It Will Follow You Home
You describe Abigail’s death to a Middle Eastern mental health counselor. This is your fourth visit to the university’s Center for Psychological Services. She is your third therapist. You had never seen her wandering through the corridors before.
Then again, why should you have seen her?
You are an individual who drops in for a bi-annual check-in after a depressive episode, tells your story to a different counselor, and never returns the center’s calls for the next appointment. The only difference between then and now is that before, you were an M.F.A. candidate struggling with a poetry thesis, and now, you are a lecturer of Composition and Rhetoric, struggling with a poetry collection.
“They’re too white. The therapists in this town are too white for me,” you tell everyone. Your officemate. Your thesis director. Omar. Jeffery.
You also told this to Abigail. You were both sitting on her porch. She was helping you with your teaching portfolio. She had brought a cigarette to her lips and reflected. You allowed the smoke from her cigarette to consume you and your view of the Lutheran church from her porch. She emitted a low chuckle.
You were both haunted.
Two months later, in November, you are to attend her memorial in the same oddly shaped, red-brick church.
You do not like the sofa in the Middle Eastern counselor’s office. It makes a lot of noise when you move. And you move a lot. You try to sit still so she does not track your level of discomfort and anxiety by how many times you shift in the couch.
Behind her, evening expands rapidly in the purple feathered sky. Fall in Morgantown, West Virginia, is a passionate time. You see the bright reds and burnt oranges from the window. The daylight escapes sooner. It gets dark earlier. And you hate that.
It terrifies you.
You look at the therapist’s cluttered desk. A small crystal swan figurine on the corner of the table catches your eye. One of its wings is missing.
The therapist’s brown fingers move swiftly on the notepad as you continue talking, and she continues to listen. You talk about your mother. About your brother in Cleveland. About your incomplete poetry collection. About your breakup with a good man weeks ago. About your habit of lingering in bad relationships.
You look down at your brown hands. They are dry. You look over at the therapist’s desk and shelves for moisturizer. Morgantown has made your skin dry. You always carry a small bottle of moisturizer, a travel-size Aveeno. You wake up in the middle of the night to apply and re-apply moisturizer on your feet and hands. It is a ritual reserved only for America.
You keep looking down at your brown hands. They look old when they are dry.
When you were twelve, your grandmother made a paste of gram flour, lemon juice, and turmeric in a bowl. She applied it all over your face, neck, and hands. The remedy was said to make you fair and rosy, like your mother and sister. It never worked.
The therapist says she will call you back. You leave her office.
There is reassurance in her voice.
In the car you tell your friend Jeffery that you feel the same gravitational pull with the Middle Eastern therapist that your Arab and Indian students feel towards you as a teacher. You call this pull, “the connection of the brown skin.”
“The brown students seek me out.”
Jeffery does not think you should speak of skin color so much. You tell him you never did before coming here.
His new therapist is a white man who teaches him activities to help him to love himself. Your therapist gave you no such activity.
Jeffery tells you that, like other things in life, therapy is also a journey.
It is a wild flight.
Lahore, Pakistan, is a delicious city. A mottled mess of vanishing history and new regimes. Lahore becomes ominous when you are in Morgantown. Lahore becomes a quiet mirage, an odd spectacle hung in time that only moves how you want it to move. It only moves when you want it to move. It does not speak to you or wail for you, yet you write only about Lahore. You preserve it in your poetry. You suppress it in a verse. You capture it in the refrain of a poem: its beating heart, its howls and cries, its chuckle. Yes, Lahore chuckles. The colonial drawing room in your mother’s house. The pale light that slithered through the bedroom curtains. The moth your father captured in his palm when you were a child. And then he kissed the brown wings to show you that the moth was a friend. The goodness of the gardener who gave you jasmine flowers every evening. The ceramic bowl with tulips on it where you placed the flowers. The horrid monsoon rains that killed the houseboy. How long can a stanza sustain the scuffling of a city?
“It’s called being in love,” your brother replies when you send him a text. “You do not like everything about the lover, yet you never really leave them. You keep returning one way or the other.”
Your brother wants you to stay in America. Find work in New York. Boston. D.C. Virginia. Big places. Get out of Morgantown. Stay away from Lahore.
