Cities and Splits

City Sea

This city unfolds along a watery spine. Small fishing hooks dip into the water from both sides, and white birds rest among the waves. In a park, a child wearing rubber boots topples into a flock of pigeons. A golden dog closes its eyes. Some buildings here are also Russian dolls: a church inside a mosque inside a museum. Your fingernails might split when you try to peel back the layers. The light here streams through small windows, and splinters into spider threads that breeze against your face. You will try to collect the thread, and it will always disappear by the time you return home, but if you’re lucky you’ll find a baby spider in your pocket. Leave it on your favourite windowsill and watch.

City Caves

Driving there you will think you’re seeing faces in the rock. Coney caves spiral up in the valley, with smoke pouring from their tops. A woman mourned her lost child here by carving her way into every rock with a spoon. Inside each cave there are endless rooms.

City Underneath

This city was built underground following a small disaster. One day, a woman sat alone outside and a raven landed beside her. After a brief hesitation, she stood up and moved away, but the raven followed her. It hopped and cawed and no matter where she went it followed. She saw a picnic blanket abandoned in the grass and rolled herself in it to avoid the raven’s gaze. But more birds arrived. Their beaks glistened and their throats bobbed. Still more circled overhead until the sky was a thick, dark cloud.
The old men had seen a black sky like this before, and began making tunnels in their basements to hide their wives and children in. While the tunnels became rooms, which branched into more tunnels, the ravens flapped around the woman’s head and their claws got caught in her hair. More ravens came and the sun disappeared behind them and things began to crumble as they tore out chunks. The city tunnelled faster. They even had rooms for livestock, baptisms, and making wine.

Artwork by Ilona Szalay “Injury.”

Hungry City

My first supper in America was a bowl of ramen. It was January, and New York a freezer. Tucked into one of the city’s box-like compartments, hidden by scaffolding beneath another shop in the Midtown area, was a crowded ramen place found via Google search. My roommate and I went there together. We did not know each other or America yet. Inside the small, bustling restaurant, alive with customers, steam clouds, pan sizzle and impatience, she told me it was her first time having Japanese food. I took a picture of her slurping noodles to send back to her boyfriend in Morocco. Do you like it? I asked her. She said it was interesting, and she giggled, slightly bewildered by her mouth, as her face reddened from hot broth, and her glasses assumed the look of a sauna.

I thought a lot about ramen after leaving New York, where I initially only spent three weeks doing a jazz studies class at NYU. I didn’t necessarily think of the thickness of the broth, or the level of heat rouging my lips, or the varying satisfaction of saving the soft-boiled egg for last, but I always remembered the choking hazard poster. In every restaurant I ate in, most of which were ramen spots near campus, I was mesmerized by the often elaborate, even beautiful illustrations of an asphyxiation taking place on a poster somewhere inside the establishment. I had never seen this anywhere else before. Was there a choking problem in New York? What was so hard for Americans to swallow?

There is a boy I knew who spent a lot of time talking to me about ramen. A few years ago, I had felt that America had swallowed him, and I could not reach my arm into the country’s throat to fish him back out. I resented his foreign chatter on the phone about the “fall” season, about brick buildings and buses to Boston. They were not mine; I was unfamiliar. But I loved it when he talked about ramen. In my off-beat time zone, first in my childhood bedroom and later, my college dorm in the Gulf, the thought of him bent, often alone and perhaps thinking fleetingly of me, over a large round bowl, swollen with noodles and broth and vegetables and meat and the hot, bright happy running out of an egg yolk, comforted me a lot.

Like any complex meal, ramen is built much like a furnished house. Upon a foundation of meat-based or fish broth, the cook scaffolds with what is usually a Chinese-style wheat noodle, paints the walls with soy or miso, adds fittings of chashu (pork), nori (dried seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots) and/or other vegetables like scallions, and finally, decorates with seasonings and a classic boiled egg. Enjoying a bowl of ramen, to me, feels like investing in a relationship –  unpacking a suitcase and settling in for a bit.

Since that first winter day in New York, I have returned to the city twice more, over the summer and now for the spring. Over lunch with my friend the other day, I talked about how my experience of consuming New York has largely been shaped by Asian hand. That morning, we had gone to Brooklyn to visit the Museum of Food and Drink, or the MOFAD lab. They were running an exhibit on the emergence and presence of Chinese food in America; walls had been constructed out of stacked Chinese takeout boxes, an enormous fortune cookie machine stood majestic in the corner, and a whole wing was dedicated to displaying taxidermy models of the various breeds of chicken used in Chinese-American cuisine.  I was impressed by the thoroughness and thoughtful clarity of the exhibit’s curation. During my sophomore year of college, I had taken a curatorial practice class in the art department, and since then had developed a deep fascination and respect for the curator’s task of shaping a clay-like historical narrative, using both text, found objects and physical matter. I began to see curation as a similar process to writing and editing; both worked with the raw material of narrative and history. Both had to take deft scalpels to stories, which together, like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, eluded a singular truth, and subsequently perform a surgery from which a complex storied product had to emerge.

What this exhibition specifically got me thinking about was the curated chronicling of hyphenated histories. While reading up about ramen earlier at home, I had learnt that its origins lay, much like most origins do, in a migration route between two (or more) cultures. It is widely believed that ramen was actually adapted from the Chinese, and brought over into Japan by Chinese immigrants. The first specialized ramen shop was only opened in 1910 in Yokohama, Japan, after decades of history in which it was primarily a Chinese offering, sold simple-style in small restaurants and mostly at portable street food stalls catering to local workers. Today, ramen has been developed, even arguably perfected, by Japanese chefs, and is, for the most part, considered a staple and highlight of Japanese cuisine.

