Rumpus Original Fiction: What Kind of Alone?

By

A white woman in a red leotard is applying oil to her elbows with five precise rotations. She counts in an intense whisper, her teeth pressed together, her eyes fixed on a spot far ahead of her. All of her appears directed to an action she contemplates. Khalid feels it and is riveted. He even thinks he’s experiencing it—this composure and symmetry she creates.

When she moves to her legs, sliding a thin layer of oil from the outermost point of crotch to ankle in one downward slope, her torso bends, at which point the hair on her head is revealed, breaking Khalid’s hypnotic state. This hair is shiny and tightly squeezed into a small, smooth bun—hair like his mother’s: black and vigorously pinned away. To get a closer look, he walks toward the woman and then thinks about yanking the bun off her head, even lobbing it high into the sky as if it were a golf ball, an object meant to fire into the air. No. That’s crazy. He’s not crazy. Instead he smiles and asks her: “Can I get you to rub some of that oil on my ashy knees? It would really help.” In response she laughs and comments on it not being such a bad pick up line. He backs away with a smile (his knees still ashy), and watches her walk in a gymnast way with pointed toes toward long, thick gold ribbons that dangle from the ceiling, beside a glossy banner that says Innovation Unties All Knots. Later, she’ll mount the ribbons and point her toes so hard that Khalid will imagine they’re cutting into his skin. He’ll take a tumble onto the exhibition hall’s cement floor, provoked only by his imagination, and people will ask: “Is that guy okay?”

 

Khalid came up with the theme for his company’s exhibition booth: Where’s the only place you can be alone these days? Your car. So why not make it special?

“It makes so much sense,” his colleague Scarlett said when he showed her the visuals.

“Genius,” said his boss with a thumbs up.

We’re not selling minivans. We’re selling luxury vehicles. Alone is luxury,” Khalid said in the pitch, his English sounding more British than American. “It’s a noisy world. How does one escape it? A car can be special. A car can be a deserted island, and all with the closing of a door, the push of a button.” Scarlett clapped, which prompted Khalid to take a bow just as the air conditioner kicked on. A flat drone filled the room as he waited for others to applaud. When they didn’t, he buttoned up his suit jacket and folded his arms around his belly, where the fabric stretched the most, and watched the small crowd disperse with their necks bent into their phones, half alert to where they were going.

His wife Miranda laughed when he reenacted it for her. “Really? Alone is luxury?” she said between a snort and smack to his shoulder. He smiled back to play along, and then went into the backyard to water the pansies under the pole where their American flag stood limp. As the hose sprayed, he imagined a kiss instead of a laugh, a flirtatious dance instead of a blunt strike. A time when Miranda didn’t see him as a joke; when he could riff on his guitar and she, sitting so close that he could smell her bubblegum lip balm, would bob her head up and down in appreciation of his wild experiments with greatness.

That was when the word alone wasn’t in most of his thoughts. Back when he met Miranda in Brighton, the colorful university town off the English Channel, where they both happened to find themselves at twenty years of age. He had arrived from Afghanistan the year before, on an academic scholarship. She was there on exchange from the University of Chicago, wanting, she said, “to find new kinds of people.” He was one of those people, and within weeks, they rarely left each other’s side.

She fixated on his brown skin: the color of grocery bag paper or a violin. And the way he used words: as if he was still figuring them out. She’d ask surprising questions like what does it feel like to drink tea diluted with milk; why do you dance with your hands in the air; how do you sleep now that you live beside a large body of water? He’d surprise himself and find answers to these questions, discovering a quality about himself he never knew existed. He even began to compose songs on his roommate’s guitar, writing some for England, some for Afghanistan, and some for the air between the two countries. She loved the songs, which caused him to play them, and others, whenever the moment called for it. “This is what freedom feels like,” he told her as he spread her legs apart and traveled inside her that first time. Everything old felt far away; everything new felt exhilarating.

 

As Khalid pulled open the sliding door and stepped in from the backyard, his hands wet from the hose water and worn from age, Miranda asked, “Is that your dream now?” She turned the light off in the kitchen. “To drive alone on some big open road and get away from it all? Is that your idea of luxury?”

“No,” was his reply, which he made in the dark. “I wouldn’t know where to go.”

The next day, when reaching for his phone, Khalid felt more aware of how satisfying it was to instantly turn a dark screen into one that lit up. And in that light, to be closely guided in bright colors on what to see—the act of finding without moving, the opposite of journeying.

