Five Points, Vol. 22, No. 1Spring
Rien de Rien
The first time I hear the sparrow, I hear it in my dreams as a knuckle rapping against the window.
My heart hops into my throat like a rabbit into its warren, waiting.
When I was a little girl and someone knocked on our front door, I would huddle behind the green sofa, feeling as if a stranger were knocking on my forehead. Go away, go away! I’d whisper, dragging up swear words from the gutters of my unconscious, words that made my cheeks glow, words that smacked like slaps.
There’s the knuckle rapping again.
The clash of the home and the outside world still rattles me.
We have your number. We’ll call you, they said.
It’s the same whenever the landline rings. Those two seconds of silence as I listen, my ear pressed against the receiver and my lips close to the mouthpiece, I’m sharing an intimacy with a million strangers, their ears and mouths pressed on mine until a familiar voice releases me. It’s me, let me in!
In my dream I jump with fright and John, who lies in bed besides me, apes me, making his face melt and set in a grotesque grimace that reminds me of food on a plate pushed around by a picky eater.
I want to put the fear of God into him then. I want to hold my fear under his nose like foul food. God, this is so awful, you have to taste it!
I want the ceiling above us to crack open and watch the unconcern slip off his face, a bright lizard slipping off a rock as a cloud obscures the sun, until there’s only the gray rock left and I can say, See?
He cannot understand how my body is a shadow that precedes me. How it jumps before I can tell it how high.
Sometimes I jump when he touches my arm. He has never laid a finger on me.
It’s a reflex, I tell him.
To John, my anxiety reads like a bad book. Snap it shut! No sense in wasting one’s time.
Enough! I say, the way we say enough to the ones who haven’t hurt us, our phone lines eternally tangled as we speak not to the people who stand before us but to those who came before them, their numbers never leaving us.
We have your number.
I check my phone, but I know that I would have heard the call. When noises don’t wake me, I incorporate them into my sleep. A telephone would have rung in my dream. It could have been anyone. Once I had a conversation with my great-grandfather, whom I only knew from stories. He had lost his pinkie in Verdun and I promised that I’d find it for him. I’m counting the days, he said, but I can only count to nine so be quick!
The knuckle raps against the window. Quick!
Enough! I say to myself as I sit up in bed, taking in the crisp, empty space beside my own, my hand grazing the starched corner of John’s pillow, sharp as a beak.
If John were here, he would go see. He wouldn’t mind looking out the tall French windows in the dusk. The line of crooked legs, tragic arms raised to the sky, would just be trees to him and he would never mistake the neighbor’s creaking weathercock for our garden gate, opening, closing, conjugating, Now I’m in, now I’m out. Now you’re in, now you’re out.
When John and I first met, he said, I’ve never met anyone like you. We’ve been together for twelve years now and he still says it, but it’s not a compliment anymore.
I get to my feet and put on John’s shoes. They’re bulky and heavy. You could walk over bodies in them without feeling a thing.
They make me feel grounded, John says when I ask him why he keeps wearing these thick shoes in the summer with two pairs of socks inside.
He always looks so fresh, even when his feet must be suffocating.
I don’t tie the laces, merely stuff them inside the shoes where they bunch uncomfortably under my arches. This is the sort of behavior that irritates John. The fact that I will walk with a pebble in my shoe, that I will not change seats when a disgusting person sits down next to me.
How can you be so passive? Why don’t you do things, instead of letting them happen to you?
As I take the first step, a short, dry laugh erupts from my throat.
Put yourself in my shoes! This is what I keep telling him and then he demands that I do the same. He wants me to know what it’s like to have this weight pulling him down.
Look at me now, John, I say in the hallway, answering the haphazard knuckle raps with the trampling of my husband’s shoes.
In the living room I find a bird, small as a child’s fist, rapping on the window pane.
Quick as eyelashes, the bird’s wings flutter and propel it to the ceiling where it flies in circles.
