Excerpt from 'Faces in the Crowd'
Faces in the Crowd
By Valeria Luiselli, Christina MacSweeney
COFFEE HOUSE PRESS
All rights reserved.
The boy wakes me up:
Do you know where mosquitos come from, Mama?
From the shower. During the day they're inside the shower and at night they bite us.
* * *
It all began in another city and another life. That's why I can't write this story the way I would like to—as if I were still there, still just only that other person. I find it difficult to talk about streets and faces as if I saw them every day. I can't find the correct tenses. I was young, had strong, slim legs.
(I would have liked to start the way Hemingway's A Moveable Feast ends.)
* * *
In that city I lived alone in an almost empty apartment. I slept very little. I ate badly, without much variety. I had a simple life, a routine. I worked as a reader and translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing "foreign gems." Nobody bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is treated with suspicion. But I liked my work and I believe that for a time I did it well. On Thursdays and Fridays, I did research in libraries, but the first part of the week was reserved for the office. It was a pleasant, comfortable place and, what's more, I was allowed to smoke. Every Monday, I arrived early, full of enthusiasm, carrying a paper cup brimming with coffee. I would say good morning to Minni, the secretary, and then to the chief editor, who was the only editor and therefore the chief. His name was White. I would sit down at my desk, roll a cigarette of Virginia tobacco, and work late into the night.
* * *
In this house live two adults, a baby girl, and a little boy. We call him the boy now because, although he's older than his sister, he insists that he's not properly big yet. And he's right. He's older, but he's still small; he's neither the big boy nor the little boy. So he's just the boy.
A few days ago my husband stepped on a dinosaur when he was coming downstairs and there was a cataclysm. Tears, screaming: the dinosaur was shattered beyond repair. Now my T. rex really has been extincted, sobbed the boy. Sometimes we feel like two paranoid Gullivers, permanently walking on tiptoe so as not to wake anyone up, not to step on anything important and fragile.
* * *
In winter there were windstorms. But I used to wear miniskirts because I was young. I wrote letters to my acquaintances telling them about my rambles, describing my legs swathed in gray tights, my body wrapped in a red coat with deep pockets. I wrote letters about the cold wind that caressed those legs, compared the freezing air to the bristle of a badly shaved chin, as if the air and a pair of gray legs walking along streets were literary material. When a person has lived alone for a long time, the only way to confirm that they still exist is to express activities and things in an easily shared syntax: this face, these bones that walk, this mouth, this hand that writes.
Now I write at night, when the two children are asleep and it's acceptable to smoke, drink, and let drafts in. Before, I used to write all the time, at any hour, because my body belonged to me. My legs were long, strong, and slim. It was right to offer them: to whomever, to writing.
* * *
In that apartment there were only five pieces of furniture: bed, kitchen table, bookcase, desk, and chair. In fact, the desk, the chair, and the bookcase came later. When I moved in, I found only a bed and a folding aluminum table. There was also a bathtub. But I don't know if that counts as furniture. Little by little, the space began to fill up, though always with temporary objects. The books from the libraries spent the weekends piled high by the bed and disappeared the following Monday, when I took them to the office to write reports on them.
* * *
A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.
* * *
Sometimes I bought wine, although the bottle didn't last a single sitting. The bread, lettuce, cheese, whisky, and coffee, in that order, lasted a bit longer. And a little longer than all those five together, the oil and soy sauce. But the pens and lighters, for example, came and went like headstrong teenagers determined to demonstrate their complete autonomy. I knew it wasn't a good idea to place the least trust in household objects; as soon as we become accustomed to the silent presence of a thing, it gets broken or disappears. My ties to the people around me were also marked by those two modes of impermanence: breaking up or disappearing.
All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I knew them by heart. Everything else is a later elaboration. It's not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance. They are scaffolding, structures, empty houses.
* * *
In this big house I don't have a place to write. On my worktable, there are diapers, toy cars, Transformers, bibs, rattles, things I still can't figure out. Tiny objects take up all the space. I cross the living room and sit on the sofa with my computer on my lap. The boy comes in:
What are you doing, Mama?
Writing just a book, Mama?
* * *
Novels need a sustained breath. That's what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don't let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I'm short of breath.
* * *
I'm going to write a book too, the boy says while we're preparing dinner and waiting for his father to come back from the office. His father hasn't got an office, but he has a lot of appointments and sometimes says: I'm going to the office now. The boy says his father works in the workery. The baby doesn't say anything, but one day she's going to say Pa-pa.
