© 2020 Paula Robinson
The painting makes me want to go back to Pakistan. I imagine myself at Ramkot Fort, watching the moonlight on Mangla Lake and—
Someone walks in front of me, obscuring my view. I blink, aware of dissonant sounds around me. Voices, competing. Laughter, forced. I was one of the first to arrive, but now half of Manhattan seems to be at the opening of Kashmir Revisited.
I focus on the painting again. I can almost feel those stone ramparts weathered by centuries. The darkness of the water draws me, promising something. A way to forget. To drift back—
“Khalid Khan has such amazing talent,” a man’s voice says close beside me. The accent is English, the words clipped.
I’m not in the mood for small talk. I go over to the painting’s wall label. Squint at it.
“It’s called Midnight of my Passing Years.” He’s standing behind me. Not too close, at least. “You’re Inkie Black, aren’t you?”
I flinch. It sounds ridiculous, a name chosen in a drunken stupor. Which, of course, it was. The only thing going for it is that it’s less boring than my legal name.
“Your exhibition in Amsterdam last year was intriguing.”
I turn and look at a stranger in a charcoal, tailored suit. He is monochromatic: his shirt black, his hair streaked with grey. Is he referring to my art—or my spectacular fight with Max at that exhibition?
“I purchased Bedroom in Lahore on behalf of a client.”
It was my first piece. The one I’d promised myself I’d never sell. “Who’s your client?” I ask, trying to keep my tone even.
“Excuse me,” he calls to a waitress carrying a tray. “Thank you so much,” he takes two flutes of Champagne, offers me one.
I shake my head.
“My client liked Bedroom in Lahore’s simplicity compared to some of your other work.”
I remember painting that salvage window bright turquoise. Draping a sheer dupatta inside the glass panes like a curtain half-pulled. Developing that photograph, mounting it in the box I’d built. Most of all, I remember stepping back. Gazing through a window at a man sleeping in tussled sheets, his arm above his head.
“My client and I are keen to see what you’re working on now.” The Englishman takes a card from his jacket pocket, hands it to me.
“Nothing. I stopped after that show.”
“What a great pity.”
I finger a lime green splotch on my jeans. In my rush to paint the guest room wall earlier, I didn’t bother to mask the edges so the colour lapped onto the two adjacent walls and cornice. Perhaps that neon wall is the start of a new mixed-media—
“Did you know Khalid Khan named this painting after a line from Parveen Shakir’s poem, I’m Happy To Remain A Butterfly?”
It’s one of my favourites, but I’m not about to tell him that.
“You were mesmerised for a good forty minutes. Khalid Khan will be—”
“Is he here?” I wish suddenly that I owned a pair of heels. That I hadn’t stopped wearing makeup. That I’d worn anything other than this washed-out t-shirt that’s one size too big. My short hair could probably use a brush, if not a wash. I cut it myself these days.
“No, he can’t abide these events—even in Lahore. He’s such a private person.” The Englishman raises his chin, his attention drawn to something over my shoulder. He nods, glances back at me and says quickly, “Well, it’s been a pleasure, Miss Black. Do give me a ring sometime.” Before I can answer, he disappears into the crowd.
I wonder for a moment if I’ve imagined the entire conversation. I’ve been known to do that. Then I feel the thick, white card in my palm. I run my thumb over the engraved script but I can’t make out the tiny letters without my reading glasses. I dig through my rucksack and find their case. It’s empty, as usual. I shake the bag hard in frustration. My fingers grope around inside until they close over one of the lenses. When I put my glasses on, there’s a cloudy imprint that I don’t wipe off. The front of the business card has two lines:
+92 (0)42 9558167
Ninety-two: the country code for Pakistan. I turn the card over, expecting a website and email. It’s blank.
The day has been hot for mid-April and the air smells of smog, the way it does in summer. I wander through Madison Square Park, trying not to think about Khalid’s painting. I head north towards the lights of the Empire State. Over my left shoulder, the prow of the Flatiron Building looks set to overtake me in the growing dusk. The French call this time of day l’heure bleue. The blue hour. I love taking pictures in its magical light. I pause by the South Fountain and watch a teenager in a purple anorak toss a coin in.