You are unable to do either.
“Nothing ever happens in these places,” he texts. “You will never meet anyone.”
He knows you linger in bad relationships.
“America does not need foreign teachers who teach English Composition,” you text him. “Teachers who come with a burden of visa and visa fee.”
He does not reply. Doctors sleep early.
Whenever your mother calls you from Lahore, she speaks of your returning. She tells you that you have left a clamoring city for a frozen town. You left a house with servants for a small apartment with dead succulents. Days go by. No one visits you. You pass Thanksgiving Break and the summer holidays by yourself.
You tell your mother the story of Joyce Carol Vincent. A woman who died in her London apartment while watching television and packing gifts during the Christmas season. The housing officials discovered her body after two years. She was a skeleton. The television was still flickering on. No one noticed her vanishing.
Your mother does not like such stories. Omar had said the same thing when you told him Joyce’s story. He took the spare apartment key from you. He said he would find your body the next day.
You won’t be a skeleton.
And it won’t be after two years.
You tell your mother that you are not mad at Lahore. If Lahore disappoints, Morgantown disappoints you too. If Lahore makes your hair frizzy, Morgantown sucks the life out of your skin. You can’t explain things you do not understand yourself.
“What are you running away from?” your mother asks you over the phone. Her voice is solemn.
She never asks your brother that.
You tell her that you were in Lahore for a long time. And when you left, you did not abandon it. You did not stop loving it. You left it because of the noise. There was always too much noise in Lahore.
You tell her you will think about returning after Abigail’s memorial.
You had never heard of melatonin before you moved to Morgantown. You read about the drug on a friend’s Facebook status. You praised the metaphor in a friend’s poem. Then, you saw it in CVS. 3 mg. 5 mg. 10 mg. “Fall asleep faster.” “Stay asleep longer.” Pills. Gummies. Bottles with moon and clouds, teddy bear and blankets, fruits and foliage.
You had heard of Lexotanil. Your mother took it to sleep. Your aunt took it after her husband died. Another aunt took it after her son drowned in Rawal Lake on his school trip. The women in your family took Lexotanil to escape.
Years ago, you brother gave you something called Clonazepam. It calmed you down. A boy had broken your heart. You did not stop crying for months.
When you first moved to Morgantown three years ago, you met Omar and the group. You befriended the two Pakistani boys and three Indian girls because you wanted to speak to someone in Urdu. Your tongue craved that. Especially after a long day of teaching Composition and Rhetoric and taking a graduate poetry workshop. It was like having dessert after a three-course meal you did not relish but paid a lot to eat.
In the summer of 2016, you stayed up until 5 a. m. every day with the boys and watched Bollywood films and listened to Coke Studio songs.
Omar had lived in Karachi all his life. You were older than him. You were older than all of them. You lingered and stayed till 5 a. m. because you hated going back to your apartment. You had trouble sleeping in a new place. You had trouble waking up to deadly stillness.
When the group was ready to retire and return home, you would call an uber. Omar would stand on the balcony of his apartment and watch you sit inside the car.
As the car drove by the mosque, the gas station, the recreation center, the laundromat, you would look up at the towering apartments. You pictured the tenants sleeping serenely under their blankets without melatonin.
You tell Jeffery in the English Department about how you are older than all your brown friends and how they keep joking about that. You are both making copies of midterm rubrics for your students.
He reminds you that you are still in your mid-twenties.
You tell him old age comes faster for Pakistani women.
In the beginning of your relationship, Omar made you watch Interstellar with him. He loved the emergency docking scene where Matthew McConaughey maneuvers the spinning spacecraft to match the rotation of the Endurance. McConaughey gets dizzy midway. Anne Hathaway passes out due to g-force. Hans Zimmer’s score intensifies the danger and stakes in the scene. You understand the symbolic meaning behind the scene because you studied literature, and because you are a poet. You conducted a little rhetorical analysis for Omar. You said the two spinning machines had meaning. The little spacecraft trying to match the momentum of the Endurance had meaning. The fainting of the astronauts had meaning too.
A week later, you got Omar a t-shirt with the docking scene whose physics you still cannot comprehend.
