The Locked Study
Sooner or later, everybody comes to New York, and I was no exception. For me it was art school, the New York Academy of Art to be exact, that tempted me over, and I gladly and without remorse left behind the brash primary colours of late-90s London to reinvent myself, as so many others had before me, among the shining slabs of a city that seemed to have scale where others only had size, where history was measured in minutes rather than centuries and where each of its ten million inhabitants essentially began their lives anew each morning when they awoke and pulled up the blinds. After college I did everything I could to remain, winning a job and the work permit that came with it at the Bougainville Gallery in Chelsea, and spending the next few years living in a tiny apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with my girlfriend, Hannah, working together at the gallery each day and growing gradually further and further apart.
In early spring in 2011, things finally came to a head, and I moved out, for reasons I don’t really want to go into here. I left, and went to stay on the couch of a former Bougainville colleague in whom I’d increasingly been confiding. His name was not Jeff, but I have to give him a name and Jeff will do as well as any other. Hannah’s name wasn’t really Hannah either.
Jeff had two aunts who lived uptown, on the Upper East Side, in one of those huge late-nineteenth-century apartment blocks where families take up a whole floor — or, in their case, a floor and a half. Hannah and I had been there along with a few of Jeff’s other friends the previous autumn for his aunt Rose’s seventieth birthday party — the apartment was enormous, sprawling, with an elegant roof garden one storey down from the roof proper looking out in a wide panorama over Central Park. But it was also ragged and unloved, and slowly rotting away; Jeff’s aunts only lived there two days a week, spending the rest of their time at their other home near Jeff’s parents somewhere in the outer reaches of Long Island, so to make sure the place didn’t collapse completely they usually took in a lodger. As luck would have it, Jeff told me, they needed one right now, and I was desperate to find somewhere to live (his words, not mine — actually I was quite enjoying my evenings in his apartment watching reality shows with his witty and outspoken girlfriend Severin). I’ll take you round for dinner, Jeff said; you can meet them properly. See if you like each other.
I am a very suggestible person, and I must admit that as Jeff and I talked about it more I found myself drifting off into a happy fantasy about life in that cavernous apartment a stone’s throw from Central Park, the white whorl of the Guggenheim visible from the living room window, Moma, the Met, and I began to feel really quite excited about the whole unexpected idea. His aunts — Marie and Rose Peacock were their names — would only be home two days a week, and for the rest of the time the place would be mine, and it was pleasant to feel even in some vague sense that I would be making progress in my life after my break-up with Hannah, which I couldn’t help feeling had set me back a step as the rest of my friends busied themselves getting married, getting pregnant, getting comfortably settled in for the next stage of life: ’that middle bit’, as my friend Caitlin once called it. In some sense the idea of moving into the Peacock sisters’ opulent apartment vindicated my decision to leave Hannah and our life in Greenpoint. Idiotic; silly — but you know how people’s minds work.
So I went up there with Jeff and Severin after work the next Wednesday, Severin boasting that the Peacock sisters viewed her as “the daughter they never had“, and we all had a glass of California red, the dinner idea having been dropped due to Jeff’s inexcusably forgetting that his aunts always went to the theatre on Wednesdays. They took me on a quick whirl around the apartment, including the small bedroom beside the roof garden that would be mine, and then we took the lift down to the street, where as Jeff flagged them down a cab Marie Peacock asked me a few perfunctory questions about my job, tugged thoughtfully at her coat cuffs, peered into my eyes, and abruptly proposed rent of a hundred dollars a week, a sum so minuscule for that illustrious part of town she might as well have made it one peppercorn. I couldn’t shake her hand fast enough.
“We’ve been looking for a lodger for a while now,“ she told me, as we sheltered from the spring breeze under the building’s awning.
“A year or two, off and on, since the last one,“ put in Rose.
“We like to have someone we know—“ continued Marie.
“Someone we know, or a friend of a friend—“
“Or a friend of a nephew! So it often takes us a while to find the right person,“ said Marie.
“The last young man painted the bedroom walls green,“ Rose recalled mournfully.
“I think we’ll say no painting the walls this time,“ decided Marie. “Is that all right, young man?“
“Of course,“ I said.
“You can move in tomorrow if you like,“ added Rose, as Jeff held open the cab door.
So I did.
They gave me a more detailed tour when I brought round my belongings the next evening, swinging briskly from the macro to the micro with dizzying ease. The building had been constructed in 1878, they told me. Adam Sandler lived next door, if I was interested in comedy (I am not, particularly, but a celebrity is a celebrity), and somebody who once ran for president for the Constitution party was on the ground floor. The apartment had been in the family for generations; Marie Peacock, the younger aunt, had never lived anywhere else, having taken over the running of the place aged just twenty-five after Jeff’s grandparents had died; Rose Peacock, her elder sister, had moved back in following her divorce twenty years ago. That small refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen was mine, they said, and I shouldn’t use theirs; the same went for the telephone: “If it rings, don’t answer it,“ Marie said; “the voicemail will pick it up. And please don’t let anyone in unless you are expecting someone. If somebody is downstairs and you don’t know who they are, do not under any circumstances buzz them up. We own a number of properties around the city, young Nicholas, and there have been some— slightly difficult incidents over the years, as I’m sure you can imagine. So don’t give anyone your name. And certainly don’t give them our names . . . As I always tell my nephew: the only people you are legally obliged to let into your home are uniformed police.“ I was more amused than offended by this sudden slew of rules and regulations; it was clear from the off that the sisters were a slightly eccentric pair, and I was more than willing to take the rough with the smooth — for example the phenomenally low rent.
