#4 – Février / February 2022
This story is part of a collection of interrelated
stories, linked to the previously published in
Place #3 issue, The House
Perdita had hoped for rain. For too long California had suffered from drought. The hills outside the Uber’s window looked brown, the sky silver blue and stained by bits of barren clouds. The group of neighborhood teenagers, smoking weed near the dumpster, shrank in size. Her street’s identical looking single-family homes occupied by lonely pets with busy owners, and the flock of crows sitting on electric cables, roofs and trash cans, all receded, escaping her view.
She traveled light. Two skirts, two pants, four shirts, all her pink underwear, and the red stilettos. Never worn. Not yet.
A cricket chirped inside the car. She resented the hot fake leather seat and the tepid air that the car’s air conditioner blew on her damp cheeks. The Uber driver stared through the rear-view mirror while she looked for the insect. His thick eyebrows shadowed his large eyes. “Sorry, Ma’am. That little fucker must’ve snuck into my car last night. I’ll pull over and smash it.” The chirping stopped, as though awaiting her response.
There it was on the window opposite her, still and silent, fixated on the moving road. Barely stirring, barely born yet near the end of its life. She kept her hand on her stomach, aching for the cricket, too small for its big voice, with its brown cylindrical body, spherical head, folded hind legs, wings flat, antennas bent on the glass. She imagined that it longed to will itself through the glass, and out onto the asphalt, to leap over the next car, onto the empty sidewalk, and over the fence of Mason Park where a group of children played soccer on a green grass field. How could they run in this summer heat?
“Keep going,” she said to the driver. “Crickets don’t bother me.”
“In my culture, they are supposed to bring good luck. Ha! Fat chance of that.”
He looked Middle Eastern. Perdita’s mother had told her that crickets were bearers of good news, but if trapped inside a house they brought illness to the family. She hadn’t believed this when she was little, but now that she was older (again her hand on her stomach), she had doubts. She hadn’t returned home, not since Mama’s funeral three years ago. Living fifteen years with Lazlo, in Mission Viejo, had transformed her into an in-between creature, incapable of feeling rooted. And today, her home in Guatemala wasn’t far enough away. The cricket jumped down on the seat, near her hand, and resumed singing.
“Madam, this is some motherfucking traffic,” the driver said. “What time is your flight?”
Perdita looked around. The cricket was back on the window. The 405 Freeway, jammed. The Costa Mesa Ikea sign hadn’t moved one inch from minutes ago. The seat was melting into her skin. Perdita wiped the sweat with the back of her hand and rubbed it against her skirt. Did the crickets have a high resistance to heat? “It’s OK. We still have time.” She hadn’t yet decided where she was going. But it didn’t matter. There was no flight to catch. Nothing planned. Even this morning, while packing, or during her few attempts to write a letter to Lazlo – the love of her life — she couldn’t fathom how he’d make sense of her abandoning him when it didn’t even make sense to her.
This morning, she had decided against leaving a note because Lazlo would have analyzed every word. He would have misunderstood and suffered for the rest of his life. Better that he devote himself to his writing — or, as it turned out, his pointless rambling. “Don’t wait for me,” were her last words to Lazlo. He was still in bed when she left the house with only a gym bag.
This was so different from the day she left her hometown of Chiquimula. Her mother, smelling of earth, held her tight until they reached airport security. Mama loved gardening, spent most of her days outside in the yard, digging and planting and watering and composting and fertilizing and chasing off the squirrels and rats before they destroyed her careful rows. Perdita tried but failed to share Mama’s passion for anything that grew from the dirt. She had looked to find her true calling. She was pretty good in each and all of them, but not good enough or passionate enough. Her paintings were only perfect copycats; she was told she was too old to learn ballet, and her love for becoming like Maria Callas was crashed when all the high notes she could sing were off key. Her only success was in cooking, something that wasn’t even her passion, only her food wound up giving Lazlo heartburn. At some point she imitated Lazlo who loved to gaze at the sky, but she rarely distinguished the planets from the stars or recognized well known constellations. She lacked the talent for what she wanted to excel in, and the things she excelled in bored her to death. Shouldn’t one’s passion supposed to bring joy? Could passion compensate for talent? Lazlo was obsessed with his writing. Were passion and obsession the same? She had only been obsessed once, when they were building this house and she had asked for an attic. For years she had bought antique furniture until there was no more room. The attic was going to store all these unwanted old objects that belonged to a single moment in the past when they lured her with the charm of history. But the attic didn’t happen. It was something beyond her control and Lazlo’s understanding as a man who had kept one framed photo of Kafka as his solitary childhood souvenir from Poland. Later, once they became used to their grief, Lazlo suggested they store everything in their second room, the unused nursery. “How about the guests?” she had asked.
