Swimming at Midnight
by Jamila-Khanom Allidina
In the morning everything is still dark. My husband snores beside me, gentle and rhythmic as waves. My sight has failed, but my memory is fully intact. I remember my mother’s face the day I left home; the smell of the water on my first date with my husband; the name of the first-grade teacher my three sons all had, one year after another, all in a row. And newer things: the names of my youngest daughter-in-law’s sisters, the classes my oldest grandchild is taking in high school, the number of steps to the bathroom, from the bathroom to the stairs, the stairs to the kitchen. I can still complete the crossword in the paper, if my husband reads me the clues. When we go to sleep I like to picture my husband as he was when we were young: tall and dark, his face smooth and tight along his cheekbones, dark hair cut short and eyes the colour of milky tea. And me, slimmer, when my hair was still naturally dark. That’s harder, though.
When I was younger, of course, I didn’t wake up so much as I was jerked awake, by the alarm my husband set for work or by one of the children crying or yelling or jumping on me. Even later, when the kids were grown, I woke up with my husband, made his oatmeal while he showered, stirred in one teaspoon of brown sugar to sweeten it. Now when I wake up it is not the silence of the house that keeps me in bed—no alarm, no children, not even my husband’s shower running this early—but the fact that when I open my eyes, it’s still dark.
Getting up is an ordeal. I’ve lost weight, so my bones seem bigger. My skin hangs loose off them, like ill-fitting bandages, slowly unraveling. There is pain, but not that sharp, stubby pain my husband complains of; more than anything, a scraping.
The doorbell rings, and my husband gets up and shuffles down the stairs to let in the construction workers. They started work on the bathroom yesterday. There are two of them, noisy, clumping around with their boots in the house, clanging wrenches against pipes, talking, telling jokes as they work. In a week we’ll have a new bathroom with new, easy-to-use fixtures: a larger tub with a built-in seat, a bar along the side for leverage, more room around the toilet downstairs. Some of the tiles have to be replaced. They couldn’t find the right shade of green to match the old ones, so they’re replacing all of them in what my husband calls eggshell white. I was irritated when he told me. White gets dirty so fast.
My husband has packed a small bag for me. We’re using the neighbor’s bathroom until the construction is done.
“Did you remember my toothbrush?” I’m sitting on the bed, leaning back on my hands, catching my breath. “My panties?”
I reach for my cane. It’s not one of those long white canes blind people use. Other blind people, I should say. I have one, but I like the weight of my wood cane. My old man’s cane, my middle son calls it. It thwacks against people sometimes, it causes a bit of destruction, but I like that, a little.
I’ve been fully blind for about six months now. Adjusting to calling myself blind was like adjusting to calling myself a wife, or a mother. It changes how people see you—how you see yourself. I pad slowly, barefoot, out of the room, feeling for the edge of the wall with my cane. I like the thought of new, black marks against the baseboards, a tangible piece of my blindness on the house. There is nothing in my way, nothing for me to trip over; my husband keeps the house immaculate. I count the steps down the stairs: fourteen.
Downstairs, I sit on a short bench next to the front door. I bought it in Muskoka years ago; an antique piece, our only one, deep cherry wood. The dust shows easily. I put on my shoes. I have two pairs of slip-on flat shoes, to replace all my old heels and lace-ups. My husband bought them in two colours: black because it’s practical, and red because I like it. I keep the red on the right side underneath the bench (right for red) and the black on the left. Once I got mixed up and wore one black shoe and one red. No one said anything except my eight-year-old grandson, Alykhan, who thought it was hilarious. I could see the humour, but I don’t understand why my husband didn’t say anything.
They’re orthopedic shoes. I don’t need orthopedic shoes, but they’re the ones my husband brought home.
I take hold of my husband’s arm with one hand and clutch my cane with the other. Outside, while he locks the door, I listen: the high-pitched giggle of children playing, the rhythmic trundle of stroller wheels against the pavement, birdsong, the key turning in the door, then the click and thud of the bolt. My husband’s shuffling sneakers on the porch, the creak in the wood. I count the steps down to the sidewalk: one, two, three. We cut across the grass, my hand on my husband’s arm again. I don’t know how many steps it is to the neighbour’s house, so he tells me when we hit their driveway, just so I know that the feeling through my shoes will be different. He tells me there are four steps up to the neighbor’s porch, but I remember from yesterday. My husband has the keys to the neighbor’s house (they’re on vacation), and we go inside, carefully, because no matter how many times I’ve been in this house over the years it’s still not familiar.