I initially imagine that migration route between China and Japan as a hyphen, the same kind of hyphen that lies between Chinese and American in the MOFAD exhibit’s title. I’ve been thinking about the symbol of a hyphen a lot lately, now that I have spent a significant amount of time in the US. It often seems to me that America is choking on this hyphen.  But the hyphen itself as a term can be contested, an unequal see-saw between two identities, those identities themselves clouded with ambiguity – after all, what is an authentic Chinese identity, let alone American? The hyphen hides, too, or rather sidesteps, the historical shifts and differences of power dynamics between the identities being hyphenated, and how those change once joined together by the hyphen itself.

Before arriving in New York in that snow-full January, I had never really reconciled the “hyphens” of my own existence – born as an Indian citizen, I grew up entirely in the southern African capital of Botswana, eventually moving to Abu Dhabi for university at the age of 18. I knew I had grown up and formed a slow identity while straddling more than one culture, both of which I had not really learnt to accept or love, but just sit in, perplexed into a discomfiting stasis between them. Going to America has burst that still yolk of a bubble, and I find myself thinking almost incessantly about the routes, the thread-lines, between these different locations and identities, that exist and connect simply because they do so inside me. I initially imagined myself as a collection of hyphens, but due to the slipperiness of that term in today’s age, I am forced to reconsider the structure of how the places that make me me, actually connect with each other, both within and without me.

*

This spring, I worked as an editorial intern at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. AAWW began in a basement beneath a Gap store on St. Marks Place in 1991. Frustrated with having to explain and unpack their work and identities to a largely ignorant mass of white literati, a small group of Asian-American writers formed a new, magical subterranean world in which they could collaborate and validate each other’s creativity and hyphenated states. Over 30 years later, the problem of the hyphen remains just that, even within this essay: a problem. But the community that carries what America has deemed for them a scar, an unhealed wound, the eternal mark of an outsider, has grown bigger and stronger.

I worked for two of AAWW’s literary magazines: A World Without Cages, which documents writing by incarcerated Asian-Americans, and Open City, a journalistic initiative documenting New York’s immigrant neighborhoods. It was quite late into my job that I sat down to read the novel that I assumed the latter magazine was named after: Open City by Teju Cole, published in 2011. Not a long read, I gulped it down quickly, in a matter of 2-3 days. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it quite incessantly.

Open City is really an opening into the mind of a Nigerian-German psychiatrist named Julius. I would describe Julius as a cosmopolitan. The entire book is an act of both literal and mental roving – Julius spends a lot of time walking around New York, and for a brief but powerful segment, Brussels, and lets his mind travel with him, crossing the borders of the present into the past too, which is Julius’ childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. Both these physical and intellectual wanderings are colored with Julius’ heightened intellectualisms and intense philosophizing. For instance, seeing a disabled man within the maze of New York City prompts a long-winded foray into Yoruba traditional myths and fantastical interpretations of the disabled. Because I, as a reader, spend so much time absorbed in Julius’ headspace, the act of walking through New York is shaded over with his presence ­– I become Julius. Not necessarily a biracial psychiatrist of course, but a cosmopolitan, and educated, mind. While reading the novel, an instance of eating the infamous Brooklyn Blackout at a bakery, voted the best chocolate cake of America, triggers an absurd thought of my brain itself becoming the sponge cake, eager to absorb as much sweet lushness from the layers and layers of culture and diverse narratives from the palimpsest that is the ‘cosmopolitan’ city.

It is true that I often feel a kind of desperate hunger to understand any cosmopolitan city I inhabit. There is a strange urgency in me, like the persistent press of a full bladder, to visit every single neighborhood, to understand the inner workings as quickly as possible, and to feel the security of knowledge, of yes, I know this place, I know the subway routes and the odd stories of a local or two, I may even have written it down and immortalized it, and therefore, I can lay a claim of belonging to it, somehow. This logic is faulty, of course. But although I have become aware of this, and learned to curb myself, the hunger itself still stays. It is a hunger to resolve the tensions of differences, sometimes so disparate to the point of inconsequential or bizarre, within my own brain. Or in other words, I seek for hyphens to make connections between things that don’t reconcile within my head. In this way, I also become Farouq, the Moroccan clerk-cum-political philosopher that Julius meets in Brussels. Farouq is enchanted by Edward Said, and his fantasy, or dream, is to figure out how people from different places can live together while keeping their own values intact.

Near the end of Open City, we learn of a disturbing ‘plot twist’ and our perception of Julius, and the thread letting us dangle as marionettes within his brain, is suddenly, violently snapped. It feels as if I cannot trust my own mind and its machinations anymore. Because I realize I have become not Julius or Farouq but the cosmopolitan experiment, and in one small shocking instant, it has failed. A sour, almost metallic taste fills my mouth, such a vivid physical sensation, as if to counteract the abrupt mental upending that has just occurred. As the sun spills onto the Bowery, as if from an upset jug, I walk down the street combing over the entire novel in my mind, simultaneously using and questioning the critical toolbox I carry with me, one constructed and afforded by elite education, the same kind that gives Farouq and Julius their Paul de Man, Said and Derrida. Farouq and Julius, to me, are failed cosmopolitans, and seem to mask this failure with the very theoretics that enables their cosmopolitanism to take shape. And if they are failures, I re-arrive, finally, at the question that keeps frothing inside me since I’ve come to this country: what am I?

