I’m honoured to have been included in tribute to women all over, as part of The Camel Saloon’s special edition literary compendium for International Women’s Day – many great words here to peruse!
Ara wakes up and searches for her dream. She can’t catch it, but a thought lingers.
“Since I’m not going to have children, I need to make a commitment to the life I’m living now.”
Until today, Ara’s been having the same dream every night since Ken died. She would wake up every time enveloped in a vibrant blue colour as real to Ara as the painting of the Mediterranean Sea on the wall above the dresser. They were planning a trip to Europe for their first wedding anniversary.
This morning, the large space of blue around her is gone. She can’t roll over and swim in his essence. There are just the sheets, and her rumpled side of the bed.
For the second time in a year, the hard lump that’s come to live in her diaphragm gurgles alive, swelling until she can hardly breathe, and she has no choice but to carry it around with her everywhere she goes. She wonders again how something that is so empty can have this kind of weight.
By 6:00, the sun has streaked the sky and the day fades into a dull blue-grey. Ara sets the dimmer on low and wipes the kitchen counter before placing a cutting board next to the sink. She finely chops fresh shallots, and has just enough ginger to shred for tonight’s meal for two. The congee’s gurgling on the stove, seething and oozing thick white bubbles. Steam curls up and rests on the window above the sink. Ara opens it halfway and looks across the narrow road to where a man sits on a bench, his back to her, facing a park shrouded in darkness.
Ara wipes her hands on the towel under the sink, runs her hands through her hair and leaves the house through the side door. She’s at the park in under twenty seconds and hesitates before taking a seat at the bench. She’s never seen the man’s face before. They both look ahead.
“I get this feeling” he says, “that if we both look at that tree together for long enough, I’ll disappear.”
“Well, it’s not going to be the tree; it’s here for the long haul. And I suspect you’re not going anywhere. So that leaves me.”
“But why does something have to disappear?” Ara asks, the lack of blue thrashing around her ribcage.
“Before you started watching me,” the man says, “I used to watch someone too. A man, middle-aged, with a full head of hair a bit rough-hewn for a businessman, though you could tell he tried to keep it neat and professional. He came here every day at exactly the same time. 12:30. He wore a dark suit with a white shirt. He’d sit down on that bench by the water fountain, and put his briefcase on the ground. The first time I saw him, I was sure he’d grab a sandwich from his bag, but actually, I never saw him eat. I always wondered when he got a meal in. But no, he’d ever so gently retrieve, of all things, a flute, followed by some sheet music, which he placed on the edge of the water fountain. Sometimes, if it was windy, he’d hold it down with a rock he found nearby. And he’d play. For forty-five minutes. To be honest, I could never tell if he was playing one long piece or several shorter ones, but the sound was sweet and haunting. The flute really has a way of drawing out the essential sadnesses of life, don’t you think? I never realized that until I started listening to him. I don’t have much patience for art. But there was something about the way this salaried employee, who I’m guessing has never been outside the country, would spend his lunch hour creating the most melancholic sounds. It really made me wonder about him.”
“I don’t know,” Ara says. “Maybe he has travelled. Maybe he’s been to Greece, even. Flute playing goes back a long way there. I was recently reading up on that.”
“Of course it’s possible,” the man says. “He seems sophisticated, anyway.”
“What happened to him?” Ara asks.
“I’m not sure. I stopped coming here at lunch time. You’ve never heard him?”
Ara squeezes her eyes to block the image of untouched tea, and loud power ballads she’d play for hours at a time to block the sounds of her grief.
“The fountain has an amber colour around it,” Ara says. “You know, sometimes I take water from there to use in my cooking. I have no reason to, but I’ve always been drawn to it. I never realized I was infusing so much sadness into my food.”
“I’m not so sensitive,” the man says. “I don’t think I could detect emotions in my food. You say you can see colours around things? Like auras?”
“Yes. Since I was little.”