My room was on the lower of the Peacocks’ one and a half floors; upstairs were the sisters’ bedrooms, and Rose’s library — she was a retired university professor who had specialised, she told me proudly, in cultural representations of sex. Between their bedrooms, steps led up to a tiny attic crawlspace full of old paintings, papers and bedding which Marie jokingly (I think) referred to as “the butler’s room“. Their cat, Francine, who accompanied them to and from Montauk each week, looked up lazily from a stained mattress as we opened the door, and Rose indulgently scrabbled at the back of its neck. “Hello, Frannie!“
Through the kitchen at the back of the apartment was a laundry room that opened out down a few iron steps on to the roof garden, and across the garden at the far side there was a bare-looking door. “Now,“ said Marie. “I hope Rose has mentioned young Lydia?“ She had not. Marie pointed across the roof garden. “Young Lydia is our other tenant; she lives in the apartment across the roof there. Husband used to live there too, but they went their separate ways some months ago, I’m sorry to say. Very sad; lovely young man. Her apartment’s totally self-contained, but we do give her a key to this utility room here so she can do her laundry.“
“No sense her throwing her wages away down at the laundromat, poor thing,“ put in Rose.
“So if you come in here and find a beautiful girl washing her underwear — don’t panic!“ Marie concluded with a hearty laugh. I laughed too; the more I learned about this strange set-up the more enthusiastic I felt.
And then they left for Long Island, and it was a spooky old place without them. Jeff had joked that my role would lie somewhere between tenant and night watchman, and indeed that night as I struggled to get to sleep, feeling as tiny and insignificant as a speck of dust drifting across this vast, ancient expanse, I heard a rustling and rattling at the back door, and jumped out of bed, much shaken, silently opened my blinds a crack, and looked out across the roof garden through the darkness. It was Lydia, letting herself in to the Peacocks’ apartment with a basket of laundry propped at her hip. I watched her open the laundry room door and disappear inside, invisible at my darkened window, and then watched again as she came out a few minutes later, ducking slightly under the light spring rain. She was very pretty, her long, wavy brown hair gathered in a flattering fashion at the nape of her neck, her eyes gleaming in the reflected light from the laundry room like a cat’s. She was wearing shorts and Converse trainers and a diaphanous red tank-top, and I watched her as she disappeared back into her apartment, and I went back to bed thinking about the quick glimpse I had caught of her face, finding myself wondering about the next time she would sneak quietly across the roof, thinking about Marie Peacock’s words: “If you come in here and find a beautiful girl in her underwear doing her laundry — don’t panic!“
And so life settled into a rhythm, as lives quickly do. On Wednesdays the Peacock sisters would arrive from Long Island, often with friends, former colleagues, or relatives in tow (the apartment seemed to be the centre of Peacock family life, perhaps due to its enviable location), and that night and the next I would try to spend my evenings out seeing friends, or stay late working on my paintings at a studio space I shared with some other artists in Bushwick. When the Peacock sisters were home they were everywhere; I could be opening a parcel in the hallway, believing myself completely alone, when Rose would noiselessly appear, murmur “Exotic—“ in a wondering tone over my shoulder as she surveyed the contents of my delivery — I am thinking of the time I ordered a pair of red sunglasses from an online retailer, admittedly a rather recherché item — and then melt away mysteriously into the living room, the rustle of her elegant evening dress disappearing after her. In the kitchen, Marie would be sitting at the table with a cup of coffee, careworn but robust, like a fake antique, her hennaed hair glowing in the pale evening sun, and would put down her glasses and her Wall Street Journal to ask me detailed questions about my life so far: where I grew up, what my school was like, my jobs, my ambitions, and compare them to her own, to her brother’s, to her nephew’s, to those of the Peacock family’s distant and hazily-imagined Dutch ancestors — sometimes favourably, sometimes unfavourably. The two of them thought of me, it emerged, as someone who had “made his way up out of the gutter“, by which I think they probably meant anywhere south of 59th Street and north of 88th rather than England in particular — and I think they rather liked me because of it.
I have always avoided reminiscing, as a rule, but the Peacock sisters did manage to get a few things out of me during those early conversations: details about my uninspiring comprehensive school, my rather drab group of childhood friends, my parents — who had always admired my artwork and encouraged me to pursue the subject, but had received a bit of a shock when they discovered that I had scorned the Slade, the RCA, Goldsmiths and the rest and had applied instead to the New York Academy of Art, having calculated that my inheritance from my sadly deceased grandfather would just about cover the three years’ exorbitant fees. We argued back and forth — they had assumed I would put the money towards a flat — but in the end what could they do? I was eighteen and it was my money. What appealed to me about New York was what appealed to me about art itself — it was a place where I could pretend that the gloomy half-light of my hometown, the exhausted indistinguishable streets stretching out endlessly into the void, had quite simply never existed, where I could decide who I was and who I wanted to be and nobody would ever be able to challenge it in any way. It was the place of Rothko and Rockwell and Hopper and Pollock and Warhol, the names that I hoped to join and perhaps one day surpass — although obviously I didn’t tell the Peacocks that.
So the sisters got to know a little about me, and I a little about them: Rose, the older sister, was quieter, more thoughtful; Marie had a better sense of humour. Rose got up early and Marie went to bed late. Marie handled the family finances, and it was she who collected my rent each Wednesday; Rose was in charge of their extensive and varied social life. A year or two had passed since they had last had a lodger, and they were well used to their own company; once, early on, I was sitting reading by the window in the living room when I became aware that Marie had materialised beside me. “I don’t have many rules, young man,“ she began untruthfully.
“But this is your chair—?“ I guessed.
“But that is my chair,“ she said.
I stood up reluctantly and crossed to the sofa.
