The three of us—Frances, Jay, and I—live in this rain-slick city, concrete buildings stained with runoff. At night, the streets stretch like black pools, glossy with reflected traffic lights. We stumble around half-closed night markets with our snapped umbrellas and damp socks. Our pockets weighted with bruised change, we eat charred oyster mushrooms crusted with cumin and rose salt, waiting out the rain under fluorescent storefront awnings.
“[T]he existence, or non-existence, of a road is a non-copyrightable fact.” —Alexandria Drafting Co. v. Amsterdam (1997)
Twitch of the cartographer’s hand and a street is born, macadam free, a tree-lined absence, paved with nothing but a name. No sidewalks, no chalk, no children’s voices, a fence unlinked from its chains, the cars unmoored, corn left to its rubble, some wandering mailman, a house unbuilt, the bricks unlayed, the mortar unmixed; of the things that hold more things together the cementitious crumbles on this street, the lime breaks from the shale, the shells from their marl and clay. On trap streets the rules of gravity bend, curve to the mountain or fight it, dog leg the impossible angle, ribbon the gulley, shimmer from heat, unspool. Cliff walk, some miracle mile meant only for goats, a meander of cloven hooves, a stitching of strip mines, red earth or white, ground that, once spotted, we call disturbed.
Tomorrow is Amma’s seventieth birthday, and I’m wondering what to buy her. She’s told me that the only thing she wants from her children is a new toilet seat, a pair of sensible black shoes, or a replacement floormat for her decade-old Honda Civic. None of these gifts seem particularly appropriate to such a consequential birthday, but then again, Amma has always been practical. When she tells the story of her arranged marriage to my father at nineteen, a decade younger than this man she had only met once before, she recalls bringing a griddle and leaving behind stamp albums as she embarked upon a permanent journey from her home in Coimbatore, South India, to Northern Virginia.
I remember the first time I saw a vagina on the white pitched walls of an art museum— Columbus, Ohio, mid-afternoon. I was five, maybe six, maybe a few months shy of my grandmother’s cremation, the day after my goldfish, Rosie, jumped down the disposal and my mother ushered me from the kitchen before she turned it on. I remember the curve of my little neck upwards, that lush flesh on display, all swollen and pink. I remember closing my lips to the awe that overcame me, my mother finding my hand to lead me toward the wing of still-lifes, all those porcelain bowls filled with perfect fruit. I’ve studied the metaphors of this womanhood, learned the verses of ‘lady-like’, but I can’t stop staring at the memory. I remember how unnamable was the feeling of the rope that hung the disc swing from my neighbor’s walnut tree as it caught between my legs, the pleasure in that pressure before dinner. I remember lying on the shag green carpet of my bedroom, two days before my bat mitzvah, bleeding onto the towel I’d placed beneath me, the red dress I’d wear at the celebration hung from the door almost as bright a shade as this rite of passage, the first time I realized that most deadly weapons have once been covered in blood.
I’m frightened of everything. I walk around with my abnormal body. I haven’t learned to accept it yet, this body that bulges in every direction. Now I have two round lumps jutting out of my chest, and shrubbery growing in my armpits and between my legs. And then there’s the fear that’s plunged itself deep inside me.
I am not pleased. Paint is dripping down my hoof and the colors are muddled together. I shouldn’t complain. I agreed to it, of course.
Hafiz is putting together a zoo. And he asked me to be the zebra.
“You’re a very good donkey, habibi,” he told me three days ago, “but the border is closed, and everyone says prices for using the smuggling tunnels have gone up. I can’t afford the zebra in Damascus, and the one in Cairo is twice that price.” He gestured wildly, scattering my oats. What a waste.
I don’t know much about borders, but I would do anything for Hafiz. He is more than a father to me.
I walk in and find the women there in the large hall. I can hear their soft, melodious voices, which means there is no man around. (More accurately: there is no man doing all the talking.) I instinctively head toward them, like an animal finally encountering its species. I take a seat and wait for my turn. Before I came up to the therapist’s clinic, I had run into Fast Lubna—with the hazel eyes, the kohl always smudged, and the newly blonde hair—outside the entrance. She was on the phone. She was dressed in black leather pants and a black leather jacket. I thought she smiled at me, but she didn’t move the phone slightly away from her ear to give me a warm hug as she would have usually done. She used to dress more normally, less severely, before she adopted this style and dyed her long hair blonde. She surprised me. The transformation of the vast majority of women I know since the eighties of the last century has been toward the hijab and extreme modesty, away from modern clothes.