Mikki wakes with her head tilted to the side, her young face, neck, and whole body reaching for a person—somebody with a vague but extremely attractive description, who has been lying with great patience and anticipation next to her and must be tall—though she has been alone in bed for all the hours of the night, as she has been every night here. And yet this unknown person takes up space. During the moment of waking, she realizes that her lips have formed a kiss. She wakes kissing her hand as if it belonged to someone else, but also to her.
This isn’t the first morning Mikki has found herself curling up to an invisible, impossibly generous, unfailingly exciting lover. Kissing her hand, conjuring him in bed with her eyes tightly shut and almost feeling that he’s making love to her—it’s no wonder that her husband, passing by their bedroom once and catching a glimpse of what she was up to, shouted in Arabic from outside their room, “Wlih, what are you doing now?”
Though Javed hadn’t come in, to see if it was something he could join.
The great difference here, at Ridgebrook, is that Mikki is unseen, alone for now, at this women writers’ retreat her husband gave her his indifferent permission to go to. Here each indigenous and Third World woman writer, her artistic ambitions as ancient as cave art, is given a literal small cave, a cabin carved out of the rock. To come here, she had to take a boat. This boat, little more than a small, fragile raft, wouldn’t have been safe for children, but in any case, children aren’t permitted on this island full of caves.
The feeling of living in a cave is balanced by running hot water and lunch delivered every day. There are strict rules about giving each other ample space to work. Naturally, the caves here have no Internet or phone connections. The decision to prohibit men came out of the cave retreat’s history, when, in the early years, some men were caught lurking at the entrances of certain women’s caves, or following especially lovely women home under the pretext of “only wanted to make sure you’re all right,” or any number of other behaviors and actions that, added up, imposed a constant pressure. Still, there are women here who want to make love to her; Mikki knows this as clearly, from their close hugs during the occasional communal dinners, as the fact that at thirty-three, she may be the youngest woman here. Those women talk about missing their kids, giving Mikki indulgent, affectionate looks as if, because she has no children yet, she might be one of theirs.
That Mikki and Javed haven’t had kids yet is a source of great apprehension to his semi-agrarian Egyptian family, but not to either Mikki, short for Malliki, or to Javed himself, since both have acknowledged, cordially and with a kind of love, that there is distance between them, and that this space, this distance, rather than being negative, will lengthen the course of their marriage indefinitely. She likes that she can’t speak Arabic, that he doesn’t know one word of Tamil. His world is one of hookahs and soccer games; hers of rice and lentils, temples resembling ships. The architecture of crushing love, which would wash over them without their trying for it, that defining love that makes every choice different—such love for their children would surely have bound them, she thinks now, the way she did a year ago, when she was actively trying to get pregnant. She still feels reverberations of this intense, imagined baby-love whenever she sees a child with its mother or a cluster of unknown children laughing and playing on the street.
Love, love. Love, love. She stirs herself to get ready, drink a cup of coffee, settle down to work, so that when the old women who bring her lunch in a basket, leaving it at the entrance of the cave, look in on her without realizing that she can see them—when these women watchers come to do their daily task, Mikki will appear in control and studious. A woman dedicated to her art.
Instead of one who, given the smallest excuse, would get back into bed to rendezvous with an imaginary man, a man who, if she were to admit it, strongly resembles a male character she’s been attempting, here in this cave, a place of fecundity, to fossilize inside her mind. Then lay his bones out on the page, see what the pieces of him can add up to.
HOW COULD YOU FUCKING TRAP ME IN A BOOK LIKE THIS?
By this time in the morning, he is talking. He’s been talking all the days that she’s been on “retreat.” But there is really no retreat from him. He’s a weathered forty to her juicy thirty-three. Unlike her husband, the man is white.
JUST COME HERE AND TALK TO ME. YOU WON’T ANSWER. I’VE WRITTEN TO YOU A HUNDRED TIMES.
She’s counted. He’s spoken to her like this, in this presumptuous tone, a hundred times—plaintive, demanding, yet self-assured, as if there is this thing between them that he can appeal to, even though she hasn’t even named him yet.
HARRY. YOU KNOW I HAVE A NAME. HARRY. CALL ME TO YOU. CALL ME BY NAME.