She reminds me of myself in Pakistan, that summer before starting my BFA. How naive I was with my ponytail and rucksack. My guidebook and Minolta camera. My pale skin that fascinated everyone—except him. His eyes touched me, but not his hands. Not at first.
I met him at Lake Mangla, the artist with the soulful eyes. He seemed to belong to another time, his paintbrush turning the scene into something mystical. Perhaps that’s why I opened up to him. Shared what I hadn’t been able to with anyone—not my parents; the cops; or the irritating shrink. I sat on Ramkot Fort’s crumbling stone wall, my legs dangling over the void and told him about my best friend Marion on that rooftop in Manhattan. When my story was done, I wiped my nose on the back of my hand. He gave me a wrinkled handkerchief that smelt of musk and cooking spices and then returned to his canvas in the growing dusk.
Khalid loved the folklore of his homeland and he always added an ephemeral detail to each painting—a clue for the enlightened to discover. That’s what I was looking for earlier at the exhibition. Only, this time, it eluded me.
He used to recite Parveen Shakir’s poetry to me, his voice mellifluous as I lay curled beside him. Months later—alone and wrapped up against the New York winter—I studied the translations from Urdu, learnt her poems by heart.
What if he’d named his painting for me? Midnight of my Passing Years. What if that was the clue?
I laugh out loud. It’s been how many years now? Over thirty. He probably doesn’t even remember me. Yet another American tourist, charmed by his manners, the sparsity of his words.
“You’re like Ramkot Fort, Uncle!” The term of respect in Pakistani English was meant as a playful taunt.
“Am I that old ?”
“No, just remote and beautiful. A tourist attraction.”
He raised an eyebrow and picked up his paintbrush.
I slipped the kameez he’d bought me over my head and lay naked on the floor cushions, but he didn’t look up from his easel.
I feel myself receding like a wave now, back to him. I remind myself of Parveen Shakir’s poem:
“Why should I lose what years have
my life of freedom, my free mind?
I know if I ever fell into his hands
he'd swiftly turn me into a housefly.
Confined to the walls of his desires”
I still dream of Khalid. I wake, convinced I’m by his side. When I hear the orchestra of New York outside my window, I try to go back to sleep, to my dream of him—Not that I ever can.
The only cure for the emptiness is to start a new art piece, just as I did on my return from Lahore with my suitcase full of brightly coloured and patterned mementoes of our days together. Much of my work as an artist has been creating spaces where he and I are still together. I don’t know what other people see in my Roomscapes framed by a vintage window or door. To me, they’re views from the street into the life we could have shared.
Martini’s purr is loud in my ear, his whiskers tickling my cheek. When I don’t stir, he jumps on top of me, kneading his front paws, his claws like thorns on my bare arm.
I push him off, sit up and wince. My head aches and I’m still in yesterday’s clothes. The smell of burnt toast makes me feel queasy.
Bill comes in and hands me a mug of black coffee. “I didn’t want to wake you when I got in last night. It was late.”
It’s not the first time I’ve slept in the guest room. Twenty-three years of marriage. Need I say more?
“What’s that all about?” Bill points to the lime green wall, garish in this light. An empty bottle of Merlot is lying on the wood floor beside an open tin of white paint with a paintbrush submerged in it. The wall has a wavering line of white letters, set off-centre. It looks like a child’s first attempts at writing.
Bill reads slowly: “I don't wish to say: "There he is.” What does that mean?”
“It’s a line from a poem.”
“Hmm.” Bill isn’t interested in poetry. In fact, anything that can’t be put in a spreadsheet, doesn’t interest him. Sometimes I wonder why we’re together. Then I remember: he was the antidote. Grounded and reliable. “Does what it says on the tin,” was how I described him to my friends. There are no surprises with Bill and, for the longest time, I’ve liked that. After Khalid’s exhibition, I’m not so sure.
“See you later, babe,” Bill kisses the top of my head. “I’ll pick up Chinese on my way home. The usual?” He doesn’t wait for an answer.
I drink my coffee and go back to sleep.
* * * *
Am I dreaming it, or is my phone ringing?
