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Lounge Fiction: Perfect Flowers, by Sharbari Zohra Ahmed

‘Memories are anything but perfect flowers. There are always parts missing.’ In a creative writing class, Anadil is confronted by the ghost of her long-dead marriage, and must look at these memories again

Anadil now always slept in the centre of the king-sized bed because she felt strange sleeping all the way to one side while the other side was empty. Illustration by Jayachandran
Anadil now always slept in the centre of the king-sized bed because she felt strange sleeping all the way to one side while the other side was empty. Illustration by Jayachandran

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It had been 10 years since Anadil voluntarily left her marriage. She avoided feeling anything about the end of it, since it was mutual, though spurred by her, and more amicable than her married years had been. They had a mediator, divvied their stuff up evenly. Matthew had been generous, leaving her the house and paying alimony and child support since he had made the money. It was more than she expected. He had used money to control and bully her because he was so dissatisfied with his own life, a soul mired in what- ifs and relentlessly unhappy with the present. A mystery Anadil gave up trying to solve. And now her creative non-fiction professor was asking her to dissect the marriage. She had reluctantly reached back into her memories and stood in front of a group of somewhat disaffected young writers to read what she had discovered. She cleared her throat and began, at first hesitantly and then rushing to reach the end.

“‘We have to share the world with rodents,’ I tell myself. I try not to think about my basement, cluttered with junk and nice things left over from my marriage. On the perfectly square teak wood coffee table we bought together in Ubud, is a pile of mouse shit. It’s as if they all gathered on the table to hang out. Teak wood is a hard wood, known for its ability to survive the elements. My marriage did not survive the elements. It’s ghastly but I think about the turds almost every night. I research how to safely clean mouse droppings and avoid getting hantavirus: treat the scat with bleach, and then brush them into a bag. Do not vacuum because particles could then be released in the air, spreading hanta. A junta is a military or political group that rules a country after taking it by force. Rodents rule my basement where the leftovers of my marriage are stored. It hurts me that it’s all rotting down there, shat on, the things we bought together.”

Anadil looked up from reading and scanned the room for reactions. Some of the students were looking down, some off into space.

Professor Gable snapped his fingers in applause/acknowledgement and the rest of the class followed suit, a practice Anadil found absurd.

“Thank you Anadil, for that. It was raw, vulnerable. Heartfelt,” he said. “Thoughts? Feedback, class?”

“Did she fulfil the assignment?” Emily asked. Emily’s resentment of Anadil was plain, since Gable always seemed too complimentary about Anadil’s work, whilst dismantling everyone else’s. Anadil knew that Emily and possibly others felt this way and that they believed it was because she was a “non-traditional” student—older by at least two decades than everyone else, deciding to get her MFA in creative non-fiction at the ripe age of 47—and that Gable took pity on her for this.

“The assignment had to do with memory, so yes, I think she did,” Gable replied. Emily snorted. Emily was a lyrical writer and used words like “thorax” and “lugubrious” a good deal in her writing. She was pretty and blonde. Men found her attractive. She was slim, with large breasts and lean legs. Her eyes were bright blue, slightly iridescent. Anadil got the feeling Emily was angry she was not a natural blonde to go with the otherwise perfect American ideal of feminine beauty. By the end of finals week in their first semester, Anadil saw the brown roots. “I knew the curtains didn’t match the drapes,” Anadil would tell a friend over mojitos. She didn’t admit that she envied Emily’s youth and cool disregard for authority.

“I think she’s focusing on mice poop in the present,” Emily said. There was something in her challenging tone and Gable’s looking away and clearing his throat that gave Anadil pause. “They slept together,” she realised suddenly, feeling a lurch of disappointment in her stomach. Anadil had taken for granted that he preferred her because he always found something positive to say about her work, unlike with Emily’s. He was flirtatious with Anadil, but she was never quite sure she wasn’t misconstruing his warmth.

“Ubud’s in Bali, right?” Rejean, a smooth-faced young man, with skin like caramel, asked. He smiled at Anadil, one of her few friends in the class. “It sounds made up, like a fantasy place in Middle Earth.”

“Bali, yes,” Anadil replied. “Almost a fantasy place. We went there for our honeymoon.” She did not expect the hitch in her throat as she said this. “We ordered furniture. It was very inexpensive,” she added, wanting to make it sound mundane because she was suddenly overcome with emotion.

In fact, her house was decorated almost exclusively with the pieces they had commissioned while there. The master bedroom had a king-sized teak wood sleigh bed and a matching chest of drawers. The study had a huge, old-fashioned teak wood desk with dark green leather inlays in the centre that Matthew let collect dust and barely used. It too languished in the basement, its drawers probably a haven for the mice. Anadil now always slept in the centre of the king-sized bed because she felt strange sleeping all the way to one side while the other side was empty.

“So, your ex was a rodent?” Emily asked her now.

“Where do you get that?” Anadil said.

“Your first line. ‘We have to share the world with rodents.’ I think you’re talking about your ex.”

