by Malini Gandhi
The day I finished my dissertation was also the day the rain washed away our marigolds, roots and all, and the day Eileen said she was leaving me and taking the piano with her. I sat for a while in the purple room with the fingerprints on the walls, watching men with orange hats walk back and forth across the muddy lot below our apartment where the tiny, unplanted trees sat stacked on the sidewalk with their roots splayed upwards. I was trying to make myself forget about Marie and George’s housewarming party that I was supposed to be at two hours before and I was doing a pretty good job forgetting when George called. I told him Eileen was leaving me and taking the piano with her. He told me that he was sorry, that I should come over, that they had a piñata and rice cakes in yellow wrapping and that he would play Debussy for me on his four-foot electric keyboard.
Marie and George’s new apartment by the flooded blue buildings was dirt-streaked and windowless. It had no furniture but a large pink piñata that hung from the center of the low ceiling, a bloated, self-conscious farm animal with bulging eyes. George gave me a small smile and fruit punch in a paper cup, positioning me in a corner where the piñata wasn’t watching me. The people there had gray faces and small fingers and I knew most of them from philosophy seminars. Yet the rain was too loud and their words were too soft and when they asked me about my dissertation I started talking about Nietzsche and they smiled politely and looked down at their stuffed peppers. The rain throbbed against our backs and the people pressed themselves into the wallpaper; in the center of the room, the piñata swung slowly in a circle.
We heard the woman in the ladybug dress before we could see her. She tapped on the door and said Hello? Hello? in a frantic, far-away voice and I thought maybe she was the rain, the rain in high heels that had taken away my piano. The rain jiggled the doorknob and pounded on the door and little Marie with her thin blonde hair said Beverly oh God is that you calm down I’m coming. The people with the gray faces stopped peering into their peppers for lost conversations and looked up. The woman in the doorway was wearing a long dress with printed ladybugs and was carrying a sunflower in a cracked vase which she promptly dropped on the floor. The vase shattered and the sunflower curled up its roots and splayed its pale yellow petals over its face. Oh, oh Marie, I’m so sorry, I was pounding on the door because I was afraid the rain was so loud you wouldn’t hear me or maybe you would pretend not to hear me and I would be locked out in the stairwell until the old whistling man with the keys and the red coat found me and – oh God, look what a mess I’ve made, all over your new apartment, I even picked out the sunflower from the little store by the river, remember the little store Marie? We would go there when we were little girls, before you became pretty and stupid and walked without looking – remember how there were buckets of rainwater lined up outside the door, and we used to wear crooked lipstick and stand on our toes and look into the buckets at our reflections? Marie I tried to paint this morning, I did, but I was just so tired. And oh –
She had flung herself into the apartment shoulders first and had been grappling on her hands and knees trying to put the drowsy sunflower back into the shards of vase, but suddenly she stopped, slowly got up, and smiled. She had stringy hair and a too-big smile, and I did not like her. I’d never liked the rain, never liked how it washed away the things I wanted to keep. Things like a piano with missing keys.
– And oh, you must be George.
Curly-haired George with his small smile had come from the kitchen and put his hand on the small of Marie’s back. Marie had a ribbon in her hair and her lips were tight. Her voice was very low, and she said:
Beverly what are you doing here.
The shivering apartment of mirrors and asbestos was silent. In the crowded corners of gray-faced people it was a loud silence, a pulsing silence of wallpaper and judgmental fingers using plastic spoons to search for philosophy. But where the woman stood, in the naked space under the ribbons of the piñata with her fingers stretched outwards, it was real silence, like the insides of music, like clocks that read the wrong time.
She did not look at Marie, but smiled and poured herself some fruit punch. Marie spoke fast, quiet words to George. Something about you don’t understand George the last time I saw her I was nineteen and she painted a picture of red glass and ripped up the canvas, leaving me in the middle of New York City with nothing except her suicidal paintings. Now she shows up at my new apartment to try to talk to my new husband and pours herself fruit punch. And George said I know. He said I know and he took her to the kitchen. She was small and sour and shaking, and George held her like she was a messily-folded piece of lined paper.
The people with wallpaper skin were speaking. I caught ‘Marie’s older sister, the child prodigy’ and ‘kicked out of art school’ and ‘just disappeared, yeah I heard that too, left Marie in her trashed apartment.’ And I thought it was strange because these were loud words that were nailed to the walls like bold-faced signs, not like the rest of what they said, which was drowned by the rain and trickled into their food.
The woman, Beverly, was humming to herself and swaying slowly under the bloated pink piñata with the swollen eyes. Every once and a while she would snap her head up and make her way purposefully over to the people pasted on the wall. Her eyes would light up and she would move her hands in wide circles. The people would smile politely and look down at their stuffed peppers, and she would return to the center of the room. She had a too-big smile.
Then, when the piñata had made a full rotation and its bulging paper eyes were staring toward my corner, Beverly snapped her head up and looked at me. She moved forward and I saw that she had gray eyes and shadows under her fingernails. She tilted her head and looked me in the face and said oh now don’t you look like someone just broke your heart. She said there is a store by the river with buckets of rainwater lined up like little mirrors outside the door, and I could take you there before the rain stops. There were words nailed to the walls and they were pressing into my back, and I knew that I could rip them out and go down to the river to watch my grand piano float away underneath the willow trees, and maybe that would be for the better. But I also remembered that I was afraid of the rain. I remembered that it washed away the things I wanted to keep. So I smiled politely and looked down at my stuffed peppers, using my spoon to search for philosophy I knew was not there. I pressed myself into the wallpaper. Beverly closed her eyes and slowly turned away.
The day I finished my dissertation was also the day I met a woman in a ladybug dress and watched as she sat in the middle of a room under a pink piñata and cried. I looked down at my stuffed peppers and scraped words I did not want to hear against the side of my plate, but I could still hear her as she sobbed. I could still hear her when she choked I tried to paint this morning, Marie, I did, but I was just so tired, Marie I was so tired. Marie took her by the hand and said, very quietly, Beverly I think it is time for you to go now.
The rain had stopped and a mist had fallen over the darkening city by the time I left. The mist draped itself in limp tendrils over the blurry yellow lights of the city like rows of regrets hanging in a large closet. Somewhere not too far away, I knew that buckets of still rainwater sat in a line by the river, catching the night.