At the Birthplace of Sound
Apr 21, 2015
22 Min read time
Photograph: Hans Splinter
You are a convenience store owner, a taxi driver, a doctor, a terrorist, an IT worker, an exchange student. An Egyptian, a Pakistani, a Trinidadian, an Indian. You wear your skin like it’s something borrowed, not owned. Like all those hand-me-downs that belonged to your brother your mother saved, so you were always five years behind the latest trends. Who you are right now is temporary, you tell yourself when you break out with acne and miss an audition. You are careless with your mouth and say things you shouldn’t say to waiters, to pedestrians, pretend you are tougher than you really are. The fact that you’re an actor makes your off-screen bullshit feel natural.
You are thirty but can pass for someone seven years younger. Occasionally, you try out for movies and sitcoms about high school and college students, where everyone is in their twenties, unblemished, past awkwardness, fitting into each other’s bodies with ease. Your brother thinks you’re an idiot. He’ll never tell you this exactly, but he’s a lawyer for a big pharmaceutical company and lives with his wife and daughter in a six-bedroom house with brick walls and purple hydrangeas and a half-doughnut of pavement, so he never has to back out. You’re not jealous, because he lives in Jersey, the armpit of America, while you’re in Manhattan. The cheap three-bedroom apartment you share with two roommates in Washington Heights is still Manhattan.
When Arjun calls you for dinner, you think of the distance you must travel, the twenty-five minute ride on the subway and then the hour on the NJ transit. But when he says, “Karna, Anita wants to see her uncle,” you cave in because you imagine your niece’s small face looking up with her deep wishbone smile.
You lug a black knapsack and a grocery bag with what you cannot fit. You rarely make this journey out to Jersey, so when you do, you stay for the weekend, visit your mother.
Your brother’s wife, Elaine, picks you up at the train station. Her dark blonde hair is cut to her chin and hangs like a lampshade. She smiles from a silver Mercedes, her body small against the leather seat. When you sit beside her, she plucks out a pair of used socks from your plastic bag, and you can’t tell if she is disappointed or amused.
“We saw your last movie,” she says and reverses the car. “You were spectacular, really something.”
“Thank you,” you say and don’t go on to tell her how those five lines in the movie, all together fifteen seconds, were probably the highlight of your career. She means well. She is wearing a modest purple blouse that puffs up at her shoulders and a slate-gray skirt that reaches her knees. She has a plain face but a kind smile, and when she turns to you and says, “How’s Vladimir,” your hurt is delayed, and you shake your head up and down like you are watching a champion trampoline jumper. “Good, good. He’s all better now.”
You keep on smiling as she runs a red light and cuts off someone in the left lane. Cars honk behind you, but you are thinking of Vlad. On your birthday, two months earlier, he ate shrimp for the first time, and his face swelled up to the size of the orange balloon Anita had brought with her. You spent the rest of the evening with your brother and Elaine at the hospital while your mother stayed with Anita at the apartment. No one asked about your relationship with Vlad. You showed no reaction then or later when you discovered him cheating, and somehow you think this makes it better that you didn’t lose too much.
• • •
The woman’s name is Luz, short for Lucy. She is an eighth-grade algebra teacher at the middle school Elaine works at. She doesn’t like cats, Elaine tells you when you don’t respond and search the glove compartment for a stick of gum, and you find a map to Niagara Falls.
“She’s thirty-seven, but she’s never been married.”
Elaine knows you see men too, but she thinks you’ll come around with the right woman. Two years ago, you were dating a girl named Mei who had her hair buzzed on the sides and a skunk stripe down the center of her scalp. Her body was model skinny, chest flat as a washboard. Elaine still asks you about Mei, tells you that girl had a voice of an angel.
Elaine and your brother met in college during their sophomore year. She was your brother’s first girlfriend, and the wonders of the female body awoke in him such fits of longing that when he returned home from college, he spoke with a new passion for his studies. They dated for six years, but you only met her the summer before they got married. You remember her standing on the driveway in a gauzy ruffled dress, her blonde hair dyed strawberry, her hand tucked into Arjun’s. He converted to Christianity to make it easier for her and for her family, who lived in the wilderness of Nebraska. Your mother, a devout Hindu, told him he could be a Hindu and a Christian, said that back in Colombo her neighborhood had a church right beside a temple, that she could hear church bells from her bedroom window.
