Assemblage

by Roya Khatiblou

Skylight
(December 18, 2012, Apt. 3A)

Tonight I can hear the raccoons moving in the ceiling above my head. They whine and shuffle as they rearrange the details of their hibernation. It’s a cozy sound, fur upon fur upon rough insides of roof.

We first heard them together, when they were building their nest. On a rare night when you agreed to stay and they woke us up at 5 in the morning, squeaking and scrabbling in the dark. I stood nude on the bed and thumped the ceiling like one would for a loud neighbor. Below me you looked almost small, almost as pale as I am. Your freckles mottled in the shadows like rain-speckled fabric. Tonight I’m in silky pajama pants, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt I usually work out in. Tall athletic socks on my feet. Still it’s cold, and I shift around in my bed sheets, searching for warmth.

In the daytime, I don’t hear much from them, but as soon as dusk strikes, they move from their nest and start playing along the roof. Mostly they chase each other. Or bat at the horned fruit that falls from the tree outside my window. They chatter and fight. Sometimes they cuddle. I asked you once what you thought the chattering meant, if they’re truly fighting or if raccoons can mock-fight, throw horned fruit at each other in jest and fall around the floor laughing about it. We decided their chattering was laughter. I said they must share a private joke. You said that in the company of other raccoons, they are sometimes are reminded of it, make eye contact, and exchange a smirk. Later they come home, giddy with laughter, and huddle up together.

Now I hear them moving and I imagine the warmth of their fur spreading across one another, the coziness of a paw resting on a ribcage, a furred chin nuzzled against a shoulder. I shift in my bed and immediately regret it, pull the comforter up around my shoulders and shimmy back toward my warm spot.

Earlier when I was working at the table below the skylight, I’d heard them chasing and glanced up, hoping to get a glimpse of their fun. It was sprinkling, and I knew that in the morning I would wake to little footprints of dirt and water all over the glass.

When I finally saw them, they were not tossing fruit or chattering at each other. Instead, one raccoon was trying to capture the other and hold it down on the skylight. The other would scramble away, or let itself be caught for a moment, then wiggle out from under the larger and scamper off a couple of feet. They slid around, nails squeaking, grasping for purchase on the wet glass. I’d heard this kind of thing in the previous weeks, but seeing it was different. When the bigger raccoon finally caught the littler one, they sidled up to a corner, one on top of the other, their little hands splayed out side by side. They wheezed and grimaced. Their arms flexed. I was just below them, but it was like they couldn’t see me, absorbed as they were in the world of each other. They slid back and forth, back and forth, the water moving around them and wetting their fur.

I looked for my camera. I needed to capture this moment, if I could. To examine it. I fumbled through my things, all the life detritus and papers I’d been letting pile up. Finally

I found the camera in the top drawer of my desk. The lens’s movement was impossibly slow as the raccoons shifted over and over. I held the camera unsteady in the air in front of me and clicked the shutter again and again as they stopped, shuddering. Some photos came out. Some were blurred, but I gazed at them for a long time, studying the shadows and lines, the unique tension of their faces. I don’t know what I hoped to discover there. What I saw was glazed eyes staring into the dark in front of them, lips peeled back from teeth. Animal wetness. I considered deleting the pictures, but some instinct guided my fingers to save. This way, if you ever come to see me again, you can look at them too. Though I wonder if you’d see everything differently.

 

The Man from Morocco
(February 3, 2013, Apt. 3A)

In the harsh light of the bar, he had looked ordinarily handsome. Now, in the warmth of my living room lamp, he seems almost to glow. He is both dapper and rumpled, his eyes kind and attentive. He’d been alone, staring listlessly at a hockey game and nursing a bowl of peanuts, a drink sweating onto the bar in front of him. I had tried seductively to ask him for a nut, but in the bar’s din, I’m not sure he heard me. He had a beautiful, vacant smile, a quality of openness in his expression that made me feel at home. We spent an hour shouting small talk in the direction of other’s ears until last call came and he offered to drive me to my apartment. I hesitated, picturing the piles of mail I’d allowed to collect, my embarrassed explanation of the raccoons’ shuffling sounds, but then he’d smiled that vacant smile and I’d relented.

