The phone rings four times then breaks into static. Slowly it stirs into focus. Slowly he says, "Hello?"
"What is that sound?" I ask him.
"It's like a screeching. Arrhythmic."
"Oh, that must be the birds."
"Yeah, I'm on the roof."
"They sound like pterodactyls."
Tall ferns, old ferns, leaning forward over ferns that drip water so clear it's like you've never seen before. Thick mist you could cut through lying low to the grass, seeping up from the ground, tasting like dirt on your curling tongue. Imagine the way. The way the earth would shake. A trembling, unsettling shifting beneath the weight of life. Footprints big enough to lie down in, ancient and pure. What the air must have smelled like. Shrieks like spears.
"I don't know what they are," he tells me.
"So maybe they are pterodactyls."
"I don't think they have those in India."
"You're probably right."
More static. Silence. Cracks like popcorn.
"Hello, are you still there?"
"Yes, I'm here." His voice is far away, at the bottom of a bucket.
"Good, me too."
"I can hear a sort of growling on your end," he says.
"That's the lawnmower, it's right outside my window."
"But it's only nine in the morning over there."
"You're telling me."
"What are you doing on the roof anyway?" I imagine the flat skyline, gray against orange and blue, like dyed silk. Each color bleeding into the next, leaking veins staking claim to blank space. A shawl sky wrapped around the city's hunching shoulders. Saffron sundown.
"I'm hiding from the woman who cleans my boxers."
"You have a woman who cleans your boxers?"
"Yes, once a week. She comes to my room and lays them out flat on the tiled bathroom floor. Then she scrubs them with a hard bristled brush until the wet dirt seeps out of them onto the ground. The soap smells like licorice."
I pause. "Wet dirt, huh?"
He laughs. "From the air. The air here, it's so heavy. So saturated. The dust is a part of everything."
"Mm. And why are you hiding from her?"
"I never know what to say."
"Does she speak English?"
"A little. We spoke once."
His breath rustles the receiver. "Well she comes in around ten. After breakfast usually—"
"—What do you have for breakfast?" I interrupt.
"My host mother sets out ten triangles of white bread toast on a blue plate."
Pasty bleached flour, porous and cracked crisp in the metal oven, count to 40, hear the rusted springs sprain. Robin's egg ceramic against a Formica countertop. Tap tap tap like spider legs, like Christmas ornaments tapping each other when father shakes the tree, breakfast slides onto the plate. Is served. "That's a lot of toast. Anyway, you were saying?"
"Yeah, she comes in after breakfast and I'm usually sitting on my bed in my boxers—it's very hot in the mornings—and she's wearing this beautiful red silk sari."
"Mm." Blood red, red blood, the morning the serrated blade slipped and carved my skin wide open. A layer of grit stood between my calloused feet and the tiled kitchen floor. Gray July morning light slanted through the screen door, across the cardboard boxes marked FRAGILE; marked with a new address. Soft, stale brioche; silver blade; silent tearing sound. Knife dropped. Fuck, apply pressure. The waiting moment before the pain has registered, before the swell of color beneath the skin. The scraping of his bow against the wound steel cello strings upstairs. Chromatic. Stains on the cutting board.
"And she never seems to want to look at me. Which is strange, because I'm white, and I stand out a lot over here."
"Of course." I think of his smooth olive skin.
"She just sets down her soap bucket like it's the most precious thing in the world, really gentle, and she puts some extra rags and brushes down next to it, in a perfect little row. Remember that summer we went camping at North Lake, and we lined the kindling sticks up like a fine-toothed comb?"
Spine arching under olive skin, lean muscles arching over the spitting leaves in the fireplace. Tending, mending, rendering heat. Cold for August. Solely alone and wholly patient with the business of scraping dead roots from the soil. We curled ourselves alongside their shape. "Yes, and then the wind blew them away," I say.
"But before that, when they were so neatly organized next to the fire?"
"Yes, I remember."
"Well that's how she lines up her supplies. So nicely that I almost want to go over and kick them just so that I can breathe again."
"You don't do that, do you?"
"No, I would never do that. She needs them that way. She reaches for them one by one, like a dentist, or a surgeon. I'd have offered to be her scrub nurse if I thought she'd understand me."
"What did you say instead?"
"So I was sitting cross-legged listening to Iron Horse cover Modest Mouse—have you heard that?"
"No, I haven't."
