Places to Dwell
Location-eka haride? my trishaw driver asks me through the phone. Is your location okay? They call every time to make sure, the GPS not as reliable as verbal confirmation. My location is fine, and I wait for him, clouds about to erupt even though everyone told us we’d missed rainy season.
On the streets of Colombo, we weave in and out of afternoon traffic, often racing towards an oncoming car just to pop back onto our side of the road in time to avoid a collision. I speak to the driver in broken Sinhala, location-eka hari, and yet, the first thing he asks when I enter the trishaw is, America?
I smile and nod. Ah, American. Are you Christian? Another nod. Do you smoke? I laugh. A head shake. Why are you in Sri Lanka? I tell him I am working in Colombo. I tell him my mother was born in Jaffna. Ah, Tamil? I don’t think so. You are not Tamil. I don’t argue.
The first week in Sri Lanka, I become obsessed with the trishaws’ designs. So many of them have decal stickers with inspiring quotes: “Win without boasting” or “Life is beautiful.” Others are filled with seemingly-random images—Bob Marley, majestic horses, white babies. There are scores of trishaws with Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow plastered to the seat or the back window. I feel like there must be stores that sell only Pirates of the Caribbean-themed stickers. I imagine starting my own, if not.
It starts to rain, and the driver pulls down the curtains on either side of the trishaw. I can’t see outside unless I crane my head over his and look out the front. The rain sneaks in through the cracks, spraying my skin pleasantly as we travel in a direction that I hope is toward home.
In Florida, it rains so hard every summer afternoon that I wonder why it’s not called monsoon season. Everyone says that the thing about Florida isn’t the heat, it’s the humidity, but I don’t think so; I think it’s the rain, the way it stops everything and you have to pull over on the highway. It’s the way there’s nothing to do but turn up the radio so it drowns out the raindrops.
In high school, we spend Saturday mornings at the beach, listening to a friend’s brother’s friend’s band on a bad bluetooth speaker until the watermelon has too much sand in it to eat, and we retreat back to land, sun-tired and hungry for cheap guacamole and chips. We drive west on the highway with the windows down listening to a song about kids driving aimlessly, and I wonder if the song was written about us or if we’re acting it out. Maybe it’s both.
Every fall, our school hosts an event where we eat ice cream and then release baby sea turtles into the ocean. I go with my friends, and my parents are out of town, and after the sea turtles are released we go to Steak ’n Shake just so we don’t have to go home. I relish in staying out past eleven. I wonder whether the turtles made it. I remember that they can be set off track by artificial light, and I imagine that one of them got confused and followed our car toward the neon buzzing of the Steak ’n Shake sign. I can almost see it out there, searching in a strip mall for the ocean.
When I’m lost, I go the wrong way with such conviction that I can almost convince others it’s the right way. I can walk for twenty blocks in the wrong direction, accidentally ignoring the protests of Google Maps in my pocket. Because I have such a hard time finding my way, I love being led around a city. Maybe this affinity is a symptom of my lifetime spent as the youngest child. I let everyone else sort it out, while I sit back and wait for the destination.
My first time in New York, my boyfriend meets me at Penn Station and guides me the thirty blocks to West 4th after I wander around in circles looking for the right exit, and we sit on a step outside some shop on MacDougal. He asks me if I’m happy. I actually think I’m underwhelmed and mostly tired, but I tell him it’s everything I dreamed. I’m happy just to follow the script.
I ignore things when they don’t make sense if they feel right. I am startled when I have to take initiative. I prefer to orbit around what I know I want instead of taking it for myself. I repeat the same actions over and over, waiting to piece it all together, pretending I find meaning in routine when, in reality, I don’t know where I find meaning. I am obsessed with planning for the next thing, but I love getting stuck.
When I am three or four, my family goes on a trip to San Francisco. One day, my brother almost falls into the ocean, lost forever. We sleep in my uncle’s house on my cousins’ futon, and I cry until I am allowed to get a plastic fish beaded necklace from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Somewhere along the way, for reasons I can’t explain, my oldest brother comes up with a chant: futon, futon, smock, smock. Silly, meaningless, and short and sweet--a recipe for the worst and best mantra. I trail after my two big brothers, up and down the hills of San Francisco, mimicking: futon, futon, smock, smock. To this day, whenever someone says either of these words, the chant replays on a loop in my head.
In my summer sublet, I sleep with a fan on high, blowing directly at my face because there’s no air conditioning. I wake up with headaches so bad that some mornings I forget where I live. I tell my friends I’m busy, and instead of going out I stay at home in my warm bedroom and I pretend that this is where I’m meant to be. I walk the long way to the subway most mornings and stop for a coffee from a man who is the father of a newborn. A year later, I return to show a friend my old spot, and I feel an out-of-proportion sense of accomplishment when the man whose child is no longer a newborn, says, bent over someone else’s espresso, “You’re back! Coffee with whole milk, right?”
I’m afraid of being seen, but I love being recognized.
I don’t want to decide who I should become. I want to wake up next to a new version of myself every day and choose whether to let her sleep or to wake her up. I know I should want to get lost and not be found, to let go of what came before, but instead I prefer to dwell. Why is “dwelling” as a verb something bad, an obsession, or a preoccupation when “dwelling” as a noun is something to be desired, a home, somewhere to rest?
In my last semester of college, I paint every Friday.
I walk to the art building and set up in the studio. My smock is an old sweatshirt that my dad used to wear to mow the lawn. He says he wore it on the day I was born, but I haven’t seen proof. Usually, no one is in the studio on Friday mornings, and I like that I don’t have to turn on the fluorescent lights. Fridays are for starting new pieces, tracing contours first in charcoal. I start to stretch my own canvases, always afraid that the staple gun will somehow redirect its power to one of my fingers instead of the wooden frame.
I take my time mixing colors for the underpaintings, the ones that no one will see, which will be covered with layers and layers in the coming days. Sometimes, friends visit and chat with me, and sometimes I listen to the same song on repeat, and sometimes it’s silent. In this room, I allow myself to settle in, to stop thinking about where I might get lost next. Once afternoon hits, I leave for a nap.