And on Fridays, when I arrived home from work, the sisters would be gone, and the place would be mine for the rest of the week. I bounced around the enormous rooms like a pinball.
I picked out the few pieces I knew how to play on the Peacocks’ old upright piano, Ave Maria and the Moonlight Sonata, the notes echoing in the emptiness. I cooked basic meals in the kitchen, on one occasion slicing open a red pepper to see a small, colourless moth fly out, whirl woozily in the air and then collapse on the floorboards, spent. I tried not to think of it as a metaphor.
I drew at my desk, amassing stacks of pencil sketches that I filed carefully in plastic binders on the shelf above my wardrobe. The walls were thin, and I could sometimes hear Lydia in her apartment next door, doing whatever, taking a shower.
I got to meet Adam Sandler after a fashion when a parcel of his was wrongly delivered to my mailbox, and he turned out to be as unsmiling in his way as the ’tears of a clown’ comedian of popular myth, opening the door just a crack with a cellphone clamped to his ear, a tragic-looking wire-haired dachshund tangling itself up at his ankles, a sullen scowl disfiguring his face. “Yeah?“ he asked me rudely, only breaking off from his telephone conversation to yell “Down, Bruiser!“ at the dog as it lunged aggressively towards me.
“I live next door,“ I said. “This package came for you.“
“Thanks,“ he said, grabbing it. “Yeah, just some guy with the mail,“ he told the phone as he closed the door.
Jeff came by and showed me the pencil marks on the kitchen door where he and his sisters had measured their heights as children, the storage unit where his aunts kept their air rifle, and the pellet holes that he, Jeff, had made in the hallway walls with it as a teenager (his aunts still hadn’t noticed the damage, he said, something I could well believe). I spent a satisfying evening fixing the broken doors of the cupboards the Peacock sisters had allocated to me (not many), and went to bed with superglue on my fingers, unable to feel the pages of the book I was reading. One morning soon after moving in I came wandering into the kitchen in my robe to find a small Korean woman in her mid-forties washing the dishes. “Hyo-Sonn — cleaner,“ she said, pointing to herself, and I was so disorientated I could only reply: “Nick Braeburn — lodger.“ In the evenings in the living room voicemail messages would beep to themselves in a lonely fashion, waiting for the Peacocks to come home and pick them up, making the room essentially uninhabitable unless the TV or the radio was turned up loud enough to drown them out.
I had never lived in a place that made so many ’house sounds’ before: unsettling creaks and rumbles, rattles, clicks and sighs, the walls and doorframes expanding and contracting like bellows. I often had violent dreams, woke up fighting childhood bullies or burglars; I’m sure there was a connection. When I was a child, our house was broken into a number of times, which was not unusual for our part of south-east London but which nonetheless left a strong impression on me, and that helpless feeling of knowing somebody had invaded the space that belonged to us, the space where we ought to have felt ourselves completely safe, returned to me often during the lonely nights of those first few weeks at the Peacocks’. One night when the sisters were away in Montauk I was close to falling asleep when I heard a huge crash coming from somewhere on my floor or the one above, as if a stack of videotapes had fallen over or somebody had slammed a cupboard door. I rushed out of my room in my boxer shorts yelling, “Hello? Hello?“ and stood there in the hallway, a cold breeze lapping unaccountably at my ankles, moths and motes of dust rising in the air around me, and then I nervously and systematically searched every corner of every room, except for their study, which they always kept locked when they were away. But nothing, and I went back to bed feeling a bit defenceless, leaving a lamp on in an embarrassingly effective gesture of childlike reassurance.
I hadn’t had a proper look in the Peacocks’ bedrooms before. They lay peacefully in benign disarray like a sleeping sidewalk hobo, stray pillows on the floor, quarter-drunk cups of coffee on the nightstands, blinds pulled down, drawers left open, a pair of hair straighteners plugged in and branding their silhouette into the floorboards (I pulled out the plug). Hyo-Sonn was obviously the type of cleaner who had a strict ’no tidying’ rule. But I had been surprised to find when I got up there that the sisters evidently had a keen interest in contemporary art. Both rooms were decorated rather grandly with expensively-framed artwork: a supposedly sexy Fernando Botero print hung beside Marie’s mirror, and above her chest of drawers was one of Sarah Morris’s origami beetles, over which at the time, if I remember rightly, there was some sort of copyright controversy. In Rose’s room, one of John Squire’s Alhambra-style patterns meant to represent the personalities of celebrities and murderers hung by the wardrobe, and by the window was a vertiginous squiggle by Martin Samarkos, with whom I went to art school and whose personality, believe me, is almost as astonishingly dull as his art. I was just about to take a closer look at the Squire when my eye fell on what looked like a hand-painted birthday card in a frame beside Rose’s bed: a small papyrus-style painting of the Barque of Ra, the boat in which the Ancient Egyptian sun-god travelled through the sky by day and through the Netherworld by night.
I stopped, genuinely startled. My own artwork was all about Ancient Egypt, and I had painted a very similar scene myself two or three years earlier. But I had to admit it: this was a really impressive attempt. The curve of the barque had been established confidently with little more than two or three lines. The Field of Reeds, the afterlife in the east towards which the boat was heading, seemed lush, verdant, a place so warm, welcoming and alive it was hard to credit that it had anything to do with death (and of course that had partly been the point). Ra was depicted twice, once in his falcon-headed form as Ra-Horakhty and once with the head of a scarab as Khepri, and above him the artist had worked the sun in thick, wet strokes that glimmered and glittered so brightly I was almost afraid to look at it, as if it would burn my eyes out if I stared too long. I felt quite jealous, the little painting was so good, and I thought of it often in my studio in the days that followed as I went about my work.