I don’t lock the bathroom door behind me, in case. Hanging my cane off the doorknob, I place the bag next to the sink and pull my panties out of the front pocket. My hands find the way to the toilet. Peeing is a relief; I’ve been holding it since I woke. I change my underwear, thumbing the label to make sure it’s on the right way. After washing my hands, I splash water on my face, feel in the bag for my face towel, my toothbrush. When I’m done I open the door and my husband brushes my hair for me. I don’t actually need his help with this, but he likes to do it. He plaits it, and it hangs down my back like it did when I was a child.
I’m not bathing today; I took a bath yesterday morning, before the workers started in at our house. I dread the seat they’re putting in, negotiating it. It’s more for my husband than for me; he’s got pain in his lower back and in his calves, nothing serious, just “wear and tear” the doctor calls it. Like he’s an old car, rusted. He can’t bend and I can’t see; we’re a good match.
I’m going to miss taking baths in winter, submerging. My husband used to love the water, too. When we married, we couldn’t afford to go away for a honeymoon, so his supervisor lent us his lakeside cottage for a week. It was my third summer in Canada; I hadn’t left the city since I arrived in Toronto, from Ahmedabad (via London). Besides my husband’s supervisor, I didn’t know the kind of people who owned or rented cottages in the country. It seemed like a very Canadian thing to do.
The cottage was on Lake Geneva. At night, the water was still and quiet, the colour of steel. The forest underneath snatched and played at my ankles as I felt my way in with my toes. I was naked. My new husband watched me from the shore, leaning forward, his forearms resting on his knees. My mother hadn’t been at our wedding; she couldn’t afford the ticket, and we didn’t have enough to spare to fly her over. It was warmer inside the water than out, even at one a.m., even in August. The line of the water cut me in half; like my body was in two different places, my arms goosebumped, my legs silky. My husband undressed carefully, folding his clothes and placing them on his shoes, and I watched as he walked tentatively into the water. I loved the light on his shoulders.
When he reached me he put his arms around me and told me, his voice low, to shut my eyes. He pulled me closer. My arms were trapped against his chest. We’d made love for the first time the night before. He led me further into the lake, and stepped away from me. I was alone in the dark, hugging myself, chest-high in water, gripping the bottom with my toes. I opened my eyes. He was just a few steps away from me, smiling, eyes closed tight, arms stretched over the water like he was draped over it, like he weighed nothing. The moonlight rippled off the lake, the only reason I could see where the water ended and the opposite shore began. I loved him so much.
Back at home I sit in the kitchen, sipping the cup of tea my husband made me. “Fortifying,” he calls it, an old joke. He’s padding around the kitchen in his socks, pulling plates from the cabinets and forks from the drawer.
There’s a turmeric stain on the counter next to the stove; a spot underneath the cupboard that holds the mugs, where the steam from the electric kettle below has peeled the paint away in strips, making a rough circle, mud yellow in the middle, the colour of tea-stains. For years it was my kitchen: our house, but my kitchen. I haven’t cooked for over a year.
“What time is it?” I ask.
“They’ll be here soon,” he assures me.
When our eldest son, Nadir, and his wife, Alia, arrive for lunch with their two children, I know it’s Alia who creeps into the kitchen first. She doesn’t walk using all of her foot; she treads on her soles carefully, as if they were something precious lent to her. She kisses me hello and starts telling me about the food they bought for us on Gerrard St, the plastic bags crinkling as she unloads them. Her son, Alykhan, is eight and announces his presence wherever he goes, loudly.
“Hi Dadima!” he yells, running into the kitchen, his sneakers still on. “It’s me! Alykhan!” He pauses, then for good measure: “your grandson!”
“Alykhan,” I admonish gently, “I know who you are!”
I have to admit—Alykhan’s my favourite.
He puts his arms around me and kisses me hastily on the cheek. He leans against me, burrows his face into my neck, and requests double-stuffed Oreos, which he knows are hidden somewhere in the kitchen.