He looked at the pristine pillow to his left, on Miranda’s side of the bed, where the sheets were still tight, and felt the absence of her sleep-filled hair and smell, the absence of her unconscious sounds, the absence of what had once been routine but changed a year or so ago when she began sleeping in the guest room. He heard an alarm—Jasmin’s alarm, his only daughter’s—and it took him to another dreary thought: suitcases crowding her purple and teal bedroom; blank spots on the wall where posters once hung; the entire space feeling like a water-less pool in an overgrown lot. She was leaving for university tomorrow, 9 a.m., and it was going to be the worst day of his life.

Even worse than losing the Director position to Alice Wallace-Thompson three years ago. He’ll always remember seeing the announcement and wanting to storm out of the office in a huff and drive away in a fury. But he didn’t. Instead, he sat slouched at his desk with his headphones on, scanning his emails and pretending to work while familiar songs played in his ears. One was an old Afghan track called “Tanha Shudam Tanha” by Ahmad Zahir. It had sounds and words that brought him to his mother’s large warm body, her arms wrapped around him, her onion and cumin smells calming him. He played that song hundreds of times that first year in England, which smelled of damp and cigarettes. It could have been playing when he boarded the airplane and waved goodbye to his mother, who was crying into her silk shawl, behind a window full of handprint marks. He waved without knowing he’d never see her or his country again; that he had gained, in that moment, the constant feel of a dull pull backward.

Alice Wallace-Thompson must have known this about him. She was the type who was able to sniff out weakness and leap forward without anything holding her back. During a late night brainstorm session she even confessed that he had more talent than she. It was a rare airing on his greatness, a moment that gave him something he didn’t think he still possessed: an understanding of who he was. But that didn’t matter. In the end, Alice got the job and he had to stay back in the cubicle beside the dated third-floor kitchen. And he was still there, even after Alice left six months ago for Mercedes Benz. “Could you take over in the meantime?” he was asked by his boss.

When he told Miranda he was being given a chance to head up the team, she only said, while staring at the dishes she was drying, “If you think that’ll make you happy.” And then she looked him in the face, where he saw tears.

Years ago, when lying on the beach, a collection of smooth seashells in his hand, she asked him, “What makes you happy?” He said, without pause, “Singing songs to you.”

Last year, it was the Japanese who won the coveted Starling Trade Show Booth Prize. And he remembered his own breath being taken away by what they put together: a twenty-foot cherry tree growing through the cracks of the Sokolniki Convention Centre in Moscow. Blossoms in a windowless arena of sheet metal and rubber. Flavors of spring in a scene of testosterone. A canopy of pink against gun-gray. When he stood under it, his head became a balloon.

And so, how could he do something like that in the marketing campaign? How could he stir an uncomfortable awareness? And turn people into floating balloons, unleashing them somehow?

At his desk, he played with the words (luxury, car, alone, special). He got to yes, yes—and then, within an hour: no, no. The mangled paperclip in his hand pierced his thumb. When his head hit the wood of his desk, he heard an engine rev, heard a car zoom away like a bullet, and thought of a younger Khalid fleeing with it.

 

The next morning, on a Saturday, his daughter Jasmin left for university. She backed out of the driveway with a bagel in her mouth and Katy Perry playing on the radio, forgetting to wave goodbye even as Khalid lifted his hand in the air, like a timid man asking a question. When Jasmin didn’t notice, he thought he might collapse onto the hot asphalt. But at the stop sign, she turned around and came back for a hug. As he wrapped his arms around her, he felt her ribs and her tears. He also felt the heat of the asphalt burn into his feet. Thanksgiving, he just had to wait until Thanksgiving to see her again. Though he knew she’d come back different, a person more wired to a wild world.

By Sunday, Miranda was packing their van up with her belongings. She’d had enough, she said. It was time for her to move on, too. Khalid sat on the front porch steps with a cold beer and watched her. She didn’t say a word, even when he offered to help. “I can get my screwdriver,” he said. “The wheels will have to come off.” She was shoving her red mountain bike into the trunk, ignoring him until she got a handlebar in the gut. Fuck you, she said with her eyes. And, You never became who you said you’d be. Even with all this.

He stayed on the porch for an hour or so after she left, counting apples on the tree beside his house, resisting the urge to launch them through windows.