I answer, my voice groggy.
“Miss Black? It’s Mr Hughes. We met yesterday at Khalid Khan’s exhibition. He asked me to call. He’d like to meet today if you’re available?”
“I thought you said he wasn’t in New York?”
“He would like to see you.”
“He didn’t say.”
“How did you get my number?”
“From your website. Which is lovely, by the way.”
The meeting is set for three at Birch Coffee on Twenty-seventh Street. I chose it because I like its bare brick walls and vintage ceiling tiles painted black. The crystal chandelier that lights the lending-library’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in one corner.
I order a double espresso, choose a hardback at random and find two stools by the window. I sit with my chin in my hands and watch New Yorkers rushing past. A kid in a stroller stares back at me with intense eyes. I look away and polish my lenses on my skirt. Read the first page of the novel, but it doesn’t hold my attention. I take out my phone and browse the internet.
“Good afternoon.” Hearing Khalid’s voice startles me.
Everything around me attenuates. It feels as if we’re alone in this coffee shop.
I study his face. The only hint that he’s almost seventy is the deepening of his expression lines. Otherwise, he has remained upright and slender.
He smiles. “What have you been up to, Aunty?” It’s the first time he’s called me that. Did I really expect him not to notice that I’ve gained weight, lines and sagging skin? Did I imagine he’d see through them to the girl who still lurks, if only inside my mind?
I’ve rehearsed what to say. I’m married now. A successful mixed media artist. Happy in Manhattan.
“Have you visited Pakistan?”
“No.” It’s too entwined with memories of him. Of us. Of Marion.
His mother has passed, along with one of his sisters, he says. His sons are grown men, taller than him. “Grandchildren now. The circle of life.”
My life seems like a straight line without so much as a wiggle.
“And your wife?” Did I say that out loud? A few years after I left Lahore, he married an English aristocrat: nineteen (a year older than me when I met Khalid) and beautiful. At best, I was cute and buxom in my youth. His bride liked cricket and attended all his matches—unlike me who’d tried to convince him that baseball was the better game. And, of course, she enjoyed afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches. I couldn’t get out of bed without my mug of ol’ Joe.
I would have given everything up (the Yankees and filter coffee included) to be with him. “I have to marry a girl from Pakistan,” he said. “It’s expected.” So what changed? Did he fall in love with the English rose? Or her family’s money? His career certainly took off after their wedding—
Mustn’t be catty, I remind myself.
“I don’t have kids,” I volunteer. During our last argument, I threw a ceramic jug at him, swore I’d never have a child if it wasn’t his. Youthful hysterics turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Probably for the best as I would have been a terrible mother. Perhaps he knew—
A woman tries to sit on the stool next to me.
“It’s taken!” I object, putting my hand on the seat.
“Really? You got an invisible friend?” She lowers herself with a sigh, spilling coffee in her saucer and narrowly missing my hand as I pull away.
“Bitch!” I throw my phone in my bag and leave. My stilettos are too tight and I’m walking like a duck. I bought them—along with my red dress—to make myself feel sexy again.
In my bag, Khalid’s voice is muffled. I take the phone out, pause the video I’ve been watching. It’s one of the rare interviews he’s given recently.
I cross the street and study Birch Coffee’s facade from different angles. Once I’m satisfied, I remove my shoes and reach for my camera. I always carry it with me—even though I haven’t taken a picture in months. I bought it a few years ago when I read that my favourite photographer, Raghu Rai, switched to a Nikon digital D100. Rai’s black and white motion-shot of a tea vendor hanging out of the Delhi-Mumbai train inspired me to explore photography. That and his quote, taped to my mirror: “A photograph has picked up a fact of life, and that fact will live forever.”
The Nikon slips easily from its case, its weight familiar in my hands. It’s like stepping into sheepskin slippers on a winter’s day. I take off the lens cap. Replace it almost immediately.
What am I doing? This is madness.
The pavement feels rough underfoot, but I like it. It’s grounding.
