Artist: Sajjad Musa
When he said we were moving in, I wasn’t sure what he meant. Most of our friends were demolishing and then rebuilding, so it wasn’t so much as moving in but entering a perfectly designed space. At least, that was the promise that architects have when they competed like football teams for the bid, each promising a shorter time frame and an ethical manner of treating their employees, like the ones working in the bedrooms. My husband didn’t want the new place on top of an old. He wanted us to be in an old. The idea of living in an image on top of an image bothered him, but forcing out people to live in the city didn’t seem to bat an eye, he said this was our way of maintaining history.
The value of the city homes are high enough to evict those who were here before, the ones who didn’t mind living so close to their neighbor when people were seeking the backyard. The price is low enough to have most of our friends come in and keep the space, but build something with a little garden space in the back or the middle like a courtyard, a new trend of keeping the kids both inside and out with the privacy of home. This was further removing the idea of community by limiting the amount of time children had to meet other children but at this point, most of the other children had a fear of revealing trade secrets they’ve overheard from parents, so it was best they stayed inside.
This falsehood of a community felt more like a suburban work campus of fitted homes with all the specifications and the lack of morale on how this is impacting others. By forcing people out and putting your own kind in, the culture is being replaced for stock options. There are no parks that parents can go to, to not run into someone they know. As this is a benefit for most parents who wish to know many people but for myself, with no children, this is a burden of the outdoors.
In his effort to paying homage to the past, he decided to have us move into a sensible 4-floor building with two units on each floor. The first floor is bought by two older couples, and the second floor has two single guys that bought their places when they graduated. When we moved in they immediately insisted we join them for beers during a game or BBQ on a hot night, their candor for living in the city makes the youth part of me appreciates my husband’s gesture with sticking to these old walls.
The walls are old, but we got them painted before we moved in, teal in the living room and a light blue in the kitchen. Our bedroom went with a sensible light brown to better reflect the light than absorb; the sun will warm up the room in the winter and keep cool in the summer. It is only in the living room you can catch the sunrise, so we can decide to wake up a couple minutes before the alarm, we’ll go there and sip on our coffee. At least that’s what we promised each other when we were walking around with the real-estate agent.
We promised each other curtains that were getting installed the following month, big and plush ones like in the ’40s that would drape over when the sun became too unbearable on our margarita breath mornings. That was one thing we did well. We went out and had fun. No matter the day or the mood, we could find a watering hole and a couple of chairs and something on the menu to share. We could talk about new projects we both wanted to work on, him as one of the founders for an incubator turned Startup Company and myself a mixed media artist who at one point was a masterful oil on canvas artist.
But now I can barely put the brush to a surface without feeling like I’m taking away from something, these walls were someone else’s, the windows are thin, and the carpet was recently installed. Everything about this place feels like a canvas with another piece on it, and I’m painting over to depict my own reality. He wants me to be inspired in the old building, and I appreciate that, but why not any in the nice neighborhood, not this one with this much-untold history.
Tonight I make us some pork tenderloin and sangria to talk about my concerns. He listens like he always does and already has an opinion on what to say but has the courtesy to wait until I’m finished.
“Let’s make the 3rd bedroom with the skylight your studio?” he takes a couple of broccoli and picks up on my silence, “it would be nice to see you get back into your work, you always enjoyed diving into the material and laying them on the canvas.”
“Its hodgepodge babe, don’t make it sound like something fancy.”
“Common, you had some buyers who wanted to take your work into a commission for their restaurant.”
“Yeah, and what happened? They moved to Costa Rica…”
“Well, not everyone can live as freely.” He continues on the pork.
“I just can’t get inspired by living in a place knowing that the people who lived here are somewhere else.”
“Yeah, they could have used the money we gave them and bought a place in the countryside with a lake view and space to grow tomatoes.”
“And what will they do for work?”