Inside, he drank whiskey and watched cable news in the dark. Glowing on screen: a looped image of ambulances on a popular boardwalk in France. Then: descriptions of a lone man mowing down men, women and children with his truck. He raised his glass and took a final gulp, wincing as the drink’s heat stung his throat. He thought of his daughter, gone to a big city, where those kinds of things were happening. He leaned back in his chair and, in the fast-forming buzz, wondered out loud how the killer’s heart could have emptied so completely? He assumed the man had made a living driving that truck everyday. But what kinds of events would lead him to one day conceive of his vehicle as a steerable weapon?

He visualized the truck, over and over again in his mind, roaring down the sidewalk, morphing into a tank for war, to invoke fear and despair. Then, he saw himself, standing in fatigues and greasy hair, with a determined expression. Was he trying to stop the truck? Was he trying to be a hero? No, he was in its path, waiting for it to strike him down.

The image brought him to the cherry tree in the steel-framed, windowless exhibit hall in Moscow. A tree growing in a casket. That uncomfortable awareness of aging in a light-less box. Then, he remembered his booth pitch, how carefully he crafted a simple idea of a person and their car. With the slamming of the door. With the push of a button. Escape.

 

Khalid grabbed the arm of his chair as the plane came to a complete stop. “Welcome to Los Angeles,” the flight attendant said. He checked his email on his phone and saw that the meeting he organized at the last minute hadn’t been canceled. Pleased, he leaned back and waited for the fasten seat belt sign to darken.

Members of his team sat beside him. Scarlett, who’d been with him for five years, was flipping through images on her phone. Ronan, a new hire, was across the aisle tapping his finger rhythmically on his thigh. He had headphones on and a concert T-shirt of a band Khalid didn’t recognize. The shirt was navy with orange and red lightning bolts, and it bothered Khalid that he didn’t know the band, that he was now outside the fray of the sounds that spoke to young people turning into adults.

Once their bags were in hand, he explained to his team that he was: needed in the hills… they can organize the booth… he has complete faith in them. He’ll see them in the morning. 8 a.m. sharp.

 

In the taxi, his driver asked him to repeat the name of the street. “Why go to that part of town?” he said. The question excited Khalid, and he tapped his feet on the car floor as if jazz were playing.

En route, driving through thinner and shorter palm trees and dustier mountains, the taxi driver, Najeeb, talked about Pakistan, where he was from, which annoyed Khalid. It was all so common—having a taxi driver who, in seeing his name and physical features, assumed there was a connection between them, and therefore goodwill to talk at length about the home country. Usually he didn’t mind it. It offered reminders of how distant he felt from Afghanistan, which wasn’t bad or good per se—only confusing. But today he didn’t want to feel confused. He didn’t want to look back. He’d left. He’d left for England at the right time without even knowing it. And there, he found Miranda. He’d told her he’d never need to return to Afghanistan, not after his brother was killed and his mother suffered a stroke and died. He’d told her he wanted to be wedded to her, not a country. And so he became American, another one of those types, and they got married in a small ceremony in Chicago with her blank-faced mother and father in the first pew, and his mates George, Will, Chakib, and Sarwar in the second.

 

The road became bumpy as the taxi entered the intended town. With no trees, grass, or buildings in sight, Khalid watched a crow pick at objects abandoned in ditches: half a donut, a crushed coffee cup, a single shoe. The sky bore faint wisps of pink. He redirected to his phone navigation system, which showed that the blue line they’d been following had significantly shortened. They were nearly there.

“I think this is it,” he said as they approached a bank of garage doors.

“Are you sure?”

Rotting vehicles were parked out front.

“Yes, this must be it.”

He asked Najeeb to stay until he could be sure someone was present. The door on the side of the building was open. He peeked in and saw a skinny man in a baseball cap wiping his hands with a cloth.

“Are you Brian?”

“Yes. You’re Khalid?”

Before walking in, he waved at Najeeb. The sound of gravel moving on tires unsettled his eardrums. He realized he wasn’t completely comfortable with where he’d ended up, and covered his ears until the taxi reached the paved road.

“So there it is,” he heard Brian say from inside the garage.

Khalid walked through the open door and saw, on a far wall, the pile of mannequins he’d come for. Quickly, his unease faded. When he got close, he reached for their plastic limbs. No nicks or scratches. Just smooth, ageless bodies. Exactly what he wanted.

Brian handed him a set of keys. “For the van.” He turned around, and saw a white GMC parked behind them—and above it, an untethered branch balancing on a bare tree.