My husband's an architect. He's been designing the same house for almost a year now, over and over, with changes that are, to my mind, imperceptible. The house is going to be built in Philadelphia, quite soon, when my husband finally sends off the definitive plans. In the meantime, they pile up on his desk. Sometimes, I leaf through them, feigning interest. But I don't find it easy to imagine what it's all about, it's difficult to project all those lines into a third dimension. He also leafs through the things I write.
What's your book going to be called? I ask the boy.
It's going to be: Papa Always Comes Back from the Workery in a Bad Mood.
* * *
In our house the electricity cuts out. The fuses have to be changed very frequently. It's a common word in our everyday lexicon now. The electricity cuts out and the boy says: We've got fussy fuses.
I don't think there were any fuses in that apartment, in that other city. I never saw a meter, the electricity never cut out, I never changed a lightbulb. They were all fluorescent: they lasted forever. A Chinese student lived out his life on the opposite window. He used to study until very late at night under his dim light; I also used to stay up late reading. At three in the morning, with oriental precision, he turned out the light in his room. He would switch on the bathroom light and, four minutes later, turn it off again. He never switched on the one in the bedroom. He performed his private rituals in the dark. I liked to wonder about him: did he get completely undressed before getting into bed; did he play with himself; did he do it under the covers or standing by the bed; what was the eye of his cock like; was he thinking about something or watching me, wondering about him, through my kitchen window? When the nocturnal ceremony had finished, I would turn out my light and leave the apartment.
* * *
We like to think that in this house there's a ghost living with us and watching us. We can't see it, but we believe it appeared a few weeks after we moved in. I was enormous, eight months pregnant. I could scarcely move. I used to drag myself like a sea lion along the wood floor. I set about unpacking the books, organizing them into alphabetical towers. My husband and the boy put them on the freshly painted shelves. The ghost used to knock the towers over. The boy christened it "Without."
Just because he's with and without a face, Mama.
The ghost opens and shuts doors. It turns on the stove. The house has a huge stove and lots of doors. My husband tells our son that the ghost bounces a ball against the wall. He is scared to death and immediately curls up in his father's arms, until he swears that it was just a joke. Sometimes Without rocks the baby while I'm writing. Neither of us is frightened by this, and we know it's not a joke. She's the only one who really sees it; she smiles into the empty space with all the charm she's capable of. She's got a new tooth coming through.
* * *
In this neighborhood the tamale seller comes by at eight in the evening. We run to buy half a dozen sweet ones. I don't go outside, but I whistle to him from the front door, putting two fingers in my mouth, and my husband races down the street to catch him. When he comes back, while he's unwrapping the tamales, he says: I married a person who whistles. The neighbors also pass by our window and they wave to us. Even though we're newcomers, they're friendly. They all know each other. On Sundays they eat together in the central courtyard. They invite us, but we don't join in the feast; we wave from the living room window and wish them a good Sunday. It's a group of old houses, all a bit dilapidated or on the point of falling down.
* * *
I didn't like sleeping alone in my apartment. I lived on the seventh floor. I would lend my apartment to people and seek out other rooms, borrowed armchairs, shared beds in which to spend the night. I gave copies of my keys to a lot of people. They gave me copies of theirs. Reciprocity, not generosity.
* * *
On Fridays, though not every Friday, Moby would turn up. He was the first to have the keys. We almost always met in the doorway. I'd be going out to the library and he would arrive to have a bath, because in his house, in a town an hour and a half from the city, there was no hot water. In the beginning, he didn't stay to sleep and I don't know where he did sleep, but he had baths in my tub and in exchange brought me a plant or cooked me something and put it in the fridge. He left notes that I would find in the evening, when I came back to eat dinner: "I used your shampoo, thanks, M."
Moby had a weekend job in the city. He forged and sold rare books that he himself produced on a homemade printing press. Well-to-do intellectuals bought them from him at rather Unreasonable prices. He also reprinted unique copies of American classics in equally unique formats. (Amazing the obsession gringos have for the unique.) He had an illustrated copy of Leaves of Grass, a manuscript of Walden he'd written out in pencil, and an audiotape of the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson read by his Polish grandmother. But the majority of his authors were "Ohio poets of the twenties and thirties." That was his niche. He'd developed a theory of hyperspecialization that was working well for him. Of course, it was not he but Adam Smith who had developed it, but he believed the theory was his own. I used to say: That's Adam Smith's pin theory. And Moby would reply: I'm talking about American Poets. The book he was trying to sell around that time was called Can We Hold Hands Out Here? He had ten copies and gave me one as a present. It was by a very bad poet. From Cleveland, Ohio, like Moby.