“I don’t know, am I supposed to sit down with every family whose home I am looking at and asking them, ‘what are you going to do after this?’ or ‘where do you see yourself five years from now?’ Like, I can barely think of five months from now with this company, how do you expect me to think ahead for someone else.”
“So you can admit we’re not thinking of their future?”
“No, because I’m trying to think of our future.”
“But how is our future dependent on them no longer having a home?”
“Okay, what do you suggest?”
“We live in a building with smaller rooms, that’s not a family style
residence, as we don’t have a family.”
“But we are a family, and the rooms are there for family, friends or your studio, why can’t you be supportive of me wanting to see your work? Where else would you work, in the living room?”
I sip on my sangria
“I want you to have the space you deserve, and this is not permanent, we can stay here until this company sells and then we can find a place that will suit your requirements, we can conduct all the interviews and make sure there’s a plan in place for their well being.”
“Oh god, that sounded like such a work answer…” I snarl into the glass.
“Well maybe if I weren’t being questioned about my intentions, you wouldn’t be getting this side of me. Plus, you always think I don’t want to see you succeed; the truth is, I succeed when you succeed.”
“Okay, enough.” I push his shoulder playfully, “come back to us Evan, don’t lose me on the other side.”
“Ha. Ha. How about we take the rest of the sangria onto the couch.” He gives me a look, a look I know by heart after nearly a decade. We kiss on the couch until both our mouths are full of sweet orange and bitter bourbon and then mess around in the ways we know how, the way we perfected the couch lovemaking after months of a broken bed frame — a new one to be delivered within the week.
By the time the heavy linen curtains are installed in the third bedroom, my easel is up and mixed fabric aligned waiting to be soaked into place. The light brown pieces are fixed in place when the canvases are being delivered. My husband raised a glass of champagne and toasts to my official studio. I smiled and watched his face change when the delivery people say they’ll be back with the rest.
“How many pieces are you creating?” He asks when the front door gets closed.
“I’m not sure, maybe another collection,” I sip on the crystal flute that made it through the move, a gift from an investor, “the store gave me a deal if I bought a bunch, I’m not sure I’ll use them all for now but figured it’s better to have more available if the mood suits me.”
“Exactly babe, whatever the mood suits you,” he pulls me closer to his hip, “I want you to create whatever you desire, and if it’s anti-corporation or gentrification messages of loses, I’ll put them up in the office, I have a big wall that can use some local art.” The front door opens, and the rest of the boards are placed in the closet of the second bedroom.
The following months I paint memories of what could have been in a small apartment, with the light hitting the floor and a wall instead of just the floor, a rug that is a standard size that has a place underneath the couch, not a custom measured to suit the tasteful sectional. At an art show, I found a vase to put into the second bedroom, something that is as practical as the room but matches the bed frame. He didn’t want me to get the canopy, advising he can’t imagine his father falling asleep inside the sheets and I told him it’s the return of the classic item. He didn’t understand but said I could get something for the corner, a plant, a table, a sculpture, whatever I wanted, except a canopy. A couple of mornings when I didn’t get a good sleep, I would take a nap in the room, so I wanted something that requires no maintenance and said this is not a room of comfort, for this was not the master bedroom or my studio.
The first few weeks my inspiration was limited between getting the easel at the right spot to not get too much of the afternoon sun bleaching my progress to then warming up my ice tea. It had to be the balance between being indoors and outdoors to capture what it is like finding space in the city, or rather, taking space in the city. For like this move, I will lay down a thick color of oil, blends of yellow, brown and teal, the soft colors of an era and then place on top the mixed patterns of houndstooth and paisley fabric. Both prints are courtesy of a new vintage store that moved in earlier last year, who still insist they are new enough to hold private parties for new curators who moved into the area. They said they would love to see my recent pieces as they googled my name after I bought the tops and signed up for the guest list. An email requesting a meeting with the store manager when my flow was back, to filling in some of the dressing room, as they are not quite sure. As they too moved into a space and are still trying to orientate themselves between the old pieces and new body types that walk past the window.