It was a big apartment, but my own room was small, and I resigned myself to gradually having to transport around a third of my possessions to downtown thrift stores, where hipsters could loot them to their hearts’ content: clothes, CDs, records, books. I gave away a glass chessboard my father had presented me with on the day of my GCSE results, and even briefly considered throwing out an even more prized possession, my grandmother’s ancient wooden Scrabble set, before deciding that that was where I would draw the line.
The walls of my room were packed with pictures, frames jostling for position, the individual impact of each artwork quickly lost, photographs shoulder to shoulder along the windowsill: my mother and father sitting there younger than I am now, me erupting out of their arms, scooting off towards some unknown target to the left of the shot; me, age twenty-one, looking stern and overdressed on a confusing and unsatisfying first and last return visit to ’the old country’; Hannah amid the cheerful chaos of an antique furniture shop in Boston (a very well-composed picture, even if I do say so myself — if nothing else, I have always been a reliable amateur photographer).
An Englishman in New York is not an exotic thing, but on the Upper East Side my countrymen seemed more common than ever. I encountered them in coffee shops and offices, on magazine covers and billboards, behind the bar in swanky restaurants or in front of the bar in ’Irish’ ’pubs’. On one occasion in a shoe shop it gradually dawned on me that not only were all the customers English, all the staff were too. I took off the shoe I had been trying on and left as soon it was polite to do so.
I bought expensive groceries at D’Agostino’s, eavesdropping on the bickering staff and waiting in the queue on one occasion behind Adam Sandler, who looked haggard and harassed and cut out of line at the last minute to pick up twelve bottles of a lethal-looking energy drink.
I signed up with a local squash club, but rather ruined things on my first day when I arrived early and, to kill time, headed up to the balcony to watch one of the other games; I must have drifted off somewhat, because after a short while I realised the game had stopped and I was simply staring at two exhausted guys leaning against a wall gulping down bottled water. One of them glanced up at me uncomfortably and I made a swift and permanent exit.
I saw Lydia out on the roof garden sometimes, talking on her cellphone in an unfamiliar language, or braving the cold to sit in a garden chair wrapped up in a thick winter coat reading and smoking, a cup of coffee resting beside her on the short wall at the edge of the roof. I watched her from my room as I pretended to use my laptop. Once she looked up, saw me and gave me a wave, and I waved awkwardly back and quickly retreated further inside. Once she was out there with a tall, Hispanic-looking guy, leaning against the wall of her apartment and smoking. Their faces inclined together as they chatted, relaxed in one another’s company, and I thought it was probably her boyfriend, or at the very least she was sleeping with him. She shielded her eyes from the spring sunlight as she spoke, and I could see that Marie Peacock hadn’t been joking: she really was very beautiful.
Behind her stretched the park and the monoliths of Midtown like packs of cards set on end, and far in the distance the tip of the construction crane at the top of the new World Trade Center, sparkling like an ugly diamond — and not for the first time I wondered whether being here in this city on the day the predecessors of that half-built building were destroyed had marked the point when I had begun to stop being English and had started the gradual process of becoming an American.
Some nights rain rattled against the windows like someone was throwing pebbles, and the water in the bathroom gurgled softly like somebody singing. Some nights I leaned out over the edge of the flat roof and watched phones hover like fireflies in the streets below, and car headlamps glitter on the Queensboro Bridge. Some nights neon swam and shimmered in the puddles on the pavement — a simple effect, common the world over, that now whenever I think of it instantly evokes New York. Some nights I went out on my own to eat after work, and watched other men eating alone too, facing no one across a table for two, the waitress tactfully whisking away the cutlery and glass and napkin of their non-existent companions. Young new-media professionals in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.
I worked constantly and late. I finished paintings and photographed them and adjusted the colour balance on Photoshop and wrote descriptions of my work and artistic philosophy and sent emails to galleries and studios and magazines. I suppose I thought that if I carried on reaching out to this city, if I carried on giving so much, eventually it would give something back. But it never did.
I went to my old apartment to get the last of my things. Hannah had moved out two weeks earlier, our lease was up at the end of the month, and there were cobwebs in the corners of the hallway when I opened the door. Looking through the cupboards one last time, I saw that she’d left behind a hand-painted plate I’d bought her during the trip we’d taken to Boston when we’d first begun seeing each other, and that had some level of emotional effect on me.
Unfortunately I had lost my job soon after we had broken up, the gallery owner who had been a somewhat paternal figure to us both perhaps understandably tending to take Hannah’s side about the whole thing and consequently making things rather difficult for me. The result was that a number of doors that had once seemed open to me in my present and future career were now shut, which of course was a disappointment, but life is full of such occasional setbacks, and I had at least managed to find a new position more or less straight away, at the Latza Art Space around the corner from one of the big Manhattan courthouses in Tribeca. It wasn’t as prestigious as the Bougainville, but then again what is, and although I don’t believe in fate or any of that nonsense, there followed a happy coincidence when soon after moving in to the Peacocks’ I was in the lobby of their building waiting for the elevator when who should struggle in off the rainy sidewalk but Samuel Latza, my new boss, clutching a large medical-style leather bag in each hand and followed by two wheezing porters carrying five or six suitcases each. He had only been into the gallery two or three times since I’d started working there, but evidently he at least dimly recognised me because when I said hello he stopped walking and somehow managed to conjure up my name, surprising himself as much as me, I’m sure. I gestured to his bags and his entourage and asked if he was moving into the building.