Open City is also a novel full of silences and gaps. Recently, my friend Jiun, who is a history major, wrote a piece about how stumbling upon the history of mi koo buns, her Malaysian childhood breakfast dish, prompted her to think about how people, and bodies, carry layers of both loud and mute history, and are thus, archives. What was to her just a nostalgic traditional food, actually carried a violent history: “Decades ago, a young man who joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla army was caught by British soldiers and sent to prison, where he was tortured into a coma. His mother prayed for him every day at the River Goddess Temple on Temple Street, offering lotus flowers with incense sticks. One day, all the florists in town were out of lotus flowers. Desperate, the mother baked some Mi Koo buns, carved flowers on them, and presented these at the altar instead. The boy survived his coma.” The palimpsest of historical meaning within the “mute mi koo bun” has led her to a research process that reveals more silence and censorship than she could have initially imagined. And she is recognizing how much this silence speaks about our failures in history. In Open City, Julius spends much time discussing the histories that are both literally and metaphorically buried in New York City: Wall Street sits atop a mass grave of African slaves – an event an academic friend describes as a “double burial.” Another day, I learn at a poetry reading, where I have come to engage with a specifically literary, creative-critical crowd, that that site of the Bowery Poetry Club sits on Lenape land, forcibly taken from Native Americans, another buried history that Cole mentions in his novel.

Open City sees Julius discussing how everyone views their own selves as the center for calibrating what is ‘normal; in other words, we are the heroes of our own stories. It reminds me of the Rashomon tale and our inability to arrive at, or simply the non-existence of, truth when there are multiple narratives of the same thing that all regard themselves as the center, the right, the truth. If I am trying to become a cosmopolitan, to string my hyphens together into something meaningful and ideal, and accepted first of all, then how do I reconcile the Rashomon effect with my quest? How do different people who all think they are right and splinter in the face of difference, live together successfully while still retaining the shifts and differences in their identities all bumping together constantly? How can my cosmopolitanism work when it must face history, and engage with the violence that is so often silent, so often buried, within that history? How does cosmopolitanism not worry itself to death when history is always hovering over its neck?

One day at the AAWW office, my fellow editorial intern holds a ramen night to use as research for a piece on the significance of instant noodles in contemporary life. A bunch of us, each carrying purses of different hyphenated identities, bring in a variety of noodle brands, from Mama to Maggi, and sit for three hours boiling water and exchanging bowls of disintegrating noodle bricks. The office sputters with the hissing of kettles, and the slurping of broth. Over discarded plastic packets, strewn books and stray chopsticks, we talk about the role ramen has played in our lives. I tell them Maggi was an occasional childhood luxury whenever I visited India, and that I lived off ramen when I ran out of all my money while living in Paris. I had spent several days in an utter daze, thinking only of food and the want for filling myself. Later as I go home on the 6, lips scarlet from heat, I realize that, in a way, my hunger has never left.


Photo by Aditya Romansa

In the Corners

By Scout Satterfield

Ten foot tall
Blue and green
Glow Fish
Hang from the overpass
Marbles are hidden
In pockets of the city

In the early morning
The call to prayer
Kisses my ears
The far-away song
The sound of his breath
The beat of my heart

A terracotta pot
Fresh tomatoes and Tuscan sausage
12 hours of simmering
A true labor of love
But I never asked for love
I only asked for dinner

My boots sink into snow
I feel it leak into my socks
Stone soldiers
Wait to fight heavenly battles
For an emperor
They never loved

The bones float up
And tap tap tap
Against the tops of their graves
I do not envy
The ghosts
In these boxes

He pisses in the bushes
Turns around
Tells me he loves me
I tell him I’m hungry
He holds my hand while we walk
It’s not romantic

The writing
On the wall
Speaks centuries
Silence falls
As the minaret
Sings

An observation deck
On the side of a highway
In the middle of a desert
At 1 am
Lights
At the edge of nowhere

Forgetting about
The vastness of the garden
I arrive at the garden
Affogami nella vasca
He can’t find me
Un giardino solitario

Love is really just
A chemical reaction
Beer bottles
The ashtray
Drops of rain
A continuous beat

HAY DE TODO (CASI)
A courtyard in
A cathedral
Was once
A mosque
A crucifix hangs in a mihrab

Smoke curls from his mouth
And floats out the open window
German whispers
To English ears
Intimacy
All the same

A garden wall
Overlooking a vineyard
At night
Is a great opportunity
To stop and
Drink a beer

Stained glass windows
Present pictures
Of heavenly pasts
And holy moments
I stand in
Their colored light

He’s holding your body close to his
But you don’t want him to
The cold makes the grey buildings
Poetic
The steam of your breath
Means you’re alive

The cobblestone street is uneven
From centuries of movement
The smell of Calabrian spices
On Tuscan meat
On the too-close breath
Of the Italian man

In the dark of Vienna
One euro for a flame
So God can see you
Turn the grind and roll a joint
Smoke to feel the night
Experience twice the candle light

I look at him
I see only the small red light
At the end of his cigarette
Brighter as he inhales
Illuminating his eyes
He looks at me

Wind whips Rome
They stand in line to feel closer to God
A dead city
Feels a bit alive
On weekdays
From nine to five

Artwork by Mona Hatoum “Keffieh”

mina port (abu dhabi, uae)

bodies froth
at the mouth
of mina zayed, oozing
sun

is a knife here, slits
into their flesh &
scales, debones
without asking
into plastic
wrapped sales:

for some dirhams,
men in shades
of flaccid arabic
dates, make feasts
out of creatures – common
oranges, fish, young

women, passing by
the smell, squirming
legs beneath skirts
pulled down by

those men, mirage
in their heads, glistening
meat, cut & priced
in rows like firangi
sunbathers
sweating on the lip

of this island: desert
smoothly filleted
by well-oiled palms.