The lens cap comes off again and I raise the viewfinder to my eye and zoom in. The woman is still sitting in the window, holding her coffee cup between pudgy hands. When I’m back in my studio later, I’ll Photoshop her out of the scene. Replace her with the profile of a man turned towards his companion in a red—
There’s shouting coming from somewhere up the street. An old woman in tattered clothing is hobbling in my direction, waving her fist and swearing at everyone she passes.
Am I crazy like her?
No. I’m an artist. Inspired by a dream this morning of a phone call from Mr Hughes. It sparked an idea for my next art piece. In the coffee shop, I was developing it in my imagination. Now I’m implementing it.
Will I call Mr Hughes at some point?
Ask if Khalid was the one who bought Bedroom in Lahore?
Has he followed my career and life, the way I have his?
Do I really want to know?
The old woman is drawing closer. She’s heckling pedestrians who hurry past, their eyes fixed on the sidewalk; their phones; something straight ahead—anything to avoid looking at her.
When she is within a few feet of me, I meet her gaze and ask gently: “May I buy you a cup of coffee and a sandwich, Aunty?”
I go home to change before heading out to my studio. I’ve successfully avoided the place since returning from Amsterdam and it’s probably overrun with cockroaches by now.
I still get that sinking feeling, walking into the foyer of our apartment building on West One-hundred and sixth street; riding the manual elevator with its scissor gate to the third floor; stepping into the rent-controlled apartment that overlooks four lanes of traffic.
“Hi, Mom. I’m home,” I call, out of habit.
If Bill’s around, he’ll call back in a silly, high-pitched voice: “Get started with your homework immediately!” He’s an accountant who wears glasses and is balding now, but there are still traces of the boy in him—especially when he heckles the late night news.
There’s something pathetic about being middle aged and still living in your mother’s place—unless it’s an estate. This apartment was meant to be a stop-gap for Bill and I. We had big plans to escape the city and move to the country. Keep chickens and grow our own vegetables. Take long walks and breathe fresh air. But the years passed and we talked about it less and less.
We redecorated, bought contemporary furniture, gave Mom’s to Goodwill—except for my old dresser. We undertook an expensive remodel of the bathroom and kitchen. “No point in living in the meantime,” Bill said. But I hesitated. Was it a fear of seeing my childhood home changed forever? Or because I felt our youthful dreams dimming? After the remodel we became entrenched, wary of change. The practicalities of life took over: saving for retirement; 401(k)s; investing in dividend stocks—
On my way to our bedroom, the guest room’s green wall and inscription catch my eye. I tell myself it’s artistic, a poor imitation of the watercolours on the decks of challenge cards in my dresser drawer. Who am I kidding? I’ve lost my touch. I can’t even paint a straight line anymore.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an artist. I think it started with those beautiful watercolours on the challenge cards that my godmother sent. They fascinated me with their magical scenes and I’d play with them for hours when I was little. I pestered Mom for years asking who my godmother was and why we never saw her, but Mom always changed the subject. One deck came sometime after I was born, apparently. The second arrived on my tenth birthday. The third for my eighteenth. I found the fourth and last deck hidden in Mom’s closet after she died.
I go over to the rickety dresser that’s still in the same place as when I was a kid. I open the top drawer and stare at three of the elaborate boxes lined up in sequential order.
The first is padded and covered in a patchwork of fairytale scenes, hand-painted on cotton. The box is stained and worn. I open it and inhale the smell I loved as a child: a perfume, I think. It’s faded over the years, but it’s still there. The thirty cards inside are the size of Tarot cards and have watercolours of mermaids, castles and mythical creatures. I turn one over: Be brave as a lion, it reads. I flip another: Be a princess today. Whenever I felt sad as a kid, I’d fetch the box and take a card out. They always made me feel better, like a hug from someone who loved me.
One of my earliest memories is of Mom patiently teaching me how to use them: “We’ll mix them up really well, like this,” she’d overhand shuffle. “We’re going to spread them all out,” she fanned the cards on the green plastic tablecloth. “Close your eyes real tight. Now, pick one…Okay, you can open your eyes. Look at this pretty picture!” We studied the watercolour together. “Turn it over and let’s see what your adventure’s going to be today!” On the reverse of each card was a challenge written in calligraphy—English round hand style, I later learnt.