From time to time, before going back home, he came to my apartment to have a second bath and we'd eat the leftovers of whatever he'd cooked on Friday. We talked about the books he'd sold; we talked about books in general. Sometimes, on Sundays, we made love.
* * *
My husband reads some of this and asks who Moby is. Nobody, I say. Moby is a character.
* * *
But Moby exists. Or perhaps not. But he existed then. And another person who existed was Dakota, who came to my apartment for the same reason as Moby: she didn't have a shower. She was the second person to have keys. She would turn up for a bath and sometimes stayed to sleep. She also gave me a set of her keys. She lived with her boyfriend in the basement of a big house in Brooklyn and for months they had been designing a bathroom they never built. I liked spending the night in that basement without a shower, wearing Dakota's nightgowns, trying out her side of the bed.
Dakota worked at night, singing in bars and sometimes in the subway. Her features were like those of a silent-movie star, the eyes two enormous half moons, the mouth very small, haughty eyebrows. She and her boyfriend had a band. He played harmonica. He was from Wyoming—one of those pale gringos who, despite having almost transparent eyes, are handsome. He had a scar that ran from one side of his face to the other. The day I told him I was leaving the city for good because I'd become a ghost, he stroked my forehead. At the time I couldn't tell if that was a reply. I wanted to touch his face, but didn't dare underline the scar.
* * *
The boy comes back from school and shows me his knee:
Look at my cut.
How did that happen?
I was running around in the playground and a house fell on me.
No, a house.
* * *
This house has a new fridge, a new piece of furniture next to the bed, new plants in terracotta pots. My husband wakes up at midnight from a nightmare. He starts to tell me about it while I dream of something else, but I listen from the beginning, as if I'd never fallen asleep, as if I'd been waiting for the start of that conversation the whole night. He says we're living in a house that grows. New rooms appear, new things, the roof gets higher. The children are there, but always in another room. The boy is in danger and we can't find the baby. At one side of our bed there's a piece of furniture that unfolds and produces music. Inside he finds a tree, a dead tree but deeply rooted into the bottom of a box. In the logic of his dream, it's the tree that produces the sense of doom in the house that grows; he tries to uproot it; the branches reach out and scratch his testicles. My husband cries. I hug him and then get up to go to the children's room. I give the boy a kiss and check the crib to see if the baby is still breathing. She's breathing. But I have no air.
* * *
I liked cemeteries, parks, the roof terraces of buildings, but most of all cemeteries. In a way, I was living in a perpetual state of communion with the dead. But not in a sordid sense. In contrast, the people around me were sordid. Moby was. Dakota too, sometimes. The dead and I, no. I had read Quevedo and internalized, like a prayer, perhaps too literally, the idea of living in conversation with the dead. I often visited a small graveyard a few blocks from my apartment, because I could read and think there without anyone or anything disturbing me.
* * *
I go back to writing the novel whenever I'm not busy with the children. I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.
* * *
When she stayed in my apartment, Dakota did voice exercises with the bucket I used for mopping the floor. She would put her whole head inside and produce really piercing notes, like a badly tuned violin, like a moribund bird, like an old door. Sometimes, when I came back from a few days away, I used to find Dakota lying on the living room floor with the blue bucket beside her. Resting my back, she'd explain.
Why do you always take my bucket out of the bathroom?
So your neighbors can't hear me.
I don't think they can.
So I can hear myself.
Dakota never answered a question directly.
* * *
My husband draws rapidly; he makes a lot of noise. His pencil scrapes on the paper, he sharpens it every five minutes with the electric pencil sharpener, starts a new piece of paper, walks around his drawing table. He constructs spaces and, as they appear on the sheet, names them: bathroom, spiral staircase, terrace, attic. He stops, sits down. Then he goes to his computer and reproduces the lines using a program that gradually makes the spaces three-dimensional. I can't make spaces from nothing. I can't invent. I only manage to emulate my ghosts, write the way they used to speak, not make noise, narrate our phantasmagoria.
Excerpted from Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, Christina MacSweeney. Copyright © 2011 Valeria Luiselli. Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
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