Image sourced from Yalla Abu Dhabi.

Lonely Planet Guide

TOP 10 NYC: Food Edition

1.
Whole Foods is the safest place on earth. What would the terrorists come for? The organic ice-cream? The dinky doughnuts, perhaps, were worth killing for. Imagine, a rainbow of kombucha and salad and bamboo leaf shampoo, with artisanal cheese for taste, shattering outwards, like the first sigh of relief after a breakup. Jia imagined herself in the mix: dangling brown doll, soft limbs pulled apart. What about Juan? He would slip to the floor stylishly, smile gelled on even in death, skull just missing the crack of the coffee machine lever, because that was the stylish thing to do – avoid ugliness. Whole Foods was made to paper over ugliness. It was full of things that prevented and wiped and filled and killed ugliness. “Your total is $6.42.” “Thank you very much, here’s your change. Have a good one, next customer please.” Oh, he has a nice beard, Jia thought. He was white. She wanted him to smile at her. She counted his change slowly, willing him to smile at her. He had bought organic meat and she wrote herself into the daydream, cooking the sausages in his chrome kitchen and listening to something like Fleetwood Mac, hanging up his flannel shirt in their shared closet. “Thank you, have a good one.” She stared at his lips, imagined them coated with the grease of unaffordable meat. He did that thing white people do where they purse their lips in place of a smile, in some supposed act of politeness. He was probably engaged to an Emily, graduated from Brown summa cum laude. “Sir, you forgot your change.” Who came to Whole Foods to buy a mere pack of sausages?

(Whole Foods, Gowanus, Brooklyn)

2.
“Oh my God, you have over 99 hearts. Fuuuck. You’re so popular.” “Oh. Really.” So, men liked her. “Let me see your photos.” Juan took her phone. “Oh, this is good. This is hot. But maybe change this one.” “Why?” “Like, look at this one, this one is hot but this one? This is more cute. Like on Tinder, you wanna look hot, not cute. You know.” Jia looked down at her phone, at the distance between hot and cute, the exact measurement of a thumb. “Whatever. If they like me, they like me.” “That will be $7.95.” “I’m sorry?” “$7.95” “Don’t worry, I got it. Just cover me next time.” Juan swung his ponytail. Jia didn’t understand how she ended up being so close with Juan. He was like a show pony with opposable thumbs, to manage his burgeoning Instagram account. The world saw his hair gel, his three-figure sneakers, but he fried chicken for a living last summer. They sat down, Juan tapping his iPhone. “Fuck, this professor is so rude like he gives us so much work.” Jia really liked Juan’s accent. There was something warm and comfortable about it, like biting into a freshly baked bun. The food was ready. Juan tapped at his phone. Jia blew on the noodles. The sesame sauce was like a detonation in the mouth. “Mmm, this is so good. Mm-hmm.” “I know, right.” The sesame was oppressive. “I should really delete Grindr, ohmygod.” Jia calculated how much more food she would have gotten from Halal Cart for a dollar less. The sesame was so dominant that if Vanessa’s blew up right now, the debris would still taste like the goddamn sauce.

(Vanessa’s, East Village, Manhattan)

3.
Ajay was visiting from Connecticut. Jia imagined the funeral: a childhood friendship laid to rest over pork dumplings and jasmine tea. Of course, she didn’t quite know it then. Not while they sat silently, pouring scalding things into their mouths, shoving all of it down, keeping it in. Maybe he was still in love with her. She watched the tea fog up his glasses. She’d learnt from someone else that he’d be interning at Google this summer. “Do you want more?” “That’s cool.” You can’t notice endings soon enough, sliding away smoothly like a soy sauce teardrop. Jia looked at him, slurping liquid. “I fucked your best friend,” she would not say. “He’s not my friend,” he would not say.  Jia remembers this day and the memory sags, its skin drooping from a too-tight grip. As if massacring a dumpling before it even gets to the mouth. You realize a lot of things only after the fact, which is to say, the teapot cools without asking for your permission, your mind on the ceiling fans, on your wallet, on your burnt tongue, on the waiter’s accent. Those dumplings had such soft skins. “It’s ok, I’ll split it.”

(Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, Manhattan)

4.
Jason didn’t use Facebook. But he asked for her full name, repeated it like an unwrapped sweet bursting open in the mouth, and walked backwards out the door when they said goodbye, as if to prolong their first meeting. He looked her up that night and sent her a message. He wasn’t her type. “Idk, like he started texting me and we get along.” Once, he sat next to her in class because it was the only seat left. She was very aware of his body next to hers. She looked at his exercise book often, to see what he chose to note down. His handwriting was neat, neater than hers. Nothing would happen. “Omg what’s up with jason??” Jia didn’t know why she asked him to Baohaus after class. She overheard him saying he liked that place. “like i don’t like him or anything. we’re just hanging out.” He was much taller than her. He couldn’t believe her taste. “Here, we’ll share.” “Let’s get another round.” “Let’s do it.” Their corner was the size of a bathroom stall. Time went by with the Ubers outside. “Are we late?” Jia forgot about perfection, about crumbs, or credit cards. “Have you heard this Frank Ocean song before?” She unthreaded her earphones, offered him one like a candy. They leaned closer together. “I can’t believe you know this and I don’t.” How could he like her with her skin? Before they left, Jia dipped a finger to pick up peanut crumbs, and place them on her tongue. Make it last. Longer than the fake Chanel bags, feeble leather drooping like aged skin, for sale on the sidewalk. She saw both sides of this city but the first time in New York is always with one eye closed – then, everything looked pretty, and possible.

(Baohaus, Lower East Side, Manhattan)

5.
She showed him to her friends. “He’s cute.” “Nice smile.” “He’s probably smart too.” His bio said he made great pancakes. Jia loved pancakes; they tasted like safety. She didn’t eat anything before the meeting, imagining a dinner somewhere she could only semi-afford. Somewhere with low lighting, and a hummingbird’s thrum of foreign music. It took multiple trains to get to the address Amir gave her. She wore her aquamarine earrings, and kept her jeans on. It wasn’t too serious, so she wouldn’t look it. On the train, she looked dramatically out at the underground blackness. She didn’t really believe it would go badly. They would eat, laugh a bit and she’d come home with a new trinket, a new story. Her friends wished her luck, and she asked them to stay awake for her. “INSUFFICIENT FARE” “PAID: $2.75” GO GO GO GO. “I’m so sorry, I’m running late.” “That’s okay, I’m just waiting outside.” Was that him? It seemed to be him. He was waving. Amir was skinnier than she imagined. His dress shoes stuck out like elfin ears. What was she doing here? It was just going to be drinks. The air sunk. Maybe she could fake a migraine and hail a cab back to the dorm. It was all ridiculous. She was raised Hindu and worked at Whole Foods. This wasn’t for her. He got her wine and talked about his politics. He had saved a picture of himself campaigning, caught in action on the cover of The New York Times. He could tell, she didn’t like him. “Let’s go to my place.” “I don’t think so.” He linked their arms together as they walked; she didn’t even know him. “I want pancakes.” He laughed indulgently and held up her elbow, painting her drunker than she was. She wanted to be drunker than she was. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything.” “Will you write about me in your book? Will you tell your friends?” NO NO NO NO. “Don’t worry, I won’t take your clothes off.” “Oh, hahahhaha.” Jia was so hungry. Such a lovely restaurant, so rich and expensive and fucking New York fusion, and he couldn’t even feed her. “I have a great bottle of wine, come on.” He opened the door and put music on, some New Age remix. “You don’t like it.” “It’s okay.” He touched her hand and kissed it, and it felt like they were in a nursery school play, playing parts. “You’re so cheesy.” “Let’s go to the bedroom.” “I don’t think so.” Fast Car started playing and she wondered how she would react to the song after that night, if it would still remind her of her mother. “Jia. Jia. I want you to know I’m a feminist, Jia. You tell me if it hurts.” NO NO NO NO. “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe we’re having sex.” Jia lay on her front and thought oh, this is happening. So this is what people did. She made noise, and a part of her brain marveled. Her body too was capable. She belonged. PAID: $2.75

(Calle Dao, Bryant Park, Manhattan)

6.
“I’m going to see my father.” Sara dribbled soy sauce into the noodles. “Oh shit, too much, my bad.” “How do you feel about that?” She shrugged. The important things were always said too late. “This got mad salty, sorry.” “It’s okay, it tastes fine.” Behind them were two black women. There was something theatrical about them, as if they were choosing to caricature themselves. Both were dressed in black, witchy robes. One was in a wheelchair cracking fortune cookies. The other had her books splayed out, doing accounts. They called each other honeybunch and cookie. THE OTHER DAY SHE CAME OVER, AND I WAS STILL IN MY BATHROBE, WOULD YA BELIEVE THAT HONEY? Jia and Sara stayed silent. Sara went quiet a lot and it was worrying. Silence let a lot of ugly things simmer, sink deep beneath the skin. “Have you heard from Ajay?” “No. As far as I’m concerned, he’s cancelled.” OH, THAT’S ALRIGHT COOKIE, YOU JUST GOTTA TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF NOW. The beads in Sara’s braids glinted as she vehemently shook her head, huddled her shoulders tighter round her plate as if to shrink herself to the size of the clams in their lo mein. “Yeah, shit.” Sara loved people so deeply, drawing from large, ugly craters of emotion she dug out from her flesh. It was a warm Sunday. Ajay always thought Sara was too ugly for him. The sun formed shrapnel wounds of light on the window. THAT’S RIGHT, BABYGIRL. “So I’m deleting Tinder now.” “Girl, yes, that shit is trash.”