“Yes,“ he murmured. “Place on the fifth floor— Lovely part of town— Kids to the park—“
“Yes,“ I said. “I love being so close to the park myself. I live up on the top floor.“ He looked blank, then astonished, and it was clear he was mentally composing a furious email to his general manager to ask him what the hell he was paying gallery assistants these days that they could afford to live on the top floor of mansion blocks on the Upper East Side, and I was just about to put him out of his misery and explain my peculiar living arrangements when the bell rang and the elevator stopped at his floor.
One Wednesday night no one could sleep; I could hear the Peacocks — or one of them at least — creeping about upstairs, floorboards creaking, and as I lay with my ear pressed to the pillow the pipes seemed to hiss rhythmically like police sirens. The wind shook the window frame and it sounded like a knock at my door. I got up to get a drink from the kitchen and, glancing out the window towards the buildings on the other side of 77th Street before I put the light on, saw two squares of light reflected in the plate-glass windows opposite. I tried to orient myself. The kitchen faced the same way as Lydia’s apartment, so the squares were probably her living room and bedroom windows, and just as I had worked that out I saw the reflection of a female figure glide into view: it was Lydia, wearing only a towel. As I watched she took the towel off, put it carefully on the back of a chair, walked naked to her wardrobe to get her nightdress, and drew the blinds. I stood there watching the blank panel of light for a long time hoping somehow she’d come back into view.
Copyright © 2017 by Paul Tudor Owen.
About the Author
Paul Tudor Owen was born in Manchester, England, in 1978 and was educated at the University of Sheffield, the University of Pittsburgh, and the London School of Economics. He began his career as a local newspaper reporter in north-west London, and since 2004 has worked at the Guardian, where he is now deputy head of news for the paper’s US website. He is co-editor of the book The Wire Re-up: The Guardian Guide to the Greatest TV Show Ever Made. He lives in New York.
Visit this author's homepage at http://www.theguardian.com/profile/paulowen
Zara Raheem Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 103.
the rounded vowels
and subtle lilt in your drawl
may fool them.
but your tongue
the language from which it was borne.
taste the inflections
as each syllable swallowed
in the back of your throat.
the short, sharp sounds
in which you once found solace
are the cries of your
Copyright © 2017 by Zara Raheem.
Behind grimy windows, he watches
bony fingers grasp
bright red fabric.
A wooden comb secures wiry strands,
Until white, overgrown mane
is slowly concealed by a tight, neat turban,
but what color is the devil’s crown?
leaves heated circles against the glass.
He stumbles towards the yard.
From behind the bush,
the steady beat of slow-paced footsteps
against hardened pavement.
The pre-chorus is pounding hearts.
The shatter of bones becomes the refrain.
Go back! You terrorist!
Go back to your home!
This is our America!
Just leave us alone!
He pummels; it cowers; he shouts; it begs,
until only silence escapes from body beneath.
The evil is drained
filling cracks in the asphalt
like veins through which the heart draws back.
What was it chanting?
Why not Allahu Akbar?
and why didn't it fight back?
The turban’s unraveled; covered in dirt
alongside a single steel bracelet,
that remains whole.
Copyright © 2017 by Zara Raheem.
Not Our American Dream
My father was an American.
But this was concealed
by the brown of his skin.
A weakness paid for by his life
for a sin he didn’t commit.
Swallowed by the earth
he tread for thirty years;
and stocking shoes;
while the coins collected
fed the mouths of his children
’til their bones rattled no more
to the sounds of broken english.
A future uprooted
by chasing the Dream.
A fate he never could have foreseen
that day he left the golden streets of Punjab,
only to swap
for a cold, dry-walled
Copyright © 2017 by Zara Raheem.
One Hundred Poems of Kabir
“It was 1945. We were both just twelve years old,“ Dada said pulling out the photograph and holding it towards me. The edges were curled upwards, tattered and worn after spending years tucked away in the small flap of his wallet. I took the photograph gently and held it in front of me. “This is me on the left,“ he pointed with a shaky finger. “And this,“ he moved slowly to the right, “this is Ranjit.“
I stared at the two young boys garbed in matching school uniforms—button-down shirts tucked into their shorts, striped ties, and white socks with polished black shoes. Each boy had neatly parted hair with his arms wrapped around the other’s shoulders, eyes gleaming with mischief. The black-and-white faces in the center of the photo seemed to come alive with each word he spoke.
“We met in the third standard, when our teacher seated us next to each other. And from that very day,“ Dada beamed, “the two of us were inseparable. Each day, after school, Ranjit and I would rush out of the school gates to the gola wala across the street and buy two kala khattas.“ He held up two wrinkled fingers. My mouth watered at the mention of the tangy dessert. I imagined sinking my teeth into the shaved ice cone and tasting the salty lemon and sweet blackberry syrup melting onto my tongue. It delighted me to know that Dada had also enjoyed this same treat when he was a young boy. “They were the best golas in all of Amritsar,“ his eyes twinkled. We were sitting in Dada’s bedroom—Dada in his mahogany desk chair, me propped up on the bed, ankles crossed, chin resting softly on my knees.
“Afterward, Ranjit and I would walk around Jallianwala Bagh and climb the big jujube trees lined along the back walls of the park. From there, we could see our entire world.“ His voice sounded distant and remote even though he was seated only a few inches away. “Our school was to the right,“ he motioned with his hand—creating an invisible map in the air. “We could see our neighborhood near the entrance gates, and in the far distance, we could make out the top of the golden domes of Harmandir Sahib— the Golden Temple.“ I closed my eyes, trying to visualize the two boys in the photograph running freely through the sacred gardens. The memory felt electric even though it was not mine.