“Ask your bapa,” I say, “he knows where they are.”
My husband is talking to our son in the hall, and Alykhan goes charging back out.
“Where’s my granddaughter?” I ask Alia.
“She’s on her cellphone outside,” Alia says. There’s a sigh in her voice.
“Is everything ok?”
Alia pauses, then says carefully, “She cut her hair.”
I have to bite back a laugh. Alia likes things just-so. Short hair may not be on her list of acceptable just-so things. I can’t blame her. I’m like that too sometimes.
“How short is it?”
“Very. And it’s red.”
I try to picture it. Shelina is 13, a little too thin for my liking, with a straight jaw and a straight nose. Her cheekbones aren’t as high as her mother’s, but she’s a pretty girl; with those big dark eyes and her olive skin, chin-length fire-engine hair should suit her. In a certain way. “I’m sure it looks fine, Alia.”
“Hi, Dadima.” Shelina’s even quieter than her mother.
“Hi, beta. You cut your hair? I’m sure it’s lovely! Come here, give me a kiss.”
Shelina takes my hand and kisses me. Her hair is shorter than I expected, cropped close against her scalp.
“It’s too short,” my husband complains. Nadir follows him into the kitchen and when he kisses me his whiskers scrape my cheek, and he leaves a trace of his musky aftershave when he moves away. He grew out of his first sleeper when he was three weeks old. I cried. It had turtles on it.
“Girls shouldn’t have short hair,” grumps my husband. “It’s confusing.”
“What’s confusing about it?” I ask. “She’s a girl with short hair. Leave her alone.” More quietly, “What colour is your hair, beta?”
“It’s red.” She speaks so softly that I have to lean closer to hear her. Everyone’s in the kitchen now, talking over the hammering coming from the bathroom, and moving about, clattering plates and glasses.
“What kind of red?”
She pauses, considering. “Do you remember the red of your cashmere scarf that mum gave you?”
“Like that, almost.”
A dark red, earthy, a dirty brown red.
I let go of her hand and sigh, “That is the nicest red.”
“Food food food,” sings Alykhan, “nooow!”
“Alykhan, sit down and be quiet,” Nadir says, without meaning it.
“I’m sitting next to you,” Alykhan tells me. “On the right.”
“That’s your right, beta, that’s my left.”
“On your left.”
Someone puts a plate in front of me, and guides my left hand to it; someone slides a spoon in my right. The edge of the plate does not feel right. It’s smooth, slippery. It’s not china; it feels like plastic.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“Rice and chicken and okra,” Alia says, “from that place on Gerrard next to the good video shop.”
I meant the plate.
I reach over to my side and softly tap my fingers on Alykhan’s plate. He has china.
I can feel my face getting warm. I don’t blush easily, but I’m convinced they can see it. I close my eyes tight for a moment, then ask softly, “What colour is it?”
My husband doesn’t answer; he’s asking Nadir and Alia if they want beers with their meal.
“Green,” says Shelina from my right.
“Green like what?”
“Green like an olive,” she says. “And a yellow stripe all along the edge. Yellow like yolk.”
Maybe Shelina’s my favourite.
When everyone leaves, my husband takes me to the bathroom next door, brings me back home, makes me a cup of tea, and I sit in my sofa chair in the living room listening to old Bollywood tunes while he looks for his car keys.
“I’ll be back in an hour – hour and a half tops,” he says. The door clicks behind him, then the lock.
The mug of tea is warm in my hands. The songs are about lost love, unrequited love, newlywed love. The afternoon sun is on my face and arms, but still I’m a little chilly. There’s an old blanket my mother knitted on the back of my sofa chair. I put the tea on the table on my right and then, twisting to my left, pull the blanket down and over my shoulders. I check the tea; it’s still there, unspilt. Who said an old dog can’t learn new tricks? I’ve adapted. I’m fine.
I remember dancing to this song. Asha is singing about dark clouds, a thirsty heart. The days after our wedding, dancing with my husband in the living room, that first apartment on Greenwood, or by myself. He liked to watch.
The CD ends, and the player clicks and whirrs and another CD starts: the Beatles.
I finish my tea.