Your brother is five years older and he thinks this gives him authority over all subjects including poetry, as when you tried for a year to scrape together bare lines on paper and then on stage, which he remarked was a paltry imitation of William Carlos Williams. Since Arjun was ten, he has had dark fragments of hoof prints under his eyes, the trampled and irritable look of someone perpetually being disturbed. He once told you that you were throwing away your life. “Why would you want an occupation where you will always be waiting?” he said. “Waiting for someone to write a role for you, waiting for someone to think you’re important.” Looking at him, you felt something inside you split into two and then again, smaller.
• • •
When you first see Luz, she is sitting in the living room on her knees in a sleeveless dress with Anita beside her rolling a Lego car across her naked, tanned shoulders.
Your brother doesn’t fuss over your arrival. He greets you with a request to clean the grill in the yard, and you then wish he had moved to California, wonder why he insisted on staying close to your mother.
He doesn’t introduce you to Luz, and you understand he wants to show you he’s not involved in the setup, that he didn’t want to call you over for dinner in the first place.
After you wash the metal rack and place new charcoal on the grill, you carry your niece around on your back, and she screams, “No more baths,” as you whistle like a steamboat. She wears these glow-in-the dark beads around her wrists, which she holds to your eyes, covering them with her palm, so the fluorescence brushes up against your skin. Luz sits on the couch, and you can feel her eyes on you.
“Prince Karna, Luz is very, very pretty,” Anita says, and for a moment, she has transformed into her mother.
“Are you a prince?” Luz asks, and before you can answer, Anita is talking, her feet kicking against your chest. “He’s Prince Karna, and my father is Prince Arjuna. In the story, they are brothers, but they don’t know it. They are half men, half gods.”
You are surprised she remembers the Mahabharata, the stories you smuggled into the house while Elaine took her to Sunday school.
“Is that why you’re in the movies?”
You crouch down as Anita slides off your back and you ask, “Do you recognize me?”
Luz drums two fingers over her mouth. She has a square face with sharp features that make her look striking rather than pretty. When she thinks, her forehead bunches into ridges, and lines push under her careful makeup. She rotates her foot in a circle, and you notice her legs, smooth as soap. In eleventh grade, your prom date spread her legs in her father’s station wagon. Her chiffon dress covered you like a tablecloth, and you smelled her and you laughed. She was a round girl, never dated anyone before you, and she laughed too, matching you because of uncertainty, because she didn’t know better, and you needed her giggling as you stuck a pinky in her and she bled.
“You know you don’t look anything like your brother,” Luz says and Anita sticks her tongue out at her and flies out of the room, flapping her arms, onto the patio, where Elaine stands by Arjun as he flips patties and drinks a Corona. Through the window you see Elaine take a sip from his drink and kiss him on his chin.
“It’s strange how we turn out,” you say and tell her about the girl in South Africa who was born to white parents during Apartheid but appeared black.
She tells you that she’s a quarter Mexican. “My grandmother’s last name is Cortez. She didn’t teach my mother any Spanish because she thought it would get her into trouble.”
“That’s a shame.”
She looks at you closely, leans toward you, presses her index finger along the rim of your chin. “You were that taxi-driver in that movie with the hostages.”
You smile, bow your head.
• • •
Elaine blushes when she tells you to take Luz with you to the supermarket to buy more burger buns. She’s tipsy and holds her beer to her head like she has a fever. A diamond of red skin blazes on her collarbone under a pendant of the cross.
“You can take Arjun’s car. It has more gas.”
In the car Luz throws her head back and laughs. “I have never seen Elaine that drunk.” She pushes off her wedged heels with her toes and wraps her arms around her knees. “You know Elaine once gave me a jacket during Parents’ Day because she said I looked cold. Imagine that, and she’s younger than me.”
“How long have you been teaching?”
