Previously by Mia Hooper: Wolfbian: A Short Story
Fatma is first among her friends to rent one of the new Effuelux apartments on the edge of the business district. No roommates, no guests, no pets. Not even any outside furniture. Built for efficiency, the advertising says, and the modern lifestyle. The advertising has said this for ages. It began as a billboard in midtown; Fatma saw it from the window of the 22 bus, or maybe it was the 48. Effuelux was going to change the way people thought about living, about home. A new era was coming. Then the logo spread fungally to benches, cabs, and entire sides of buildings. She saw that billboard so long ago the memory’s patchy–a new era takes time, after all–but the eye that it opened inside of her remains clear and ready. She signed the forms with a carefully steady hand months ago, and the eye hasn’t blinked once.
Yusuf could be worse, truly. She’ll miss the companionable silences, the fresh bowls of yogurt, his skill with the herb bed. There are advantages to living with family. He doesn’t ask her to explain anything, although sometimes she thinks maybe he should. Their placid measure of distance bears no genealogical resemblance to the fighting-screaming-scratching-biting of the old days. Fatma misses that too, and also doesn’t.
So they get by–got by–together. It wasn’t bad, but her heart is full with time all her own, choices all her own. And she can leave the dishes dirty if she wants to.
Actually, she’s wrong about that, as move-in day makes plain. Her key flashes, the door slides away into the wall, and she gets her first look. Somehow Fatma’s mental picture of apartment-tenancy included cracked white plaster and smoking on the fire escape, even though she’s never smoked a cigarette in her life. Instead, efficiency and the modern lifestyle means a long narrow tube of a living space, a fold-up bed, just enough clearance to turn her wheelchair around, and too little room anywhere for dirty dishes. There is no fire escape.
The curved walls and ceiling are smooth, satiny; while it might be the dimness of the place, Fatma thinks they’re painted a light gray. Pigeon-gray. She looks up and narrows her eyes. She’s never been very good with visual measurements, but when she stands from her chair and goes up on her toes, she can just barely reach the top with one hand. Yusuf could always do that, wherever he went, but Yusuf is six foot four.
Stretching makes her ache, so she sits back down. She can map the seams of pain down her legs today, those old roads long-traveled. Her chair makes her about as tall as her ten-year-old self, and about as fast, too. It wasn’t a hard decision when the time came. She was all too happy to trade the handful of inches, and now, as she looks around, she’s never felt so proportional to a space since she started rolling. She thinks of the boys who called her “mouse” at ten because she was round-small-shy-brown, and she smiles. A mouse in a mouse house.
It is a privilege to have qualified as a tenant. There are requirements; a few are in the contract, and many more are in the bones and air of the building. Fatma wouldn’t be here now, she suspects, if she had more than her chair and her meds. She doesn’t know if someone with an air tank or a hemodialysis setup would make it past the application office. The young woman there is kind, but she walks easily, breathes unencumbered, and has corporate to answer to. Fatma slipped through the membrane that could have become a wall at any time.
Back in five minutes, the front desk said. The speckless halls were absolutely quiet coming up, and so is her apartment. The most noise the building has made since Yusuf dropped her off was the hum of the elevator as it climbed. For a complex packed with rows of shotgun studios, the elevator is surprisingly spacious, and it runs like butter. She looks forward to using it again.
She can’t quite believe the quiet, though. The first move-in of the day has to have happened already, but if there are neighbors, she can’t hear them. Good soundproofing and strict noise regulations will do wonders. That, or everyone else is dead and she’s the only person left in the world. Either way.
Her box of clothes goes on top of the toilet, as out-of-the-way as it can get. She doesn’t have much. Many of her things were really Yusuf’s things, so she’s shut the door on the excellent knives, the grain-filled pillow, and the electric fan. He has, however, gifted her with her own slim-handled brass coffeepot and a cup and saucer that belonged to their mother. She lifts the cup in one hand as she opens the sole cupboard, and its weight reminds her of bird bones.
Their mother hadn’t used it every day, or even particularly often. It was part of a plain, porcelain-white set that she probably bought from a department store back home, but Fatma remembers it anyway. Back before she was big enough to go to school, she would sit, baby legs kicking chair legs, and watch her mother drink coffee after breakfast against the light of the big kitchen window. Her stillness made her sharper, like being standing on the bridge at Köprülü Canyon, above and looking down. The moment before you maybe fall. Her mother, her anne.
Fatma still called her mother “anne” back then, before her disagreement with the kindergarten teacher. It was a year or more before Mrs. Miles would tell her, with red marks over i go shoping with anne at the stor, that children didn’t call their parents by their first names, that they said Mommy and Daddy. Fatma was being disrespectful to her mommy, Mrs. Miles said, and also needed to mind her capital letters. Never mind that Fatma’s mother’s name was Zeynep. Never mind that she was writing an-neh, a word that tilted like a seesaw, not aaaannnnnnn, a paper-flat name for girls who said Mommy. Never mind that Fatma knew what she meant.
She never did make Mrs. Miles understand.
The cup looks even smaller, alone on the shelf. She takes it down again. Lunch was hours ago, but clicking on the single burner is so easy. The kitchen box is right there; from now on, nearly everything will be within arm’s reach, always. One hand minds the pot while another scoops sugar and grounds, stirring with a spoon. Bubbles grow from the barest suggestion into a proper cushion of froth. She can stand long enough for this, no sweat.
It’s in this moment, jiggling the handle of the cevze with newborn-gentleness, that Fatma first wonders how Yusuf will take to going solo. Once, when they were both younger, she was sorry she couldn’t be a brother for him. He always seemed like he could use one. She thinks he’ll be okay, though. He’s got his hobbies–the games, the news, cooking and herbs, books about young men being sad. He won’t miss her so much. He’ll just have to cut back on making yogurt.
Fatma leaves the spoon on the counter to form a small dark puddle. She’s warm with the knowledge that it will be there when she comes back. It will be there in the morning, or in a week. Whenever she decides it’s time to wash.
From pot to cup, from kitchen to the bed-end of the room. There’s one window there, and one seat. Stay, she tells her wheelchair, and it does. The seat is generously soft. She pulls up her legs and nearly puts her nose in the coffee foam. It smells deeper-burnt around the edges without cardamom, and steam wisps up her cheeks as she waits for the powder-silt grounds to settle.
Right now, Yusuf would be listening to the radio. That’s fine.
Mice don’t drink coffee, but Fatma drinks hers. It tastes like kicking chair legs and the end of a good meal. It tastes like looking out the window, which she does too. Tomorrow she goes back to work; late afternoon rolls out in front of her, and it is just enough. There is nothing here that she does not want.
Her mother never lived alone. She’s never even had her own room, not ever in her life. Fatma won’t ever know if she regrets this, or if having sisters, children, and a husband on her heels at every turn has been a comfort rather than a burden. She’s certainly carried their needs lightly all this time. Still, the silence of those mornings at the kitchen table was almost as good as solitude. Almost.
Fatma thinks about touching the ceiling, about the closeness of the quarters. Yusuf wouldn’t come to visit even if he could. She wraps herself in his nightmare, makes a curved wall into a hug and a tiny bed into a nest. The coffee is finished, just loose grit that swirls in the bottom of her cup. She upends it over the saucer and holds them together as she stares out the window, waiting to tell herself her fortune.
About the Illustrator: Stephanie Monohan is an illustrator living in Brooklyn. She is drawn to the sea, the occult, and the occasional cute anime girl. You can see more of her work here and here.
Mia Hooper lives and works in California, where she spends a lot of time in small spaces. She also blogs about clothes at Reading in Skirts and tweets @figwiggin.