From OBLIVIA, A Novel
I needed to go back to hell. I was nostalgic. For the days of hitting my head and the pretty stars that danced, the girls that jumped on top of me, the animal smells, the dying songs. Childhood stuffed with beauty too strong to bear. I culled death and coincidence, which I thought were my paths back. Everything that's about to happen—the Indians, the twins, the machine—I thought they were all tickets home. But, as it turned out, they brought me into a new world, whose existence I didn't even suspect, and which I still don’t understand.
You see, I wanted to meet the devil. And here he was, standing in the street in Chinatown.
Letters by Jie Ren & Nick Schiff • Story and Artwork by Jie Ren
I first saw the inside of Lara’s apartment when I was twenty-three. A small place with three rooms, but now, in my memory, it feels huge, like three museum halls or three solar systems.
In fact, there was just her yellow living room, molten sunlight always bleeding through the blinds, her bedroom, and the dank, sticky kitchen.
It was a hot summer. The war was brewing and my parents had sent me to live with my uncle in a provincial capital way in the South of the country. To keep busy, I volunteered at a charity during the week. One day, my boss, a fat, bald man who always wore starched white shirts stained in the armpits, sent me out to deliver a reading machine to an address in the poor part of town.
“A what?” I asked.
“A reading machine. Over there.” He looked up from his clipboard and pointed at a contraption in the corner of the storeroom. It looked like a transparency projector, the kind I hadn’t seen since middle school, with a flat surface and a crane-like neck.
"Alright,” I said, and tossed it in a cardboard box. I took the van and cruised toward the address. No one was out on the street. It was ugly hot, the kind of heat that makes you wish for a cool grave to lie in.
I entered the shadow cast by the triple towers of the housing project. Everything below was busted: the mailboxes, the benches, even the doorframes. The elevator, which buzzed loudly as it ascended, smelled like piss. When I got to the door on the twenty-first floor, I took a look around and knocked. Nobody answered. I had nothing else to do, so I started daydreaming in the hallway.
She startled me when she opened the door. A short, brown woman with liver spots and an oxygen tube under her nose. The first thing I noticed were her eyes: solid black with gray-blue storms that swirled near the surface. I brought you this reading machine, I said. She had a hard time hearing so I had to speak up. She grunted and I followed her into the living room.
The oxygen tube reached back to a tank installed near the windows. The tube extended about thirty feet, far enough to let her go anywhere in the apartment, but not beyond. I had to be careful not to step on it as I lugged the box in.
“What’s this thing for?” I asked.
“I’m nearly blind,” she croaked. There was, beneath the gruffness, an elegance in her voice, a sad, pretty song in the tone that made me pay close attention. “This machine blows up the words so I can read them.”
I set it on a card table and found an outlet. A huge, warm square of yellow light projected onto the wall. She just stared at it like a moth, gripping her cane. Every few seconds, in the background, the tank dispersed a dose of air into the tube with a curt exhale.
Eventually, she shuffled toward the corner of the room and opened a closet door, returning with a black folio full of translucent sheets. She shoved it in my hand. I waited for her to say something, but she just turned back to the square of light. So I took the first page and lay it on the machine.
A little moan escaped her throat. The tiny black letters on the sheet seemed Arab or Turkic. On the wall they looked more like drawings, drawings of ladies’ feet, of men walking down the street arm in arm, of eels in transparent desert lakes.
On my left hand I felt Lara’s paw and flinched. Her fingers were unusually elegant, the index asserted by a polished black stone. She guided my hand to a metal knob and twisted, causing the letters to slide across the wall, as if in a caravan, and while Lara aimed her milky, near-blind eyes at them, they magnetized me into extreme concentration. Every muscle in my body tensed and relaxed. I couldn’t read the characters, but in their forms, like hieroglyphs, I saw a story.
The King, who was a large swoop with a dot in the middle, was riding out of his palace to visit a mystic in the desert. When he was a boy, the mystic had healed the King, then an infant prince, of a terrible sickness in his gut that nearly killed him. Now the mystic was sick, and the King rode to visit his deathbed, followed by camels and horses who each were their own stylized, dramatic letter.
The King arrived to find the mystic shriveled and dark in his tent. But the mystic remembered the King, and told him what a beautiful man he had grown up to be. A handsome man, a gorgeous man.
My hand fell off the warm knob and the wall went blank. The old woman slid the sheet back in her ledger.
“What was that sheet?” I asked her.
“The instructions for my oxygen tank.”
“I needed to increase the air flow and couldn’t do it for weeks. The phone number doesn’t work anymore. You know what it’s like these days.”
I wanted to get out of there. I started to go when she said, “Please, won’t you come back tomorrow?”
