The Walls

786 is the number of times she looks at her phone. 417, the number of times she stares vacantly out of the window. 398, the number of times she rests her forehead against us, 218 the number of times she runs her palms over us, feeling us, pressing against our flat, firm bodies as if she herself were malleable, sinking into the floor as if she were melting. What is she doing? We have never seen her stay inside for such a long stretch of time. Not since she painted us red, 10 days ago, a dark brooding red that we loathe. We miss the white. Its paleness extending us into the ceiling and stretching us down into the beige carpet on the floor. The calming white presenting a future of possibilities before us as we stood tall and erect, holding up the ceiling, little pictures framed in black decorating us. Now we stand, as if in darkness. Stoically still. Prosaic and silent.

We pass the time by making lists. Things that can change suddenly: luck, weather, time…

 

119 times she walks up to the front door, puts her hand on the knob, and then turns back. 2,078 the number of times she turns on the TV and listens to the news, her expression ranging between horror, fascination, and then a final resignation. Her shoulders slump, her pupils dilate, her voice is hollow as she picks up the phone and dials.

 

We listen, our ears invisible. But mostly she is quiet. Sometimes she dials a number and listens to the man’s voice saying he can’t come to the phone right now. Sometimes she calls takeaways and says hello, then hangs up before the voice at the other end can reply. She sits holding the phone in her hands, staring vacantly at it as if it held the answer to some ancient mystery. She hasn’t eaten for days.

 

Every now and then she stirs. 86 times she gets up, as if to leave. Then she looks around at us. And settles down, her eyes fixed on the door. As if any minute now, he will walk in.

 

We watch the door with her. We never leave; we try to assure her. We always stay inside the house. It’s our job, you see. The house would come crashing down if we left. But what is stopping her from leaving? She doesn’t seem ill.

 

In the night, she is restless. There is a loud crash. Something is broken. She turns on the light and we see shards of glass everywhere, the fragments reflected in the mirror. We count the pieces and begin a new list.

 

Things that can be broken: mirrors, news, promises, marriages…

 

In the morning she walks right into us. Her coffee spills on us. We do not flinch. We watch the hot liquid traverse across our bodies, staining us, marking us like territories on a map. We had once held a map of the world with lines running all across it, marking borders, defining countries and now we felt as if someone had marked us. Divided us into two halves. There was a before the stain half and an after the stain half underneath. We absorb it within us like we always have. We say nothing.

 

After a while she approaches us apologetically. She holds a wet cloth in her hands and wipes us gently. She vacuums the floor, throws up wilting plants, sweeps away a dead spider. We start another list. Things that can die: languages, plants, people.

 

1,472 the number of times the phone rings and she doesn’t pick up. Often her voice comes on, “Thank you for your message. If you are calling to condole Dr. Ali’s death please know I have received your message, even if I don’t ring you back.”

 

The voices that leave a message are mostly heavy, strained. and full of pauses, as if they don’t know what to say. “We are so sorry for your loss.” “Hope you are okay.” “Are you still in quarantine.” “Will you have a funeral for him.” “Did they let you see him before they buried him. Call me.”

 

We count 1,472. On 1,473, she picks up the phone. The loud and piercing howl that comes out of her sounds primal and angry. We struggle to contain it. But it escapes outside us. Her cries get louder and louder. We stop trying to hold the noise in.

 

“They didn’t let me touch him,” she says. “They didn’t let me fucking touch my husband’s dead body,” she screams. “I couldn’t say goodbye.” Her voice falls to a whisper. “He was a doctor. He wasn’t even sick. He was trying to help the sick.” She repeats this nine times.

 

“They didn’t give him the right gear.” She says this only once.

 

The rest of the days that we hold her within us, she mourns continuously. Often we find her lying on the floor staring up at the ceiling. Sometimes she throws things at us. It hurts us. But we stand by her.

 

21 times she hurls his photo at us. 111 times she beats us with her fists. 19 times she slaps her palms against us, shouting his name. 6 times she sinks to the floor and yells, “I miss you.”

 

Sometimes we miss him, too. We miss his voice. His out of tune singing in the shower. We miss him coming home every evening and shouting, hello home, to us. We miss him, too. But then we remind ourselves of the things we don’t miss about him.

 

We start a new list of things we don’t miss: 19, the number of times he wanted to knock us down to make an open plan kitchen. 101, the number of times he hammered nails into us. 11, the number of times he attached shelves onto us. 78, the number of times she touches those shelves and cries.

 

We don’t have to hold those shelves up anymore, we think. We loosen our hold and a book comes crashing down.

 

She picks it up. A photo has fallen out. It is a photo of them together. She takes it as a sign. “Are you there?” she calls out. “Ali, talk to me,” she whispers.

 

There is no sound except the sound of the wind. We loosen our hold a bit more, and the shelf comes crashing down. There are books, papers, and nails strewn all over the room.

 

In the morning she is still sitting there. When the phone rings for the 1474th time, she slams the back of her head against us and begins to cry.

 

We see her shake her head slowly and then say to herself, “Must pull myself together.” We didn’t know she had come apart. She looks the same to us.

 

We note down things that can fall apart: shelves, jigsaws, self-assembly furniture, lives…

 

The next day, she pulls out his clothes and stuffs them into black plastic bags. Halfway through she collapses onto the heap. She spends the night smelling his shirts, rubbing them against her skin, inhaling a scent that we cannot smell. Two days later she arranges them into piles, his socks, his ties, his blue hospital gown, his white medical coat. She leaves his shoes in the cupboard.

 

She gathers all his papers and lights a fire in the sink. She leaves his books untouched.

 

Things that get left behind: toothbrushes, books, names, homes.

 

On the 28th day, she walks out without a goodbye. The door shuts behind her with a loud thud, and then there is a sudden silence. For a second there is an unfamiliar feel to the empty house. And then everything is the same. But can anything ever be the same again? We settle down to wait and begin a new list. Things that can never be the same again: economies, recipes, people…

 

First published in Litro, UK, during the pandemic (Dec, 2021)

3 Sabyn Javeri-Fiction

Sabyn Javeri is the author of Hijabistan (Harper Collins, 2019) and Nobody Killed Her (Harper Collins, 2017). She has edited two multilingual anthologies of student writing, The Arzu Anthology of Student Voices, Vol I & II (HUP, 2019, 2018) as well as the upcoming Ways of Being, an anthology of Pakistani Women’s Creative Non-fiction (Women Unlimited, Jan 2023). Her writing has been widely anthologized and published in the South Asian Review, London Magazine, Litro, and Wasafiri, among others. She has won the Oxonian Review short story prize, and been short listed for the Tibor Jones prize and Jawad Memorial Prize translation prize. She is a Senior Lecturer of Writing, Literature & Creative Writing at New York University, Abu Dhabi.

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