She can’t tell if the stranger is actually someone she knows. If the man she feels she might have spent last night with has the name “Harry” because it is the name of the beautiful boy in first grade whom she has never forgotten. The boy had milk-pale skin and unreal, painted-black lashes over blue eyes, which seemed to illustrate “violet,” the color of eyes in the story about the rich little princess from England who found a garden behind the house next door, or the color of eyes that could go coy and spill over with tears, any moment, like the baby-doll eyes of spoiled, rich, flaxen-haired Amy in Little Women.
Thinking of Little Women, Mikki imagines being warmed before small fires, making do with scarcity, writing novels by hand, only to burn them when told they’re immoral. In most legends and stories, hearth fires are endemic to caves, but there is no firewood here, despite the trees that look like they have been cut down by wind, stumps darkening the snow and and ice outside that cover the island in a bleak, impossible white. The walls of the cave are freezing to the touch, and yet thanks to the ambient heat from tall lamps and the garments she and the other women have been given, insulated robes and electrically heated pants and shirts, Mikki has started to break a modest sweat. Even though she’s been doing nothing more physical than writing in a notebook, the best quality, Swiss-bound moleskine pages with a story about Harry. Marking the pages indelibly, with a Mont LeBlanc pen.
Pretending to herself that she’s alone, she takes off some of her clothing.
YES. YES. YES M, YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL. I ALWAYS WANTED TO SAY THAT, OPENLY. EVEN THOUGH I PRETENDED TO BE DISGUSTED BY YOU.
This man, this eccentric character, whom she admits she’s been kissing every night in bed for two weeks now, despite this Harry person remaining invisible, though with a distant outline reassuring in its elegance—yes, Mikki remembers somehow (though how on earth, if this particular Harry isn’t real, unlike other Harrys she knows, whose voices she’s heard as normal voices, in real life, could such a memory have been encoded?), she remembers the moment that Harry, sitting in a room with Mikki and their first-grade teacher, accused of having bullied her and forced to defend himself, shrank back from her when she passed by, as if she reeked of shit.
COWSHIT, WAS WHAT I WANTED TO IMPLY. FRESH COW DUNG, OF A THIRD WORLD PROVENANCE. DUNG YOU’D SOMEHOW BROUGHT FROM INDIA IN YOUR LITTLE KNAPSACK. DAMN WAS A I PRECOCIOUS SIX-YEAR-OLD.
If Harry was a real man, as Mikki has recently begun to suspect—maybe someone she’d had a real-life, passing tussle with, then blocked out like a terrible hair day—if this fellow, Harry, had harassed her, it had been by Chinese water torture, by psychological drip by drip. That was how it struck her, the process, day by day and moment by moment, by which he sought to insinuate himself into her consciousness.
It was days ago. At first, he, from wherever he was, spoke in a conversational, pleasant tone.
HOW ARE YOU? HOPE THINGS ARE GOING WELL.
Nothing different. Nothing awry. But then his words became intrusive, personal, she had thought she ought to tell someone, especially since she was alone here. That he was pressing on her, like the men who had once followed women to private caves. That talking back to him at all—a mistake! An error! The sight of her lips moving, the sound of her voice, the mere act of her responding to him—had stimulated him to press her more.
I KNOW IT’S HARD FOR YOU, GETTING ALONG WITH PEOPLE IN AUTHORITY, WITH COLLEAGUES, HELL, REALLY WITH EVERYONE. I KNOW IT’S ALWAYS JUST SO HARD FOR YOU. LET ME BE YOUR ALLY, MIKKI. LET ME HELP.
Even in what he was shouting, he kept misspelling her name. And she wasn’t sure, either, whom he meant she ought to be getting along with. Her husband? A man who never criticized her. Coworkers? Her coworkers had brought cake for her birthday, celebrating at the daycare where she taught two and three-year-old children as her day job. Authority? She’d had a big fight once with a white woman at a bank, who insisted that, since there was a discrepancy in how she spelled her name on her gas bill versus how the government spelled that foreign name on her license, she couldn’t be who she said she was and didn’t qualify for a promotional account.