“Do you need more help with the machine, ma’am?”
“There’s so much more to read,” she said. “Will you come back?” She looked so lonely that I could have sunk through the floor. But there was something else about her: a certain nobility, as if she were the last living member of an ethnic group long hunted across the earth.
“Do you promise?”
On the way out I stepped on a dead roach. I looked back and didn’t see her anywhere in the dark apartment, but finally detected her in a corner, peering out of the gap between the blinds and the window, a strip of light running down her face like tape.
That night I couldn’t fall asleep. In my bedroom, off the kitchen in my uncle’s house, I wondered what she could see out there. The vague outlines of the other two towers? The blobs of clouds in the sky? Could she see other windows, broken or boarded up? The indecipherable graffiti on the brick walls? Could she see the clumps of trees and the streets below? The foreign car parked below in the lot? When my thoughts became less systematic and acquired motion and will of their own, I saw the King again, riding through the sand in his caravan, and at the bedside of the dying mystic. I saw new details in his face, dark shadows under his eyes and permanent twist in his lips. He was a cruel King, I knew then, harsh to his servants and wives. The mystic knew it, could see the seed of evil in him, but still admired his beauty, told him what a beautiful, great King he had grown to be.
The next day, I dawdled around the office for an hour or two, then disappeared in the van without telling anyone. Again, the streets were practically empty. Already the air conditioning in the van was losing to the mounting heat. The old midge came to the door in a white robe. She looked like a nun from some godforsaken frontier.
I turned on the machine and she put a sheet on again. It was a different document. This time the King just shuffled around his palace, staring out at the desert through thin windows in the stone, meant for archers, waiting for the Kingdom to fall. It was horrific to watch him while standing in that hot apartment, paralyzed with dead air. I wanted to bolt out of there and forget about the whole thing.
But this time Lara surprised me by putting a transparency on the machine that I could read. At first she slapped it on backwards and upside-down and the letters hung there like they were having the coins shaken out of their pockets. She looked confused until I righted them. Still, they were slightly too small for her to read.
“Can you read it to me?” she asked.
My voice sounded like a teenager’s, like it wasn’t mine, and it bothered me to hear it. But I read the text:
Each thing a letter:
the child playing by the cars
at night. The cat in the ravine.
That underwater flower.
Why? To spell
“What is this?” I asked her.
She sat on the ancient couch and patted the seat next to her. I sat on the other end and listened.
“When I was young,” she said, “My friends and I lived in the capital. We were poets. We wrote all the time, anywhere, in the subway, in cafes, in the park, in each others’ apartments late at night or in lazy afternoons like this one. All the time, all the time. And you know what? We really got somewhere. Not that we were famous, but we would read our work and some things got published. But we wrote real poetry. We knew short story writers, too, and novelists and playwrights.”
“What is your name?”
There was so much I wanted to say to her, but instead I said, “Oh.”
“After my first marriage, when I started going blind, I started making these transparencies.” I couldn’t tell where her eyes were pointing.
“Are you still a writer?” I asked.
“I can’t write. Since I lost my sight.”
“Of course, yeah,” I said.
“But I need your help working the machine, so I can read while standing close to the letters.”
Through that morning and into the swarthy afternoon I slid text along her wall, sometimes reading aloud or listening to Lara read in a low rumble like the beginning of an earthquake. She selected more of the foreign script. The King kept moping around his castle, brooding over the downfall of his Kingdom, and perhaps civilization. If he escaped decapitation, he might be forced to flee out into the desert and live as a mystic himself, using fire at night to keep away hyenas.
Before I left, Lara asked me to go to the library and make some new transparencies for her. She had read all the old ones a million times. New transparencies of what? Of anything, the classics, the Greeks. The Greeks?
The huge, many-floored library near the city center was virtually empty besides a gang of guys my age downstairs all wearing the same color. They leered and whispered among themselves, then yelled something at me. Upstairs, I asked a lonely male librarian how to work the copier and had him show me some books.
Soon I stopped going into the office altogether, and went straight to the library or Lara’s sepulchral apartment. Sometimes, in the stillness of afternoon, up on the twenty-first floor, the hot pad of light melting on the wall, we’d listen to sounds echo off the other towers and into the room: the voices of immigrant children, frozen in air; someone in the distance practicing a harmonium; or the slow, deep rhythms wafting for hours from a car parked below in the lot.
For days I listened to Lara mumble out Aeschylus, then Dante, and it seemed the poet and his guide were always walking somewhere, or climbing something, and nothing ever really happened. The poems she selected from her youth got harder and harder to understand, but at the same time, more magnetic, similar to my life at that time: boring and meaningless, but punctured with occasional glimpses into something that sharpened all of my senses, a secret chamber or subterranean world sculpted from meaning itself. The future. Then the poems went back to ennui, a kind of heavy eros laden with dread and lust. I left the apartment exhausted.