(Mr Wonton, Park Slope, Brooklyn)

7.
“OMG, isn’t it so fun?” She laughed. What sunny whiteness, carefree and sweet, the unshakeable joy of an ice-cream shop. “Yeah, like I felt powerful. I felt this power when I left.” Juan clapped his hands. Cereal milk is pure silk but cereal milk ice-cream is a mistake. “I don’t really like this.” “Yeah, it’s so overrated.” She scraped the spoon slowly. Jia looked at Juan’s lithe body, so free, his uncreased face, uncreased mind. “I don’t know, do you ever have those weird hookups where like, you might be uncomfortable, and say no, but they keep going? I don’t know, like a weird moment like that.” “Oh yeah, that happens a lot.” He licked the tip of the cone. Jia looked at him and nodded slowly. “Oh, okay.” Amir had unmatched her the next morning. His roommate, some phantom, had heard them fuck, and then he had unmatched her, standing in front of that stupid Matisse copy in his living room, playing Fast Car or some electronic desert music. So it was her fault. “Welcome to the hookup life, ba-by,” Juan waved his pink plastic teaspoon in the air. He said it like that, dismembering the word: ba-by. Jia laughed. She laughed and laughed and then she stopped thinking about it, pouring all the melting cereal milk ice-cream into her mouth.

(Milk Bar, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn)

8.
Desi Galli made food that actually tasted like the chefs didn’t bow prostrate to white people while in the kitchen. Jia ordered a chicken tikka kathi roll, the closest thing she got round the corner from the house in Delhi. And because her head hurt, and because New York was so fucking large yet small, and so stupidly far, and because she hated keeping her whole life thrumming solely on the engine of electronics and internet and tinny transatlantic wires, she added gulab jamun too. “Student discount, please.” “Here’s your change.” “Thank you.” One of the delivery guys kept staring at her. He had little shiny spikes for hair, which made his head look like the sole of a football boot. His body was pillowy and it struck Jia that he too looked like a gulab jamun. The whole thing was absurd. Underneath her legs, subway trains snaked and vibrated below the earth, like crazed phallic creatures. “One kathi roll!” “Could I have a coke please?” Jia’s mother had called in class, and then at work. She wished she wouldn’t do that. She wished her head wouldn’t hurt. Her MetroCard was empty. Her feet rumbled from the pressure, the hundreds of bodies churning serpentine below. “Baby, going to sleep now!!! kiss kis kisss, good night beti” She wondered if mothers could somehow sense when their children have – The whole thing was absurd.

(Desi Galli, Lower East Side, Manhattan)

9.
Jia loved jazz. She loved the mess of it, as if she could hear the limbs of the notes getting screwed off the stave, and leaping away to new places. Every month or so, she would save up some cash to go to Smalls and see the best jazz musicians of the world. She went once with Jason, on a trip for music class. They saw the drummer Ari Hoenig. Jason sat across the room from her, and she remembered wanting him to look at her and not knowing if he was. But soon she forgot her own body and desires. The drum solos made her close her eyes and think of God. She didn’t think much about God but sometimes her mind wandered, when she encountered something that made her marvel at its existence. After class, Jia went to the McDonald’s opposite the shuttle stop and ordered a drink, a McFlurry or coffee. What people didn’t know was that the NYU McDonalds often played incredible jazz. It wasn’t live or anything. But it filled up the head, like cool water in a bowl, and drowned out the din of thought. She would go alone, with her phone or notebook open, and just listen. Outside, Ubers rushed by and students scrambled in and out of class. And inside the fishbowl, Charlie Parker leant down and warbled into your ear, something from the past.

(McDonalds, 724 Broadway, Manhattan)

10.
There was always so much. So much to do. New York was all action. Play on. GO GO GO. On Sundays, you could slow down at the laundromat. Wasn’t it meditative? Carrying the laundry bag back and forth, and counting out sweaty metal change from the aging Chinese man behind the counter, and burying your face in dry heated cotton? A beautiful suffering. And afterwards, you could walk to Tom’s. One of those real old-timey American diner places with huge fluffy pancakes and free coffee refills. She took Juan once and he took a great Instagram there. Sara and her would go often and come back home to watch something trashy, reality TV about plastic people. But most often, she would go alone. She would sit and steep in the American-ness of it, the immigrant servers and Top 40 music and calories and grimy ATMs. There would always be too much of pancake and Jia’s skirt would tighten. She’d make use of the coffee and walk home slowly, straight to her bed and lie there, endlessly scrolling through other people’s lives. Eventually, her eyes closed. Now she could be anywhere at all.

(Tom’s, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn)

Image of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, Manhattan, New York

The Islander

They say it doesn’t rain in Abu Dhabi, but this is a lie. Something’s always leaking. Fat, fat droplets, that I see on Sayed’s face sometimes, when he walks in from the heat or disappears into the storage closet to quickly rub his eyes. It’s probably sweat. Everything here sweats: the air-cons above the shops, the glasses of lemon mint and the soft-skinned people with cameras who look at me too long. Abu Dhabi is really a rainy city, otherwise it would burn up. That is why when Sayed gets tense, I go to him. Like today, there were no customers around so I walked into his room to let him I know was there. Sometimes he just looks at me for hours, not moving. It is a very long time. But I don’t mind with him. His face softens a bit, like sogged up paper, and he lets something in him rain. I don’t know what that feels like but I do know that in Abu Dhabi, it is very important to stay cool.

Sayed is making chai. It reminds me of that boyfriend I had once, with skin the color of karak. He stayed close by behind the baqala, from where he’d steal large cold water bottles for me. One time, we had ended up walking as far as the corniche from Al Wahda. There were so many men there, like yapping puppies, dressed in t-shirts fitted to the smile of their bellies. I fleetingly wondered how my body would change if I got pregnant. The men had been staring. Staring hard, it seemed, at a pair of logs, in a creamy pinky milky color, like a shake. Logs? We moved closer. The long peach stumps soon revealed a set of knees, swelling up into thighs, flowering up into a whole person. It was a white woman, sunbathing.