O MIKKI YOU’RE SO FINE, YOU’RE SO FINE, YOU BLOW MY MIND. YOU ARE A PASSIONATE PERSON. AN ARTIST. NOT TOO MANY MEN HAVE ANY HOPE OF UNDERSTANDING YOU. YOU HAVE TO LEAVE YOUR HUSBAND AND COME BE WITH ME. IF YOU AREN’T GOING TO LET ME OUT OF HERE, IF YOU INSIST ON KEEPING ME IN HERE, THEN WHY DON’T YOU COME INSIDE THIS PAGE, COME HERE TO ME.
If only this character weren’t so awkward, so sincere. Two qualities Mikki has learned not to associate with men. Now she leans back from the desk that faces the entrance of the cave, gets up, assumes a Warrior pose for just a few. Now she walks over to a sculpture she has built. A kind of installation is the term for it now, though in her head she refers to these works of art as dioramas.
When she was five, just on the verge of finishing preschool, she made her first diorama, a crayon-colored representation of life with her parents. They had died when Mikki was two. She didn’t remember them, strictly speaking, yet she had memorized what memories of them she’d constructed. The photo of her mother graduating from college—surely that must have been the source of Mikki’s memory, real and sure, of running toward her mother after getting off a bus, running across a field where the usual warnings about traffic and cars didn’t apply and she could just run, be a child, and not have to watch out for anyone.
Her father and mother together, in a bed the size and color of the rafts that carried Mikki and other women artists to their respective caves.
Back to the sculpture Mikki has built on this retreat. This more recent diorama Mikki has built in secret, during this retreat, is of a place she’s never been. A house on the edge of a tall cliff, white and cream, the awnings bright with red flags on which she’s painted intricate designs. A small cave opens out. Inside of it, there are rooms, like an artist’s studio, with a daybed upon which there is a woman and a man, the architecture rendered sharp, the human features indistinct. And the diorama is tiny, scaled small so that it makes the viewer live inside her mind.
There is that story she is writing too, now nearly two hundred pages long, a whole novel, from which this Harry character seems to have sprung, fully formed, uninvited, and won’t go back into whatever place he’s from, whatever sphere where he exists. As if her imagination cannot contain him.
The diorama, now that she stands back and looks at it, owes a debt to Salvador Dalí. There are no obvious melting clocks, but the sense of wide spaces and unaccounted time, reflecting Mikki’s own sense, here, dwelling in caves, that all manner of things could have already happened in the world outside. Nuclear war, the overthrow of a demented president. Her husband, cheating with the neighbor’s wife. Not like she hasn’t noticed that last thing.
HE’S WHAT? THAT FUCKING DOUCHE. THAT WOMAN HAS SUCH A BIG ASS. COME ON, MIKKI, COME ON. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? JUST STEP INSIDE. COME IN. GIVE ME A KISS.
It is ridiculous—she is ridiculous, she knows—but Mikki finds herself pressing her own lips against her wrist, deeply enough to leave a mark in saliva. Isn’t this what some famous writer told her students to do, when they felt low? And doesn’t it make sense, to inject each rumination with compassion?
But this kissing isn’t born of karuna or upekkha, or any of the Hindu/Buddhist words ascribing compassionate motivations that Mikki has nearly forgotten how to say, ever since she married a handsome but agnostic, cruel, perfidious Muslim. The neighbor’s wife really is no one of note. Just an exceedingly plump, rosy white woman whose major attributes are near-perfect cleanliness, including housekeeping; robust cooking, including Egyptian treats she researched after first meeting Javed at a barbecue; and above all, silence in bed. Mikki knows this because one time, when she’d come home from work without warning, she’d crept up the stairs and even slid open the bedroom door, only to find neighbor’s wife, fat and naked, splayed and moaning silently, apparently satisfied beneath Javed.
Neither of them had seen Mikki. But maybe he’d guessed that she knew, when only two weeks later she’d contrived a way to be separated, in this cave.
It wouldn’t be the first time an Egyptian man—the descendant of kings, Javed jokingly or not so jokingly likes to remind her—has chosen to consort with pale, fat women. In all the emperors’ and even in minor sultans’ harems were such women, hair shining, wet lips succulent. Mikki has seen them in period paintings, the nineteenth-century European imagination of a slovenly despot’s concubines.