The first time Marion came for a sleepover when we were six, I showed her my box and announced proudly that it was a gift from my Fairy Godmother. There was a look of wonder on her face for a moment before she declared: “Fairy Godmothers aren’t real, silly!”
“Mine is! I saw her! She stroked my hair when I was a baby.”
“She isn’t a fairy godmother if you saw her.”
“Yes she is!”
We argued until Mom called us to the kitchen for tinned ravioli and cherry Kool-Aid. When her back was turned, I stuck my tongue out at Marion and flicked a pasta square into her hair. She threw one back, hitting my nose.
The box I received for my tenth birthday is made from maplewood with a white unicorn painted on the lid. The cards inside are watercolours of Nature with more complex challenges. Find a character (even an object or animal) to inhabit. Assume its voice in writing a small love story. I smile, remembering how I chose to be a pebble on a beach and wrote an ode to the warmth of the sun; the coolness of the incoming tide lapping over me; the serenity of a full moon making me sparkly.
My eighteenth birthday box is milk glass encrusted with semi-precious stones in shades of soft aqua and sea-foam green. I remember the Saturday afternoon when it was delivered, Marion sitting cross-legged in the middle of my bed and yawning while I picked a card and read its challenge out loud:
“Invent a wild, new identity for yourself, preferably something to which you aspire. Tell everyone you meet about your ‘life’.”
Marion clapped her hands together. “What can we turn you into—Shh! Don’t interrupt.” She put a finger to her lips. “I have it: une femme fatale!”
“Oh, please.” I cinched my oversized sweatshirt at the waist, nodded to my mismatched socks. One had a hole in the toe. “You’ve always been the glamour girl, Marion. Not me.”
“We’ll transform you into a femme fatale this summer in Paris. A little war paint, some new togs, a personality transplant, and you’re there! Shouldn’t be too hard.”
“Except that I don’t want to be a femme fatale.” I went to open the window and a breeze caught the sea glass mobile. The pale aqua, milk-white and sea-foam green pieces danced in the light. It used to hang above my cot and it still reminded me of an underwater palace waiting for the Little Mermaid to come swimming in.
A month before our scheduled departure to Paris, Marion went into a travel agent and changed our booking.
I frowned at my ticket. “Do your parents know?”
“Of course not! And you shouldn’t tell yours either or they’ll never let us go.”
“But why Pakistan?”
She shrugged. “Paris, Pakistan: they both begin with P. You’re only sulking because you won’t see Maxence.” MAH-KSahNS. She drew out her half-brother’s name, inflecting it with hidden meaning, a whisper of longing on the final syllable to taunt me.
Six years later—while hunting through Mom’s closet for her satin wedding pumps, long gloves and powder-blue scarf for the undertaker to dress her in—I discovered a package in a shoebox identical to the ones I’d received for my tenth and eighteenth birthdays, addressed to me in that familiar script, with no return address or postmark. In the top right corner was a faint pencil mark. I recognised Mom’s writing: “21st”.
I upended the shoebox, but only tissue-paper fluttered out. I unwrapped the brown paper slowly—without the excitement I’d felt as a ten-year old, or even that tinge of curiosity at eighteen. All I could think about was Mom keeping this gift a secret. She’d always been so honest with me. About everything. Too much so at times.
My present was wrapped in black and white striped paper with a red velvet ribbon tied in a simple bow. It looked elegant—unlike the embossed foil paper and iridescent glitter bows Mom used to buy at Dollar Tree. Inside was a black velvet box, about four by six inches. The same size as the other three boxes in my dresser, except that this one looked promisingly like a jewellery box. I pressed its gold clasp, hoping for a bracelet or necklace this time, but it was challenge cards illustrated with monochrome watercolours of Paris.
To this day, I still haven’t discovered who my godmother was or why she sent the four decks of challenge cards, but I’m grateful to her for inspiring me to become an artist.
I wiggle my dresser drawer, coaxing it to close. There’s something wedged in the right-hand corner. A small, folded piece of card, yellowed by time.
A boarding pass.
I prise it loose.
It’s still creased into the multiple folds I made on a flight to Lahore in the summer of 1986.
© 2020 Paula Robinson