"You should, you'd like it. And I look up and I see this woman, already on her hands and knees on my bedroom floor, straightening her tools and wiping the sweat from her forehead with her wrist. And I'm caught by surprise, because this morning I didn't even hear her come in. The music was loud. And she's just crouching there near the doorway with her red sari hanging loose around her. Her brown torso so exposed. And I can't help thinking, this must be the way most young Indian boys get their first erections: in bed, with their housemaids weaving hypnotically across the floor... Is it weird that I'm telling you this?"
I shrug, shake my head, realize he can't see me. "No." It isn't. "Go on."
"Well it's not that it happened to me, it's just what came to mind."
"Naturally." I smirk at the image of him stunned on his bed spread. Knees pulled to his chest, a child.
"So I reach for my t shirt and pull it on quickly while she's still watching the floor. It's my blue one, with the hole at the breast pocket corner."
"I know that one." I think of the worn fabric between my fingers.
"Right, so as soon as I get the neck over my head, I make eye contact with her. My eyes are just peeking over the fabric and all of a sudden I realize she's looking at me, and I'm looking back at her and we just freeze like that for a second. I wish I could remember the look on her face but all I can remember are her eyes, dark dark brown with that kind of flat eyelash brim reaching out over them."
"I've seen that before. Brim, that's a good word for it."
"I just thought of that. Anyway, we stay staring at each other for a few seconds and then she looks away, real embarrassed-like. And I'm starting to think she doesn't know that I can see down her sari so suddenly I'm embarrassed too and I stop looking at her."
"And what does she do?"
"She goes back to scrubbing the floorboards, but slower this time, like she's got her fingers resting on the plastic window of a Ouija board—just sort of drifting. Her hands pull out away from her body and she leans to follow them but they keep making these gentle, sweeping arcs and she doesn't seem to mind. Then she closes her eyes and really falls under the spell of it. It's like she's forgotten I'm even in the room." He exhales into the phone like a wave crashing.
I close my eyes; watch the sheet of dark brown hair unfold down her back. Her watercolor-sketch muscles are formed and erased, formed and erased in rhythm with his words, a stop motion film. She builds, leaving gray shadows on the page as the curve of her body is remeasured, readjusted. I watch her slither forward into child's pose, fingers ringing the heavy rag. The image lags. I wait. "So what do you do?"
"Well, first I think about sneaking out onto the roof—"
"Like you did today."
"—Yeah, like I did today. But I can't do it. There's something so soothing about the way she's moving and I can't make myself get up. It's like I'm rooted to the spot."
The watercolor sketch writhes on a hardwood floor. The layer of soap eats her reflection. "So you speak to her?"
"I hum," he says.
"You hum?" I say.
"I start to hum along with the Iron Horse cover. It's this real jittery banjo riff that's kind of stressing me out, you know? Bluegrass. And I'm humming and I can feel my vocal chords squeezing together like there's a marble rolling up and down my throat. Do you ever get that image stuck in your head? A marble, it's usually red for me, and when I reach for a high note it sort of slides upward, and when I sing low it falls fast down again, all the way to that hollow spot between my collar bones."
"I used to hate it when my mother would rub sun screen into that hollow spot. She was never gentle enough. It felt so odd."
Waxy fingers, bad circulation, almost yellow but that could be the sand, pressing hard on my shoulders and neck. Hurry because the ocean might not be there anymore if we wait too long. Children are always running down the dunes.
"But the marble..."
"Yes, I know what you mean. I've thought of that before, that's just what it feels like. A red marble."
He sighs, smiles, I can feel it through the phone.
"So the song starts speeding up, and I'm humming faster and faster trying to keep up, and I notice that the woman is laughing at me. Not cruelly or anything, just shaking her head and laughing with her white teeth. And I laugh too, and say Namaste, which is weird, because God knows how long she's been sitting there at the foot of my bed and now I'm saying hello like she's just walked in the door."
"You're right, there's definitely only a short window of time when hello is the appropriate icebreaker."
"Well that's what I say. I say namaste, and she says it back to me, namaste, only when she says it it sounds like the most delicate taste in the world."
"Namaste. Namaste." I turn the word over in my mouth. "It should mean more than hello, don't you think? It sounds like it should mean more."
"It can. Sometimes it means good luck. Sometimes goodbye. But this time it means hello, and now that I've heard this flowervoice she has, I'm nervous. Self-conscious about my Hindi, and I say, do you speak any English?"
