I am the place in which something has occurred. –Claude Levi-Strauss
On the morning of the eighth day after the nightmares started, Amina woke up sweating. By this point, she had spent a total of only twenty hours sleeping the previous seven nights.
As she rushed to wear her clothes, she left her bed unmade, an aquamarine and white mess. This was not usual for Amina, because she was a meticulous person by nature- even her books were color coded and arranged neatly on the bamboo shelves in the corner of her bedroom.
Unfortunately, Amina was very late for her appointment with a woman who had just arrived the previous day from New York, whose eyebrows she was supposed to pluck. When she reached the woman’s house, the guards at the gate informed her, “Madam went out. Come back in the afternoon.”
“When in the afternoon?” Amina asked, whilst inwardly panicking as she wondered how to explain a whole day’s absence to the beauty parlor where she had started to work earlier that month. Regardless, she adjusted her dupatta over her head and went back into the street, hailing down a rickshaw to take her to the parlor.
The head beautician was a woman whose parents had sent her to India to study hair. Amina thought this was ridiculous- either you know how to cut hair, or you don’t, and there is nothing a foreigner would know that she did not. Regardless, Lokkhi was accommodating, and put Amina straight to work, whilst threatening to to reduce Amina’s weekly allowance if she showed up without wearing adequate make up again. “We’re running a parlor here! Not a charity school!” Lokkhi boomed in her loud voice. The third time that Lokkhi said this, she had snuck up quietly behind Amina.
Frightened, Amina mistakenly snapped her scissors, cutting a good three inches off a customer’s barbed wire looking hair, when she had been asked to cut only one.
Frankly, Amina felt that the customer looked much better, but the woman had disagreed very loudly and nastily, blasting expletives into the sky as though Amina had committed the biggest sin on the planet. Amina almost lost her job, as Lokkhi had to write off the haircut as a complimentary one, whilst the customer screamed, “There is nothing complimentary about this haircut, you stupid fools!”
Later that day, when the customers were waning, Amina slipped out to go back home and change, before she went back to the lady whose appointment she missed earlier in the day. For the first time that day, Amina allowed herself to think back to her dreams. She wondered whether any fatalistic rhetoric, such as that dreams are a manifestation of our deepest desires, could be applied to her recurring nightmares. What the profuse display of unprecedented night visions could possibly signify, she did not know, but they had been uncomfortable exaggerations of the claustrophobia that constantly plagued Amina.
The hallway smelled like dried fish, fried onions, and garlic. The walls seemed to enclose her, and the red bricks exposed above the tiles seemed to glower deeply in the night, and for the briefest moment, Amina was afraid as she climbed up the noxious brick building. She started running.
When Amina reached the top of the stairs, she shuddered at the memory of being stung repeatedly in her latest nightmare. She went into the apartment she shared with her parents, threw down her bag, picked up her notebook from the creaky wooden desk, and pushed aside the magnolia print curtain that separated the balcony from her room. She pushed the door open, went outside, and sat down to write.
The telephone rang.
She ignored it.
Dear Mithun, she began to write in her tiny handwriting. And then paused, as she stared at the top of apartment buildings, peeking through the top of blooming labarnum and jacaranda trees. She continued, not stopping to take even a single break, until she finished the letter: Something seems different about today. You did not come to me easily, but then there are the deep flashes of memory. Like when I am sleeping and you come to me in a dream. But we are well past dreaming, are we not?
I have a job part time. I am learning how to be a beautician and several clients have asked me to visit them privately in their houses. Can you believe that they’re so fat and lazy that they cannot even be bothered to take their cars to the parlor? What is it about these rich people, which prevents them from taking charge?
Anyway, I am plucking women’s eyebrows and upper lips. Sometimes I cut hair. The lady whose hair I wanted to cut today could have really used an upper lip treatment but she decided against it. I didn’t say much to her.
I think of you often. How you must work really long hours while you drive your cars. Are you still driving for the Sheikh’s doctor? What are they like, kings and queens?
Shimul from the supermarket asks me about you every time I go, which is three times a week. I sometimes read the texts the three of us had to read for our history class. I wonder how you are doing in Kuwait City, and whether you read anything there?
Was there ever a time when we could have ever been together? The fact is I fear that I don’t know, and there are crows flying by in the sky, towels over my head drying, my blue sweater, the one you gifted me. There are small sparks of emotions that flow out of me, like colors that fill a page, seeping the canvas, and in all of them, I see your eyes. I feel the way you touched me. I reminisce about how I never understood what being fully full was, until I met you.