I’m deep into the trance of finding how this collection is going to come together with each other. I show my husband when I am 4 pieces in and he smiles. He tells me this feels like something that can work in his office as it is both a commentary and an insult to anyone who admires the piece without catching the obvious message. He then tells me that on the other side of the hall, on the 4th floor, a competing startup founder is moving in until he can find a place on his own. His wife left him with the two kids to move into a house outside of the city. She said she couldn’t stand being what stood in his way each morning on his way into work, her and the kids that is.
“That’s why I’m so lucky to have you, someone who found their own way of expressing themselves.”
“But the kids…”
“Yeah, these guys are assholes, they don’t care, and I try so hard not be like them, it’s just when the investors have your schedule and your cell number, it’s impossible to imagine how you reclaim your privacy.”
“So how do you manage?”
“Don’t take the money,” he laughs and sips some of the iced tea, “see, I was told I don’t have to take the money. Plus, I’ll have less hands to payout when I do get the big offer.”
“Oh right, the big offer,” I cross my fingers, “one day.”
“Then we can start on a family, do it the right way too.”
“How do you know you won’t want more money after that?”
“I guess it depends how expensive the kid’s college gets, and by then I’ll have a plan to be more passive on the next company.”
“You? Passive? That’ll be the day.”
“I want to, for us. Plus, all I need is the big company to see that I have the team to make anything they need on their server side, I have the clean bill and the talent. I’ve done the recruiting myself and I don’t see anyone paying more than I am, my engineers are very happy.”
“Everyone around you is happy; what keeps you happy?”
“That,” he finishes the iced tea, “let’s check out that new wine bar around the corner, I hear it’s got a great chorizo and Bordeaux pairing like we’re on the streets of Paris. Sounds good?”
“Oui!” I pack up the rest of my oils and wash my hands. I look at him sending out a few emails before I pack my purse and think that I’m a lucky woman, I am a lucky woman, there is no doubt about that, I didn’t fall through the cracks, I am filling it with art.
About a month goes by, and I am deep into my flow of what the new city is coming out to be, settling in on a selection of colors that depict this coming of fall light on this once vibrant neighborhood. I take a nap in the guest room and get awakened by a noise that isn’t in the apartment but somewhere else. I get up and walk towards the kitchen, but the sound seems to get softer, so I walk back into the second bedroom where I first heard the noise. I move closer to the vase and hear what sounds like a conversation; I move the vase to see an air duct. I get down on all 4’s and crawl closer to the aluminum lines and feel the cold air pass over my hair and hear the voices more clearly now.
“I know how much Evan thinks he’s doing for his employees, but I’m not here to sell the idea of staying loyal to a vision, I’m here to give you a space for your own vision. How would you like to make the same amount of money and have more time to work on your own projects because at my company I give the employees one day a week to work on their own projects, all projects made at the job is your own, I just ask that you collaborate with the people you sit next to than online.”
“That sounds too good to be true.”
“But it’s not, this is what companies today are doing, what he’s doing is keeping you stuck on a day-in and day-out routine of creating one feature at a time, and I’m sorry, but that is no longer competitive.”
“Isn’t there something in my contract that says that it’s illegal to do this?”
“Find a new job? I don’t think so, plus, our company is not a direct competitor of your company, it’s simply giving you a new space to create. Hey, I’m not here to pressure you…”
“Really? You invited me over to have drinks and brought me into your own personal bar area…”
“Well, I try to keep my conversations like this private, maybe I am getting a little too aware of how this city has more ears than mouths.”
“You can say that again,” I can hear the employee, I want to say I know him, but they can’t be talking about my Evan, “is it true that he lives just downstairs?”
“He does.” I cover my mouth, “it’s only temporarily, I’m planning to hire more of his employees when I move into my house, I don’t want to make things awkward while I’m here.”
“Yeah, of course, so do you want me to see who else is looking to leave?”
“Sure Steve, that would be a big help, I mean, I’m not trying to force anyone out but rather keeping their job hunt down to a minimum.”