Javed has never personally been slovenly, though. Even in the midst of Javed’s taboo lovemaking, the covers of the Tempur-Pedic bed were neatly folded, just as usual.
In his well-paid job as a bond trader, Javed is courteous, pleasant—one might even say gallant—with women who literally weigh half what this white neighbor does. Women with sheer stockings over worked-out, slender legs, women who put on their silk blouses and perfume every morning, expecting strange men to admire and covet but not harass them. Javed is stranger than most. Instead of Playboy or Penthouse, he has a stash of BBB porno magazines—big bold and beautiful, plus sizes, pre-gastric bypass surgery sizes. Folds of flesh gleaming, rendered inhuman and therefore more erotic, huge flattened breasts like those of seals or bloated dogs.
In the state of uncertainty immediately after her discovery, Mikki decided she had to go back to work. Not at the odd jobs she cobbled together. Like, not walking the neighbor’s dogs (she’d just as soon avoid seeing the lush garden on the other, hateful side of the fence); not painting old houses for cheap; not standing at the register in the hospital gift shop downtown; not tutoring the Korean children whose parents paid Mikki well for every session, though the kids spoke not a word of English and she not a word of Korean.
Before she’d taken all the odd jobs, she’d lived on what was left of her mother’s inheritance. Before she’d married Javed, Mikki was unashamedly writing and making art, living off love, the love her mother’s mother had for her, leaving Mikki’s mother—baapre! That much money to a girl!—enough so she could be an opera singer. Mikki still loves to play her mother’s records.
YOU’VE NEVER COME OVER TO WHERE I AM, PUT YOUR FEET ON MY LAP BEFORE A FIRE, AND LISTENED TO OPERA WHILE DRINKING WINE WITH ME. YOU’VE NEVER LIVED, MY LITTLE MALLIKI.
Malliki. She considers her name. “Now is that sort of like Malachy, the Irish bloke?” one of Javed’s old-slash-distinguished British banker friends once asked. Malachy McCourt, the brother of Frank, who’d had the chance to write his memoirs too. Saint Malachy, who’d restored the sanctity of marriage in Ireland. Whose prophecies, for centuries, had been poo-pooed. All of his doomsday prophecies.
YOU HAVEN’T PUT MY MEMOIRS IN THIS BOOK. I’M READING IT. IT’S GOOD, IT REALLY IS. ESPECIALLY THE SCENE WHEN SHE REFUSES TO TAKE HIM BACK AFTER WHAT HE DID. BUT WHAT ABOUT ME? WHAT ABOUT OUR TIMES TOGETHER, THOSE AFTERNOONS YOU SAT PREOCCUPIED WITH ME?
Who will write her memoirs, Mikki wonders. What has she ever done that is really worth writing about? Not children, since she and Javed had never succeeded in creating any. Not Javed, whose ideal woman she fell short of by at least fifty pounds. No one will write about her life, she surmises. And who knows what this Harry guy will do to the pages she’d written. Nothing will stop him from mucking around inside there, distorting the truth.
YOU KNOW I’M NOT GOING TO GIVE UP. I’M TELLING YOU, I’M NEVER GIVING UP. COME IN, COME IN, WHEREVER YOU ARE. I’M WAITING.
Since Mikki has never talked out loud to him, she wonders if the man, this character, whoever he is, might be so shocked by her addressing him that he’d stop heckling.
“Hello,” she says, out to the dark beyond the cave. “Hello? Hello?”
Emboldened, she begins to sing an Indian religious song, a bhajan about lotus-eyed gods, while putting the finishing touches on the diorama and thinking, for once not of Dalí, but about De Chirico. Old churches, echoing emptiness. The feel of thrilling desolation similar to how she felt, Mikki remembers, when she first read “The Crying of Lot 49.” That nauseating, sickening feeling that forces of darkness too elusive for her to even name could be responsible,
somehow, for all manner of losses and false turns. Thurn und Taxis. Something going bad. A handsome man who, upon closer inspection, might turn out to be no better than a seedily aging movie star, a man no one would fantasize about anymore.