I hit my shin on the coffee table, which is covered with the scientific books that John likes to read. They, too, ground him. He also watches programs on cells dividing and atoms splitting, leaning forward like a child at a circus. He knows the periodic table by heart, but has to close his eyes and pinch the bridge of his nose to recall them. I, too, close my eyes then, pinch the bridge of my nose to follow him into the room with the symbols and numbers and see what else John is keeping in that room, but he spouts the element and his eyes shine like the bright, wet stones that you pick up at the beach and then wonder why they look so dull on your window-sill.
The moment I grab the handle of the patio door, the bird lands on top of our bookcase. It sits up there, chirrup, chirrup, before flying across the room toward the curtain rod.
How did you get in?
Before sitting down on the bed, I had made a tour of the house, making sure that all the windows were closed, looking into the bathroom, the small ugly restroom, and the tiny storage room same as I always did when I was alone. Looking for what exactly? John wanted to know when he came back from a business trip early, making me jump.
I hadn’t planned to sleep, I only wanted to lie on our bed as if it were a piece of land that had detached itself from a straining continent.
The bird flies back to the bookcase and then onto the lamp where I get a better look at its small dark beak, gray cap, and black throat. A male house sparrow. Its feathers are the brown of nuts and rinds, the color of autumn, my favorite season.
As a child I had a recurring dream: I would extend my index finger like a single branch and wait for a bird to perch on it. Still as a tree, I would wait for a long time, ignoring all itches, including thirst and hunger. A dot in the sky would swell into a bird. The bird knew that the tree was a human being posing as a tree. It would alight on my finger, pretending to have been tricked so that it wouldn’t have to relinquish its natural dignity.
When the twigs of the tree would begin to stroke the bird’s chest, the bird would pretend that a light breeze had picked up.
The memory of the bird’s softness would stay on my fingertips when I woke up, and I would spend the day searching for its likeness in the world. I would search for so long and compare it to so many textures that, in the end, the memory in my fingertips wore off and all that was left was an unverifiable certitude that nothing compared to the softness of a dream.
When John and I take walks in the woods, he points out animals to me. Do you know what this one’s called? His mother taught him all the names as a child. My family too, took Sunday walks in the woods, but nature was like a beautiful woman—it was there to be admired, not to be known. On our walks John picks up objects and lays them in the center of his palm. This is a piece of a rodent’s jaw.
I turn the handle of the French door without opening it. Instead, I point my index finger at the room.
The bird takes off and flies straight into the window.
The dull sound makes my stomach turn. It’s like John’s hand opening to reveal a paper-thin skull in the palm of his hand. The wonders of life!
The bird hovers under the ceiling. It pains me to see it trapped. If I watch something for too long, I become that something.
If I open the door now, I will be alone.
I’ve never seen a sparrow on its own. When my grandmother would take me to the park and treat me to a hot dog, there would always be a gaggle of them fighting over crumbs. When we circled the fountain at the center of the park, another gaggle would be splashing in the water like ecstatic children that had forgotten they were birds.
How did you get into the house?
I retrace my steps.
You know that Piaf means sparrow, right? John says. He doesn’t have a name yet. He’s just a tall man standing next to me, watching a small impersonator sing, Non, je ne regrette rien in Montmartre.
The semicircle around Edith Piaf is made up of tourists from all over, but somehow John has classified me correctly. We’re both tourists from the same country, more or less. We’re both alone.
His name is John, like a genericized trademark—Aspirin, Thermos, or yo-yo. I almost expect him to apologize for it, but he doesn’t. He holds out his hand and says, I’m John as if his name were a natural element. As if he were telling you he’s sixty percent water.
Later we sit in a bar in Montmartre and I realize that John and I are both running. He’s running toward something and I’m running away from something. We’re both so thirsty from running, drinking red wine, sitting elbow to elbow. We don’t have to compare our faces to the ones that came before them, instead we watch the man playing the white-lacquered piano. His worn-out face is a molding of every single tourist who has ever walked into the bar. All continents and seasons are etched into his blurry face, including John and I.
We watch a man get up from a table where his wife and teenage daughter sit, their looks hooked into his back as he walks over to the pianist who signals that the tune is taking care of itself—a cat twitching its tail, a horse spinning on a merry-go-round. Je vous écoute!
