by Ali Fahmy
Buildings are broken families, divided by floor and room. Buildings are burdened sons, lost to the cosmos of an ancient chart, buried in a sacred text. Buildings are mothers without husbands and hushes without storms. Daughters and the silence they wear. More children, with glow-in-the-dark stars on bedroom ceilings - outer worlds, the strange well of forgiveness. Singers with shouts for breaths and dots for eyes.
She was a dot. She was standing in the foyer, hesitating. She was a dot with a house in the buckshot of the city. She played bocce in her front yard against imaginary enemies. Her husband was a rat, with a rattail and slick-smooth oilskin. He left her in the car as he searched the hardware store for a box cutter. She prayed in the passenger seat that she'd find the will. She found the will and packed her books and cassettes and records and CDs. She tore down the attic loft she built from scratch one Saturday, and left a note: "I've gone away by now."
She was a dot, flitting across a nation of hundreds of millions, resting on a coast of gray shells and burnt sun. She slept like a fetus, in another man's arms. They made their own child, a grinning speck of dust, a boy really. The new family holed up in an apartment built for one, inviting cats from the outside to warm themselves on the wet nights, of which there were twelve the first year. And nine the next. And thirty-six the final year, by which time the woman - the wife, the ex-wife, the mother, the music lover - grabbed her child by his taxi-yellow collar and said "Look Cosmo, we're going somewhere else." No note.
She moved to a mountain bathed in snow melt. The first day there, she smiled as she came home from the market, cradling sacks of potatoes carefully like flower bundles, her boy walking like a lamb by her side. She was here to stay. Her building was a cabin, a shack with broken screens. She played her music loud, for her closest neighbor was out of earshot. But her boy was a neighbor too, to the music. She should have asked him if he liked the sound of it all, of crashing chords, gentle bombs, English towns, and wicked kings.
On her computer she made lists of favorite songs while drunk with noise and headscratch. She printed and tore the lists with dry fingers. She backspaced the lists with tiny fists, almost like a baby's. In a few years, she thought, my boy's hands will be bigger than mine.
She saw straw from her window. The drought turned the green and golden hills brown and beige. She had a plan to see more, to burn it with her mind until the dirt and its spirits were naked to the sun. In the ground is the true garden, she thought, of fools with no breathing room and geniuses with everywhere to go.
She built the loft in her old attic, in her first married house, by herself. Her husband owned the tools but he'd have no part of her hideaway. He thought she was running away from him in their own house. She wasn't really. She was already gone and the loft - levels like a bunk bed, shelves for contraband, tiny dim lights everywhere, toys built for children - was her first big job. It was a brilliant idea - the thought of a secret space, directly one floor above the shared bed and her cold shivering husband. He never liked the heat, even in winter, but he was useless without it. She drew pictures of him as a rat. It was awful.
Her second husband, the father of Cosmo, is still a blur to her. She remembers his words more than his face. He was fat and hairy but with a disarmingly pleasant smile. She recalls his complaints, his rants against societal shift, nostalgia for a life he never lived. He once told her he wished they could experience a nationwide dance craze, like the Twist, that their generation was too fragmented for such a unifying force. She doubted the Twist was all that nationwide and does a generation really need unifying?
One night she coaxed herself into doing the Twist in the apartment with the cats. Husband #2 slept like a baby in the next room. No levels here. She hummed to herself and twisted. But she didn't hum the song "The Twist." She chose the sequel "Let's Twist Again," itself nostalgic for the bygone unity of last summer, last year. She danced to the irony more than to the song. Though she liked the song. Both of them.
Cosmo is fixated on giraffes. Photos of giraffes. Sketches, plush dolls of giraffes. He's small, even for three, a quiet presence in loud rooms like the ones at preschool and the two at home. His mother thinks he's compensating for his lack of height with his fascination with giraffes. Or maybe it's an imprint from the first thing he saw outside his mother that he truly loved - a giraffe in a children's book, a giraffe in a nature documentary, or a giraffe walking down the street in an infant fever dream, skulking through a city, crushing bicycles with the gentlest of footsteps, pausing on a bluff over a river before turning to go back where giraffes come from. Lately though, the solar system is creeping up on the giraffe as his primary fascination. But the giraffes are still there and he won't look away from you if you give him a giraffe made of putty.
There are buildings ugly as war, their spotlighted hallways showing nothing but a dust trail - their jig is up and out the window. There are buildings beautiful as a split pea, uncovered and cleaved and asking for trouble. These buildings are museums and toy factories and fractions of an earth's material and memory and the weaving in of texts and spoken story. These buildings make the misfits one step closer to the fire, the black water, the eerie joy.