She pretends to count her fingers. “Ten, fifteen years. Who knows?” She shrugs and looks at a billboard of two girls bending over a used car, asses stamped with dollar signs. “I like it, though, for the kids,” she says and then grins, pokes you in the shoulder. “You know you’re too young for me.”
She brushes her hair to the side, and you notice the tattoo on her shoulder blade. The letters curvy, dressed in black. “French,” she says and wipes at it. “That was a mistake.”
You have four tattoos. You got your first with your roommate Jason. Your Chinese zodiac sign on your hip, a dragon, or so you thought. It was really the rat, but you say you’re a dragon in disguise, a professional shape shifter. On the back of your ankle you have a star, and on your lower back, you have a snake eating its own tail. A miniature beanstalk winds up your thigh. When Vlad first saw you naked, he touched each ink mark, rubbed the skin, and under his hands, they felt crude, childish, like cartoon drawings.
Luz reaches over for your hand, places your palm in her lap, and tries to read your future. Her nail cuts your palm into sections. “You’ll have a long life,” she says, “but you’ll have something tragic happen. See how these two lines cross. And your wealth line is short but curves upward, so there’s potential.”
“Is there any good news?”
She looks closer at your hand, but she just holds it, doesn’t move.
• • •
You wanted to become an actor before you even knew it was an occupation. Outside, hanging with other kids in the neighborhood, you played every character: Darth Vader, Wile E. Coyote, Two-Face. In third grade, while you waited in the hallway, your teacher told your mother that you were too quiet in class, and your mother said the world would be better off if people learned to talk less, and the room was so quiet after she spoke that you heard the sound of her heels tapping against the linoleum floor.
The first time your grandfather told you the Mahabharata, you felt yourself slipping into the golden armor of your skin. The son of the Sun God. When your father visited from Connecticut, you kept this ancient secret of your birth hidden. At age nine, you were assigned to draw a family portrait, and you drew yourself, your brother, your grandfather, your mother, and the sun dressed in a suit. Your classmates asked, “Why is your father’s head on fire? What’s wrong with him?”
When your agent asks, “Can you be . . . . ?” you think of possibilities, of your essence like liquid.
Three months before your grandfather died, he caught you in front of the bathroom mirror imitating his heavy accent, the way he stretched wrong syllables, shortened right ones. He didn’t say anything, and you never mentioned it. You pretended you were recalling song lyrics, but he understood you clearly, and you did too. His silence perfect.
Some days on set, when you are playing a part, a taxi driver, a convenience store owner, you hear him trembling behind your vocal cords.
• • •
Luz walks up and down the produce aisle, stepping carefully on only the black tiles.
“The white ones are albino alligators,” she says, and you think of Anita sitting on the swing set refusing to touch the grass in fear of sharks.
You pick up a couple limes for the Coronas in your brother’s fridge and catch up with Luz. When you reach her, a young couple passes you. The boy wears a lumberjack hat, and the girl is in a bathing suit covered by a long shirt. She leans into his shoulder, and her low V neckline reveals pale wedges of her breasts.
The boy blows on the door of the ice cream refrigerator and draws a heart on his breath. “Buttercup do you want chocolate or vanilla,” he asks, his hand like a starfish against her striped bottom.
Luz squeezes your hand and looks thoughtfully at bags of Sun Chips on sale. “Pumpkin, what else do we need?”
You slip into the role easily and swing your arms around her waist. She kisses you on the cheek and the act feels natural. Other customers pass you and Luz, and you imagine they see nothing more than a loving couple, and you wish Vlad was among them walking down the grocery aisle, witnessing the moment of intimacy and feeling something, if anything, for you still.
• • •
On the drive back, Luz cracks open the window and smokes a cigarette. She turns the radio to a Latin station and hums along. Her voice sounds sad, but she is smiling as you show her your old high school and the street that leads to your childhood home. “It was my grandfather’s house,” you tell her. “We lived with him all my life. He died when I was fourteen.”
You don’t stop to visit the house because your mother would not be there. She has flown out to Colorado to visit an old friend, a doctor who used to work at the same hospital as her. When you were young, he visited the house, brought you chocolates and sour candies, and carried you around on his back. One evening, he stopped on the highway to help two stranded passengers and was struck by a truck, lost the use of both his legs. Your mother told you how when the paramedics found him on the roadside, they thought his red hair was blood. Too distraught with grief, she didn’t realize she shouldn’t be telling you these things.