The father points to the family’s table where the daughter blushes while the mother glows. A candle has been lit inside her. Motherhood can be a religion.
What song is the daughter requesting, do you think? says John.
I think she wants to play a song herself, I say. She’s been playing along on the table-cloth ever since they sat down. Didn’t you notice?
John tilts his head.
What? I say.
Now I know that he tilts his head when he’s surprised. He tilted his head when I told him I didn’t want children. I’ve given this a lot of thought, I said, thinking, I can’t pretend to be a tree for eighteen years.
The skinny daughter squirms in her seat. She’s about fifteen and a mixture of her parents. When she gets to her feet, her awkward movements are not helped by the mother’s way of steering her around the table as if she doesn’t know how to put one foot in front of the other.
The girl’s lean fingers tremble like twigs as she sets them on the keys and begins to play.
Autumn Leaves, John says.
The girl’s mother hisses in a language that is neither French nor English and the girl straightens her back, skipping a breath and a note.
My favorite season, John says.
The notes back up, break loose. Too slow, too fast. Under her fingers, the keys strain like floorboards in old houses, drawing attention to the weight and splinters of material existence.
The girl shakes her head.
Underneath these floorboards is her real play. When I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose, I can hear it the way she hears it in her head.
Autumn leaves as soft as feathers, falling, drifting by her window.
I’m sure John hears the tune the way it comes out of the piano, this white-lacquered coffin posing as an instrument.
I’ve never met anyone like you, he says.
I look down at the tablecloth which is red and white checkered, paler lines intersecting with darker ones.
John’s hands are sunburned, mine are pale.
We’re intersecting, I think.
We have talked all afternoon, effortlessly—a cat twitching its tail, a horse spinning on a merry-go-round. I’m listening!
He puts his hand over mine so lightly that I could easily withdraw it—a game of jackstraws, only nothing is wooden, everything is wine and John’s hand is as soft as a bird’s feather.
The man at the piano takes his seat and plays, Je ne regrette rien.
You know what this song’s about, right? says John.
Regrets? I say, laughing, the wine intersecting with my blood now.
Car ma vie, car mes joies
Aujourd’hui, ça commence avec toi
John knows that I speak little if any French. He thinks I can read the translation in his eyes, because they’re still clear and sharp.
How about it? he says.
I think of tourists getting tattoos in foreign languages, trusting that the word that is permanently etched into their skin does not have typos and does indeed mean what they take it to mean.
We spend our holiday together, first the days, then the nights, finding that there is no darkness awaiting us, only different shades of light.
We point at sparrows. Piaf!
At the end of the holiday, I can translate the song.
For my life, for my joys
Today, begin with you.
Before we leave Paris, John calls his mother from a phone booth.
I’ve never met anyone like her! he says, keeping the glass door of the booth open with his shiny bulky shoe, holding my hand as he speaks. His touch is still light. It’s how you would hold a sparrow if you knew the names of all its tiny bones. She’s happy, he mouths and it takes me a second to understand that I’m not the third person anymore. That’s his mother now—and she’s happy about it too.
When it’s my turn to call home, I close the door behind me.
There’s an acrid smell in the booth. Old cigarette smoke, sweat, and urine—an adult smell. I’ve always felt old, but never like an adult. Not even now at twenty-four.
I’m an adult, I tell the receiver and, in my mouth, the trinity of smell becomes the acrid, single taste of solitude in public places.
The keypad is worn out and the buttons need to be pushed down hard as if the number itself were resisting.
You go through the world with open eyes, John had said. You notice the tiniest details. I love that about you!
I hadn’t noticed him pounding the buttons, but maybe some numbers put up more resistance than others.
I love that you cover your mouth when you think you have misspoken, that you don’t look into mirrors, I thought in return, but all I said was, You noticed me, which I regretted at once and, covering my mouth, I looked away.
There’s a click and a man’s damp voice answers the telephone as if he didn’t mind breathing on the lips of a million potential strangers.
Sorry, wrong number, I say, hanging up, my cheeks glowing as if I had been slapped across the face.