I put my iPod on its dock and dance a little, while I find the right tunes.

“I could barely hear what you were saying in there,” I say. “What do you do again?”

“I’m a resident,” he says. “A surgical resident at the hospital. I am focusing on veins mostly.”

“A vascular surgeon,” I say, congratulating myself.

“That’s right.” His voice is low and quiet. His enunciation is delicate, tapping out each word between pearl teeth as if any louder will break me.

“Do you want a glass of wine?” I ask. “I’m going to have a glass of wine.”

“No thank you,” he says.

“I have beer and stuff, too. Some liquors, gin…I think somebody left a bottle of Jim Beam after a party.” I pour the wine and then rummage through the cupboard, bending at the waist, just to be clear about things.

“No, thank you,” he says again. “I don’t drink.”

I stand. “You don’t drink? At all?”

“No.” He shakes his head.

“Why not?” I consider after it has left my lips that this may be an indelicate question.

“Because I am Muslim,” he says.

I am speechless for a moment. I could never love someone who doesn’t drink, my mind tells me, and I shake my head at its irrelevance. I walk back to the iPod and scroll through my music. It feels suddenly as if my selection was wrong. I realize I have no idea what music he would like.

He stands and joins me. I take a small, self-conscious sip of wine. I want to ask him what he was doing in a bar then, or how he can refuse to drink but will go home with a strange woman, but a tremor in the back of my mind suggests there is no point in this.

Still, I ask, “What if I asked you to drink with me? What if I beg?”

His smile is closed-lipped and soft. “I would say no.”

“No matter what?”

“I would always say no.”

This resistance is familiar and satisfying, and I tell him so by pressing my hip into his. I have forgotten to change the music; Nina Simone’s vibrato pours into the room. Soon he is kissing me, and then we are undressed. He is more brawny than I imagined. Sturdy legs, a protrudingly muscular belly. He lifts me like I barely exist, my legs around his waist, and deposits me gently on the bed. I look up at him and find myself uncharacteristically at a loss. Usually I am ravenous, I consume, but now I look at this smooth, glowing man and I don’t know what to do with him. He is not mine. I do not know the curve of this waist or the mole an inch from belly button. A scar that runs down the inside of his upper arm. He gathers a handful of my hair and tilts my head back and presses his mouth to mine. It is large and wet and full of tongue. I cannot bring myself to put my hands on this strange body and instead I turn around and the things he does to me are not unpleasant but I am grateful when they are quickly over.

Later we lie on our sides, fighting sleep.

“Tell me about Morocco,” I say after a while.

“Let me think,” he says. His voice is even softer now; the gentleness of his speech makes him feel tenuous. “It’s not so conservative as you would think. Most of the people, they do what they like. Education is very important. It’s a nice place.”

“Will you go back?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I think sometimes, yes.”

Something low and sour throbs in the center of me. I don’t care about Morocco’s education system. I want to know what he played with as a boy, what kind of trees he would sit under, whether he misses his family. But I know it doesn’t matter. Nothing I hear would coalesce with my assumptions, and this low sour thing would only grow.

He buries a kiss in my hair.

“You’re sweet,” I say.

He says to me, almost inaudibly, “You’re sweet, too.”

Later when he’s gone and I’m gathering the wreckage of my outfit, I find on the floor a man’s V-neck t-shirt. It’s thick and soft. I hold it to my face and am irrationally surprised when it smells like him. Freshly laundered, but also sharp and earthy. Light filters in through the skylight, and I wonder what time it is. On the bed there is a depression in the comforter where we had lain together. The cleanness of its border is arresting, the absence it displays like the meticulous excision of a foreign body. But it’s proof that someone was there. A week from now I will find the shirt among my clothes and the strangeness of his smell will make me gag and I will throw it in the garbage. But for now I place it on top of the pile and slide naked onto my bed, but still on my side, close to the edge, careful not to disturb the impression left by our bodies.