Lazlo had approached her, squeezing her shoulders. “But we never have guests.”
Cooler air drifted into the back seat. The driver must have changed the setting. Did she leave the air conditioner on at the house? At Lazlo’s urging, she turned off the lights when she left any room, and soon the habit was so ingrained that sometimes she did so even if Lazlo was still there. Would Parrot suffer from the heat? Did she change its water and food? Would the bird forgive her for abandoning it? But how could she carry a bird and its huge cage when she barely could carry herself? Parrot and its cage were her gifts to Lazlo. A sight — and shrieks and words— he couldn’t ignore. While feeding the parrot, as the bird repeated the few sentences she had taught it, he would remember her absence. “Perdita, I love you,” or “Perdita, where are you?” Every sentence Parrot knew started with her name.
“Terminal 4 is for international flights. You go abroad regularly?”
From her window, she watched the giant Goodyear airship hovering above the slow-moving traffic. “Europe. For work,” she said. The vastness of the ocean would buy her time to plan, though she had never been good with planning. The day she left her homeland, America seemed an ephemeral planet without laws of gravity, so no one would ever plunge to the bottom if they failed. An incubator for every dream. But that was then. Her own experience had taught her how easy, but painful, it was to deviate down unknown roads. In her early years of teaching, each time she asked her students what they’d be when they grew up, instead of responding excitedly, they seldom even reacted, and all she saw in their silent eyes was her own increasingly guarded reflection. And she came to wonder if they already knew how dreams could be deviated.
The driver looked at her in the rearview mirror. “I have only travelled to Hawaii, if that counts as overseas.” He kept on talking about the details of his trip, the flight, the hotel, the insects, and the sensation of sand that would penetrate your skin and wouldn’t go away long after leaving Hawaii.
Where should she go? With her American passport she could go to any European country, teach English or even mathematics and physics since she had completed her science teaching credentials. She could even work as a chef. Spain and Portugal were the easiest options because she knew both languages. However, she felt more excited about countries where she had to learn everything from scratch: Italy, Germany, Sweden, or Greece.
The cricket jumped from the window to the top of passenger seat, and to the floor near Perdita’s feet. She pulled her leg up, but one of her sandals fell, and she feared it had crushed the insect. She moved her shoe but couldn’t see it. She felt panicky, and it puzzled her. What was different between this cricket and all those other insects she had fed to Parrot? The bird never let any of them escape. What if Lazlo starved the bird or killed it with the wrong food? Lazlo wasn’t always careless. He still functioned as an architect. But since his obsession with writing began, he grew messy. At first, she ignored the change, because she understood him and shared his pain. But as time passed, Lazlo spent more time on his laptop. He stopped talking at dinner about his coworkers, or asking about Perdita’s students, or praising her qualities as a perfect wife. Every day, he sat behind his laptop and claimed to be working on his novel. Perdita knew the protagonist was a 36-year-old woman named Lola from El Salvador. Perdita would have been flattered if she had inspired Lazlo to bring Lola to life. Like Perdita, she had left her hometown at a young age, had worked at odd jobs and had married a man, a minor character, who was never home.
The chirping started up again, even louder, coming from behind her. Such a relief. She hadn’t killed the insect. The driver’s voice, in a language she didn’t understand, drowned out the cricket’s nattering. She leaned forward and saw the wireless earphone on his right ear. He was just talking on the phone. Perdita leaned back. They passed a sign for El Segundo, so the airport wasn’t far. They exited the freeway, driving under a bridge where the homeless slept in their ragged sleeping bags. She lamented the rows of dirty apartment buildings, dispersed clouds, sick-looking palm trees, the drive-through Burger King, the old cars sitting in large shopping malls, the empty sidewalks. She should travel to a crowded but orderly place. Maybe Paris. Or Istanbul, as far away as possible.
“We are almost there.” Having ended his call, the Uber driver craned his neck and smiled back at her, showing his golden front teeth. “Ah Hawaii, I will never forget that trip.” He had returned to boring her about his Hawaiian vacation. Perdita nodded without listening.