The summer before last, when I could still see patches of light and shadow in my central vision, my husband and I and our sons and their wives and children all went up to Muskoka. We rented two cottages huddled together on a lake. The little ones played and swam; the adults sunbathed and drank beer and talked. One day my husband talked me into putting on my bathing suit, which I didn’t even know he’d packed, and, holding both my hands, he backed carefully into the water. It was a hot day; the sun burnt the back of my neck. The water was warm. I got up to my knees and slipped a little. My husband caught me by the elbow and steadied me, laughing. The algae under the water was slippery, slick; the rocks were sharp against my toes. I felt his arms move down suddenly and almost fell again myself, and he said, “There’s a drop here, about a foot.” But still when it came it was a surprise. When you can’t see the bottom you don’t know how far you have to fall. I fell against him, and he laughed again, but I couldn’t go on. I pleaded with him: get me out of here.
I fall asleep for a little while. When I wake, the house is silent. The CD player has stopped. I call out for my husband, but he doesn’t answer.
I have to go to the bathroom.
Pulling the blanket off my knees, I shove it behind my back and stand up, count the steps (three) to the coffee table. The remote control lives on the bottom left hand corner, closest to my sofa chair. I flick on the TV, change it to channel 6 and listen to the CBC for a while. It’s easy to understand what’s going on just by listening. I don’t need to see all those guns and blood and bodies.
The news ends and ads start, familiar jingles, cleaning products, other TV shows. Everything is peppy.
It must have been more than an hour and a half now. Much more, two hours, two and a half, maybe.
I cross my legs.
Isn’t Shelina young to cut and dye her hair by herself, to rebel like this? I know my youngest, Rahim, started smoking when he was sixteen. He thought we didn’t know. I did his laundry, of course I knew. I hid it from his father. It was his decision. He stopped soon enough, by himself. But thirteen? Where did she even get the money to dye her hair? They spoil her. They spoil both of them. I worry about Alykhan, all those female cousins, no boys to look up to. He’ll grow up gentle, yes, but will he be able to stand up for himself?
I don’t think I can hold it much longer.
I get up. Slowly. The sun is on my face. I walk carefully across the room to the sliding glass doors. When was the last time I went into the back garden? It’s been cool outside for a while; it must have been at least a month, maybe six weeks. I open the door, listen. I can hear the cars from the street on the other side of the house. Children. What else? The wind in the trees, the leaves crisp, crackling. The low rumble of a lawnmower’s engine. The backyard has a chain-link fence. People in the next garden could see. Or people in adjoining houses, at upstairs windows.
I head for the kitchen. The pots are still in the bottom cupboard to the left of the stove. My husband never bothered to re-organize after he took over the nightly cooking.
I use the wall to guide me. I move faster than normal.
My feet catch something. Something catches my feet. It’s not a buckling; my center shifts, I can’t find it, I’m on the floor, on my stomach, pressed against the carpet.
I’m wet. The front of my pants, a bit of my sweater, is soaked. It’s warm, then quickly cold, and the smell is sharp, like it has little spikes, like it’s tangible.
Maybe I bruised a knee.
A few minutes later my husband gets home. He comes in calling, slamming the door, making noise, announcing himself like Alykhan does. He goes into the kitchen first, drops something there, shouts, “Do you want a cup of tea?” I wipe my face with my sleeve.
When he comes into the living room he’s still talking, saying something about meeting someone in the long line at the post office and something about an accident at Yonge and Finch that slowed traffic. Then he’s silent, gripping me by the elbow and lifting me, mumbling, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” just that, twice. I put my hand on his face; his skin is uneven, no longer so soft. His mouth is thinner than it used to be, somehow. He takes my hand and we go quietly to the door, and I wait, standing, while he brings me fresh clothes. He helps me change right there in the hall, and I’m glad I can’t see his face.
Jamila-Khanom Allidina holds an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Toronto.
Wonderfully written, tender, moving story showing sensitivity and much talent
Very nice read! Good characterizations, sensitive depiction of blindness and advancing years as well as extended family connections. The mildly rebellious Shelina is perhaps a shadow of the author.
A wonderful story, Jam…very sweet and sad.
Congratulations for writing which brought me vivid memories of my blind Nani. It was 84 years ago in a small village in India.
Love and Peace