 

Above and Below
(November 23, 2012, Apt. 2A)

The woman in the apartment above them is at it again. While Geoff and Anna try to watch Jumanji on a Sunday afternoon, she’s up there at 2 pm, moaning away with some guy Anna will hear leave through the unlocked side door. Anna had long been jealous of the woman’s open floor plan, it’s small centered skylight pouring light into the rooms. And now this.

This new man is a sea of pale freckles, a bouncing jaunt of hair. He’s been around longer than the others. One morning Anna heard him banging on the door at like 8 am. She was getting the coffee ready, and of course the woman wasn’t up. Anna heard him banging and went to the door, pressed her ear to the cold wood. She just knew the woman would be in some clingy nightgown or vintage slip, her hair mussed in the good way, not the bad, her face not the slightest bit puffy. The woman’s voice was soft and murmuring when she opened the door, but the man’s was all lustful timbre and Anna’s stomach jolted when she heard him say, “but I needed you.”

“What’s going on?” Geoff asked as he came out of the bathroom, hair damp and wearing only a towel.

Anna jumped and backed away from the door. “Nothing,” she said. “What’s going on with you?”

“Um.” He looked at the door. “Not much. Shower’s clogged again. You need to get all your hair out of there.”

“You have hair, too, Geoff.” She said this because it’s true, but also because he has about half as much as when she met him, and she knew he would think of this when she said it.

He gave her that look that says they both know what he’s talking about, the kind you’d give a child, and went into the bedroom to dress.

For the rest of the morning, she had thought about what the woman would have done: crossed the living room in long strides and taken that towel from him. Geoff has been going on a lot of runs these days. He’s been a bike messenger as long as she’s known him, so it’s not like he needs the exercise. She wonders if it’s just another excuse to get out of the house. Previously long and lithe, now his thighs grow large inside his jeans and his abs show through his skin, stretch across his waist in striated cords. She takes these changes personally. As she checked her email and blow-dried her hair, she’d listened to the woman’s morning unfolding in bodice-ripping splendor; she couldn’t even finish her toast.

Now Geoff sits in his lounger while Anna curls up in a corner of the couch. There was a time when they would sit on the couch together. But one day he discovered the lounger, and like a cat, decided that it was his new spot. The noise of the movie doesn’t drown out the noise upstairs but Geoff stares at the screen as if he hasn’t even noticed. When the racket subsides, she imagines the pair lying on an unmade bed, romantic voices, or something more adorable, the woman kissing each gingery freckle or mussing that silky head of hair.

“Why don’t you sit over here?” Anna asks.

Geoff shifts in the lounger and smiles mildly, “Why don’t you come over here?”

That night as they lie in bed, Anna listens to the faint whistle of Geoff’s breath in his nostrils. Since he began these runs, his smell has changed. No longer the downy soft and soap-smelling man she knows, he now radiates a faint, persistent animal scent. A smell of exertion. He falls asleep faster too, but Anna know he’s not asleep now because his breath has not deepened and spread, growing big in his chest and fluttering now and then in the adventures of his dreams. Footsteps travel across the floor upstairs. Anna pictures the woman lounging in the glow of her skylight, maybe indulging in a postcoital cigarette. She rolls onto her side and presses her lips to Geoff’s bare shoulder. Her mouth parts, tongue slipping out ever so slightly, lips closing around it, the faintest suck. Geoff moans, and she holds her breath as his body weight prepares itself to shift. She hears the creak and groan of hinges in the hallway and wonders if it means coming or if it means going.

 

Assemblage
(January 8, 2013, Apt. 3A)

His mouth is small, but it doesn’t mean he can’t move it around a little. Occasionally he pushes my legs up into a less comfortable position, giving him better access to parts he isn’t bothering with. He could get a hand involved at least. I should tell him, I know, but he’s so sensitive. I imagine him growing flustered, his freckles disappearing into the flush of his cheeks, his eyebrows knitting together.

The ceiling above me is a sea of brittle white skin tags. It’s gross to look at, and I consider putting a poster up the way they do at my gynecologist’s office, something to consider while you’re being worked on. Earlier this week, at my annual visit, I gazed up at an image of hot air balloons rising into a sky of such heartbreaking azure I wanted to arch my back away from the paper-covered bench and clap.

