The war is ongoing. It is unclear what set if off. Very few people want to admit this. They talk as if they know. At dinner I suggest to them, to my people, the people I love and know, that certain things, especially those that are hugely consequential, cannot be grasped in the present; any attempt to do so, I say, will inevitably result in reductive justifications, linear arguments of the cause-and-effect kind. Illuminate us, my friends say. They ask: what do you know that we don’t?
I am building a house around my thoughts. Each time I feel I am misunderstood, I add a new brick to the structure. So far, I have accumulated enough bricks for a wall. I tell my husband about my wall. When we are alone, in the round light of the lamp in the living room of our house, after we have sealed the front door to block the winter draft from entering, my husband tells me he is afraid I am going to isolate myself. You are well on your way to being alone, he says. A kind warning. I explain to him that my wall is more of a self-protective edifice than a reflection of an attitude against others; or, maybe even, I say, softening, amused, an architectural ambition.
I go to the gym a few times a week to get away from the people I know. It’s the day after the dinner with our friends and I am feeling ill. I think exercise will fix this. I feel very far away from my body and the perceived distance has a strange effect on my mind: when I look at the clouds, which are large and of amorphous shapes, they appear closer than the trees, or buildings, or people’s bikes and cars, all of which are within reach. I tell someone I am feeling this way, a stranger at the grocery store, and she says it has to do with the atmospheric pressure being low. It’s normal, she says. I, for example, she confesses, get terrible headaches. Her eyes are a little red. When I look at her eyes, she says: I’ve been rubbing them all day long.
I head to the gym. When I walk in, I am surprised to find that the controlled environment disturbs me. I stand in the lobby, to the side, between the lounge chairs and the bar where they serve juice. There is a stack of vegetables in a clear box in the back. It’s full of carrots and celery and there is a bunch of parsley tossed over top. There are four flat screens hanging at an angle from the ceiling, one in each corner of the room. The blue light that emanates from the television above the bar shines on the vegetables and makes them look unappealing; the light flickers and glows. A plane has gone missing. The televisions repeat this, as though repetition could lead to understanding. The plane veered off course, then disappeared into a void. Who can explain? I imagine the ash of pain stoked every year on the anniversary of the plane’s disappearance, the remains of the mystery rising to the surface to show that nothing is ever settled for good.
I think about the war. I feel a knot form at the center of my brain. I think about how it’s possible for a person to have both died and disappeared. Then I think about how a person could disappear and continue to be alive, or die and not disappear. After that, I think about the routine ways in which people disappear: at will in order to escape from judgement, or from a situation of distress, or against their will, as a side-effect of their job, a war, or a degenerative mental illness. Rather quickly, the line between the categories blurs. I can’t order my thoughts. I can’t order the day, or keep things clear. I look at the parsley, its limp leaves, and it reminds me of a bouquet of flowers left to wilt in the sun on top of a casket that’s been inserted into the earth, but not yet sealed in. Burial takes a long time. The process begins before the body, or its absence, are laid to rest, and extends long after, like a beam of light shot into space from a star.
An older gentleman nudges my arm. The skin on his hand is flaking. If he were to wave his hand, a fine white powder would lift into the atmosphere and obscure his body. The skin on his face is peeling too, especially on the sides of his mouth, in the creases, where his wrinkles have settled in. You look lost, he says, masking curiosity with concern. I tell him the truth. I say: I know where I am, but I don’t know how I have gotten here.
Sometimes I like to stand still in a room and retrace the events of my life by moving backward over them. Every time I do this my life makes a different shape. Sometimes my life is linear. This version causes me the most pain. Other times it is elliptical, or shaped like a star, or a ginger, and that is when I am most able to admire it. For a second, I aim my eyes at the old man. The second feels like an eternity. The man’s gaze retreats. What has shifted in me—the sudden shame at being identified as a lost person—has spread out and shifted something in him as well.
I sit in the sauna. Someone has left a schedule of classes on the bench. I glance at it. There is a class called War: Get Armed and Dangerous. It’s offered every morning at sunrise. I consider filing a complaint, but I imagine the manager’s eyes retreating into the dark depths of non-understanding, the way the old man’s did. I stack another brick in the name of those who do not know that the war is a war and that it is ongoing.