“Yeah makes sense, I know Troy just had a baby, and I know he’ll take that day to work on a new project that guy needs the work time more now than ever.” I know Troy, I went to his baby shower, I took the initiative of buying the baby’s first aid kit with a rectal thermometer!
“Exactly,” I can hear the opening of a crystal bottle cork, “I’m here to work for you guys when you’re ready to start the process for your next move.”
“Well here’s to moving on up.” They cheers, and before I scream into the vent, I put the vase back and head into the studio. I roll up the curtains in my arms and scream inside how the only one I want to talk to and see is my husband.
When he gets home, I tell him we’re doing delivery, and I open a bottle of cold white. He smiles and says he’s glad I took some time today to relax, I shake my head and tell him everything that I heard.
“You’re not making any sense; you heard this through the vent?” I take him to the vase and point to the vent.
“There’ what?” he buzzes in the delivery from his phone, “I think you’re spending too much time inside. Do you have cash to tip?”
“Yeah, it’s on the counter.” We walk back to the kitchen, he opens the door, and I smile while sitting at the bistro to the Thai driver, cyclist, I’m not really sure how people commute. I take the bag from him, “I thought you wanted me to work on my collection.”
“I do but not if it’s going to make you hear things, like, how can you hear that much detail in a vent when I can’t even hear the TV in the living room from the bedroom?”
“I don’t know; maybe there’s a place that brings out the hot air in the bar area?”
“He’s a floor above us, won’t the duct be above us?”
“Or maybe it’s between the floors? I don’t know; I just don’t think eavesdropping was taken into consideration when they were being installed.”
“Really? Because it sounds like it’s a bit of a problem.” He takes a bite of the spring roll.
“Look, I’m telling you what I heard if you don’t want to believe me…”
“I don’t believe you. Frankly, it sounds like you’re being resentful of my company and want to project that into something you heard coming out of a vent.”
“Are you fucking with me? You think I don’t care about your work enough to come up with a pretty accurate scenario of a conversation that occurred during business hours. Okay fine, where was Steve today?”
“How did you know Steve wasn’t at work today?”
“Because that’s who I heard!”
“You’ve never met Steve!”
“That’s the name I heard being ‘thanked’ by your competitor.”
“You know what, fuck you okay, I’m not going to believe you because you’re just some wannabe Etsy artist who can make it big if you keep your mouth quiet and let me do what it is I do.”
“Excuse me? Etsy? Like I would ever sink to that…” I take my styrofoam container, “I’m going to finish this in my studio, I don’t need to be insulted by the next wannabe millionaire, you should have stuck to planting heirloom soybeans.”
“Yeah maybe I should, then I wouldn’t be stuck here with you.”
“You wanted the city!”
“Yeah because I wanted to give us a lifestyle.”
“The lifestyle of shoving people out and us in? The lifestyle of competing for the same media fix? The lifestyle of being one paycheck ahead of others to making that think we got something to show? Common, we’re out of our league here, and we should just call it…”
“No, you don’t have what it takes, I do!” He walks off into the bedroom, and a few minutes later I hear the shower turning on. The fight has taken its halftime break. I continue walking to the studio, to not work on any canvas or make any promises to possible clients.
The following morning I wake up in the guest room, unaware of how I fell asleep without saying goodnight or brushing my teeth. When I go into the kitchen the hour is far past when Evan left, and I feel awful to not saying anything this morning about how we shouldn’t go to bed angry. He left a note in an empty mug next to the hot coffee in the machine.
I’m sorry for what I said, I love your work, and I love you, please stick to following your dreams.
