valve, which replaced his calcified one, also resonated with his daughter, Quintana. The click, click, click entertained her. She began calling her father the Tin Man. When I first read Monster, Quintana’s nickname for Dunne reminded me of that scene near the end of the movie where the Wizard tells the Tin Man, “As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don’t know how lucky you are not to have one,” he warns. “Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.” Regardless, the Tin Man still desires one. He’s tired of sounding like an empty kettle. Of never registering emotion, he sings at the movie’s start. The Tin Man wants all of it. For his soul to light up. To feel the hot swell of jealousy, devotion, he continues. To really feel the part.
Those four words, as plain as they are, toll. An unassuming way of saying he’s ready to be human. Or possibly, some impersonation of it. The role of humanhood as he’s imagined it.
But to consider his song as such, tilts the sentiment. To really feel the part, the Tin Man needs his prop: a heart. It’s fundamental to the costume. Perhaps I’m overthinking it and the Tin Man has it all figured out. The lub-dub sound is what’s keeping record after all. Evidence of a narrative build. Maintenance despite life’s lows; its howling moods and those days when you find yourself in bed before dinner with the windows open, disaffected by the sounds trickling in. How mobile those sounds are: a neighbor riffling through a cutlery drawer; sandaled feet on dusty pavement; a fire engine’s ungainly siren.
Even when life presents one disincentive after the next—“I’m fine,” she’ll say. “It’ll be okay,” she insists unconvincingly. Even when hopes aren’t met or the comedown from an emotional night cedes to birds chirping before five a.m.—which, honestly, is too early for birds to chirp—even then, despite the guilt you feel from greeting morning having not yet slept, the heart stays lub-dubbing. Even when love is unreturned; when I’ve been hurt but refuse to get furious—would I even know how?
Even when someone forces you to articulate what you find intolerably hard to articulate, the heart is at work. On board, howbeit. In this way, the heart seems inhuman. Or actually, superhuman. It doesn’t acquiesce. It’s motored. It’s motiveless.
In her 2004 book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine considers Mr. Tools, who, in July 2001, was the world’s first recipient of a self-contained artificial heart. “His was a private and perhaps lonely singularity,” notes Rankine. “No one else could say, I know how you feel.” Mr. Tools didn’t have a heartbeat but a whirr. “It was not the same whirr of a siren, but rather the fast repetitive whirr of a machine whose insistent motion might eventually seem like silence,” she writes. “The weight on his heart was his heart.” Mr. Tools survived 151 days with his artificial heart, dying at the age of fifty-nine in Louisville, Kentucky, from complications unrelated to the heart device.
Neither Dunne’s clicking valve nor Mr. Tools’s heart-whirring seems like particularly strong sounds. More like test sounds. In Dunne’s case: metallic. Or as Rankine wrote of Mr. Tools: “If you are not Mr. Tools, detectable only with a stethoscope.” They are sounds in place of. Proof not of life but of proof. Another symbol for “heart,” like the plush Build-A-Bear heart, like our fingers butting up against one another and held in front of the left side of our chest. Just yesterday my phone autocorrected “heart” to “hearse.” Sometimes when I send emails from my phone while riding the subway underground, the blue sending bar that slowly crosses the bottom of my screen looks like a heart monitor flatlining. Doesn’t the red “low battery” symbol on our iPhones glow like E.T.’s heart?
Ten years ago I was in Mumbai with a friend I’ve since fallen out with. We were visiting another friend whom, as time has passed, I’ve also lost touch with. The three of us were there for New Year’s, and my friend and I—the one I fell out with—were traveling back to Kolkata by train once the trip was over, and then back to New York shortly after. At first, the idea of Mumbai was exciting. Visiting friends in foreign cities usually is. Isn’t this crazy?! we’ll say upon reuniting. Completely wild, we’ll nod. The extreme familiar—a close friendship—reoriented by the extreme unfamiliar is usually a formula for fun. All the qualities of a new experience in the company of someone who lessens the overstimulation sometimes brought on by new experiences. This is why we laud people who make good travel companions. We value that mix of curiosity, of limiting impatience for the trip’s duration, of being responsive, even-tempered, but also willing to skip the museums and spend whatever money you have left on day drinks and aimless walking.