After the accident, he came to the house only once, looked hesitantly at you when your eyes wandered to the wheels of his chair, and you wished in that moment you could break your own legs and not have to walk anywhere ever, become part robot. Your mother sat outside with him in the backyard, where the sun hit, and she took his hand and they didn’t say a word. You find it hard to imagine that your mother has a life without you, always had.
Luz says her father owned chickens and used to make eggs different ways each day of the week. She lived with him on the weekends, when the eggs were poached and scrambled. Some days collecting the eggs, she accidently dropped them and felt a murderous guilt. When she was in college, she needed money and sold two of her own eggs. “Like that,” she says, “I might have children running around this world, looking just like me, and I don’t even know them.” She laughs but it comes out more like an ache. “It’s the old mother or egg question. Which comes first?”
You and Luz pass a tall concrete tower with a light bulb and a shack no larger than a rest station. Luz tells you to slow down as she reads the sign—Thomas Edison Museum.
Her eyes brighten. “Let’s go inside. Have you been?”
You shake your head. You don’t want to stop the car, but she has her hand on the door, ready to leave.
• • •
The museum is tiny and crowded with inventions, glass-covered relics from Edison’s laboratory. You don’t walk beside Luz but behind her, wary of your movements. The curator stands by a phonograph that blooms behind his head like a rare brass tropical flower. His glasses rest on the ridge of his nose, and his black hair pulls back to show delicate scalp. He points at a circular pin on his breast pocket and says, “This is young Thomas Edison,” and you think he is dipping into the past to reveal himself to you.
“Please sign the log book,” he says. “Where you two from?”
Maybe because one of the phonographs is playing a waltz, or because Luz is admiring a miniature model of Edison’s laboratory and the curator looks so curious and welcoming, you say, “We’re from Philadelphia. We are travelling back home from a convention in New York. We’re lawyers.”
Before you finish, Luz is standing by your side, staring at you. You’re alarmed but you sign the logbook, making up a street address to a place you have never visited.
“Oh very nice,” he says. “The first Philadelphian lawyers we have had yet.”
He asks if you have time for a tour and you look down at your watch and notice you have spent over an hour on this trip to get burger buns. Luz must sense your feelings, and she shakes her head, “We’ll just look around. We have to get back soon. Our son is with the babysitter.”
You can feel your pulse as you follow her down a narrow corridor. She reads placards from the wall: In Yawata City, Japan, Thomas Edison is treated like a Shinto god!
“How does one imagine,” she says, “that you can capture sound and even light.”
You are wondering what your child would look like with her nose, your mouth. You once saw a Chinese-looking kid with red hair and freckles at the arcade in Chuck E. Cheese when you were ten, and you remember the excitement you felt when you saw her.
You are half Punjabi, half Sri Lankan Tamil. The difference doesn’t show on your face. Your parents divorced before you were born, and your mother in her heartsick confusion gave you her last name hyphenated along with your father’s, which you shorten from sixteen letters to six for casting callbacks. Vlad likes the sound of your name. He told you this the first time you met him at an Upper East Side party, hosted by an old college classmate named Mario. Vlad wore a Metallica T-shirt under a blazer and drank vodka and cranberry juice out of wine glasses. He had an ease to him that you found charming. By the time you made your way over to talk, he was tipsy. Everyone you talked to that evening was from elsewhere—Brazil, Poland, Argentina, Nigeria—so you were only a little surprised when Vlad spoke in a slight accent and said, “India?”
“No, no,” you stumbled. “I was born here. Only half Indian.”
“Pradeep, here, is from India,” he said and pressed his hand on the shoulder of a young man in dark flannel who stood by the window and wore an unattractive beige jacket that reminded you of all the aunts and uncles that visited your grandfather’s house for birthdays and dinner parties.
