Some days, I feel like the apartment is incredibly suffocating. I stretch and hit a wall; my head slams against the window that is much too old to be opened and I find a tornado within my chest. Some days, the room is an entire ocean and I feel like a bird that cannot swim. I hate Brooklyn, I think. I hate its narrow alleys, the fire escapes, the possibility of the fire. I already smell the smoke. Most of all, I hate how it hates me too. How the walls see me as an intruder and the stairs treat me like a thief, allowing me to trip over and over again, looming over me threateningly as I stand helpless at its base. How they refuse to believe that its beloved packed up and moved to sunnier, shinier Florida, and it’s been left alone to rot in a cycle of young, selfish sublets. I am only one rung.
When I’m frustrated and nearing tears, I throw an offensive. You’ll have to deal with so many more of me, I scream – so many worse than me. The walls whimper, sometimes cry. I’m not sorry. When I toss and turn at nights, they shriek like an old woman and I feel like they’ll fall over me. The bed, the curtains, the drawers, the floor boards- the entire room shakes in disapproval.
To my right, the Love of my Life sleeps peacefully, not hearing the shots Brooklyn fires at me. I hate you, I whisper, blowing into his face. I hate you for bringing me here. I hate me for moving to you. I hate us for creating a home when there should be two.
Some nights, I dream of Philadelphia in a red sari swaddling me, holding my face into her bosom, squeezing me one last time before handing me over to Brooklyn. I feel the warmth disappearing, cold fingers settle on my unstrengthened back and my blanket slips away into the train tracks. My cries get stuck in my throat and all I can do is stare at the new face, hoping it bursts into flames. The red sari had long disappeared.
When I wake up sweating, the Love pulls me onto his chest. You’re dreaming again. I nod. But I’ll be okay; I always am. He runs his fingers through my hair until he forgets and sleeps, his palm drowning into my skull. On nights I’m willing to indulge the madness, I wake him up to ask why Philadelphia is always the mother. Shouldn’t it be Trivandrum? Most days, he doesn’t get angry. He simply straightens my spine with his fingers and falls back to sleep. He doesn’t dream at all.
I know the answer already. Trivandrum throws me from arm to arm to arm, sometimes kicks me in the stomach, sometimes pushes me – head first – into muddy waters, sometimes buys me fragrant flowers, sometimes other, more repellent smells. Always plays games with me, letting me believe one thing or another instead of reality, in spite of reality. My pimp, my pimp, my pimp. There is nothing maternal about its love for me. The Love doesn’t stir.
A hot humid day and green churidars with polka dots. The Trivandrum museum has so many places to sit but we pick the most crowded ones. Indian women intuitively know how to disappear, how to occupy the least space in crowds, fitting themselves and their baggage into the smallest of nooks. I tell her I’ll learn too and then, I’ll stay forever. She laughs more than I’ve ever seen her laugh. I’ve never felt so funny before, or so fake.
Do you think I could be a lesbian? I drop my head on her shoulder. Maybe I just haven’t explored it enough. Besides, isn’t sexuality fluid? She laughs even more. Oh, love, she says, when you know you know you know you know. I sigh. But– I hate how men smell.
She shakes her head and smiles. At some point, she begins to shake her whole body and cry. I buy her pink cotton candy from a man who throws knives from his eyes. We don’t let our tongues turn blue. That’s the funny thing about cotton candy, I tell her. The color is the only thing that really exists.
In Brooklyn, I like the crowds on the subway the most. It makes me think of the New York in the Movies, which is different from the New York in the Real Life, which is different from the New York in the Dream. I take two trains to get to work and I like the first one better. It is always more crowded and I don’t have company. By the second, the Pakistani woman from the office next door joins me. She talks to me about her husband and her three children and their school and hair and foods and fears. I nod empathetically and hum every once in a while, and pray she doesn’t find me the next day, and dream of other cities with other trains. Some days, I think of how I sleepwalk through this one.
When the museum walls make our back sore, we walk and she tells me to move up North. People hold hands there. They speak better Malayalam, they cook better, they smile better, they love better. The man in the orange mundu was from Kannur. Is that up north? I ask her. I know nothing on the geography. She giggles. Yes, Kannur counts. I smile. Good – he wants me to live with him and his mother, next door to his three aunts and their eight children, beside the family temple and the grandparents’ ashes. Have you been surrounded by so many souls before? Never. I would hate it, she says. I nod. I probably would too.
The Love doesn’t dream, but he spends a lot of time being patient. He asks me if I want to move to Queens and I shake my head. The walls let out the smallest of smiles. I press my body against them with my face to the side, peeling off the rough patches of faded paint with my fingers.
I begin to love Brooklyn on the days I embrace it. I pause at the nape of its alleys, run my fingers along its waist and spread them over the iron of bridges; I smile with its youngest, skip onto buses and tremble along with each of its vibrations.
I love him most when I’m not with him. My Love is best as an idea, a false sense of security. His conversations remain much more passive and much more endearing within the confines of my head. Outside, he spends a lot of time being as patient as a Sunday School teacher who is saving me, who can’t find anything right with me. I break one thing after another. He pets me on the head and forgives me, telling me to how to think instead. His novel is full of imperative sentences; sometimes, I think that even if I substituted myself under the blanket for a cute puppy from down the street, he wouldn’t love any less. In fact, the Love is so understanding he wouldn’t even notice.
There is a statue of a woman somewhere in the walk between Trivandrum Museum and Cafe Coffee Day, and I keep forgetting who it is. She has told me the name a million times but I can never seem to remember. The statue’s sari is perfectly pleated, her rounded arms held tightly like a stern headmistress. I ask her if we can sit there for a bit. She shrugs. There are no benches and that’s odd, I say. She raises her eyebrows and plants herself on the ground. I join her in spite of my white leggings and finally read the plaque.
The Love does not sit on city benches. He thinks they’re dirty, confusing the smell of broken people for more malicious things. So when we walk, we walk and walk and walk until we’re home. At a corner, there’s a bookstore we both like – the kind without an index or an order where books are simply stacked from floor to ceiling. He points to all his favorite titles; for once, even when he’s telling me what to do, what to read, it feels like a love poem. The books, the perfect meter. He’s so much like the man in my head there that sometimes I think of locking ourselves in – maybe this is the city we could belong to.
Some days, I sleep in Brooklyn and accidentally wake up in Trivandrum. I don’t know how. I immediately give her a call and ask her what to do. Is there something wrong with my head? No, she laughs – it’s only that you’re always in it. How do I leave? She doesn’t answer me. She doesn’t even laugh. I could have imagined a sob.
The Love doesn’t understand why I do that. For the most part, he doesn’t even see me go and come back. He is always buried in one thing or another, in one-way conversations with someone else’s words, someone else’s fights.
When he fights, he defends everyone but ourselves. Some days, I think I’m the only creature in the entire world not worth fighting for. On the day I leave, I tell him that.
On the day I leave, I walk past the subway and over the bridge and sit at the foot of Akkamma Cherian’s statue, tracing her pleats and crying until I find the cotton candy man. When I finally bleed, it’s as pink as the clouds he carries.