But in Mumbai, I remember drinking too much vodka and feeling restless. Like I couldn’t figure out why I was there. Like I was meant to be having fun—so much of it—that as a reaction, my anticipation had soured. I was in possession of all this freedom, traveling with a friend, visiting another friend, and yet, I felt hollow. Looking out an apartment window, standing on a balcony, returning to my book, barely reading, thinking of perhaps sightseeing, not knowing where to start. Waking up early and badly wishing for the chatter only a family can provide. That nothing-talk that grows lively for no reason. Ten years ago was too young to know friends who chatted in the morning. It still might be.
But one morning I was given a task. My mother called and asked, since I was the only immediate family from Canada in Mumbai at the time, if I’d visit my cousin’s husband’s mother who was recovering in the hospital. She had undergone heart surgery. I was thrilled. Something to do. A destination. I could leave my friends, the vodka, the lazing around, and arrive somewhere. I got dressed, decided to wear a pair of dangly earrings, and grabbed a shawl my mother had loaned me for the trip.
Downstairs, my friend waved over an auto-rickshaw and in Hindi instructed the driver where to go. I understood none of what he said, but smiled, climbed in, and stared at the map I’d drawn that now looked like nothing at all. A few lines, a turn I’d emphasized by going over it a few times with my pen, some more lines, a big loop. The scribble had made more sense moments ago, but now that I was in the auto-rickshaw, among life as it zipped past me—two wedding processions; daylight waning; immeasurable traffic—I hoped the driver knew where he was going.
An hour went by. We’d stopped twice for directions. I showed anyone willing to help, my map—the lines, the turn, the more lines, the big loop. I said “Heart Hospital” over and over. Heart Hospital! Of course that wasn’t the name of the hospital. It was called the Asian Heart Institute. But somewhere along the ride, the rickshaw driver started saying heart hospital and so I started saying heart hospital. Whenever someone giving directions would nod, I would nod. He nods. I nod. And so on. But shared nodding in a country where you don’t speak the language is, I learned, the same as saying, Yes, yes, yes. But what were we agreeing on? Was I simply trying to keep the mood light and not look too confused? “HEART HOSPITAL,” I enunciated. The more I pronounced the words, the more the words lost all of their meaning. Say anything too much, and soon language becomes pummeled nothing. Totally estranging, inadequate, and without substitute. Your tongue may as well be numb.
By the time it got dark, we had driven on all kinds of roads. The driver’s handlebar steering revved loudly as if accepting a new challenge each time we curved around and inched between cars. Oddly enough, I never grew anxious. A deep calm nestled inside of me like my nerves were newly insulated. Like when a dog chooses my lap to curl up on. Like when a sweater is too long in the arms. Like when nobody is speaking and nobody feels pressed to.
Anything could be just outside this doorless, trembling auto-rickshaw. The unreal, even, like raging water, bare desert for miles—and it wouldn’t matter. I was disoriented yet deaf to concern because I only experience the candied tang of what’s imminent—the possibility of drawing near—when I am truly lost. When hope is a weak vital sign. A low ticking. A glowbug.
Maybe I would never arrive at the heart hospital. Maybe it didn’t exist. Maybe I was lost in Mumbai. The trip had felt like nothing up until now. As far as I was concerned, failing to find something was greater than having nothing to look for. So I let go. I leaned back against my vinyl seat. I closed my eyes. I felt the road’s bumps—a replenishing, gentle shock each time. I felt the abrupt, crass smoothness of highway. I felt the night’s breeze, my own breathing, and sounds approaching, and horns passing. I heard unspecified purring like a score of whispered secrets, sped up and looping, and just a bit sinister. More so than daytime noises, nighttime noises wreathe.