The gynecologist wasn’t a gynecologist at all, but a new girl, a physician’s assistant whose hands were cold and gummy and whose skin had the consistency of unkneaded dough. Her coily blond hair kept falling in my face and I let it, smelling her lemony shampoo and feeling the wisp and drag of it across my forehead and nose. She did all the usual checks, pushing on my stomach, massaging my breasts in a not-unpleasant way. She narrated as she went as if I were 17 and had never done this before. I lay quietly and let her put her hands on my body with the same patient disinterest I’d allowed so many others.

Occasionally I try to push him away, but he grabs tighter to my thighs, pulls me into him. Normally I would play out scenes right now, my mind coaxing my body to its inevitable conclusion, but all I can see are those balloons above my head. Small versions of us inside one. The air is cool and fresh on my face and the blue sky even bluer the closer we come. He drops weights from the side as we rise higher and higher. I imagine the rush of ascent, the invigorating lack of control.

He’s moaning now, and I almost believe he’s enjoying himself. I can’t even fake it with him so close, lips flush against me—he would be able to feel it. He would know, the way he knows so many things I never say, his lovely face narrowing in consternation and sympathy, his heart so open I want to climb inside. I try not to think of earlier that evening, our knees intertwined on the couch, how he told me that he both loved me and could never love me, and how my stomach caught fire and my body went weak, the way it does when you’re in mortal peril, and how instead of telling him to get the hell out I lapped my tongue across his closed lips and he unfolded in my arms like wet paper.

At the doctor’s office she had used the smallest speculum they had. As they always do, she apologized for its coldness, for the discomfort I would feel. She asked questions about my sexual history with such sweetness I wondered if I should do the same, if we should share a girlfriend talk. I could tell her how I do it. How I crack myself open and let a man eat the chewy flesh from my bones and then come back for seconds. I could teach her this. How to put herself last, make her body a willing vessel, go limp in the heart and joints. But then I would have to tell her about the aftermath. How, once he’s eaten his fill, picked the sinew clean from your bones he will wander away and leave your open carcass to carrion.

Instead I stared at the poster as she put one hand inside me and another on my stomach, feeling my ovaries, my uterus, the unused detritus that makes me different from a man. I wanted to ask her questions. What does it look like in there? Do you ever lose things? See anything you never expected? I could ask him the same thing. If he really looked inside me, what would he see?

I imagine myself like one of Cornell’s boxes, where twee miniatures and varying textures abound. A room draped in red curtains, with a large four-poster bed centered at the far end. There I am and there he is, but from this angle it’s almost conceivable that it’s one person, legs melding into back melding into torso melding into face. Or a larger animal feeding ravenously on a smaller one. But up close it would be clear what you were really seeing. Freckled shoulders. A silky head of hair. Flat stomach, small wide breasts. Hands slack against the crimson bed sheets, knees akimbo, shoulders rising in tension. A look of longing where there should be rapture, a scene of violence where there should be peace.

 

Live
(March 16, 2013, Apt. 3A)

I’ve parked here I don’t know how many times since I moved into this apartment, so I don’t understand why I’m only seeing this note now. My car is almost always in one of the few spots off the street, right beside the building. It’s been raining; the post-it is encased in a sandwich baggie, soggy and forlorn looking, tucked under my windshield wiper. In all angry caps it reads IF YOU DO NOT ACTUALLY LIVE HERE, PLEASE PARK YOUR CAR ON THE STREET. Anger blooms inside me, and I stalk up the stairs to my apartment, scowl into the hallway, and shut the door.

I make a cup of tea. It’s not just the drink that soothes me, but the ritual surrounding it, the clank of teapot onto my rickety 50s stove, the click and rush it makes when lit, waiting patiently for its shriek. I do all of this as if in a trance, the whole time thinking of a rebuttal.

I decide not to respond right away. Alone in my apartment, I sit at the table under my skylight and read scraps of internet news, about the political implications of the filtering of Syrian refugees into Jordan, the splitting of factions in Mali. I try for perspective. I answer emails and receive quick replies and then answer them again. I lie on my back on the couch reading until I feel that familiar throb and ache that always comes from anger and when I touch myself I turn my face from the lamp as if, even alone, I don’t want to do it with the lights on. While my mind plays scenes out, I try to focus on bodies, I try not to picture a particular face.