Will we ever meet again? I wonder.
I also wonder if I will ever mail you this letter, but I know deep down, that I wont. Remember how you told me that you thought that If I do mail it, you must know that I am finally ready to commit to you.
I am faithfully yours though, but you already know that, despite what the distance has brought us.
Amina did not sign the letter. She ripped the page out of the notebook. The blue sweater that her first love had given her blew in the wind. The last time that she had worn this sweater was when he was still in Chittagong. He had tucked her unruly hair behind her, and kissed her goodbye. “Until another lifetime,” she had said brightly.
“You are much too melodramatic,” he had responded. They had shared laughter and the briefest of kisses. Since then, Amina had been unable to wear the sweater. Amina’s mother, Rokeya, thinking that her daughter had discarded the garment, began wearing it instead. Amina always expected to see glimpses of herself in her mother’s appearance, but even now their visible features were completely different from each other, as though it was inconceivable they were related.
Amina went in search for an envelope for the letter, and then put it away in a box where several other letters written to Mithun lay, undelivered.
At five that same evening, after Amina had showered and eaten, she took a rickshaw back to the large house with which she had started her day. The woman in question was terrified of going out into the city unless it was absolutely necessary, according to the conversation they had had in broken Bengali three days prior to this meeting. Amina wondered whether her sing-song voice meant that she would be forgiving of Amina’s lateness earlier in the day.
When she arrived, a man opened the door of a driveway that led up a winding hill. He escorted her up the hill. Amina was made to wait outside a large whitewashed mansion for over twenty minutes. She examined the flowers, and finally after about ten minutes, sat down on a wrought iron swing and began moving amongst the pink chrysanthemums, while wryly noted that half was filled with roses, and the other half with chrysanthemums. It was as though other species of flowers did not exist.
Finally, she was seen in through the doorway by an ancient butler who glared at her disapprovingly for using the swing without permission. “It’s for the owners, not for people like you,” he had said to Amina.
The butler was in a hurry to iron some clothes, and left her waiting on the side of a large drawing room. She was uncertain whether she was allowed to sit, and tentatively sat down on a wicker armchair, only to jump back up when a man wearing shorts came into the room.
Amina adjusted her dupatta over her shoulder and covered her chest with it. She quickly took the other half of the scarf and wrapped it neatly, deftly, over her head, covering her hair.
Another man came down the stairs. The first sat down on the chair she had vacated, picked up the remote control, turned on the television and flicked channels, until duly satisfied with the channel he had found, he began to stare into his phone instead, and rapidly type messages.
A few minutes later, another man came in, and began lifting weights.
If someone said make a wish, Amina would have wished to be anywhere but where she was, in this room of overbearing silence with two strange men who, other than perfunctorily glancing at her, ignored her very existence. She edged towards the side of the television, where the room adjoined a dining room to the west. In every direction off the large living room were entryways to other rooms.
A woman came down the stairs on the north wall, into the living room. She held her hands along the mosaic marble bannister as she came down. She was wearing a khaki tank top, white shorts that barely touched her the bottom of her buttocks, and her hair extended from her head like a bushy peacock. Strands of the woman’s head were a majestic shade of blue, the others taking on hues of a single peacock feather
The woman had green eyes, unmistakable in the light that fell into the living room from windows to the western doors and windows.
Amina lowered her eyes, and shifted her weight from her right to her left side, next to the large television set.
There was a match playing between men dressed in shorts, kicking a ball around a field, just like the men in the room. The two men started talking, in English.
Amina caught the word, “ridiculous,” and “girl.”
Amina knew what ridiculous meant.
It was one her English teachers in grade school had used often to describe the students’ work. She wondered why they were saying it right now, wondered if the men were talking about her, wondered whether she should have waited in the kitchen and gone through the side entrance into the building, even though the gatekeeper had been the one to bring her to the front to the driver, who had suggested she use the main entrance and wait.
“Here, come into the room with me,” the woman said, after listening to the comments of the two other men, then throwing back her head, and laughing, a contagious laughter that the men seemed to find equally amusing, for they laughed too.
Amina followed the woman, but was too scared to say a word.