I make my way to the pool. I am feeling heavy from all the bricks. I hesitate to get in. I worry I will sink to the bottom. I fiddle with my goggles. I stretch the swim cap over my hair. I tuck in the loose strands. With my goggles on I can’t tell if the plants in the corners are real or fake. A man walks in. He is old, like the first man, but perky. Young lady, he says, if you get in you will get wet. Watch out! he exclaims. He dives in and swims away like a giant, white fish. He has a swimmer’s strokes. I know this because I am a swimmer. As soon as I get in, I feel light again. I play the water like a piano. I hold my fingers softly above its surface. I stroke the water. I shift my body to the side to make myself as narrow as the hull of a ship, or the blade of a knife, thin and powerful. It is the only moment in which I am gathered.
When I am done swimming I return to the sauna. There is a woman lying down on the bench. She sits up. She makes space for me. With a sigh, she declares, it’s hot in here! I’ve been receiving instructions all day long, warnings about things that are self-evident, but I am left alone with the parts of life that are less obvious. I think about how the more obscure events in life can best be approached once they are in the past, and, even then, only if one takes a close look at them while also accounting for the misconceptions resulting from the distance that separates one from the event when it first presented itself. Maybe someday the war will be understood. The woman in the sauna caresses her breasts. They are pear shaped. Her areolas are green. Her skin is translucent. I can see her veins. They spread out like a web.
I return to the pool. I like to do this. To go from one temperature extreme to another. Through the windows surrounding the pool, I can see that night has fallen. The street lights have come on. The sky is a very beautiful color. I think I will tell my husband about the sky when I see him later in the evening, when we will sit together in the soft light of the lamp on the couch in our living room, our feet on the hand-woven rugs that have traveled with us from place to place. The sky is cloudless, purple, dark along the horizon, bright around the edges of the street lamps. There is a flag raised on a post that sticks out of the building directly opposite. It too is illuminated. It waves in the wind and for a moment I have the impression that the stars might slide off the flag’s surface and reset time back to the beginning.
There is a pair of men in the pool. They are darker and hairier than the men who have spoken to me and because of this I feel a certain kinship with them. They face opposite directions as they walk the length of the pool: one of them walks backward while the other walks forward. They do this in order to maintain eye-contact while they speak to one another. I can hear them speaking in our shared language. There are also women in the pool. They are doing water aerobics. There is an instructor guiding them through the moves. The instructor lifts her arms up and down as if she were slicing the air. There is a radio blaring in the background. The chorus repeats: if this is my life. I see the women mime the words as they chop the water with their limbs.
The women are older than me. I am not old yet, but I am older than I used to be and sometimes my bones hurt. Sometimes if I eat the wrong things my joints swell. I notice it the most on my knuckles. It would be terrible if I were a painter. How would I hold a paint brush? How would I color in the details of a painting? I would have broad, sloppy strokes, and would only have to paint things that are broad and sloppy, or that aren’t but appear as if they are. There are things like that in the world, things that appear one way, but then turn out to be another. Exile is one of them, war is another. I think about writing. What does it mean to write? My thoughts spread out like a web. I analyze the web in portions. One portion of writing is to look beneath things in order to describe that thing’s subtext. Another portion of writing is to be curious no matter what the subtext is. Other times writing is about capturing surfaces, about observing the world without interfering. Sometimes the least dramatic thing is the most interesting. Like a turtle sitting on a log in the river for hours on end while the sun beats down harshly. I think about cats, about how they lick their paws. They are not disgusted by themselves. They do what they like. They crawl into sinks. They sit in the sun. They dive into the dumpster. They know when to work and when to take pleasure in the work they have accomplished. I don’t know how to do this. I only know how to keep moving. I haven’t learned yet how to be. I wonder if I will learn a little at a time in the brief pauses between wars when the violence retreats.
ContributorAzareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI is the author of Fra Keeler (Dorothy, a publishing project). She teaches in the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, and is the recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award.