Why did I keep going back? Because I was falling in love with Lara, not the one in front of me, but the young Lara, Lara as a teenager in a wool skirt drinking beers with her budding girlfriends in a hot café, Lara who sat scared and alone in her apartment looking out the window at a thunderstorm with a book between her legs, Lara in her thirties who held her daughter on a bench, beautiful Lara with long wet black hair, who made love to her husband in the shadowy bedroom of their working class house, who took the bus to work with unassailable, wounded dignity.
We sat on her ugly brown couch while she told me about her life and fed me lunch, turkey eggs with lime and chili in glass cups, which she could prepare by memory.
At night it was almost always too hot to sleep. I lay awake in the bluish light in my bedroom, sweating slowly and half-dreaming of leaning close to the young Lara on the grass, talking about anything, the talk a screen for love, my limbs heavy with it, then her hips were on mine, our thighs gently pulsating against one another’s, my mind oversaturated with that brew of eras. I snapped awake in bed, sick with grief and desire, her touch still on me. When I eventually got up early in the morning, I was still full of the same refined misery.
When I alighted in her apartment I thought the old Lara would know about my night—it was so palpable to me, her flesh must know of the contact I’d made with it last night, decades ago—but of course she had no idea.
Again she selected poems written by her and her friends. I even started thinking they were about me, but when I turned them over a few times in my head, I saw it couldn’t be true. They didn’t know me, but knew my condition, knew the dreams I had each night and may or may not remember, depending on whether or not I was startled by a passing car or a distant salvo of machine gun fire.
The poems I projected the next day changed tone. One described a man reading on a cliff. Another told of hotels like great beehives, where infinite young men with buzz cuts received fellatio on the edges of their beds. In another, a Hindu god of war slowly made love on the dirt floor of his war tent at dawn with lasciviously shaded eyes. The tank continued to dispense short bursts of oxygen four times a minute.
I put my hands on the hot glass, imagined Lara laying down at night, the body at the end of the tank’s long tentacle, and saw the young Lara twist into the darkness, moaning in her dreams.
Now as I looked at the old Lara’s clouded eyes, suffused with slowly revolving cataracts, it seemed they saw a great deal, saw much more than regular eyes. They were eyes that could see time.
For the first time that summer, clouds eclipsed the sun. The living room darkened to a deep penumbra. I heard feet shuffle on the carpet, but I couldn’t see where she went.
“Lara?” I called.
There was no answer.
I looked at the luminous, vibrating poem hung on the wall, then around the apartment, where I only saw clumps of darkness and obscure objects. My hand didn’t seem to belong to me, floating in the dimness like a celestial object. Blood rushed to my feet and I read the poem on the wall:
Body queer with the wrong weight of time,
fleeing entropy in the plaza of fire
face-down suffocating on the night of poetry
creation flowing from oblivion into flux
that engenders the next time and the next.
“Lara?” I cried.
“I’m here.” The rasp sounded from the bedroom. “I’m not feeling too well,” she said when I entered. She lay on the bed looking up. Her nose leaked dark drops onto the tube.
“Bring me a kerchief from the closet.”
Feeling in a cool box, I brought her a silk square. With a look that was half pain and half understanding she gripped it to her nose.
“Do you need me to stay?” I asked.
“No, you should go. It’s not right.”
I switched off the machine and went out, down the elevator. Heat rose out of the concrete. When I sat in the van I couldn’t put the keys in the ignition. I had an illness of the will. Everything was heavy.
When I got home I fell asleep almost immediately. The King sat across from me in a tornado, and everything else that existed, cities, farms, seas, was compressed into black sand that whipped violently around with us, and the sand sometimes stretched into elongated letters in other alphabets that then disintegrated back into the maelstrom. In the vortex I’d feel Lara’s smooth leg gripping mine, her hand tracing my back or reaching down my leg.
Finally the tornado stopped twisting and I was brought down. The King watched out the archery window in his palace with huge, dark eyes. In the corner of the room, on the hot stone floor I lay observing him in for hours, or days. Interrupting this state, Lara nudged into me from the side, locked her eyes into mine—young, healthy eyes—then swung her leg and climbed on top of me.
I woke up late. It was almost eleven in the morning. I went to Lara’s. She didn’t come to the door, so after a few minutes I let myself in. She wasn’t inside. The oxygen tank was still there, but the tube led to an empty bed. The cover was slightly rumpled and the pillowcase was stained with three small spots of blood. I went into the living room, packed up the reading machine and all the transparencies into a box, and took them home to my room.