Yesterday, after dinner, she sat next to Lazlo and they watched the 6 o’clock local news, without saying a word to each other. She thought about what she was going to do when school opened in August. The cycle she knew so well. Cheering up her old students and the few newcomers. The drive. Traffic. Always the same chatter with colleagues. Then returning home to wait for Lazlo, who always arrived with something he had bought for her—flowers, fruit, or turgid novels that he enjoyed more than she. Last, falling asleep on the sofa next to this man she long had loved, if love was the reassurance of being loved, the certainty of a life where nothing moved because everything had already found its place. Perdita remembered the first date with Lazlo. He had worn his best outfit, a dark blue jacket, with a golden tie, his bald spot glowing like a light bulb. Her memories took her to the moment, after leaving Guatemala, she realized that her plane was flying over the ocean. She’d already forgotten Mama’s teary eyes, and her heartbeat echoed in her ears as she watched the waves that resembled stirring stars. Lazlo turned off the TV and hummed as he refreshed his laptop’s screen, ready to plunge into his writing.
Parrot, inside its cage, turned towards her and called her name, Perdita, Perdita, where are you? She waved. Still it called her name. Perdita! Perdita! Perdita felt the tension rising. Couldn’t the bird see her? Maybe this person on the sofa wasn’t Perdita anymore, but a shadow of Lazlo, who had leaned back, one hand behind his neck, his feet resting on the coffee table, laptop open on his lap, the other hand scrolling.
Maybe if he had built the attic, everything would have been different. That it was the proof of an undefinable love she had always longed for. The attic was going to establish the order in this house where too many pieces of furniture hoarded the space. Those things were going to remain in plain view; even hidden in the locked room, she knew they existed. All Lazlo really cared for was the picture of Kafka that sat facing him, that smiled at him and Perdita didn’t know why Lazlo couldn’t get rid of. He told her to throw away leftover food, paper bills, old magazines and newspapers, even the unused nursery’s furniture, and all the knitted sweaters her mother had made for their unborn child. Yet that old picture he had brought from Poland had to stay. She donated all the sweaters, locked the nursery door, and stopped cooking for six, in case someone showed up uninvited. Nobody came. Unlike her Mama, they rarely hosted parties, rarely went to visit friends. They didn’t even have that many friends. But it didn’t matter if Lazlo had built that nonexistent attic she had longed for, imagining it in different shapes and sizes, in different places in the house. Once it was on top of the living room, and another time above the kitchen, or the garage. Once she saw in a dream that Lazlo had placed it on the top of the roof. Like a little house on top of their house, with a secret ladder they used to climb carrying giant furniture on their back. In her dream she had big muscles and long arms she could wrap around drawers and cribs and her Parrot’s cage. She would have stayed in the attic, if it could still be called that, isolated from the life below. Away from Lazlo’s loneliness.
Lazlo yawned, browsing his emails.
She listened carefully but now there was only silence. She looked out through the large front window at the tattered patch of wild weeds and unattended bushes in the yard, shadowed by their cypress tree. It dominated the yard. Its leaves moved with the rhythm of the wind, its roots buried in dirt. It was almost enough that the sun and the moon poured their light over the tree all day and night, that the rain and their sprinkler sated its thirst with no worry for the drought, that squirrels amused the tree as they flitted up and down and around, and that the birds hid their nests in its trunk. If trees could dream, would her tree wish to shed its roots, detach itself from the earth, and fly away?
Where are you, Perdita? Parrot repeated, and Perdita felt like an un-bloomed flower.
“Here we are,” the driver said, looking for a spot to park.
The cricket was back on the window next to her, chirping louder than ever. Perdita lowered the window, hoping to free the insect. The hot air seeped in, and the cricket turned quiet but did not budge. She looked out at the crowd; everyone in a hurry, pulling their luggage behind them.
The car stopped. She lifted her bag, pressed it against her chest, opened the door, the cricket clinging to the window, and leapt out on the asphalt. “Thank you,” she said to the driver and strode away.
The chirping resumed, loudly. She walked faster, but the sound didn’t fade. It followed her through the terminal’s sliding doors, as she scanned the flights and stood in line to buy the ticket to her new city. The cricket must have been holding onto her, maybe hiding in the pocket of her gym bag, hanging from her long hair, sheltering in her purse, or just sitting on her shoulder, singing, calling her, wondering where they were going.
Aliso Viejo, December 2021
* Many thanks to Susan Tombrello for reading this story and for her thoughtful feedback.