“Every afternoon,“ he continued, “the girls from the nearby girls’ school would stroll through the gardens. Ranjit and I would pluck the yellow fruit from the tree and throw it at them.“ He shook his head and laughed, soft folds emerging in his paper-like skin; each crinkle marking a memory from this time. “Ahh, we were so carefree in those days,“ his smile held for a moment and then gradually withered.
Since the age of thirteen, my parents would send me to Lahore each summer to visit my grandparents. The bustling energy of Pakistan was a stark contrast to the quiet Midwestern suburbs that I grew up in, and I looked forward to these annual visits with keen anticipation. Although I loved most everything about my parents’ birthplace, my memories were particularly highlighted by Dada’s stories of Ranjit. Walking through the bazaar in the late afternoons, Dada would clasp my hand tightly and tell me about the time he and Ranjit stole fresh laddu—a ball-shaped mithai made of flour, sugar, and coconut—from the corner sweet shop and ended up being chased by the shop owner through the crowded streets of Punjab. Watering the roses in the front garden each morning, he’d tell me about the nights he and Ranjit snuck up to the terrace of their apartment building while everyone else was asleep and stared at the stars from Ranjit’s makeshift telescope. No matter how many times he retold these tales, I always listened with fresh ears—never growing bored. The way he recalled these accounts with such vivid detail and attention, I couldn’t help but get lost in them.
“Whatever happened to Ranjit?“ I remembered asking my mother one summer after I returned home.
“Ranjit?“ she asked confused. “Dada’s childhood friend,“ I replied. “Ah, Ranjit,“ she said, suddenly recognizing the name. “They lost touch,“ she answered quietly. The somberness in her voice prevented me from pressing for more details, even though my curiosity continued to swell with every mention of Ranjit’s name in the years that followed.
As I became older, however, my visits to Lahore became less and less frequent keeping my inquisitiveness at bay. But the sentiments behind these stories always remained the same. Now three years since my last visit, as I sat there watching Dada looking nostalgically at the photograph, I could feel my curiosity peaking once again.
“Ranjit once bought me a book of poetry. One Hundred Poems of Kabir,“ he smiled. “It was my fourteenth birthday, and for weeks, he had saved every rupee just so he could surprise me with it.“ His voice took on that faraway quality again. “Oh, how we loved reciting Kabir’s poetry. It was a secret language between the two of us.“ I uncrossed my legs and sat up, entirely captivated as Dada cleared his throat and recited one of the first poems he and Ranjit had memorized:
O Slave, liberate yourself! Where are you, and where is your home? Find it in your lifetime, O man. If you fail to wake up now, you’ll be helpless when the end comes. Says Kabir, listen, O wise one, the siege of Death is hard to withstand.
He paused after the final line, overcome with emotion. I placed my hand on his and he held it. “We thought we knew where our home was.“ Sadness brewed beneath his misty eyes. “But we were far too young to know the true meaning of that poem.“
“How did you lose touch with Ranjit?“ I blurted out. Dada looked at me for a few seconds, tears brimming. I could feel my face flush with shame. “I’m sorry,“ I muttered, quickly looking down at the photograph. He patted my hand letting me know it was all right, and then he began.
“When the British decided to leave India after World War II, it was also decided that the land would be partitioned into two separate states—India and Pakistan. India would belong to the Hindu majority whereas Pakistan would be given over to the Muslims. At the end of 1947, when the lines of division were finally announced, great chaos broke out all throughout India,“ Dada explained, his voice grave. “Amritsar was no exception. All the buildings in the city were set on fire. Mobs were running loose in the streets, raiding homes and cleansing the city of all Muslims.“
“Why were they trying to get rid of the Muslims?“ I asked, confused.
“It was a very difficult time, beti,“ Dada explained. “When the lines of Partition were drawn, Amritsar was given over to the Indian side. Wanting to keep their new territories pure, the Sikhs and the Hindus living in Amritsar felt it was necessary to drive out all Muslims from their lands.“
“So where did they go?“
“Some stayed, secretly hidden in the homes of their non-Muslim neighbors. Most, like us, fled to Lahore and other Pakistani territories where we could be safe.“ He wiped his eyes with the corner of his handkerchief. “Many didn’t make it long enough to have a choice.“
“What about Ranjit?“ I asked, looking again at the photograph in Dada’s hands. “Did you at least get to see him before you left?“
He looked at me; his watery eyes revealing the answer before he even spoke. “Ammi woke us up in the middle of the night. We could hear screams outside. I remember looking out my window and seeing smoke rising in the distance. We packed a few valuables, leaving the rest of our belongings, and fled as quickly as we could. We told ourselves that as soon as things settled down, we would return home. But that day never came.“ Dada looked down and gently placed the photograph in his lap. “The last thing I did was grab this photo off my desk,“ he said, touching the worn edges; his voice catching in his throat. “I never got to say goodbye.“
I sat there silently, as Dada wiped his tears once more; my eyes fixated on the black and white faces. The friendship between the two boys. The countless memories they shared. The look of love and admiration in each boy’s eyes, and the unfathomable heartache that came along with being unable to say goodbye to one’s best friend. As I listened to Dada continue his story, the sadness of these thoughts felt heavy within the pit of my stomach.
“Twice a week, there was a train that transported refugees into Lahore,“ Dada went on. “When we reached the Amritsar Railway Station, there were thousands like us. Families and children, huddled together, watching the clock. Counting down the minutes, awaiting the arrival of the next train.“ He looked out in the distance as if reliving that moment. “When it finally came, we were all shoved in like cattle—body against body. People were scrambling to the roof; hanging from the windows and doors. I remember clinging on to the edge of Ammi’s dupatta, praying I would not lose her. Inside the train, the air was heavy; suffocating. There was a taste of metal rising from the blood-stained seats.“
Dada explained how the previous train had been occupied by anti-Muslim mobs waiting at the border—killing every Muslim passenger on board before they could make it across.