The woman adjusted the pillows in the room and lay down facing the north side of the bed. She took off the elastic band, and her jet black hair with blue tips emerged, like waves of the ocean. Some strands were as white as foam, others, as aquamarine as a peaceful day in the deep seas.
Amina took some white thread from her bag. Outside, it was still very bright, but inside, the room was cool and bright. This time last year, Amina thought, she had been in Sylhet with Mithun. The weather had been crisp and cold.
Amina wound some string between her teeth and created a knot. She began to work quickly, swiftly lifting hairs off the woman’s eyebrows.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“Amina, madam,” Amina answered.
“Amina Madam is a rather odd name, isn’t it?”
Despite herself, Amina laughed, and on impulse, asked in return. “What’s your name?”
“Maisha,” the woman replied, after a pause.
Amina wondered if she had spoken too loud, or too soon. Maisha had paused, as though unused to revealing her identity to others, or even by the fact that Amina had dared to question. Amina could feel her mouth starting to choke.
The thread tore.
“Are you all right?” asked Maisha.
“Fine, Madam. Hold still, is it hurting?”
“No, it is fine, Please do call me Maisha.”
“Okay, Madam. Sorry, I mean, Maisha, Madam.”
“Okay,” she swallowed, and then chose not to address Maisha at all by name, with the next question, “Do you want the hair to be removed in the middle?”
“And the shapes? Should they remain the same?”
“Yes, that would be great.”
They spoke no more. Only the silence and the light sound of the thread pulling out the hair was in the room.
One of the men came into the room. He was now eating a tangerine, which he flicked into the waste paper basket into the corner of the room and walked into the bathroom. Muffled sounds arose of the flush working, the tap opening. Amina wondered why it felt so quiet. She looked at the woman who was compliantly pressing down on parts of her forehead, so as to hold the skin taut, while Amina worked. The woman had a pretty face, but she had a large scar at the base of her neck. Amina wondered how the scar was formed.
The man came back out of the bathroom. He was also good looking. He looked foreign, and was dressed in a white T-shirt and blue shorts. Maisha and the man could be brother and sister. They probably were, Amina thought, as she recalled how, as she had been waiting for Maisha to come down the stairs, the man had walked in in a pinstriped black and grey shirt and charcoal dress pants, and walked up the stairs, and changed into these clothes, and brought down weights to work with. He had ignored Amina.
The gatekeeper peered in through the glass doors on the left entrance, staring at the match on the television.
Amina felt unsettled, and she could not help but want to leave quickly. The man rummaged in the corner of the room for a book, and satisfied with his pick, left the room.
She snipped the excessive hair at the base of Maisha’s eyebrows, brought out a tweezer to grab the hairs that were too fine to be plucked with thread, and finally, after five minutes, said, “I’m done.”
Maisha liked what she saw in the brown plastic mirror Amina had brought along for the task.
As Amina left the house, the driver looked at her, and whistled. Amina blushed, and adjusted her dupatta again from where it had slipped down the left side of her head.
“They’re very forward, aren’t they?” the driver asked her.
“I wouldn’t know,” Amina answered politely.
Amina knew that the man was trying to get a reaction from her. She was adamant not to comply. From her experience, the men who worked in her clients’ houses knew the protocol and were supposed to avert their eyes, instead of looking at the women, regardless of what apparel the women were donning.
When the chauffeur had seen Amina through the glass doors where the men were watching television, he was amused, because the shock of the young woman was written on her face.
A shriek came from inside the house. The butler was shouting,“Maggots, driver bhai! Come now!”
“Today, I will let you go,” the driver said. “But you should come with us for a ride sometime.”
There was a white Mercedes Benz parked in the driveway. Amina knew, because, with no son to share such information with, Amina’s father had subjected her to several glossy magazines of cars growing up.
The chauffeur looked at Amina’s frail and petite form. He grinned.
His teeth were covered in betel juice. Amina was revolted. By this point, the fact that she had not even been offered a glass of water, that she hadn’t eaten the whole day, and the thought of spending the two hundred taka she had just received in two crisp blue notes, gnawed at her.
“I doubt it. I’m married,” she lied.
“You are all married at the beginning, but I must go see to the maggots. I have been telling madam to change the wooden closet in the hallway for months, but she has done nothing about it.”
Amina shrugged and walked down to the bottom of the hill.
Along the way, the forest was a riot of colors, chrysanthemums and bromeliads of all shapes and varieties. As she walked out into the betel stain covered walkway after crossing a moat with the house’s drain underneath, she noted the stench that one had to pass, to get into the house.