The plastic bodies jostled in the back as Khalid traveled the drab landscape. He had set a woman on top of a man in one corner of the trunk to lighten the mood, and now wondered if their bodies were bumping together, animating a sexual image he had purposely created.

He looked out at the flat horizon and saw something bulky in the distance. As he drove closer, he realized it was an animal carcass. What kind of animal, he wondered? A fox? Like the one that struck his own black minivan last year? The one that flew onto his windshield, stared at him with still eyes, and then bounced into oblivion so quickly? He remembered the sound it made, just after they’d argued. “You never play music anymore,” Miranda shouted. “You never make me want to,” Khalid replied. A series of direct complaints and then silence, until a great big thump from an animal hitting metal at sixty miles an hour.

 

At 6 a.m., Khalid entered the exhibition hall to inspect the booth. A twenty-foot screen the color of a clear sky stood high. To the left in Helvetica font: Your car. The only place to be alone. The blue display car shimmered against the backdrop, like a sunspot in an ocean.

By 6:15 a.m. Khalid returned to the van with the mannequins. He hurled one onto his back, and held another under his arm. It was an awkward walk back to the booth, and soon the body under his arm slipped away. When he reached for it, he accidentally grabbed a breast, which made him feel guilty. He should have put clothes on them, he said out loud to no one.

At 7 a.m., he changed into his navy suit, the one his daughter bought him from Zara earlier that year. He remembered how she put her hands together in excitement when he tried it on.

At 8 a.m., he waited for his team inside the display vehicle. He rubbed his hands, loosened his fuchsia tie, heard his heart and breath. Ronan appeared first and circled the car without expression. When he reached the car’s hood, he bent down and held a female mannequin’s hand. Scarlett was a few feet away, standing still and crying into her sleeve. Khalid had piled the mannequins in front of the car, foregoing any blood or overt poses of pain—he hadn’t expected crying, especially from Scarlett, who could always be relied on for nonchalantly forwarding the video of the mass shooter, imprisoned immigrant child, or Black mother crying over a small casket.

By 9:15 a.m., a large crowd formed. People with phones clicked above their heads, as if it were a rock concert. He saw a hashtag had already been created (#carshowmurderscene). It was trending.

When the sales team started looking for him, he set off for red leotard girl’s booth. He hid in her audience, beside the banner Innovation Unties All Knots, and watched her untangle herself from long, thick ribbons. Throughout, her toes stayed pointed with steadiness and strength, even as her arms thread elegantly in and out of the shiny ribbon fabric. Her toes were strict, and sharp, as sharp as medieval sword tips, and directed toward him. The scene grew small and aggressive. He felt the weight of a soldier’s foot on his throat, and then the batting of a moth’s wings in the deepest pocket of his throat.

After he lost consciousness and crumpled down to the ground, people gathered and someone brought him water.

By noon he was back in his hotel room. His phone was switched off. He was lying down on a stiff bed, gently rubbing his temples. He imagined red leotard girl checking up on him and handing him a cool glass of lemonade, her eyeshadow sparkling.

At 4 p.m. he heard a knock, which woke him up. He was still in his suit; his tie still wrapped around his neck. Ronan and a man he didn’t recognize were at his door. “No, I haven’t harmed myself,” he told them. “No, I haven’t eaten anything.” Will he come with them? “No, I just want to be alone.”

 

Three months later, Khalid set the divorce papers down on the kitchen table. He signed quickly, and then walked toward the sliding doors to assess the damage from last night’s windstorm, which made many satisfying banging sounds. Through the thick panes of glass, he saw branches and apples spread across the front lawn, and crows swarming. He took a photo of the birds in half-flight, their wings awkwardly spread, and posted it on social media with the caption: Moving on. He stared at the phone screen until it turned black.

Inside the smallest crevice of his mind he wondered if Miranda would call. And if she did, what would he say? Thank you? It was real? You were once a deep and mysterious creature.

In the wider part of his brain, where a vast labyrinth of tracts swerved and ducked to create thoughts, he sensed the selling off of land, the splashing of water on toes, a bird-like flight through dense forests and light gained. It’ll happen, he thought. It’ll all keep happening.

***

Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.


Nadia Shahbaz is a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in the Tahoma Literary Review and Coffee + Crumbs. She also works with Story Planet, a nonprofit that runs story-making workshops in newcomer communities. She’s on Instagram at @nadiashahbaz_writer and Tweets (sometimes) at @nadshahbaz. More from this author →