Struck, Anadil sat down. Matthew had been controlling and unkind, though that was not his only way with her. After 10 years she had forgiven him, almost entirely. She had forgiven him for the night, a year after they were married, and they had a fight—over something she could not remember—and he locked her out of the apartment on 115th and Broadway—Columbia married student housing. He would not let her in until neighbours, disturbed by her pleading in the middle of the night, called the police. She forgave him for the pitying looks the female cop gave her when Matthew had finally unlocked the door and let her in. She forgave him for not touching her for two years, for saying to her that her body had changed, and he was no longer attracted to her. She was not saintly. She was volatile and wounded by his sexual rejection. She had yelled and thrown shoes and books at his head. But she never held on to her anger or pain as he did. She never wanted to punish him for the pain he caused. Matthew would hold on to a grudge like a life raft, refusing to engage and casting a pall on their day-to-day lives while she waited for the sun to break through. She would cook his favourite dishes, only to have him buy take-out—for himself. She would purchase small things that she thought he would like, only to have him tell her she wastes his money. She tried to talk to her mother-in-law about it. “Well, this is what we were all worried about, intercultural problems,” she said. “You might have been born here, but you’re a Muslim, and Bangladeshi culture is very…different from our American one.” Problematic was the word Anadil knew his mother wanted to use. So very foreign.

She was no longer in love with Matthew, and she did not hate him. Ten years on, they were, by some miracle, friends. The marriage ending as calmly as it did, was a relief. There was nothing to rehash or mourn. Yet, in class now, suddenly, her chest swelled with tears, and she wanted to leave the room and go home and crawl under her duvet.

“I think the mice and them shitting all over the nice things she collected during the marriage is making her think of how much time was wasted staying in it,” Rejean said. He looked at Anadil but was addressing Emily. “Maybe the junta she talks about is him, how he tried to control her. And her trying to understand how to remove the scat is really her trying to figure out how to move on without hurting herself more. You know, like a metaphor.”

Anadil shot Rejean a grateful smile.

“I know what a metaphor is, Re,” Emily said. She popped an orange tic tac into her mouth and sucked on it. Petulantly, Anadil thought.

“We can move on,” Anadil said.

“Not until we hear from you,” Professor Gable said. “Are Rejean and Emily, for that matter, right?”

Anadil swallowed, her throat tightening from the inexplicable tears that were caught in them.

“You said the assignment was to take objects we owned in the present and find the memory they evoked,” Anadil began slowly. “I think I am starting to do that here.” She had gone into the basement to throw laundry in the washer and her eyes lit upon the mouse droppings on the coffee table that Matthew had deemed disproportionate for their small living room and shoved in a damp corner. He was right. It didn’t fit because Anadil insisted on having it made in dimensions that were too large. There were those moments too, when he would just give in to her whims; when he had looked at her, his hazel eyes soft and he would laugh at something she said. She had liked making him laugh with impressions of people they both deemed ridiculous, like politicians or some of their more cloying relatives on both sides.

In Ubud, artisans had lined the road, their work arranged under canvas tarps hung taut above them or in dusty, overcrowded shops. She bought whimsical lamps made of thick paper and shaped like curlicues, and raw silk pillow covers hand-dyed in deep blues and reds, and yellows. Matthew had not denied her anything then. He enjoyed watching her haggle. She had a disarming way with people he admired.

“How many pillows does a person need?” he asked, chuckling.

“I have a vision,” Anadil said, “of a Balinese oasis in the middle of Connecticut.”

“That sounds nice,” he said. He had a kind smile, which belied the cruelty he was capable of. But that smile was genuine. Anadil knew he loved her, in the way he knew how to, and it destroyed them.

“You didn’t actually share any memory,” Emily was saying to her. “You told us about teak furniture and a virus and a dictatorship...”

“Emily,” Gable interrupted.

“…and how to clean mouse shit,” she finished, throwing a defiant glance at her professor/ lover.

Emily was right, of course. Anadil had not shared any memory, only that remembering hurt, and the artefacts of her failed marriage were decaying from idleness.

Everyone—except Emily—was staring at her kindly, which made her angry. Especially the pitying look on her professor’s face.

“You know, what I left out was that teak trees bloom flowers that have both male and female reproductive organs, making them biologically perfect. Memories are anything but perfect flowers. There are always parts missing. Dredging up painful memories doesn’t always serve a purpose,” Anadil said, finally releasing the tears trapped in her chest and throat. “Focusing on now is all I can manage and that is what I will do. So, my attempt at memoir is ultimately…bullshit. I escaped my marriage; I still have a rodent problem.”

She heard the gasps and chuckles. She didn’t meet anyone’s eyes as she gathered up her things, embarrassed and energised. When she did look up, it was to Emily and Rejean’s approving grins and Gable’s bafflement. She would apologise later. Now she wanted to cry. Satisfied, she walked out, into the December night, and let the snow fall on her upturned face, freezing her tears.

Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is the author of a novel Dust Under Her Feet (2019) and the short story collection The Ocean Of Mrs Nagai (2013). When she’s not writing fiction she writes for television.

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