In The Nest
by HAFSA ARAIN
If the suburbs are dictated by anything it is process. Your whole life becomes a process: driving yourself home, picking up groceries, scheduling the DVR for Thursday night comedies. Dinner becomes a process. We do it now they way that we had done it when I was in high school. I set the table the same way I used to, using the same dishes. Every day is indistinguishable from the day before it, and even more frighteningly, the days are indistinguishable from when I was a much younger person and had the right to live here. And, of course, there is loneliness, which is the unfortunate side effect of living in the suburbs.
Most days, I am alone in our house. I say that it is our house, but really it is their house – my parents' house – and I live here rent-free.
I have started to use things I have not used in a long time: my Westmont Public Library card, the beat-up Volkswagen Passat I share with my siblings, things like grocery carts and garage door openers. And like an extended summer vacation, I spend long stretches of time in my bedroom, collecting things of my past. My bedroom is the only space that I truly feel belongs to me, and thus I have filled it with the objects of my childhood. In the chest of drawers I have crammed almost thirty spiral notebooks, filled with amateur short stories and torn at the edges, though I rarely open them or examine them. On one wall hangs a jewelry holder I bought last year, yet I have stuck jewelry on it that I have not worn in too long. They hang lifeless, my own Toy Story characters who resent my adulthood more than I do.
There are things, actual articles which matter here in a way they do not matter in the city. There is the ever important size of your house (“Yes, this room is 2,000 square feet! It was just so difficult to decorate.”), or the distance you live from Chicago celebrities (“You know that baseball player on the Cubs – yeah I live down the street from him!”), or the dollar amounts attached to your car (“I heard she got a BMW.”). These are conversations I used to have when I was a sixteen-year-old, a conversation that I may have even enjoyed at that time. Now they just remind me of my own perceived moral superiority.
My day is now filled with things much older people do with their time. The haunts I used to belong to in the city do not exist here. There are no coffee shops within walking distance; there are no new restaurants to explore. Instead, I have become acquainted with daytime television shows on the Food Network, for they play soundlessly as I hurriedly complete cover letters for job applications. And there are no people my age here left. The neighborhood used to be full of children when I was a child, and now it is full of middle-aged empty nesters. Or else, the twenty-somethings like me are hiding in their own parents’ homes, as ashamed of their return as I am.
But my parents are not ashamed of this difference they have with their neighbors. In their minds, I never should have left. It is not a Pakistani thing to leave home, especially if you are a woman. In some ways, they are right. If I had never left, I would never feel like leaving. And by coming back, I have set something right that was for so very long out of place. They had kept my bedroom the same way: my bookshelves line one wall, my closet full of clothes that I no longer fit into.
And even then, they are filled with the traditional Pakistani clothes, tailor-made for me in Pakistan. These are clothes that did not travel with me when I left for college, and did not accompany me on my eight-month stay in San Jose, California. They remind me too much of the questions we asked ourselves too often: Who would we have been had we never left?
Sometimes, I think I see those people, the alternate reality of my family. There are moments – when I am stepping out of the shower and looking into the foggy mirror, perhaps, or occasionally when I have reached the landing at the top of the stairs – where I know I have seen some figure waft past me. I freeze in my tracks, but I shouldn’t do that. Stopping and acknowledging only make it worse; you are letting them know you are aware of them. The only way to react is to let them know nothing is wrong with the situation in which they have put you.
This was not the first time I had seen something, nor am I the only one who has seen anything. In my family, we have each of us our own personal relationships with the beings in our home. One time, my sister saw a white shape in the basement from the corner of her eye – or rather, she saw its reflection in the large mirror on the wall. "It was a girl," she had said at the time, "A young girl." My brother had seen something similar while he was on the computer, and the white figure had been floating ominously near the underutilized treadmill. It had disappeared, leaving him unfocused and confused.
And of course, I have seen and heard these things for much longer than in recent years. Once, while visiting home from college, I heard the distinct sound of footsteps across our basement’s linoleum tile while I was doing my laundry. The rest of the basement had been dark, and I scanned the blankness with my eyes. I dared the thing to reveal itself to me; my words cracked in my throat. The fear was instantaneous, my mind traveled from sorting whites and colors to the worst possible thought: death. The water heater began to buzz, and I inched closer to it. If it was inside of it, I should not be afraid, I thought. But of course, nothing was there. Nothing was ever really there. With my heart beating violently, I returned to the laundry.
