The day after Basil left for college, flying west and across the Atlantic, his father drove to the airport again to fetch the new maid.
She saw him as a silhouette first. His black form separated from the indistinct bustle beyond the checkpoint at the other end of the terminal. His trench coat flapped as he stalked down the wide corridor, and when he turned to address a gray official perched behind a counter, it seemed to her a communion of birds: the tall, stoop-shouldered man with the beakish profile bent crane-like to the roosting pigeon on the other side. Documents were produced, and she soon found herself briskly shaking hands. “You’re Sunita? I’m Mr. Khalil. Come this way.”
On the flight to Massachusetts, Basil studied some passengers in particular. He saw a subdued glamor in their branded shirts and elegant sweaters and rumpled button-ups. Their eyes — such a wealth of blues flickering gem-like all around him — sometimes met his glances with a startling directness. He lowered his lids and slept until the plane’s descent prodded him awake. The bounce of landing entered his blood as a sensation of joy.
Sunita’s room, oblong and smelling of bleach, was tucked behind the kitchen. Dressed in sneakers and the faded pink uniform Madame Khalil gave her, Sunita lay awake in bed, unable to start the morning. She had botched the eggs again yesterday, then later the rice. After each failure, Madame Khalil was suddenly disfigured: her normal expression, drooping and a little squinty, fled; her anger was an ancient mask of stone risen to the surface.
Sunita turned on her side. The stillness in the house persisted. It seemed a tender envelope. Then a voice broke in from the kitchen. “Sunita! Coffee.”
Basil’s first week was a succession of offers to which he kept saying “yes.” His floormates led the action. Reeking, clandestine beer flowed through him. He wagered laundry quarters with Rafael on games of nine-ball. Anna took him skinny dipping with a small group in a moon-silvered creek.
Late one evening, Basil caught sight of Liam, sinewy and boxer-clad, leaving the showers.
“Baz! Sigma Chi tomorrow. Ready for some serious drinking?”
Liam’s words, his parting shoulder tap, and gleaming fragments from the last few days tumbled with Basil into sleep. Bodies and faces, vivid and new, summoned older images. The connections meandered, found a definite track, were locked in, and suddenly Basil sat up in the dark, knowing what he’d forgotten.
Sunita found it while clearing out Basil’s old bedroom. It was a spiral notebook with all but a few pages removed. She peeked inside, then slipped it under her mattress. Later, as the house slept, she slowly turned the pages. Beautifully muscled men looked up at her: cutouts from an underwear catalogue, collaged in feigned embraces.
The next day felt brighter. And the day after that. She flinched less often. It was easier to breathe. The tears pressing behind her eyes relented. The notebook had become a devastating card she would play when Madame grew too difficult. It pleased Sunita that she could strike back at any moment. Soon, she thought. Whenever I want. Sometimes she imagined the sculptured men hovering nearby, their burning stares shielding the space around her.
Basil had made the notebook when he was fourteen, before he really understood the danger. A year later its mildness lost his ripening interest. The notebook languished in a shoebox. Now his father’s renovating would uncover it, and everything here would end.
Classes began but he shirked them. The other freshmen settled into academic routines while he boozed, dozed, and party-hopped through the following week in a mad black path. Anna said she was worried. Rafael distanced himself. Even Liam cooled.
Basil finally bottomed out on a floor of pricking leaves. Skeleton-fingered branches crowded the waking sky. His head buzzed and he felt encased in ice. Why not like this? Why not? A low mist glided past, carrying spectral voices in its train. Stems and trunks picked up rosy glints. Gentle arms encircled him. Anna and Liam spoke his name. He was held, propped between them; their warm phrases, laced with faint humor, blanketed him.
Sunita stood near the building’s entryway, the farthest she could venture unchaperoned. Even here the doorman watched her. For a month the notebook had secretly slept below her, radiating encouragement. A shelter of saplings had sprouted in the small clearing it made within her. It was time to push on alone.
The notebook mustn’t ever come to light; she could see that now. The whole atmosphere would blacken. Madame would suffer badly, yes, sure. So would Mr. Khalil. And soon, everyone under them. Sunita herself. The boy, of course. Rabbit-eyed and unsuspecting in his frame on the dresser.
The trash bins were frothing with flies. She heaved the week’s load over the rim. As she started back, she heard a quavering chant swelling in the distance. Calling and calling, it spread outward from some unseen minaret. It came dimly across the roofs and treetops as if through a volume of water.
Keep moving, she told herself.
Amin Nasr is a person. He can’t stop drinking coffee. Please send help. Also, he writes fiction. For one thing, it staves off the ulcers. But not only that. But not only that.
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