Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Crackling Silk

I try not to think of it because it's such a small thing, after all, and long gone. But sometimes when I'm not thinking of Sri Lanka--not Rajah, not war, not even grief, of nothing in particular--I'm suddenly there.

          I've just fished out some rupees for a shirt I spotted, hanging high on a branch behind a vendor's stall, where I can't reach it myself. A shirt only a tourist would buy. A young boy in a sarong uses a pole to take it down and the vendor folds it several times before slipping it into an old paper bag. I don't like the touch of his hands on it.

          Up close, the colors are opalescent. It's made from the transparent pale green silk of an old sari, a swirling paisley pattern embellished with pearl gray and dove white. Something I imagine a new bride might have worn after her wedding.

          The shirt is weightless as a ghost; I must have sensed it then. I'm possessive, secretive, and passionate about this piece of clothing. I want it with the kind of doomed, ferocious, sorrowful greed reserved for illicit love.

          That moment of remembering is nothing more than this: my hand grasping a small brown bag. The paper crackling against the silk and the palm of my hand. It's this sound, this tiny aural seed that contains a blueprint for the future.

          Rajah and I will say good-bye; when no one looks his thumb will push aside my tears. It stings. The only time he touches me his callused finger chafes my sunburn. I will return to America to finish my studies and he will remain in Sri Lanka to be a houseboy. We write to each other for many years.

          The shirt will tear when I try to put it on for the first time. The silk is light as a whisper and tears at the slightest tug. Hanging in shreds, it's still gorgeous. The colors look beautiful against my skin. I'll never wear it.

          I will marry and have two children. My daughter says her first word; my son learns how to walk.  A tsunami will kill 40,000 people. Jaffna's library will be burned down by the Sinhalese army, its blackened window frames agape as empty eye sockets. The cemetery is razed, memory blasted clean, again and again. An odor of smoke, sweat, gunpowder, blood, sandalwood, cinnamon, jasmine.

          I divorce. Thousands of civilians herded onto a narrow strip of sand are trapped between the jungle and the Indian Ocean. The soldiers who tell them they will be safe here are the ones who kill them. There will be screaming, and silence. The sound of waves lapping the shore. Tourists sunbathe and barter, bring home silk and gemstones.

          The war is over. The kidnapping, torture, and gang-rape continue, murder and disappearance, again and again. Intimidation and terror; mulligatwny soup and dal, milk hoppers and rice idli.

          I order a venti latte at Starbucks and pay with a credit card. Silk disintegrates and embers flare. Memory crackles.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


At first the only hint is a faint hum that seems unrelated. You recline, transfixed, awaiting a single pixel to prick the center of a black TV screen. The scintillation expands, little by little, like cells dividing, till the image grows to the size of a fist.

          You want to tell Magdi, the man you married yesterday, that you had the same kind of black-and-white TV when you were growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, more oceanliner than home appliance. It, too, was set into a vast console and flanked by speakers covered in a woven honeycomb. Your Armenian grandmother would press the big plastic button on the side with a satisfying click, and then you would curl up together under a quilt she had made and wait for the picture to fill up the screen. She hadn't understood the language, either.

          In Cairo, you and your new husband lie on a hard bed in your first apartment. You must be watching a comedy because he shakes with laughter. Your cheek bobs against his chest, and you hear his heart beating as if it were your own, the way when you hold a shell up to your ear the ocean is yours. His free hand plays with your hair as you tip your cigarette ash carefully onto the jiggling saucer over his navel.

          When you glance up Magdi blinks, but his eyes remain focused on the screen. His smile is fixed, as if he were posing for a portrait, cheeks dimpled and teeth bared. His front tooth is chipped. You feel embarrassed for him, and then for yourself.

          Inside the small picture that is no larger than a human heart, you think you can make out the swirls of a galabaya or shifting sand, but the words you hear are indistinguishable. The sounds of Arabic consist mostly of breath being expelled, softly sighing and shushing, or harsher exhalations, growling and hissing that bear the force of curses. When you don't know a language, you can't distinguish where one word ends and another begins. You think All words are meaningless, because you can't understand. Or you imagine a whole conversation, invent a story, a history, a reason, a future out of gibberish. You think, Love is an act of faith.

          You are only able to make out the words insha’allah and khallas: "God willing," and "that’s enough." For now this is the sum of your Arabic. All future words will have to latch on between the poles of hope and finality.

          The room is dark because you've closed the green shutters of the balcony. Three fingers of light move slowly across the dusty carpet as the sun sets. The world manages to creep in, little by little. You hear the sounds of the street, muffled car horns and impatient voices. The smell of molokhiya and garlic frying in another apartment reminds you to start dinner.

          Instead of filling the screen, the picture bubble is shrinking. You are reminded of The Wizard of Oz, how the good witch Glinda departs and arrives in a soap bubble, saying, “But my dear, you've always known how to get home.” Insha'allah, Glinda. You think, I will be able to tell you about this someday, Magdi. The image distills into a single pixel before flatlining, but the sound continues. Khallas, Magdi.

          When you wake up in Magdi's arms, the room is completely black. You listen for the hum but hear nothing at all. Goosebumps, a soft breeze from the balcony. Then his mouth is on your ear, fingers in your hair and for a long time, this will be enough.