I’ve dialed the number of my childhood home, the one that my parents were kicked out of six months after they had stopped paying rent, five years ago.
Come home and help us! My mother had shouted into the old green phone then. If the place is not cleared out tomorrow by 8 a.m. they’ll throw all our stuff out the window! That night I’d dreamed of brawny men uprooting my old bed and throwing it out of the second-floor window. It would splinter and break on the lawn, the bed in which I had dreamed of birds perching on my finger. Neighbors would walk past my broken bed, the way they would walk past an empty bird’s nest lying on the sidewalk, wondering about the vulnerability of creatures in the world before circling back to their own vulnerability. Poor bird, they think and mean poor me. You can do this, they tell their child and mean, We can do this.
How could I have forgotten? I wonder and, looking over my shoulder through the scratched door, I know.
The kindest thing one person can do for another is to help them forget.
I fish a piece of paper out of my wallet and dial another number.
Here’s my mother’s voice, but still the lines are tangled. This is not the person I had meant to call, at all. I’d meant to call the person I willed my mother to be. As if there were multiple versions of her out there and by pressing one digit a little longer or a little harder, I might get a different translation, another extension of the original.
I’ve never met anyone like him, I repeat, turning around to see if he’s still there.
John gives me a wave through the glass, rocking forward and backward in his big shoes as if there were magnets in the soles that kept him from keeling over.
Goodbye, I say when she says, What’s wrong with you!
Cheerup, says the bird on the bookcase.
I point at it, Piaf!
The bird backs away, turning its head in jerky, mechanical movements. Its world is full of classified predators.
If I were a bird, my anxiety would be the most natural thing in the world. Being stressed would be as natural as hatching an egg.
In fact, being alert would be a precondition for hatching an egg.
When I told John I didn’t want children, he said, Don’t worry, you’re nothing like your mother.
He doesn’t know that umbilical cords tangle like phone lines. He doesn’t know that a mother’s longitude and a child’s latitude can get you from the world’s coldest spot to its hottest within the blink of an eye.
I dial John’s old landline on my thigh, my fingers working the pattern blindly—a cat twitching its tail, a horse spinning on a merry-go-round.
I wonder if he went through with it.
I’d make sure a kid wouldn’t change things between us, he said, thinking that maybe I was scared of switching back to being in the third person. I know, kiddo, but SHE is your mother.
A vasectomy is a routine procedure, they said, but what if there are complications? What if the ceiling above us cracks open and John’s face turns to gray rock? What if he resents me for this?
The sparrow knocks into the window again. What’s a bird’s memory span?
They are cutting John’s tubes.
Snip. Snap. We regret that the number you have dialed is disconnected or unavailable.
They’re called vasa deferentia. How fitting, John deferring.
We’ll make sure it won’t happen again, John had said after it had happened once, calling the softness of that cracked egg it for my sake. I’m sure he had a name for it. John has a name for everything.
Calm down, I will let you go! I tell the sparrow.
We’ll go for a walk in the woods tomorrow, John said this morning.
He’s supposed to rest for twenty-four hours after the surgery. He’ll be in pain for a while and won’t be reaching for the strange fragments he finds on the side of the path. There will be no names for the small delicate bones in the hollow of his soft hand.
I step outside and leave the door wide open.
We’ll catch a flutter of wings, the end of a tail, a naked tree in the dusk. I’ll name all the creatures whose names he has taught me, names he first heard from his mother, names that take you ages to memorize, names for creatures that you only glimpse for seconds.
I always took her for granted, he said at his mother’s funeral, his eyes closed, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose.
That’s not true, I lied. If you’re a good mother, your children will take you for granted.
Motherhood is like that.
I tell him stories about his mother. I know them all, even the tiniest details, even the ones I wasn’t part of and the ones that came before me. I have watched every gesture, listened to every word as they sat talking.
I expect the worst, so I’m alert.
The kindest thing one person can do for another is to help them remember.
The bird hops around my feet. I’m afraid to crush it with John’s shoes.
I extend my finger and dial John’s number.
The bird takes off, already a dot in the sky as John picks up.