Now, I see these shapes and figures again. When I cross the hallway that is the threshold into our kitchen, I swear I see a flash of the same face, hear the same sound of footsteps. They enjoy waiting where you least expect them. They wait for my mother, the last out of the house, to leave for work. The door closes behind her, and there it is again – a face pale and shadowed! And just as soon as it is there, it is gone.
What has begun to frighten me most is that they never wait for the night; their contentment on waiting for my loneliness, ignoring daylight, makes them unsolvable. And where could they come from? Our house was built in 1987, which is by coincidence the same year I was born. The house has no more years on this Earth than I have, so how could it possess a history larger than me? These figures should belong in an older, more secluded place. Not here in a subdivision that was built during Chicago’s suburban boom. Of course, I understand now that they came into the place with us. And I have realized that I must become accustomed to them in the way that I have become accustomed to the rest of the suburban life.
The truth is we are predisposed to see these sightings. We were raised on jinn stories – demon stories. On visits to Pakistan when we were young, we would spend time on the farm in which my father grew up. And on the roof of the barn, we sat with our cousins, a lively gang of pre-teens, to hear the ghost stories from our older cousins. It was at times like these nights where my sister and I did not feel like Americans intruding on Pakistani tradition, where we insisted everyone speak Urdu and not English for our own sakes. In the time that we spent in Karachi, a large city, we stood out instantly at foreigners. My own broken Urdu was so obviously American, my accent made me pronounce things with difficulty. Here, in quite literally the middle of nowhere, I had learned to forget my failings as a Pakistani, and gave way to the breathy language of scary stories.
We began before night fell, but usually at sunset, anticipating the darkness with an unnatural pleasure. The oldest cousins told the scariest stories, and so we quietly let them begin, with a strange sort of glee that one has when it is known that there is a benign danger ahead. The stories were of people we knew, sometimes even farmers and relatives we had met with just that day. There was the story about the child who had been left out on the haunted swing alone, only to become deformed by a jinn. And then the story of missing jewels, where a witch, paid-off surely, held a séance to recover them. And then the endless stories of figures and shapes appearing before gravestones or underneath the neem trees at night. This last one, about the neem trees, was a favorite of my maternal grandfather’s, who utilized it as a way to scare his children from sneaking out of the house at night. And inevitably, it would be mentioned by someone that to say the word jinn aloud at all is a risk – they will float in the circle, invisible, to hover and listen to you. At this, we would all raise our heads to look into the darkness, hoping and not hoping to see something above us.
These stories are more potent to hear in rural Pakistan, for when night falls there are no lights around you for miles. You are enclosed in an endless shadow, except for the stars. There are millions of stars.
I left somewhere I used to belong to, and every day this weighs on my shoulders. At 3, I boarded a plane with my parents and left for the suburbs of a city where I was destined to be an outsider. My life up until college had been full of the depressed understanding that I would not be considered beautiful, funny, outgoing, or popular. After I had made the resolution to move to the city (for we always have called Chicago “the city”), I had been insistent on finding a place where I could come into my own. I am a late bloomer, I had told myself on maybe millions of occasions. And now I have returned to the suburbs, worse for wear surely, but not yet broken. The suburbs were not built to repair a person. And here again, I must comfort my own mind, coddling myself as a mother might a very spoiled child.
Sometimes I wonder if the ghosts I have seen are the images of myself I should know. The person I should have been, one who would never even have accepted the job that I had to leave. And because I am an immigrant, I am full of people I should have been instead of who I am now. Every choice and decision is an action with an equal and opposite action – an opposite me in an opposite life. And these are truly what jinns are: beings in a different dimension of our planet, attempting to figure out all of the things we must figure out here.
It seems that I should live as though I have fractured my pride, without an income and without a true home. And instead of scrambling, I have taken my time accepting my fate. I have become the real suburbanite. Take the cage door and swing it shut on myself. Here, there is no one to lock the door, but we do it anyway.
Photos by Ayub Arain.
"See Birds" - Balam Acab (mp3)
"Master of None" - Beach House (mp3)
"A Town Called Obsolete" - Andreya Triana (mp3)