Buildings are what she remembers now as she writes the story of her life, in lists, her baby nodding in the distance through a window at a dog. She had wanted her history list to turn ground, gravel, brick, and wood into a soaring anarchy of the human heart, with her dot-child and her songs of dread and shivers.
The sun is through setting when she sees the back of a man walking down the hill to town, trudging to his frosty car. She's on her porch laughing at nothing so insignificant as laughter, coming from somewhere else in her mind. She calls to her son, to go outside and look at the stars. It's a clear night. He asks about the explosion that started it all, before buildings or fetuses or songs or tools. He asks how it happened. "Bang-bang" she says, "And then there was this," as she tosses her hand with a flourish over the city below the mountain.
Last night she dreamed of floors, slick floors with crazy tile patterns, mosaics of equatorial gods or pageants of headdresses with no head or body. She dreamed of men celebrating in burnt-out-light-bulb locker rooms, screaming over a victory they worked hard for and would have to, as athletes, begin defending tomorrow. She saw all sides.
She had been an athlete once, a high school tennis star. Number 3 in her county. Number 26 in her state. She had a fine net game and limber legs for backwards and sideways running. But she could only get so strong. Her serves were too weak to succeed as a professional, to even to make a go of it in college. She tried to build arm strength with weights and systems of stretches, but it just slowed her down, further detracting from her game. She quit tennis on her 18th birthday. She smashed her metal racket on a fire hydrant. From the demolished strings she fashioned a punk hairnet.
Her first husband, the rat, liked her ingenuity. He claimed that she invented half the new styles in their city but she knew better, that alternate inventions sprout randomly, beyond her control. One night, in a movie theater, he tousled her hair and breathed a tattoo idea in her ear. She wasn't sure if the tattoo was for him or her, but she didn't like it and wrinkled her nose as the opening credits took too long to flourish.
The next morning, over breakfast in the snow, she told the rat she wanted to be an architect. He was taken aback and changed the subject to war. That afternoon she built the loft and as she hammered the final nail, she felt remorse that there wasn't room for another. When she gave birth to Cosmo, she stared at the hospital lights as she screamed, determined to go blind before she had to look at fluorescent lights again.
She can see everywhere now. From the mountain she sees the storms coming and the nine-to-five workers coming home, rolling up the hill at 6:15. She likes this evening view best now, in winter, when the trail of headlights spirals the hillside like new hot fudge, disappearing around curves, flashing between trees that will always be there unless she burns the mountain down. She loves the cars in darkness. She tells Cosmo they're like new stars and after they all get home, the sky will dim and the two of them can go outside and watch the old stars. They'll count the ones they see tonight and try to remember how many they counted yesterday.
She hears footsteps walking back up the hill. The frosty car is still there. She thinks it's the man she saw before. She goes inside and sits next to Cosmo. He's reading a picture book of animals, turning the pages quickly until he finds the giraffe. He's read this book every day for a month. She wants to tell him stories about the other animals and there's a knock on the door. She looks at her second husband through the eyehole for seconds longer than necessary. She slowly opens the door and there are hugs and introductions, for Cosmo was a month old when he last saw his father. It's an awkward night, for sure, with stretches of silence interrupted by formalities and a kid's slippery grasp. No one knows what they're doing. But she knew he was coming.
After Cosmo's father leaves at midnight, to drive 400 miles home, mother and child sit silently for a few minutes until Cosmo suggests looking at the stars. She knows there won't be any school for him tomorrow, that this night was big and she needs to stick close by and answer questions. He's a curious boy. On the porch she says that it was a little more complicated than "Bang-bang and then the universe." She explains gases and molecules and the formation of galaxies and planets and the beautiful impossible craziness of it all. She gives him theories and cites Greek scientists and explains his name. Cosmo asks his mother why she never told him she used to play tennis, why he had to find out about it from Daddy. She's surprised he cares more about the tennis and not that his father really still exists. She tells him about the injury and the cats and her first husband and her architectural ambitions and the 11 other things on her list. That night Cosmo dreams of a scary mannequin in an elevator. His mother dreams of the end of the world.
About the author:
Ali Fahmy's fiction has appeared online in Pindeldyboz, Exquisite Corpse, Identity Theory, and Hobart. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Laurel. He is currently writing a screenplay about dreams and a magical serum. His blog can be found at http://www.alifahmy.blogspot.com.