“I didn’t know it then, but as I watched my beloved city slipping past the narrow slits in the train windows, it would be the last time I would see her.“ His voice quivered. “A few stops before we reached Lahore,“ he continued, “word got out that a group of Muslims had taken over the Lahore station in retaliation. They planned to massacre any Sikhs and Hindus fleeing the city. Afraid of getting caught in the violence, Ammi and I jumped off the train at Wagah and walked the rest of the way. I remember losing my chappals getting onto the train, so I had to make the journey barefoot. We were hungry, and tired, but our fear kept us going. It was the longest night of my life,“ Dada recalled.
“But you were finally free, right?“
“We were free,“ he said, “but we were now strangers in a new land. With that came new difficulties; however, life eventually resumed in Lahore. Ammi found a job working as a nurse. I enrolled at Aitchison College.“
“And now this is your home.“ I said quietly.
Dada smiled with sadness in his face. “We were finally in a safe place surrounded by our own people,“ he paused for a few moments. “But Pakistan will never be home. We left that back in Amritsar.“
* * *
That night, as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling through the thin, opaque mosquito netting cocooning over me, I thought back on Dada’s story. I imagined the fear and con- fusion he must have felt on that terrifying night as he made his journey across the border. I tossed and turned for hours, the moonlight from the window keeping me company as I attempted to make sense of the tragedy he experienced. When my thoughts gradually exhausted, fading into a thin line, my body drifted off into a restless slumber. From the distance, I could hear voices. Calling out to one another...
Hanif! Hanif! The playful pattering of running footsteps. Over here, Ranjit! Giggling. The freedom of laughter echoing over the garden walls. Lips numb from the juicy sweetness of shaved ice. The morning frost feeling cold against the surface of one’s skin. A single chime of the schoolyard bell sounded against the chatter of children. An empty desk. The sinking feeling of confusion. Was he sick? Was he unwell? Thoughts spinning. More running. This time the footsteps sounded panicked. The pounding of anxious fists knocking against the door. Hanif! No reply. A deserted apartment. Drawers left partially opened; papers scattered across the floor. A pile of books laying silently near the bookshelf... Hanif! ... Hanif!
I suddenly awoke to the sound of unsettling silence. It was still night outside, and I kicked off the blankets feeling hot; suffocated. Unable to sleep, I finally sat up, pushing aside the folds of the netting and flipped my laptop open. As the blue light from the screen filled the dark corners of the room, I knew in my heart what I needed to do.
* * *
The following week, as Dada was sitting at the breakfast table eating fresh chapatis rolled in ghee, I dropped a white envelope next to his plate. He looked up at me, his brows furrowed in curiosity. I pushed the envelope towards him eagerly waiting for him to open it. He wiped his fingers on the napkin and took it in his hands. Lifting the flap, he carefully pulled out two tickets. His hands trembled as he stared at the writing on the paper.
SAMJHAUTA EXPRESS. ECONOMY CLASS. L.R. TO ATTARI - AMRITSAR, DIS. He looked at me, tears glistening in his eyes. “Let’s go home,“ I said.
* * *
We stepped off the train, and onto the platform in front of Amritsar Railway Junction. We had to take a connecting rail from Atari Station, and by the time we arrived, the sun was just beginning to rise. Even though it was early, the station was buzzing with energy. The vendors, still sleepy-eyed beneath their leathery skin, were setting up stalls on both sides of the platform. Each stall selling colorful trinkets, hand-embroidered shawls, newspapers and glossy magazines, along with various food items. The spicy aroma of steaming chai mixed with warm samosas and pakoras infused the air around us. As the whistle of the train vibrated throughout the station, people pushed and shoved past us to get on board before it departed to its next stop.
Once outside, Dada and I stood for a moment as we took in the surroundings. A busy road fronted the junction. Cars were honking, rickshaws were weaving in and out of the lanes. A motorcycle whizzed by with an entire family on it—a turbaned man driving, a sari-clad woman in the back holding a baby, and two young children wedged in between. A row of black cabs lined up along the side of the road. Dada motioned to one of the drivers and within seconds, he maneuvered his cab forward until he was parked in front of us.
Inside, the cab reeked of paan and tobacco. “Where to?“ the driver yelled over the sound of Lata Mangeshkar blasting from the radio. A picture of Guru Nayak—yellow turbaned and right palm lifted in benediction—dangled from the red plastic chain hanging from the rearview mirror. I looked at Dada waiting for him to respond. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Chamrang Road near Gali Number 7.“
As we drove through the busy streets of Amritsar, I couldn’t help but notice the billboards and shopping malls lined along both sides of the street. It was strikingly different from the pebbled roads and narrow alleyways Dada had described to me growing up. As we neared the Golden Temple, rows of upscale hotels sprouted up on either side of us. It had been more than sixty years since Dada had seen these streets. I wondered how he felt about all the changes. But as I looked across the leather-torn seats to gauge his reaction, all I could see was his face pressed up against the window, eyes widened, soaking it all in.
Right before we reached our destination, Dada asked the driver to drop us off at the Singh Confectionery Shop at the corner. We picked up a box of coconut laddus, and from there we walked to the apartment building that Dada and Ranjit had lived in as children. The building looked as if it had been recently remodeled, glistening as the morning rays of sun hit against its marble exterior. Watching Dada as he stood in front of the building holding the box of sweets, I saw in his face the twelve-year-old boy from the photograph. I gently took his arm and tugged him towards the door. His hands were shaking. We walked up the staircase, slowly; deliberately, aware that each step marked a memory from the past.