"Well she nods, but she stands up and walks quietly over to the other side of the room, carrying her bucket with its rocking tide, and with her back to me she says, I don't speak very good, but I can understand. I can listen. Then she looks over her shoulder at me, very expectantly."
Brown eyes leaking brown eyes into whites of eyes against clay skin. Can't see to the bottom but the water is shallow, that is sure. Shore eyes. Lids like moth wings drowning.
"What do her eyes look like?" I say.
"Riverbanks," he says.
"I thought so."
"Like the Ganges. Full of bones. And I know right then that I won't ever be able to make my words reach her. They will drown before they can cross that stagnant river. And I want to feel sad about that. I expect to feel sad about that, but I can't. I'm not." Another wave of static. He is walking on gravel. "And she seems to realize it too. She pours the soap water out of the window and I hear it slap the street as she's gathering her tools, one by one. She gets that shy look on her face again, embarrassed by my silence. She nods as she leaves, and I feel emptied." His voice is at the end of a tunnel.
Emptied. The word echoes in my ears, crouching somewhere deep beneath my skin, scratching at something.
There is silence, followed by light puffs of air. Delicate bursts of air that rush towards me through a network of wires and satellites. Shallow noises, stripped of the heat that propels them. Stripped down to pure sound. Breathing, I can hear you breathing. How is that? And then at once it occurs to me that his story is over; that he is waiting for me to speak.
"That day at the Whitney," I say, abruptly.
"Remember? It must have been two years ago now. We were staying at my brother's apartment in Brooklyn—"
"—The old one. The one on Tenth Street with the low iron gate in front. It was a gray, museum Sunday. We took the L into Manhattan in the morning and walked the rest of the way to the Biennial exhibit at The Whitney."
Eyes hanging heavy with the last night's wine. The shaking yellow light of the subway car, rocking sleepily beneath the East River. The shrieking breaks punctuating the desperate wails of the man across the aisle, his fingernails piercing the skin of a Styrofoam cup. There was nothing I could do. I concentrated on the newly formed rip in my white Ked; stared at my toenail, just beginning to peek out from beneath the canvas.
"I remember," he says. "What about it?"
"The claustrophobia. I mean, gray museum Sundays are always crowded. New York city is a crowded place. But even in the big marble lobby I lost sight of you for a little while. There were so many bodies. I had to shuffle through the rooms, squinting over shoulders. It was all folding in on itself. I couldn't breathe."
"I panicked. In the dark room, the pitch black room, with the video screen. I was being pressed on from all sides."
Shallow, quick breaths, a desperate reaching for oxygen, lungs resting on a shelf high in my chest. The faint ripple of reality, like the rapid rise and fall of an elevator. An impossibly dark room. I thought the walls might've been painted black, but they might've not even been there at all. Might not ever know for sure. A projector funneled an image through the darkness: a bright white face, its eyes speaking emptily at me. Its lips moving in forced geometrical positions, punching out the same word over and over again in a strangled voice: Pigeons. Pigeons. Pigeons, the word growing jagged without a breath, the voice testing the syllables with its weight. They call this performance art, I think. I am afraid of the nothingness of it. The nothingness of the walls and the darkness and the words I don't understand—most of all the nothingness of the shoulders leaning into mine. My shoulders tensed; my knees locked; my body pulled into itself. Stop it, I whispered, Stop it. "I couldn't take it. Something ticked inside my ear."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know, it was like the sound the second hand on a clock makes. Tick. Right in my ear. It felt dangerous. I felt dangerous. I wanted to scream."
"But you didn't."
"I couldn't find my voice. I was alone and terribly afraid."
"I was right behind you. I followed you out of the room."
The harsh Manhattan air whipped across my cheeks as I burst through the main doors onto the sidewalk. The sun felt new and unfamiliar, slicking itself in a thin topcoat across my skin—a cheap, distant mosaic of light across my forehead. One of those papery mornings that makes New York City appear two-dimensional. A cardboard town. I gripped my collarbones, pulling down, trying to ground myself; trying not to sink into the heaving crowd of Madison Avenue.
"I know you did. You were there watching me when I turned back around to face the building. I felt so relieved to recognize someone."
India air stirs gently on the other end of the line in quiet understanding.
"It's just... how can we be so alone sometimes?" I say. "There are so many of us."
"Distance is seeping into everything."
"I wish it wouldn't."
"But it is."
Violet Primoff is a third year student at Bard College, pursuing a BA degree in Written Arts and Latin American studies with a focus on creative nonfiction.