“I Have a Mouth”
An Excerpt from the Winner of Restless Books 2021 Prize for New Immigrant Writing
The following is an excerpt from By Its Right Name by Ani Gjika, who won the Restless Books 2021 Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
In the Andes, there’s a group of people who speak the Aymara language and think of time so differently from the rest of us. For the Aymara people, the future, “qhipa pacha/timpu,” translates as “back” or “behind time” and the past, “nayra pacha/timpu,” as “front time,” meaning that the past always sits in front of us because we always think about where we come from, what we’ve done. But the future is behind us, unknown to us, we can’t foresee.
Growing up in Albania in the ’80s, I saw so many people who had no present. People were their pasts, forever. Even when you were unknown, someone would go and dig something up from your past and that defined you, for the rest of your life. You couldn’t achieve anything anymore. How did people even dream then? You were locked in this box of “what you’d done.” Branded. How did someone love somebody then? When people’s presence is stolen from them, they are already dead. I know too that when you think or worry too much about the future, you miss out on seeing who you are and what you have right now.
“Alright, I should go,” T says one morning after he’d said it a few times but hadn’t been able to get out of bed.
We finally get up and I walk him over to the living room. We stand there for a moment and he puts his arms around me, but soon he kisses my neck already and I’m kissing his, our heads dancing very slowly, forehead to cheek, forehead to forehead, our hands begin to travel like trains without locomotives, they go anywhere. Behind me, on the wall, I’m aware of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” hanging, perhaps eyeing us, except I don’t fall on my knees. I’m standing right in the middle of my living room with him standing before me, the morning light completely stunned around us. For an eternal moment, we’re the only gods alive in the world. He pulls my sleeping shirt down and my right breast rises out. He kisses it or tries to gulp it or both. Then he pulls my shirt up but doesn’t take it off and bends to nibble on my left nipple as I bite his shoulder then his chest and start to lift his shirt though I don’t take it off either. He moves his hands to unzip his pants, but his hands don’t know how to follow through and we’re breathing like trains down a valley. I unzip him and as I lower his pants my mouth draws a perfect invisible line vertically down to the source of what made him come here last night and as the rest of me follows my mouth he pulls my shirt over my head. I rise again and kiss him on the mouth and then I lower my own pants. They fall on the floor with my undies — prayers that go nowhere. We’re standing in the room naked and nothing could detach me from this. He takes me back to the bedroom where the murmuration of our bodies falls and rises on the bed by its own design the way his mouth suddenly falls right in between my legs and then rises into my own mouth. We are too good at this.
Sometimes you just have sex because it’s powerful to feel the other person experiencing power in the process of having his desires met—he’s aroused by you at first and then is allowed to fully feast on you. It’s powerful to feed someone and control his hunger. I do not like this side of me. There is no heart in it. The heart is a winged little thing who’d waited and waited for love. I devour it mindlessly the moment I decide I will go ahead and arouse him.
What about him? Why has he come back this time? What else does he want from me?
Why doesn’t he admit it? He is addicted to watching me get turned on under his touch, as his breath tresspasses my neck, his grip on my side, and on all of my insides.
The truth is simpler than all that. We both love sex. And in knowing that I allow him to have whatever he wants because the more he gets what he wants the more he gives back and I like watching him surrender. Earlier, I woke up and watched him sleep and thought, god, he looks old. And then I thought I’m a terrible person. But this right here, this is what lust is. I’ve become someone who desires to see and proceeds to watch the complete surrender of another.
Sometimes, you just have the kind of sex where you see yourself pulling all the strings and the sex morphs endlessly into something all shape and no language. Sometimes you do it, knowing too well, for the last time.
“I’m not going to have sex with you anymore,” I told T one night when we were out on the patio at his cottage on the Cape. “I don’t want a part-time relationship. I’m serious this time.”
“I know you’re not going to,” he said. “I can see it in your eyes.”
“Good,” I said, taking another drag, not blinking.
“Look at your cigar burning perfectly, you haven’t had to relight it or anything.”
“Confidence,” I said, surprised that I answered back so quickly and with that word, and laughed. I remembered Pura Lopez Colome the one time I met her and her husband in Slovenia at a poetry festival. When we parted she gave me two Romeo & Julietta cigars I’d told her I’d have with “a good friend of mine.”
“Strive to be happy, Ani,” had been her parting words. I was, strangely enough, feeling happy this very moment, making this decision.
We slept in separate beds that night. As I lay down trying to fall asleep, my mind pictured that I was being watched by the distorted face of a black-haired woman looking at me from outside a window frame that was outside a window frame outside a window frame and on and on so she seemed to watch me from far away. Her face looked like she couldn’t make up her mind if she wanted to scare or warn me about something. Who was she? Buried Rozafa? Some ancestor? Just my imagination? I made my mind’s eye turn and look her in the eyes and the more I stared at her the closer she seemed to appear, one window frame disappearing at a time until her face grew larger into a mere dark shadow like the whole night encircling me. When it seemed that that darkness had overtaken me I told it to fuck the hell off, and it dissolved like incense smoke and I finally fell asleep.