“Which flat is it?“ I asked once we reached the top floor. He pointed to the red door at the end of the corridor. Number 36. I knocked on the door. Three heavy knocks, and then we both took a nervous step back. There was some shuffling on the other side, then suddenly the door opened and there was a man standing in the doorway who looked to be around my mother’s age—maybe slightly older.
“Yes? Can I help you?“ he asked kindly.
I looked over at Dada. He stood there frozen. His eyes looking past the man, into the once familiar flat. I touched Dada’s frail shoulder and spoke up. “We are looking for Mr. Ranjit Singh,“ I started. “My grandfather was a childhood friend of his.“ The man raised an eyebrow as I briefly explained the adventures Dada and Ranjit shared before they were separated by the mayhem of Partition. I pulled out the photograph from my satchel and showed it to him. The man listened silently and stared at the picture for a few minutes before he finally spoke.
“Mr. Ranjit Singh is my father. I’ve heard many stories about your Dada, Hanif Mohammed, over the years.“ He looked at Dada and bent down, touching the tips of his feet in respect. “I am honored to have finally met you,“ he smiled. “Please come in,“ he motioned us inside.
We sat down on the couch and Dada handed the man the box of sweets. “Coconut laddus,“ Dada said. “Ranjit’s favorite.“ The man smiled once more.
“Thank you,“ he nodded, placing the box on the coffee table.
We learned that the man’s name was Gurpreet. He lived in this flat with his wife and three children. His Abba, Ranjit, had lived with them until about two years ago. “He was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years back,“ Gurpreet began. “The doctor gave him six months to live. Although it was difficult for us to hear, in a way, it made it easier that he knew.“ His voice quavered.
“How so?“ I asked, taking Dada’s hand. His fingers felt limp and cold.
“Once he was aware that his days were limited, Abba did not want to waste time with treatments. Instead he spent those few months with us, the people that meant most to him.“ Gurpreet looked down at the box of sweets. “By the time Abba expired, we all knew how much he loved us.“ He looked up at Dada, tears brimming. “He mentioned your name even in his final days.“ Dada squeezed the inner corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. He opened his mouth to say something, but he was unable to form the words.
“Your friendship meant more to him than anything,“ Gurpreet continued. “He spoke about you like a brother.“ Tears now welled in all our eyes. I looked away, trying to blink them away. “I have something for you.“ Gurpreet said, getting up and going into the next room. He returned holding a rectangular object in his hands. “After Abba left, I was going through some of his things and I came across this in his desk drawer.“ He handed it to Dada.
“Ohh,“ Dada cried, instantly recognizing the beloved book. He took it in both hands, allowing his fingers to delicately graze the faded, fabric binding. He slowly opened the front cover. Scrawled on the inside was a handwritten inscription:
To my dear friend Hanif,
May this book of poetry be a constant reminder of the friendship we share. —Ranjit
Dada looked up at Gurpreet, chin trembling and with tears of gratitude in his eyes. He clasped Dada’s hands, and we all sat there—the gravity of those words hanging in the air.
* * *
Leaving Gurpreet’s home, Dada and I walked the familiar road leading us to the gardens of Jallianwala Bagh. The park was silent; the afternoon sun casting strips of friendly shadows across the stone pathways. I looked at Dada and finally asked him the question lingering in the back of my mind throughout our trip.
“Why didn’t you come to Amritsar sooner?“
Dada leaned down and picked up a smooth yellow fruit lying along the side of the path. “Perhaps, I was waiting for you,“ he quietly said, smiling as he placed the fruit in the palm of my hand, enclosing my fingers around it.
As we sat underneath the shade of the massive jujube trees, the presence of Ranjit permeated the air all around us. Every stone, every leaf, every falling fruit encompassed the lasting memories between the two boys. Leaning against the trunk of the tree, I closed my eyes, slowly drifting away to the sound of Dada’s gentle voice rising above the sound of the crinkling pages:
O Slave, liberate yourself! Where are you, and where is your home? . . .
Copyright © 2017 by Zara Raheem.
About the Author
Zara Raheem is an MFA student in creative writing at Long Beach State University and has a BA in English Literature and is also credentialed as an educator. Her writing has been published in various publications including eFiction, Polychrome Ink, Muse India, Brown Girl Magazine, The Huffingston Post, among others.
Kiarra Lynn Smith Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 103
About the Artist
Kiarra Lynn Smith is a visual and literary artist. Her artwork has been exhibited in multiple venues and her poems have been published in various magazines for creative writing. In 2004, Smith was commissioned to create a mural for First Student Bus Company, a year which marked her beginning of independently illustrating books. She was a featured artist at the 20th Meet the Artists exhibition in Indianapolis and began studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2008. She graduated from Culver-Stockton College with a degree in English and Art in 2013.
Smith’s passion is preserving African heritage creatively while simultaneously building her community. She has conducted writing workshops with children and has used her art and poetry to enlighten others about Black history. Her motivation stems from childhood experiences in which she was given limited views of her heritage. The late illustrator and writer, Fred Crump Jr. and his fairy tales featuring characters of African descent influenced Smith’s work and subject matter. In 2012, she wrote, illustrated and published two books Collective Face: a Series of Quatrains on Community Building (her work) and Looking for an Angel: the Story of Christian Taylor Ferguson (a co-written work) to emulate the path of Crump. She published her second book, Let’s Speak! Kiswahili: 3 Short Stories Teaching Basic Kiswahili Words in 2015.
Smith plans to continue her career as an illustrator and to use her projects to invigorate the minds of children and young adults.