Later I imagine who might have left it, going from apartment to apartment in my mind, peeking through the cracks of doors I see them enter. The woman with the baby that never seems to grow, who she takes for walks in a large plush stroller she leaves in the lobby rather than carry it up to the third floor. There’s the bike messenger and his girlfriend on the floor below me; they laugh loudly at the television and fight quietly with strained voices, their whine and timbre leaking through the vents into my apartment like the filtering of marijuana smoke. Then the man and his dog, who play on the lawn outside the building. Awkwardly I say hello to them when coming home. Sometimes I see a single woman, dowdy in khaki pants and snow boots, with wide hips and a sturdy gait, pushing into her apartment on the ground floor. Once I had a package left on the porch, and I found it moved just inside our locking outer door with a note that said her name, but I can’t remember it.

I can’t imagine who would have left the note, or why they couldn’t simply ask whose car it is. I have a door they could knock on. I could invite them in, give them a cup of chamomile and maybe a slice of apple cake and we could talk about ourselves and the neighbors and the way our landlord will never get rid of those raccoons. Perhaps the tea would grow cold in our cups while we talked and I would brew another pot, remark how it never stays warm because I don’t have a cozy, but maybe they would like another slice of cake while we wait. Maybe the light would grow golden outside the windows and reflect on my hair in that way that I’m told makes it look reddish and my skin look plump with life, and we would both jump at the kettle’s shriek and laugh at ourselves.

Lying in bed that night, I think about the injustice of it. I imagine knowing who wrote it, standing indignant in the hallway, telling them they could have just asked me, they could have just made an effort to know. I think about all the times I’ve stood in that parking space, shoveling snow from under my tires, scraping ice from the windshield as my wrists ached with cold and effort and my nose ran. I think about all the times they could have handed me my mail when it had been put in the wrong box instead of leaving it on the carpet outside my door and how they could say hello when they passed me in the hallway, they must know me, they have to know my face by now. As I lie there, it feels unusually hot in my bed, the itchiness of my flannel pajamas chafing at my neck and the tender parts of my inner arms.

I lie awake until about 1 am, when I finally throw off the covers and put on a pair of wool socks, then my snow boots, tucking the flannel bottoms in so I don’t have to go to bed with soggy ankles. I put my down coat over my pajamas, take out the note, turn it over, and write one of my own. I slip it back into the plastic.

The rubber soles of my boots cushion my steps down the hallway; no sound comes from any apartment. Outside the air is crisp and breath balloons from my nostrils, dissipating into the still silent air. The rain has turned to snow. Down the street, lamps pour their glow onto the falling powder and hold it there, each moment a picture, each breath a fog that disturbs the view. I try not to breathe. Far away I hear the passing of a car on the main road, and I exhale, feel the pull of some other person moving away from me in the dark. I walk to my car. The snow barely whispers beneath my shoes. The windshield wiper is stiff with ice, but I manage to slip the note under it: I LIVE HERE, BACK OFF declaring itself into the night.

The next morning when I go my car, the note is gone and so is the snow. I wonder if I really put it there, if my bravery was simply a dream that propelled me, a comfort that delivered me through the dark and out onto the other side. As I stand next to my car, I look up and down the road. A young woman in a long wool coat watches her beagle urinate into a rock garden. An old man retrieves the newspaper from a bush. It’s a bright, cold day. I look up at my apartment building and it looks so peaceful I wonder if I ever saw the note at all. But I break through this dreaminess and look around at the other cars, wonder which belongs to the person who wrote it. I live here. I do. And now they know this. But still, I think as I creak open the driver-side door, maybe they meant something by actually. I actually live here. But I guess it depends on what it you mean by here, and I guess it depends on what you mean by live.

Roya Khatiblou’s work has appeared in and Hayden’s Ferry Review and Phoebe and has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction competition. She has an MFA in fiction from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she served as both the Assistant Nonfiction and Fiction Editor of Ninth Letter, and an MA in fiction writing from Northwestern University.

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