I pick up my phone and text him that I will, and I’m sorry about yesterday. He tells me he’ll come home early and they can relax together with some popcorn. I smile and head into the shower. It’s dry, and there’s a towel left for me on the counter, I really am a lucky woman. I stand there and let the warm water hit my face and fall off my shoulder, I remove myself from the night on the cold mattress and open up the shampoo. Before I put the shampoo on my hand, I wonder, did I really hear what I heard? Did that conversation occur or am I really sabotaging my husband? Do I hate him that much for bringing me here that I would make up a reason to have him fail? But I don’t want him to fail, and I don’t see what that would do for us? What would happen then? Would we move to a building and then he’ll be too sad to continue and look for mediocre work while I go back to working as an ESL teacher or maybe try office administrative. I could do that, for him. For us. So why would I want him to feel that awful and why would I curse his work? I’m sure I didn’t hear the conversation, I must be exhausted, and maybe it was a television, I mean, Evan is such a common name. Okay, today I’m going to read one of the many books on our bookshelf that I haven’t read, a day off kind of afternoon in the studio, opening the curtains and to watch the street as life goes by.
I pull in a chair from the living room and sit by the window, open a book and start reading about an everyday relationship of mother and daughter. I enjoy reminiscing about my own relationship and well into the 3rd chapter. I am finding myself laughing out loud. Before I turn to the 4th chapter, I open the window and go to pour some iced tea. When I get to the hallway of the guest room, I hear a faint discussion and wave it as a TV, but then I hear…
“Ha, thanks.” I run over to the vent, “I’ve always wanted a little girl.” No, I think, not a girl.
“What’s the princess’ name?”
“Macy,” Troy takes a break to what I imagine is sipping, “not like the failing big-box chain but like the singer.” Okay, it is not the TV, this is Troy. I remember how they chimed that exact description to all the guests after they revealed the name if the baby was a girl. I don’t bother listening to the rest of the conversation, I know where it’s going, I know how often I am going to hear this conversation, I know how often I am going to be ignored. I sit on the bed and continue to hear the two men talking in private where only I can hear.
That night I ask Evan where Troy was, he said he was home with the baby, something about a doctor’s appointment. He asked me why I cared; I told him what I heard, we got into a huge fight. I watch Evan’s mouth open and close the same way it’s opened and closed over the last few years, poised, focused, determined and condescending to others.
“I’m sorry. I probably just need some air.” I grab my purse and my jacket, “can you order your dinner? I think I’m going to get a drink and maybe call up a girlfriend, is that okay?”
“Yeah babe, deal with your shit because it’s getting to be a little much.” I close the door.
The only place that looks as confused as I do is a dive bar that only has tacos, beef or chicken. I fill up one of the empty chairs by the bar and order a margarita, she smiles at me and makes it with some home blend tequila, she tells me how her husband has made a good recipe, better than the last batch. I nod and look around. No one from his company, no one from my building, shit, no one from any building is here. The bar is sparse except for a few people who look like they are waiting for their bus to come through as public transportation is terrible in this area, once on the hour. She asks me what else I need, I tell her a new husband. She laughs and points to a guy at the end of the bar who is as sun damaged as the interior of a Buick, I laugh so loud he looks up from the tabletop.
“Oh girl, you have nothing to worry about. You have everything compared to these folks.” She waves to the couple at the sticky table, with their shopping bags at either side, to the woman who walks in and sits closer to the man at the end of the bar. I nod. She walks over and without speaking, makes the woman her drink. She walks back and rests on the countertop.
“But what is everything? The image created by objects made to fill a void to be fulfilled? Do we call that progress? Or art? Do we help each other or hurt each other?”
“You think so?”
“If we don’t hurt each other, we don’t know how to better each other, you need to work out the reasons for casting aside and pain before you can start the process of healing.”
“But why can’t we do what’s right from the start?”
“Because that would make us saints, not human.” I finish the margarita, she makes another. As her back is towards me, I look at a stage in the back corner.