How different those men were from Sayed. They must not be praying; and I’m sure it had even been a Friday. The thought of it makes my back arch again, as if some cold slime is trickling through the vertebrae. I remember my boyfriend gazing out towards the water, oblivious to all. We had not looked at each other for a single moment; there was something more beautiful in front of us. It was so blue, so bright and lovely and unmarred by humanness. An oasis. And yet, I don’t remember much else but feeling hot, just too hot. That boyfriend is gone now, but my stomach still feels funny when I catch the smell of karak.

These days the weather is quite cool at night, so I go walking in Al Wahda. Hours pass as the taxi cabs go by. I think they are beautiful. These days I find myself dreaming of walking straight onto the road, as if wading into an endless current. Nobody would see me; everyone would be looking up, looking at the road ahead. How long would this game last before I lost my body, in some forgotten underbelly of that powerful stream? Yet when I watch these cabs swim through the night, something inside me stops. I wish I could communicate it – that ripple settling into silence.

Why don’t the big, creamy, perfumed people take photographs of such things? Like the yellow hats of taxi cabs or the pastel apartment blocks with so many eyes or the crushed pools of dates on the pavements. Things grown and fallen and full and lived in. Instead, they pick and choose what to see. My friend Roza who stays with an American expatriate, told me that they like to gather in very specific places, like Emirates Palace. Or they go to the Louvre, to take pictures of the ‘rain of light’. I wish I could see this mysterious rain but Saadiyat Island is very far and I would die walking there. But I’m sure I would like it. One day perhaps, if Sayed gets a nice car; a rain of light sounds like something you could never look at long enough. Perhaps it’s true then, maybe those people do know better. Maybe they look so carefree because they are the best at deciding the most beautiful and lovely things. Imagine, a rain of light. Even Sayed might pull out his phone to take a picture and send it home. Maybe he’d make it his background for a while, replacing the shot of his parents’ home in Lucknow.

It is difficult for me to understand Sayed’s world. But I think I have definitely figured out the word “paisa”. Sayed needs money. I’ve obviously never needed it myself but I want to make Sayed happy and that is what he says he needs. Paisa, paisa, paisa, he yells many times into the phone. At first, I thought paisa was a woman. There was this Filipina nurse who came into the shop once. She had soft hands, and she bent down properly to talk to me, her voice kind of sticky. I saw Sayed look at her for a very long time, even when she had walked out. He would stare as if the corniche itself was in front of him, except there was no visible horizon, only a world he wanted to reach his arms out to forever – if only his body didn’t ache so much. On that island there would be no rain perhaps. Just sun and palms and breeze – and paisa. Different. Different from where he was.

Sayed talks to me a lot nowadays. I’m afraid I’m his only real friend, except maybe Hamza-bhai from the baqala who comes over with a pack of cards on a blue moon Saturday. But nobody really talks to me either, unless they want me to get out of the way. I know I’m not pretty. I’m too skinny, even though I eat well now, and my limbs remain bone and angles. But Sayed still loves me. He told me so. I didn’t know how to ask him what love was, but I think I sort of figured it out one day, from a guy called Rahul. He was a skinny boy with a face in permanent shadow. I found him one night while walking, spraying the letters “A M A L” on a wall, eyes leaking and leaking like some faulty faucet. He taught me some signs; he kept going on about how he had missed or dismissed them. Like the way someone talks to you, a bit more padded and softer than usual, like the underside of a new-born kitten’s paws. The shape of their palm when they touch you. Where they touch you. A gaze that lingers. Sayed lets me sit next to him while he prays. When he finishes, he looks up for a long time, his face as open as a desert. I look too but I don’t really see anything. Not even rain. But I am grateful to be with him. Nobody else sees the love he mouths upwards, evaporating to join the clouds. I always move closer and lay my head on his thigh. And he smiles in return. I think we have so much to give to each other.

We watched a new Madhuri Dixit film today. Obviously, we couldn’t miss it on ZeeTV now that it was finally showing. This was Sayed’s favorite actress, and the most beautiful woman in the world. How incredible, firstly that I even have a name, and that I’m named after her. I often wish she would just shake off the TV screen like pesky bathwater and walk into Sayed’s arms. Then we’d be a real family, a filmy one in a white house. Sayed would smile so much that his cheeks would ache for months. He would hug us and call home and pay for extra meethai and invite Hamza-bhai for chai and then hug us again, tighter. I would wind through both of their legs. They would laugh, entwined, Sayed’s face bursting like the splitting open of a flower, seeds spilling, life pouring forth.

This is my favorite daydream.

Sometimes it comes back so sharply. My life three years ago – eating out of garbage cans, like so many others in this city. It was so difficult to move. And then Sayed. Sayed found me in that pedestrian underpass. That place where the sun couldn’t glare at me anymore, where the ground was cool as lemon mint because of course, everyone knows it is important to stay cool in Abu Dhabi. I had gone to that underpass to give up. My body spread in surrender. So many footsteps bobbed by me, interrupted at times by curiosity and then inevitable, helpless revulsion. My eyes were perpetually half-closed but I still saw, always the same grotesque realization hooking onto their features: “Awww…oh…oh…poor thing. Poor kitty.”