In Ara’s recurring dream, Ken’s wearing his favourite top, the blue polo shirt he was wearing the day he died. Ara used to tease him about blue being so conservative, but Ken insisted it depended on the shade. How can you compare Mediterranean blue to the blue of a Nerf ball? In the dream, the shirt is shimmering, more like the midmorning sea than product packaging. It looks like you can see right through it, and Ara looks for any hint of Ken’s internal organs – his heart, his intestines, those parts of him she possessed without ever seeing them. She never finds anything. Ara searches frantically for any marks of her love, their history on his body. Ken catches her desperation and says, You know that’s not where you can find the story of us. “But you’re disappearing!” Ara screams. Right before me! Ken’s standing on the other side of a hole that spews a ferocious red every time she approaches, keeping her away from Ken. Watch me, Ken says, and before her eyes, a transformation begins. First, he’s Ken in the blue shirt, with the scar on his left arm from surgery he had on their honeymoon after he got too zealous with a coconut tree. The next moment, he’s on the shore of the Mediterranean, wearing a white loincloth. He’s Ken and not Ken, swollen in the belly, and she knows he’s with their child. She cries and touches her own flat belly. Then, this new Ken extends his hand out to her, as if to say, we’re ready to start over, your patience has led you to this, but just as she’s about to take her first step, he becomes transparent and disappears, until all she can see is the effervescent blue of the water behind him. That’s when she wakes up, every time, with the distinct feeling that all she has to do is wait.
“You okay?” the man asks.
“Oh. Yes,” Ara answers.
“What’s it like?” the man says. “To see auras?”
“I guess we take things like that for granted when they come naturally to us,” she says, remembering how it took a few moments, as she bathed in Ken’s blue light, before time would creep back in. With time comes all the days and years that waiting actually stands for. This morning, without Ken’s light to keep her company in bed, she’s been forced to learn something new about time.
“Would you like to eat dinner with me?” Ara asks. “I made enough. I thought we can eat out here.”
“Sure,” he says. She excuses herself and comes back a couple of minutes later. The tray is filled with two bowls of congee, a small dish of grated ginger and thinly sliced shallots, and two cups of barley tea.
Ara still hasn’t gotten a good look at him. She places the tray between them.
“Is there water from the fountain in this food?” the man asks.
“No, not tonight.”
“That’s too bad,” he says as he digs in. “I was going to try and taste the flute music. Mm, it’s delicious.”
“Thank you. I’ve been waiting for a long time,” Ara says.
“I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure.”
“Yes,” the man says. “That’s why you and the tree over there aren’t going to disappear.”
“Waiting doesn’t feel safe. It feels like floating. I need to fill my body with grounding food, so I’ve been trying food like this. And with you fearing your own disappearance, maybe you need it to.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of it. Disappearing. It’s what things do.”
“At some point,” the man continues, “I guess we have to become aware of the point where waiting and living intersect.”
“You mean, something along the lines of stop waiting and live life to the fullest?”
“Sounds clichéd, I know.” he answers, “Waiting is like looking for a needle in a haystack, to give you another cliché. But everybody knows there’s no fun in that. Now that I think about it, I’ve always felt a bit like that needle.”
“I couldn’t pinpoint your aura from my kitchen. It wasn’t really a specific colour. But now it makes sense. It was exactly what you just mentioned, that something between living and waiting. You don’t have the things I normally see, no craving, fallen hopes, expectations, desire even. You’re really not afraid of disappearing.”
They sip tea in the dim light of a new moon. The man puts his hand on the bench between them, palm open. Ara takes it in her own.
“I wonder if the flute player still comes by,” Ara says.
“If you find him, maybe you can let me know what music he’s playing. Maybe knowing that will change everything.”
Ara smiles and swings her feet lightly over the sand, and then takes the tray inside. As she washes the plates, she can hear, beyond the man on the bench and through the fading sound of crickets, the Mediterranean flowing into its long, dark sleep.