I’LL FANTASIZE ABOUT YOU, MY MIKKI, EVEN IF YOU DON’T COME ANY CLOSER THAN THIS EDGE. SO GRATEFUL THAT YOU’RE NOW TALKING TO ME.
Mikki falls silent. It is nearly time for the old women to make their promenades around each cave, officially clearing excess snow and making sure the pipes were functioning smoothly, unofficially snooping on the indigenous women artists, among whom Mikki alone has no children.“Before she’d married Javed, Mikki was unashamedly writing and making art, living off love, the love her mother’s mother had for her, leaving Mikki’s mother—baapre! That much money to a girl!—enough so she could be an opera singer.”
She has a choice to make; she can see that now. She can say yes to this old Harry—
FORTY’S NOT OLD!
—especially since Javed’s infidelity frees her from guilt. How she would say yes, she isn’t sure. The diorama has grown bigger in the last few hours, though. Of that, she is certain.
There is a haunting, eerie smell—of jasmine hair oil, from when she visited India when she was very young, though she hasn’t rubbed her scalp with even one drop in years. That such a long-ago smell should be here now, here in this cave-studio where characters from novels are speaking out loud, is only logical, Mikki supposes.
“What about that whole cowshit thing? Are you that Harry, too?” Her own voice out loud, in the cave.
I WAS WAITING FOR YOU TO FIGURE THAT OUT. THAT WAS THE HARRY FROM ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. DO YOU REMEMBER? HOW HE SAID THAT YOU SMELLED LIKE COWSHIT, AND HOW YOU COULDN’T WASH THE BROWN DIRT FROM YOUR HANDS?
“I guess I remember now,” Mikki murmurs.
I’M NOT THAT HARRY. LOOK CLOSER NOW. COME HERE. COME TALK TO ME.
In the diorama, installation, cave within a cave, really, this house built on a cliff, its male and female figures on a bed, one old woman cooking dinner, other old woman sweeping floors, and still another one, witch-like, peering from outside—in the small place she’s built, inside this place, Mikki has never imagined Harry, but now she does, giving his heckling, needy voice a human form. Suppose she believes he’s not that bully from elementary school. But suppose he isn’t innocent either. Suppose he’s that white guy about whom she’d gone to Human Resources.
Mikki remembers why, in her book, she might have picked the name Harry.
She has been working a holiday retail shift at the hospital gift shop. Evening shifts. There was a Harry something who was a doctor, psychiatrist, relatively early on in his career, only forty. He’d come every evening, buying chocolates “for my two kids,” he said, his wedding ring glinting, even laughing a few times and asking if Mikki had kids.
One day—she remembers this—he came forward, trying to offer her advice. The day after she found Javed cheating. He’d seen the tear marks on her face. That was the moment this adult Harry dared to touch her. She’d been wearing a silk blouse, ruby-colored, with a gold chain and gold earrings. “You look like a Gypsy,” he said, completely free of irony. Since of course he didn’t know.
I KNOW IT NOW.
Harry (she’d looked him up online, using her phone)—the well-heeled psychiatrist Bostonian, both father and grandfather trained as famous analysts—had no idea of Mikki’s ancestry, from real Gypsies who’d once traced their ancestry to western India. How the Romani bone structure, hair, gold jewelry reflected in Mikki’s own weren’t accidentally similar, but reflective of Mikki’s own Tamil forebears. An ancestry that Harry, unlike Javed, wanted to know more about, though he claimed he couldn’t be sated by a few minutes’ conversation, she was that interesting to him.
WE’LL TALK IN BETWEEN YOU KNOW WHAT. PILLOW TALK. HEH HEH.
She’d made him remember, he said, the history he’d learned as the former leader of a clinic in Somerville for Nepali immigrants. His friendly, progressive views were nonetheless a bit rigid, she thought. Staunchly anti-Palestinian, for one. Not that comfortable with queer identities. Judgmental about sex workers forming a union. Almost Puritanical in his tastes.
WE HARDLY GOT TO TALK! I TOUCHED YOU THAT ONE TIME. WE EVEN KISSED IN THAT GIFT SHOP. I CHEATED ON MY WIFE AND KIDS. BUT THEN YOUR BOSS SAW YOU, AND YOU REPORTED ME TO HUMAN RESOURCES.