You told Pradeep your name, and he began to speak to you in Hindi. When you said you didn’t know Hindi, he quieted, embarrassed for you. Right then you wanted to explain yourself to Vlad, tell him about all the languages spoken in India and the unfair dominance of one, but instead of mentioning borders, the shoddy doodles of British cartographers, you take a sip of your gin and tonic.
“I’m surprised,” Pradeep said, “they named you after that unlucky prince, the one that keeps giving whatever’s asked, the one slayed by his own brother.”
Vlad repeated your name as he looked at you. He had a ring of stubble around his mouth and eyelids that drooped. He agreed the name sounded tragic. Later, after a year of dating, when you felt Vlad slipping away, you told him you wanted to adopt a child. You really had no interest in a child, but then over the weeks, the idea took hold of you and one night, you told him, “We can have a surrogate. Mix up our sperms so we don’t know.” Still the child would only belong to you or Vlad. He kissed you and said, “Nothing’s perfect.” But you wanted to belong to him so badly, you pulled yourself closer to him, and tried not to think of what kept you apart, his years at private boarding school, the professional squash games he played, the way he smiled at you when you mistook the sport for a vegetable. He knows five languages, and you know two, both poorly.
Standing among museum relics, you remember the family gatherings, the ten-hour road trips to nowhere, eating lemon and curd rice at rest stations, where you called everyone aunty and uncle though they weren’t related to you, and their children, whom you saw on a handful of occasions, filled up your birthdays, broke your presents, fought for the icing flowers on your cake, and wished you a happy, happy day—all were parts of a childhood you had not cared for, and now, thinking of your son, who would never have to listen to cassettes of bhajans and deal with people he conversed with only in formalities, people who would drop everything to pick you up at an airport or hospital, cook meals when your mother was ill, all because they too travelled that same distance separating one part of the world from the other, you feel as if something dear has perished.
• • •
Outside the museum, there is a trail through a patch of forest where Edison’s laboratory once stood. As Luz and you walk the path, you spot two white-tailed rabbits and a sparrow’s nest, and the sights buzz with the traffic from Route 27.
“It’s getting late,” you say, but Luz is busy imagining the life of the Wizard of Menlo Park. She stands on a tree stump, rubs her chin, and looks up into the sky. “We’re at the birthplace of sound,” she says.
Her long legs cut through the landscape, rise like new wooden stems. She repeats her name over and over again, and seated on the dry ground, you hear it play back in your head, vibrate with new meaning.
She asks you if you thought Thomas Edison sat on the stump when he was tired of the laboratory. “Or maybe this is where he got his inspiration.”
Edison strikes you as foolish. Inside when you read the sign, genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent determination, you wanted to laugh as you thought how replaceable genius is with failure in our short, determined lives. And you think you will never pass this stage of existence where you are trying to light a bulb with beard hair and a fishing line and that you’ll die with cat fur in your fist. You would be the idiot your brother always knew you were. When he handed you the keys this afternoon, he told you to drive carefully, and you wanted to crash the car.
You have never been close with your brother except when you were young and didn’t know better. He once tricked you into eating purple Play-Doh, and you were sick for three days, the chalky taste lingering in your memory. You haven’t forgiven him for telling your prom date she was going out with a fag. When you found Vlad with another guy, you took the train to Jersey because when someone screws with your heart, somehow home feels irrevocable. Your brother met you at the coffee house across the station, late in the evening. He grabbed you by the neck for an embrace and bought you a coffee, remembered how you like it with two packets of sugar and a quarter cream. He talked about all the shitty work he did that day and didn’t ask what was wrong, and you were grateful.
You tried not to read the situation too closely for meaning about your relationship with your brother. Vlad told you it was a problem of yours, overanalyzing the little things that didn’t matter. But when you look up at Luz, she bends down to pick up a caterpillar clinging to her toe and places it in your palm, and you think you understand the exchange.
What you want most now is to lose your body, and the way she holds your gaze you know she does too. She doesn’t kiss you but holds you, her hands under your shirt, her dress pulled up above her thighs. You lean into her touch and lift her until she’s a part of you. Under the afternoon light you close your eyes, imagine layers of yourself giving way until there’s only your breath moving back and forth, back and forth.
April 21, 2015
22 Min read time