Once, as a teenager, I had an incredible dream. I was looking out from my balcony, toward the sky, and the clouds opened up theater-curtain-style on a gigantic stage to reveal the heavens: paradise: life after death: God’s place although there was no God or beautiful wild animals or people, only golden streets and golden mansions. Everything was glistening, glowing, bejeweled under a perfectly blue sky. I think I had an orgasm just looking at it all. It felt, in the dream, like all this view opened up to reveal to me that this paradiseafterdeath was real except that when I woke up, I had the sudden realization that the dream wasn’t so special anymore, because it looked like the illustrations in Arthur S. Maxwell’s The Bible Story series that foreign missionaries from America had brought to us when I lived in Tirana, Albania. Clearly my dream was a manifestation of, or response to, what I’d been looking at in my waking hours. I was so disappointed.
But I think of this now, this “destination,” this place where all who believe in a heaven want to go. And I don’t know why but I’m always worried about death. I can’t understand why everything has to die. There’s so much beauty here in knowing one another, each other’s strengths and losses, witnessing all that. I don’t understand why that gift of witnessing has to end. Something so meaningful as loving someone, a parent, a child, a friend, a dog, a house, a river, a rock… having to never see them again. Why were we given all this?
“Where is your grandmother?” my therapist asked me once when we were talking about this fear of death.
“Is she gone?” she asked again without forming another question to clarify so that it hit me right then and there as I thought about it, that no, not really, she hasn’t gone anywhere except maybe she’s inside me?
“There’s this old saying I forget from where,” she said: “Old friends will come and go, but the dead are always with us.”
I cried because I’d known the same with my dog, Petey. And I realize now that crying is also a way your body tells you it has recognized and received your truth.
The more I question death the further from answers I get. But deep down I have this strong sense that my questioning has something to do with home. As though home is the opposite of death and once I reach there, or have a better grasp of what that is, I’ll no longer be afraid to die, or to lose it all, because there is no loss. Only a transition. Another form of experiencing home. Maybe. I’ll never be done thinking this through. Will I go to hell?
When my grandmother was on her deathbed, my uncle told us she passed away repeating the phrase, “Jezu Krishti është i biri i Perëndisë.” Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
This petite 96-year-old woman whose eyesight was all gone in the last few months she had left, used to save part of her bread every morning those last months to feed the birds on the balcony, leaning a little too far on the railing because she didn’t see very well. I can see her almost flying off… arms outstretched the way she’d have them when she prayed, so many times, back in my childhood when we lived together. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and there she was flat on the floor whispering prayers. She’d get up and lift her arms up, then bow down and lie flat again, then up, about three or five times. Always facing north, David in the Bible. And me facing this shadow. I’ve never been so dedicated.
My uncle didn’t say why he thought my grandma said those words on her death bed. Neither did my father and I’ve never asked anyone. But it strikes me that even she, a woman of such strong faith, had to say this on her death bed, at the time of her last breaths.
I can’t help but wonder if she said those words because she wanted so badly to arrive in heaven. That if God heard her last words he would know how devout she was and he would take her.
Maybe I’m wrong, right, grandma? You really believed it. But why would you say those words on your deathbed, blind as a bat… were you doubting it all? Fine. I will believe that that was all the home you needed to arrive at. That deep acceptance, call it acceptance, call it surrender, call it knowing. Knowing “it is finished” and being OK with that.
All I know right now is that home for me cannot be anything depicted on any book, nothing at all from a dream. Another person cannot be my home. And in realizing all this I’m left with myself. My body. My heart beating. My blood. My soul. My aloneness. These are the only home. This moment. My presence. The future is behind me. I can’t see it. The past always in front of me waving a finger going tsk, tsk, tsk, remember what you were like, and I do, and I carry all that I’ve been. But it is Now when I breathe. When I know what I want and even when I know that I don’t know what exactly I want.
Home is anywhere I stop to think about believing. There are no mistakes. Only choices. A long day of childhood in which you play, get bruised, get up and play again till you sit on the sidewalk waiting for your best friend to have had enough of the game and you fall asleep, arms crossed, head on your knees.
I drive my prayers home every time I think of how much I love myself. It is like going up the stairs in a house after all the guests have left, satisfied with everything, and the dishes are somehow all done, and the evening is all mine, and all the tomorrows can wait.
Home is when I open my palm and let everything go and yet I feel surrounded by all I’ve loved and all I’ve lost. My Petey is here. My grandmother is here. My childhood is here. Tirana is here. Everyone I’ve loved is here. God is here. And I am God.