“I didn’t report you, actually,” Mikki says, still softly, looking at the entrance of the cave but not seeing anyone, wondering if the old women are coming today.
WAIT, COME AGAIN.
“I didn’t report you. I only went to Human Resources to see if it was allowed, any kind of dating between someone like me, a part-time employee in the gift shop, and a tall person, a fine person, like you. Doctor and all. Because I liked the way you kissed. Just that one time.”
“I only wanted to make sure it was allowed, what we would do. I mean, if we did anything.”
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
The old woman assigned to clean Mikki’s cave comes then. She sweeps out the dust that, even in snow, remains all over the island, a testament to its hot, twisted birth out of volcanoes with grand gusto, like millions of champagne bottles popping.
BELIEVE ME, I WANT YOU TO MAKE AS MUCH NOISE AS YOU WANT.
They all say those things in the beginning, Mikki thinks with irritation. She nods to the old woman, pretends to work.
“What else?” she finally speaks the words softly, thinking that perhaps he won’t hear. Her hands are in the diorama now, now that the old woman has finished and gone, sparing only a quick glance of curiosity to Mikki with her taut self-dialogue. Now she is alone, Mikki reminds herself, feeling strange and desolate, like she is being given a fake thing, a false clue, a hopeless and demoralizing view from a window, like Pynchon’s crazy psychiatrist in ‘The Crying of Lot 49,” calling the heroine Oedipa Maas in the middle of the night. Mikki could swear that not only her fingers, but her whole arms are in this diorama now, her whole face and neck and hair and, within minutes, her whole body.
And now she can see the features of the man and woman on the bed. In this newly warm, cave-like space, so much warmer than the one she’s been in for the women’s retreat, Mikki can make out the dim outline of a bed covered in a down blanket. And in this large raft-sized bed lies someone, not the Harry she’d seen in the hospital, the real man, albeit white, who’d seen her sad, and alone. This Harry isn’t that psychiatrist who, until that afternoon, when he’d first touched her ruby-silken-covered shoulders, then her face, and then kissed her, had never done more than smile at her warmly. It was a moment like a moment from the inexpensive paperbacks the hospital gift shop was selling. The moment of a handsome, distinguished stranger kissing a much younger woman whom he’s seen in distress.
This isn’t him, Malliki thinks, excited. It actually isn’t that random guy from the gift shop, whom she had feared would get her in trouble if anyone saw the video footage. She’d gone to Human Resources to assure her job as being safe. At that point, Mikki couldn’t know, even, if Javed would leave her for some BBB. If Javed would keep essentially bankrolling her art in exchange for Mikki pretending not to have seen what she had seen. The odalisque with her slick, decadent rolls of flesh and Javed, uncharacteristically subdued and content.
YOU MEAN YOU DIDN’T KNOW WHO I WAS? I’M CRUSHED.
This isn’t a “Harry” she has known before. This is an unknown person. He turns and could almost frighten her with eyes like a sorcerers’.
I WANT TO FIND OUT WHO YOU ARE.
That’s her voice, not his. Mikki finds herself speaking the same language he does.
I’M GOING TO MAKE YOU WISH YOU HAD COME TO ME SOONER.
HARRY, THAT SOUNDS LIKE A PROMISE.
DO YOU EVER HAVE TO GO BACK?
THIS CAVE IS MINE AS LONG AS I WANT IT.
THEN MY JOB IS TO MAKE YOU WANT TO STAY.
YOU’RE DOING FINE.
And so it goes, this back and forth—so loud inside each other’s minds—
EACH OTHER’S HEARTS, they say in unison.
Until, instead of being able to talk spontaneously at all, and instead of moving wherever she likes, Mikki finds herself pinned to the diorama’s bed, displayed, not nude but even more exposed, making a kissing motion toward her own outstretched right hand. But this time Harry, the right Harry, is kissing her hand too, and holding her there with his whole body, which feels heavy and immovable, as if it has been carefully glued into place.
From White Dancing Elephants. Used with permission of Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2018 by Chaya Bhuvaneswar.