Olivia Zubrowski: City Life

     There was a photo of someone who looked like my voice teacher in the obituaries this morning. I was surprised: I had only just seen them a few months ago, and while they didn’t look well, they certainly hadn’t looked on the verge of death. I spent some minutes studying the uneven blue plaster on the ceiling, watching thin shadows of steam from my coffee bloom and fade. It was very bright for winter, the cold sunlight glinting off the dirty window, concentrating itself on my right temple. The kitchen used to be an attic: my apartment is small, with chalky walls and irregular, Victorian-looking windows. The voice teacher used to come here on Thursday afternoons. They always drank a cup of kukicha tea in the one nice mug I had, a solemn red LeCreuset.
       Just after I began the voice lessons, a few years ago, I started to dream that I didn’t have a face. These dreams stretched into months, then years. I always awoke to a sense of relief. I have no mirrors in my apartment. The times I do see my face–in old, yellowed photos, washed of detail; in the dull sheen of the lightbulb–there it is, obscene, ordinary.
       The voice lessons were the indirect result of my attempt to get over a past love. I thought I should take more walks, get out of my tiny apartment, the old plaster falling from the walls my only company. Most days I don’t mind the quiet much.
       When I was small, the neighborhood I lived in was crowded with houses. Trees tried in vain to take root between large driveways and boxy shrubs with poisonous-looking berries. In our backyard, the bedrock lurched up in indignation: a ten-foot granite face leered from the hillside; an eyeless face of mottled, grey scar tissue that shielded us from the highway. At the top of the hill, the rock dipped into a slight hollow. Often, I would climb up into that hollow and watch the sunset drain the color from the town, distilling the smog and neon to pale colors that gathered at the edge of the world. In that bower of thin, tough trees and blue moss, it was hard to tell the difference between raindrops and footsteps.
       One day, I watched a chipmunk slip into a gap in the rock I hadn’t noticed before. There was an opening: the mud was cool and silken. I pushed my body into the darkness, though I could only fit my shoulders inside. My breath came out in ragged, struggling gusts. I leaned my head against a protrusion in the rock: when I opened my eyes, the space was filled with rich colors. There were small scratches across the whole ceiling, half-words and rust-drawn figures, charcoal handprints and pale white outlines of unfamiliar animals.
       My walks often unearth silent and almost-forgotten memories like this one. In my efforts to forget my love, my walks got longer and longer, and I spent less time in that narrow apartment. I never had a particular destination. One afternoon, on the last leg of my journey back, I stepped into a cafe across the street from my apartment. What did it offer today, that it never had before? When does a piece of the world become something that invites you in?
       It was quiet and filled with plants; small tables were tossed around, each occupied by curled up bodies. I ordered a tea and looked for a place to sit. There was a figure near the window who was taking all the shadows from the cool, grey day, holding them in their hands. The way they sat, leaning, one hand holding their cheek, they looked as though they were carved of a riverbed, a liquid assemblage of ancient stones. I sat at the counter next to them. I asked why they were there.
       They said, “I’m waiting for my new student.”
       “Oh,” I said, “that must be me.”
       I was surprised by my answer, but I let myself accept the role of the negligent student.
       They didn’t move at first, but then slowly unfurled their long-limbed body. They looked as impassive as they had before I had entered their life. They shrugged, covering their empty mug with giant hands. Shadows trimmed the edge of their faded suit, their elegant fingers.
       I waited for my tea to cool. They were patient. They were a voice teacher. They lived in a spare room of an old woman’s rowhouse, just a few blocks away. I had walked past that house many times: there was a large, cancerous sycamore eating up the sidewalk on that block. The old woman was irritable and sensitive; she didn’t like noise and kept the curtains drawn except during the sunrise. The voice teacher hardly ever saw her: she would get up at dawn and eat an orange, and then stay locked in her study until close to midnight. The only evidence the voice teacher had of her existence were the trails of fragile, silvery skin she would leave around the house like bits of mica. Consequently, the voice teacher had to teach in the homes of their students, which put a lot of people off, but I didn’t mind.
       After I finished my tea, I took them across the street to my cold apartment. We sat for a few hours in the living room. I waited for them to explain music theory, the functions and manipulations of the voice box, the throat and sinuses. They seemed in no rush at all. I wanted to ask if they would like me to turn a light on, but the silence was too companionable and peaceful to break just yet. They smiled lightly; they ran their fingers over the dusty fronds of a fake fern I kept in the corner. The room filled with soft lapis light.