With my eyes closed, I felt like I was flying. Arbitrary images popped into my mind as if what screens inside my eyelids is half haunted and clipped of story. Those tousled and nearly unaccounted-for impressions. Those observations that go nowhere yet enrich my memory—incongruous, random, and without incident, like found footage. Like the sheared memory of Christmases; the topography of someone I love’s palm; roof tar sticking to my shoe; a skinny cat’s rib cage; the rubbery satisfaction of yanking a single blade of grass from its root; the sound of someone setting a table for lunch in the garden and those intervals of silence where she looks up at the sky to weigh the threat of dark clouds and how fast they’re moving, and in looking up, she wickedly obscures who has more power—the incoming storm or the woman bargaining with it by placing cloth napkins as winds pick up.
Even more indiscriminate thoughts collage. Like my irrational fears: dryer lint, the void that hollows a spiral staircase, or the several ways I feel illegitimate whenever I allow myself some latitude. Or feeling somehow fidgety when there’s unexpected legroom on a plane; the ugly manner in which my face warps when big tears are about to overwhelm me, and how repressing them means deforming my cheeks and chin and forehead as though a leech is swimming frantic beneath my skin. Or the power that composes me when I walk down the aisle of a moving train. Or the coppery taste of blood; the slippery touch of cherry seeds; signing my name on condensation; the novelty of a round window; how little I know about birds. How the string section of an orchestra appears hypnotized, far more than the brass and woodwind; how at the grocery store, spotting the bottom hem of a woman’s nightgown under her raincoat feels classified. Or how awkward it is to be in the company of a friend who’s expressed to me that I’ve been inconsiderate and self-absorbed, and how attempting to mend my pattern is graceless, pinching, and worse, feels false. How being hard on myself is, oddly, a lazy system for letting myself off the hook. How sometimes I imagine hubcaps spinning off the wheels of cars and slicing me in two. How a coral shirt I rarely wear compels my friends to argue whether the shirt is more salmon than coral, and even if the difference is slight, sometimes it’s nice to hear voices I admire boom emphatically over dumb, trifling things.
The memory of peering into my cousin Samantha’s bedroom surfaces. I was small, no older than ten, and I spotted a biography of Marilyn Monroe tossed beside a pair of black Dr. Martens boots, and Samantha caught me looking and slammed the door, and instantly Marilyn Monroe and Dr. Martens were the most forbidden. Or my mother’s crooked teeth. Fanged and disobedient. Crowding her mouth like concertgoers front row, pushed up against the stage. They are my favorite set of teeth because when my mother smiles her teeth resist any notion that happiness is an upshot of perfection. Her smile is chaotic. Teeming, toppling, and lovely.
* * *
“Madam … madam.”
I’d closed my eyes just long enough to have dozed off.
“Madam,” the driver said again. “Museum.”
I slowly came to and felt my mascara unstick between my lashes.
“Museum?” I asked.
Oh no, I thought. He’d brought me to a museum in the middle of the night. I looked out and saw nothing.
The driver pointed up ahead. “Heart museum.”
This couldn’t be right. “No, no.” I shook my head. “Hospital. Heart hospital.”
“Heart museum,” he repeated.
A museum? At night? I lifted my chin, suggesting we should drive up the road some more.
The driver was now smiling as we inched closer. As the rickshaw pulled up to the front, I peered out and saw what looked like a very fancy hospital. That’s how I remember it at least.
“Heart museum, madam,” he said once more.
I nodded, thanked and paid the driver, and walked toward the entrance. It had become chilly and I was grateful to have brought the shawl with me. Quietly moved by the rickshaw driver’s construal of this large, looming building, I climbed the stairs. Even though this was a hospital and in visiting family I was only doing my daughterly duty, his characterization of “Heart Museum” recuperated in me what I was so longing for: a sense of arrival. The words “Heart Museum,” like a figurative place; a vault where memories shimmer, fall dark, are cut loose, and unexpectedly flare up when you most need them to. The words “Heart Museum,” like an experiment; twitchy, sad, parceled, soulful, like Arthur Russell. The words “Heart Museum”: a meaning archive; a parent’s medicine cabinet with expired sunscreen and old Band-Aids; the contents of a care package; a hideout for mind and spirit; mausoleum-like. The words “Heart Museum,” like the essence of a word from another language for which English has no word. Because is there anything better, more truthful and sublime than what cannot be communicated? The marvelous, hard-to-spell-out convenience of what’s indefinite.
Copyright © 2017 by Durga Chew-Bose