In small towns, where there is a dearth of good coffee shops, there is also a dearth of good lovers. You get what you get. On Tinder. On Bumble. A game of beer pong at a frat party. In the mixers section at Ashebrooke Liquor Store. At a cricket screening potluck party. And then, you make the most of it. You pass the snow days. And the fall days. And the two days of summer.
You live on campus. You are a twenty-six-year-old lecturer who lives on campus. Abigail lived on campus too. You walk by her house every day. You do not see her smoking on her porch anymore.
You cannot evade walking by her house, the same way you cannot evade stopping by Omar’s apartment whenever you go for a jog, and that is every evening.
He lives five minutes away.
You cannot reason with this addiction anymore. You cannot explain why you do this, again and again. You cannot explain to your therapist why you keep meeting Omar since he was the one who ended the relationship. To Jeffery. To your brother. Maybe because there is no one else left for you in this town. So, you lie and tell everyone you’re not seeing him.
You call Jeffery one midnight to speak about white space.
In stories, it is the emptiness between lines and characters and passages, you tell him. A vacancy. Stillness.
If done right, the reader catches a break.
If overdone, things are misplaced and forgotten.
You tell him that when you leave a place, physically or metaphorically, there are plenty of white spaces.
Between you and the new characters, you and the people and the places that were left behind, between past and present. Maybe a white space is an hour to yourself. A bath you draw. A talk with a stranger that leads nowhere. Packing bags and moving to a new place. It is leaving things for a moment and returning to them.
Returning for them. Or maybe perhaps never returning at all and finding other things.
“Why is white space necessary?” You ask Jeffery over the call. “It gives you a minute to breathe. It shows you your place by making you lose your place for a moment.”
There is silence on the other end. Then, Jeffery asks if you dreamt of Lahore again.
You have a habit of stealing things from your brother’s apartment. He barely notices when things go missing. Doctors are busy people. Doctors are rich people. His life has meaning.
You take all the left-behind quarters. You pick up the candles that are forgotten. You take the books he will never read. You take the medicines he brought back from Pakistan. Panadol for fever. Ponstan Forte for period pain. Skinoren gel for acne marks.
You always come to Cleveland with an empty bag. You pay thirty dollars at airports for an empty bag, but you return home to Morgantown with a suitcase full of things.
You use the quarters for laundry. And you light the candles when you are writing poetry at night.
You wonder if your friends in Lahore ever think of you. They never write to you.
There is a magic about small towns. You feel you can somehow possess it in the palm of your hand. Its history. Its trees. Its people. People know when you go missing. Many heard about Abigail’s fall.
Cities are unfaithful.
Jeffery tells you that his West Virginian twang comes out in conversations sometimes. You tell him Lahori people have a unique accent too. Omar often reminds you when you sound like a Lahori.
Your mother reminds you that you are on a visa. She reminds you that you are not free.
“Remember in December of 2016, when you were visiting Lahore and there was that Muslim ban and you were not sure if you will ever return to Morgantown to finish your M.F.A. Do you remember? Do you want to live in such a country?”
She asks you to return. Again and again.
You were supposed to be your mother’s third child. She had two miscarriages before you. You took a while to be conceived. You have always given her so much pain.
When you failed your eighth-grade exams, she took off from work to teach you. She lost her job. You were terrible in school. You were terrible in Quran class. You were terrible in sports.
You were only ever good at writing. In making up stories about why you were not good at anything.
You tell your therapist the full story of your breakup in summer. The white essential oil diffuser on her windowsill releases a mist. You imagine it smells of rain and eucalyptus. You want the fragrance to reach you. It never does.
You apply the moisturizer on your dry hands and look at the crystal swan figurine. You tell the therapist how much rage you have in your body. You tell her how you shriek in your apartment and how you wail and howl like a child in pain.
Omar, now just a friend, often grabs you by your shoulder and asks, “Where do you get so much anger in that little body?”
Once he picked up a bottle of water and sprayed it on you as if trying to perform an exorcism. You have always been angry. You were an angry child. You were an angry adult. You are an angry lover.