She hailed down a rickshaw and asked to be dropped off at Patherghata. The roads narrowed, and in parts were darkening. It was almost twilight, and the rickshaw jittered over the uneven concrete roads, veering to the left, whizzing to the right, as it avoided oncoming vans, trucks, wooden carts carrying furniture, a hen at one point.
Finally they reached Patherghata, and quibbled for thirty seconds about the extra five minutes the rickshaw driver wanted for an extra five minutes at a traffic jam at Pahertala.
Just as she reached the onion staircase, she remembered that she had forgotten to bring the bananas her mother had asked her to buy. By the time she came back twenty minutes later, Amina was again plagued by memories of her dreams. Amina had a recurring nightmare about spending uncomfortable hours of darkness in a closet without doors or windows. The dreams had started on a Thursday, and now it was the following Friday. The façade of cheer she incorporated by day seeped out of her every night, but try as she might, she was unable to make herself awaken from her dreams.
There was a flickering candle in an eight by twenty room in each dream. It was placed in a glass vial on a driftwood table on the left hand corner. The light cast gave her enough time to see that the room was mostly empty, save for a bed and a creaky dressing table. She went over and opened the drawer, where she found a journal, but no pen to write with.
Each night, the dreams started off with this premise, but then change direction. The commonality was that and she felt as though she was in a movie reel scripted by an unknown demon.
Slugs emerged in hundreds and thousands from the woodworks. Amina shuddered and twisted around, writhing about on the bed. But even though her father heard, he could not help her because he was paralyzed from the waist down. Her mother, being partially deaf and in need of a separate bed because she liked to thrash about in her sleep too, could not help either.
She was alone, gripped in the nightmare.
The next day, she took sleeping pills, hoping these would drown out the dreams, but the nightmare was enlarged, distorted, a cockroach colony infested with tennis ball-sized cretins that clawed at her body, bit her, tore her to pieces, but she did not die, even though she was thirsty, hungry, and in despair over what seemed like many years in the dream, but in fact, lasted four hours.
Then frightened, Amina tried to stop sleeping altogether, but when she finally closed her eyes, long after the muezzin announced the call for the morning prayer on the third night, the dreams would come, like a flood from a dam that burst, morning dew sizzled in the sun.
On the third night, it was a burst sewer. She had resorted to a medley of sleeping pills in the hope that the dreams would stop.
By the fourth, Amina was unsurprised upon waking up, to recall that she had spent terrible hours tied down on the train tracks of an isolated hill station.
The next night, a live lion appeared, taunting and terrorizing her by growling. It was followed by a throng of monkeys and they were on a narrow path, off a mountain.
Each night, Amina felt the world closing in on her as she dreamt, collapsing, shadowy, without light as she rusted away in a dark room with wilting chrysanthemums in green bottles for company, on the floor, along with a rusty mirror.
What bothered her most about the nightmare that had happened on the seventh night, was that the room had somehow shrunk.
Either that, or she had grown and the overhead fan had become the size of a cherry, and was cutting into her hands, stinging her flesh like a nettle, but oh so much worse, as it bounced and skidded and plodded away repeatedly, viciously, biting into her hands and stinging them in the process.
As soon as she entered the flat, the phone rang. Her mother was out, so she picked it up. It was a wrong number, but the caller was keen to chat.
“I think I saw your father earlier today,” the person on the other end said.
“I doubt it.,” she replied.
“Are you sure? I know it must have been your father. You look just like him.”
“He has not lifted his head in months, even.”
“What about your mother?”
“This is none of your business,” Amina finally snapped, and put the phone down. She was shaking. Her mother came into the room. “We really must disconnect our land line,” she told her mother. “Since Baba’s accident, we hardly need it. The truck company manager doesn’t need to call, he has no friends, and all you do is speak with the neighbor. You can do that just by walking over to her house.”
Her mother nodded, not saying a word, and left the room. Amina sat down on her bed, her head perspiring. She rummaged through the pile of envelopes on her desk, looking for the letter she had written earlier that afternoon. There it was, the date neatly ascribed to the northeast corner.
She scanned the document all the way to the end, found a blue pen, and wrote in bold letters, three times.
“You must come back for me, and do it as soon as you can.”
Then she went to the post office, and mailed the letter.
That night, she had a dreamless sleep.