“Ah, you haven’t heard?” She tops the drink with an extra splash of the moonshine, “it’s what’s left of a stage that had a woman performing with her snake, she lived upstairs. When she died, no one was able to find the snake and rumors started that the snake lived under the stage. It was said that the snake was given to a friend of hers in another state but no one came in with a bill of sale, but it’s a snake, what do you need more than a cage and cash? So anyways, when the rumor took hold, no one wanted to step foot in here. Over time the place filed for bankruptcy, and then we bought here, it was the only place we could afford. Plus, we might make enough money to cover the mortgage at the bar, and no one would rent upstairs unless they knew the snake was out. Plus, every now and then we get some decent customers…” she waves over to my second drink.
“I’m glad to fill the quota.” I sip on the drink; it’s stiff, I ask for two beef tacos. “I wonder what happened to the snake.”
“I think it crawled into the sewer…” she took a sip of her drink, “that thing was said to have a mind of its own.” I nod, she hands me the tacos. I eat in silence and hear the soft rock and watch the couple look at the time and head outside. When I get home, I don’t try to curl up next to Evan but find comfort on the chair left by the window in my studio. I can sleep perfectly fine here, I can get used to it, I can curl up like a constrictor at the risk of getting caught.
The next day our texts are civil, and he understands that I’m under a lot of stress after the move and adjusting to the new place, then by lunch, he tells me we need to talk. Before he gets home I complete a piece and take a picture of it; I think it’s perfect for a fitting room.
“Well you were right,” Evan says when walking in the door, “Steve just put in his two weeks’ notice, said he got a better offer and wants to take some time off before starting that job. When I pressed him on what company he’s going with, he said he was told he didn’t have to tell me, like what the fuck? After everything, I did for him…”
“Like you did for us?”
“Fuck not now, I’m kinda really pissed, I mean, I know you told me but I didn’t want to believe it, like, what more do these guys want?”
“Maybe they felt they didn’t have time to work on their own projects?”
“What the fuck? Where did that come from?”
“I don’t know, that was part of the offer…”
“Fuck, the vent told you? Great, I’m losing my best engineer and my wife believes a set of aluminum.”
“Wait, so I fucking connect with the building, bringing the old with the new and you then use it against me?”
“Not for eavesdropping…”
“It wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t about you,” I get up from the chair, “look, I just tried to warn you.”
“Well next time, don’t bother, let me figure it out on my own.”
“There won’t be a next time,” I say, I take a deep breath.
“Oh, you’re going to give up on listening in?”
“No, I’m leaving you.”
“Stop it, I don’t have time to deal with this.”
“I’m serious, I need space to listen to myself think of what I want than hearing what you want and being ignored.”
“Can we talk about this tomorrow?”
“No, that’s my point, it’s never about today, and it’s always about tomorrow. Well, there is no tomorrow, at least not for us.”
“What about your painting?”
“I’ll make time for it. I’ll give myself a day or an hour a night, I just can’t do it in the confines of your dismissal.”
“Dismissal? Are you fucking with me? I’m making this happen for you!”
“I think you believe that and right now, I need to show you how wrong you are.”
“You want to teach me a lesson, okay, fine, don’t come crawling back…”
“Whatever, you’re just a crazy bitch anyways,” he opens the door, “just leave the key under the welcome mat when you’re done, I’ll be staying at the Hyatt.”
I watch how the door closes and admire how thin the frame is, allowing the door to slightly bounce. I realize how long it’s taken me to start to admire the thin trim along the bottom of the hallway, the kind that we had as children, the ones we get accustomed to seeing in the corners of our eyes. More of the many details we let pass over us as we push to tear down and apart families from their homes by pretending this could be our home. I’m not going to pretend anymore, it’s time to find my place. Somewhere between the penthouse and the stage that housed a snake must be a building with a room to rent, a place with enough light for a 10 x 16 and a bed for one.
Trista Hurley-Waxali just finished a stint living in LA for 6 years and is looking forward to her next adventure. She has performed at Avenue 50, Stories Bookstore and internationally at O’bheal Poetry Series in Cork, Ireland and a TransLate Night show from Helsinki Poetry Connection. She writes weird short stories and is working on her novel, At This Juncture.