You tell the therapist about your lonely summer in Morgantown. Your Pakistani and Indian friends graduated and left. Jeffery went to Beckley to meet his family. Omar called you from Karachi and you both broke up over the phone.
The therapist says what Jeffery says what your brother says what Omar says: Face it and move on.
You ask her if you can take Omar to Abigail’s memorial.
It won’t be a date.
“Has anything changed between you two since the breakup? Since he returned from his break?”
You tell her that he has put on weight, and you have stopped writing poetry.
Writing is like building a house. You lay the foundation. You erect the building. You make the windows and the doors. And then you return for the plumbing and the electrical stuff. The carpets and the kitchen counters. The revision.
You graduated six months ago. You submitted your M.F.A. thesis in May. It is now mid-October. You have not fixed any leakages and rusty pipes since then.
Saba, a friend back home married young because she wanted to be a good-looking bride. You look through her photos on Facebook. She had her second child and is visiting Paris soon. Her marriage was arranged. Your mother is also finding you a suitable arrangement.
The friend sent you a Facebook message after reading your sentimental post about Abigail’s death. She asks ordinary random questions about Abigail. You give ordinary random answers back about Abigail. Then, Saba writes,
Any good news from your side?
You look at her recent profile photo. Her belly is swollen. Her hair is short and cropped, and bleached blonde. A toddler is holding her right hand.
“Not yet,” you write back. “What did you name your new baby?”
The Middle Eastern therapist asks why Abigail was important to you.
“She wasn’t,” you reply. “At least when she was alive. I barely knew her. I met her properly twice in her life.”
You tell her that Abigail became important after she died.
The therapist nods.
“Does that make sense?” you ask her.
Does that make sense? Does that make sense?
She nods again.
“It’s a strange place to be in,” you continue. “A strange liminal space. When you know them just enough that their death rattles you, impairs you in a way, but not so much that it drives you mad.”
“There’s no rulebook for mourning,” replies the therapist.
“But she had it in her, you know. She had it in her. All the unlovely things. All the unlovely things I have inside of me.”
The therapist asks you to explain what you mean. You try to find the moisturizer for your drying hands in your purse.
Abigail taught and wrote just like you. Abigail was finding a home and was existing in liminal spaces just like you. Abigail could not write, just like you. She carried the noise in her. It followed her places. You do not tell the therapist any of these things, but instead say,
“That swan over there. Why is its wing missing?”
The therapist makes a confused face and looks behind at her desk, “Oh, when did that happen? I never noticed it.”
Jeffery tells you often how sophisticated and beautiful you are.
You show him a picture of a white swan on Google Images.
Gliding gracefully, smoothly on the surface. The struggle, the oddities, the madness, the melatonin, the Middle Eastern therapist, the drying hands, the falling hair, unfinished poems, the noise, Abigail, Omar, Lahore, the flapping webbed legs underneath the water.
No one sees that.
You buried dead birds all summer. You have seen various crime scenes by now. Eyes wide open. Flies paying homage. Legs stiffened and up in the air. Blood splattered behind the little head. A wing missing. Both wings missing.
Death is chaotic. Death is unreal. Death is necessary.
The burial is always the same.
News arrives from Lahore.
Your parents moved out of your childhood home when you are teaching a class.
You didn’t pick-up your calls. I think you’re teaching, your father texts. I’m sending you some photos of the old house as we are driving away.
News from Morgantown.
You send another desperate email to your supervisor, writing that you want a work visa for next year. She does not promise anything. The department does not sponsor international faculty for long periods.
You have never made a good cup of chai in Morgantown. Omar tells you that this is because you never measure anything. You never measure the cups of water, the spoons of tea leaves and sugar. Making chai is an art.
Many things have changed about Omar since he has returned from Karachi. He now serves you what he calls doodh pati, milk tea, the ugly stepsister of chai. He boils tea leaves in milk, instead of boiling water.
You detest it, just like you now detest him.
You tell him his doodh pati is making your hair fall. You tell him his doodh pati is giving you acne on your forehead. You tell him his doodh pati gave you depression and that is why you are seeing a therapist and that is why you have not written anything in three months.
Omar does not reply. He just listens. You have hurt him like this so many times. He never says anything back.