Until. One pair of feet, paused. A man kneeling down to look at me, properly, even gently patting my fur. He had begun to talk softly in Hindi, which a lot of people speak here. The words I know best are “Chal hat!” and “kaali billi.” I get the feeling they don’t like me because my fur is a deep black. And so they don’t understand when I try tell them it’s just like the hair on their heads. Many of them run away in fear, eyes popping.

Sayed brought me to his home, and soon I came to learn new smells – blackened banana peel-stinks forgotten, I discovered the sharp tang of lemon dishwasher liquid, so heady my eyes swam. I remember resting for many weeks in a little bed made from old fabrics. All the fabrics sold at Sayed Fashion Tailors are the color of apartments in Abu Dhabi. Or of sand. The sand is to Abu Dhabi what hope is to us: me, you, Sayed.

“I think, I will name you Madhuri,” he had told me when I finally started walking properly again, pointing to the television. And he had smiled. We had looked at each other for a long time that afternoon and I hope he knew I was close to happy too.

I hope he knows.

Today, Madhuri Dixit is dancing, shut within the television set – for outside the window, there is rain, and a song is beginning to play. It talks about love. As Madhuri’s body moves, she suddenly remembers that she knows all the words well.

Artwork by Khalid AlHammadi

what kind of city is florence?

florence is the kind of city that sells postcards / and plastic david statues near the checkout lanes in the grocery store / the kind of city where every leather shop is named after a great artist / and every hotel has a botticelli ceiling fresco / florence is the kind of city where art looms high above like the duomo’s dome / and grows out of the cobblestoned cracks / the kind of city where you have to blink twice / not because of the jet-lag / but because you have studied these churches these piazze these streets before but only / in books / and here you are touching these pages of history / made solid stone / it feels almost holy / like praying in san miniato and hearing the gregorian chants echo in perfect harmony / like having ghiberti’s gilded gold doors right in front of you / a mere piece of clear glass separating you from the gates to paradise / like standing in front of michelangelo’s last pieta and tracing the curve of jesus’ body / the grief on nicodemusslash-michelangelo’s hooded face like a grand question / what use is art? / asks perhaps the most famous artist in the world / what use is art? / asks the traveler-student who nevertheless / cannot stop herself from delighting in a city brimming with it / florence is the kind of city everyone in the english-speaking humanities world seems to know / the kind you feel a bit self-conscious of when you check into the city on facebook because florence is for those / who can afford to feast their eyes in the galleria dell’academia and the uffizi / for those who can afford vineyards and the stars above them / who can afford to walk wherever they like and keep warm in the winter / florence is for the flourishing / or at least the idea of florence as a kind of european city / the renaissance city / is for the privileged / and you know from studying art history / it is beautiful (whatever that means) / even if there are cities rising from deserts and cities built on islands and cities in tropical rainforests that are just as / beautiful / but florence is the kind of city that makes everyone jealous / where a small secret part of you is compelled to worship what you see / a litany in your head that goes / city of michelangelo / city of da vinci / city of brunelleschi / city of botticelli / city of donatello / city of giotto / city of masaccio / city of vasari / city of ghiberti / city of cimabue / yes / something very like / worship / walking the via ricasoli like the faithful going down the nave of a church for communion / and you know part of this wide-eyed wonder is conditioned / from centuries of european domination / from learning to speak english and not tagalog or hokkien / from being able to distinguish romanesque and gothic architecture but / knowing next to nothing of south east asian art / from visiting the kitsch ‘european’ fantasy area of disneyland as a child / and dreaming of castles on clouds / but part of this wonder comes too from your catholic self / which took on the name scholastica out of her own volition / who can murmur the our father even if it is said here in italian / whose eyes grow wet when she sees a magnificent painting of the virgin mary her mother in christ / you did not realise before how this self could feel so strongly / how much like home a church in a country you have never been to before could seem / and you let this wonder touch you completely without doubting its origins / you walk around florence / both for the first time / and for the thousandth time / you have seen so many pictures of these places / that now these are places of pictures / you are learning how cities could foster art and be art / how cities could create the theater and be the theater / as mumford might say / hearing it daily in the toll of the church bells / like an announcement to the audience-citizens that the show is about to begin / and in the gurgling of the piazza fountain where people of all kinds pass / like water flowing down the arno / florence is the kind of city that makes you feel undeservedly blessed / like hesitantly unwrapping a too-expensive gift / the kind of city that makes you wonder how you ended up here / starting a new year in an apartment blocks away from the real statue of david / when your grandparents have never been to europe / so when you unpack your luggage, sit in the kitchenette and feel the chill night air blowing in / you think this is the kind of city where you will try to write poetry to make sense of it / this city where rich black truffle oil and slabs of tuscan ham line hearty schicchiata bread / where you feel full in so many ways / how does that bible verse go / my cup runneth over / how to reconcile this heaven of art with the hell you read of in dante’s inferno / of corrupt florentines and popes who abused their office / how to see past the peeling paint / to demolished jewish quarters and feuding noblemen and the scorched poor and their burned-down houses / (would it be worse for man if he was not a citizen while he lived on earth?) / how to force yourself to look away from the baptistery and consider the gypsy woman who begs for a few euros / the nigerian men selling flashlights on bridges / is this the height of civilisation / (what use is art?) / florence is the kind of city that inspires you to crave monumental definitions of yourself and the cities you carry with you in your memory / city of singapore / city of manila / city of abu dhabi / city inside you

Artwork by Botticelli “The Birth of Venus”