       After a few hours, I felt I knew their silence well enough. What a gift it was: weaving through the rattling trees, brocaded in the wind of passing cars on the street below; coiled in the dark sky, the thinning air of winter bridging seamlessly to the emptiness of the surrounding galaxy. I could see it now: a thin aperture of gold, a space to sing that did not disrupt the texture of this silence we shared. I stood up and faced away from them towards the innards of the apartment. It was very dark. I began to sing. I had hardly ever sung before: music felt like a fly buzzing by my ear, it had never held any mysticism for me. I sang fragments of folk songs, old choir songs from elementary school, pop songs. When I turned around, the chair’s fabric still held the impression of the voice teacher’s folded-up frame, but it was evident that they had been gone for some time.
       That night was the first night I dreamt I had no face. I lived in a small, cold hut, with a woman who painted faces on thin strips of metal. She was trying to make new faces for the veterans of war whose bodies had been cracked into new shapes. Her works were as delicate as a spider’s–the metal and leather that covered up their ruptures and scars rested lightly on their skin, held up by soft cords that vanished once they were tied behind the soldier’s heads. The skin that bore the marks of failed empires was righted and buried by her artistry.
       We did this for some months. Every Thursday the voice teacher would come over, following me up the narrow stairs with the even cadence of a lover. Eventually, I got them a key, though they would never use it, just knock lightly, once, on the front door, their fingers a different song every time. After drinking tea together, I would get up, turn away, and begin to sing. They would bring me recordings of many singers–jazz, opera, Tuvan throat singing, country, punk, crickets–and play them very quietly, trying to teach me by imitation. They hardly ever spoke, and when they did, it was low and soft. Even when I sang my loudest, I could still hear their thin aperture of a voice saying “quieter now,” or “breathe here.”
       One week, they didn’t show up. When they did show up next, they looked even more spent. I tried to sing like sea foam, but they looked no better. At the end of the lesson, I walked with them down the narrow stairs to the front door. It was summer, and people were sitting on their stoops, drinking beer and talking easily. I felt surprised: I had never seen any of these people in the winter or spring, never before heard their children happily shrieking down the block. I asked the voice teacher if I could do anything to help them feel better. They smiled and said,
       “My dog died, a few weeks ago. I’ll be ok. I’ve been through this before, though it certainly gets more difficult each time.”
       They turned and gave me a slow wave as they walked into the busy summer night.
       The voice teacher never came back, though the dreams stayed. I felt no differently towards my old love, but it’s true she didn’t enter my mind as much as she used to. I slowly began to sing less the longer the voice teacher remained absent. It turned to autumn, then winter. I started collecting pebbles and small pieces of asphalt. I kept them in racks meant for type-setting equipment, and when I turned my back to the apartment, carefully sorting the pebbles into new orders and categories, the companionable silence of the voice teacher would return to my mind.
       My father was a geologist and loved to collect rock samples from our neighborhood. He would often leave the house for whole days at a time to explore the surrounding suburban sprawl, combing the small stands of trees and reservoir shores for rare rocks. I was often left alone as a child, left to trawl the trash of the yard for a stone that, somehow, my father had not yet seen.
       One grey spring day I was methodically trudging across the lawn from left to right, looking for stones through the new, tender grasses. I was seven. I saw something made of a careful white below the porch. When I got closer, I saw it was a small, hollow oval; the front narrowed into locked, yellowed pincers. The inside was delicately shaped like a house, or a cathedral. There were small ribbons, hollows written into the sturdy white; scratches, marks of blood and movement, of life. I carried the stone in my hot hand to my father’s office. I set it on a tissue in the center of his desk.
       My father got back home late that night. I said nothing, restraining myself to wait for his surprise and joy in finding a rare stone on his desk like a gift from the spirits. The next day he said nothing. Nor the next, nor the ones after that. I searched the lawn continually those days, even through a heavy, grey snow, trying to find another stone like that first. After a few days, when he went out again, I let myself into his office and saw that his desk was empty. When I peered into the trash can, I saw a pile of sharp, shattered white. Later, it dawned on me that I had given him a mouse skull.
       When I fall asleep these days, the woman is continually stitching pieces of faces, gently hammering curves and crescents, broken pieces of moon. The war never ends, or I always appear on a single day of that war. I never touch my face, but I know by the zephyrs of heat from her fire and cool cavern breath coming up from below that I do not have one. My body is a collection of the thoughts of the soldiers, the reverberations of her gestures, the echoes of thoughts and gestures intersecting, passing by one another, giving each other brief, residual life as they fade and decay. She never notices me. Sometimes I’ll stay at the edge of her workshop–a small, clay-covered cave below her house. The rocks are smooth and clean; she keeps an oil lamp lit, which sends ribbons of smoke into the close air. Sometimes I’ll let my hands run over the scraps of tin and leather or gather the cut ends of string, but mostly I’ll watch her work, and see a small smile come to her face.

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