The changes began on a Wednesday, miércoles, the day that sounds like miracles.
My younger and only sister, Paula, had gone away, leaving the apartment directly below mine to test the reach of her voice. I stayed behind, with my eleven televisions, waiting for her to come back.
I was teaching myself not to feel.
In the room with the televisions, there were no voices: I had silenced them all. Instead I heard: a clock that ticked like a snapping twig; the hum and push of cars passing on the street; a neighbor’s dog barking at the arrival of mail; the refrigerator purring; my own breath, in and out. All the rhythms, in and out. And inside my head: a melody from before, when my sister trained her voice to soar, when I listened to the notes float and resonate. I believed sometimes that I could see them.
Paula was auditioning, sending her hopeful music into the arms of Copenhagen, Prague, Vienna—places I had never seen and never expected to. I lived in the safe embrace of my apartment, whose windows overlooked a park and a playground and a street.
I had collected broken televisions and fixed them, one by one, sometimes guessing at the way to put things back together. I had no manuals to follow, no map. I made good guesses, I had a feel for those things, a kind of blind instinct. In the end, they all worked, although the colors were never exactly right. Some were always a little too green, others a little too violet. It didn’t matter. The scratchy growl of their voices didn’t matter either, because I often kept them very quiet. I spent most of my time watching the images, letting them tell me stories. I let them distract me from every terrible truth until nothing touched me at all.
It was never a decision, never something I asked for. It simply belonged to me, like a second skin. No. Like my only skin. There was no choice, no letting go. And if there had been the chance to refuse?
If I’d been asked?
I would still say yes.
It was my father’s grief. It was what he gave to me, his only son. He didn’t mean to, but it came to me without his permission. He gave up his language and his homeland, everything he could leave behind. But he carried his sadness with him, under his skin like blood. It wasn’t his fault. He would have taken it back if he could. But it was mine now, as if I had lived it all.
At times, even my dreams felt inherited, as if someone else had owned them first. There would be dogs barking, murderous voices in the distance, smoke filling the dark air.
His actual stories I never heard. My father held all the shards of glass inside, where the edges cut him to pieces. When he looked at me, it was not so much into my eyes as through them, as if I were a clear window to the past. I looked back at him, I listened to the wordless dark. What else could I do? I believed this was what I was here for, to be the receiver of that gaze, to swallow it completely. The broken glass? I swallowed that too.
Here is what I knew how to do: how to get away. How to save myself by taking flight, by vanishing. My voice was a ticket of escape, one way to anywhere but where I was. I tried to take my brother, Julian, with me, to help him escape too, but it was more weight than I could carry. Only one of us could make it out alive. I didn’t choose myself, not exactly, but the truth was, I had a ticket and he didn’t. I had to use it or die.
“I’m going away for a while,” Paula had announced the previous Monday over lunch. For once she didn’t try to prepare me for a shock. “I’m taking myself on a Grand Tour,” she explained, her arms flourishing, “hoping some opera company will give me a chance. According to my agent, I’m going to become quite famous.” She sighed a little, eager or worried, I couldn’t be sure.
“When?” I asked.
She came over to my chair and wrapped her slender arms around herself wishing, I knew, that she could hug me with them but knowing I couldn’t bear it.
“I’ll miss you too,” she whispered, not looking at me. Then, in another voice she added, “I leave this Wednesday, early in the morning.” She struck a dramatic pose, one arm up and one to the side, her head thrown back to expose her ivory neck. “I’ll write you postcards,” she said.
I would place them beneath my pillow and memorize them in my sleep. I would dream in languages I’d never heard.
At the door of my apartment, leaving, Paula stopped with her hand on the doorknob. “What’s it like, Julian? What’s it like to live inside your body?” She leaned against the door frame, frowning a little, waiting for me to answer.
I aimed my gaze above her head, at the place where the wall met the ceiling. In two days she would be gone. “It’s very quiet,” I said.
“Quiet,” she repeated softly. From the corner of my eye I could see her frown grow deeper. She didn’t know what I was talking about.
“What’s inside yours?” I asked her.
She shrugged and said, “Music.”
I nodded. “Think of plants,” I said. “They’re breathing and growing, eating and drinking. We just can’t hear them.”
Paula looked at me, and I tried to look back, tried to stay right there with her. She was far enough away that I couldn’t see the color of her eyes.
“No wonder you have to be so careful,” she said. “They’d have you for breakfast out there.”
“Who?” I asked, although I knew who.
“All of them,” Paula said, shaking her head. “Every goddamn one.”
Every goddamn one, I silently repeated. Then out loud I said, “I wonder what I’d taste like,” and Paula flashed that wide-open smile of hers.
“Like sweet potatoes,” she said.
“In bocca al lupo,” I said to Julian before I left. Mouth of the wolf. It was backstage code from the Italians, their way of saying break a leg. I blew a kiss into the air, not aiming at his face but somewhere high, over his head, where he wouldn’t be afraid of it.
“Forget the wolf,” he said back to me the way he was supposed to, the signal for courage and faith. But Julian needed it more than I did. He must have thought I was always leaving him, as if it were easy for me. I opened doors and slammed them behind me, never letting myself check if anything had cracked from the blow.
On the morning of Paula’s flight to Europe, I stood by the window in the early light and watched a white taxicab pull up in front of our building. Paula stood beside the trunk while the driver loaded her luggage, and a breeze lifted the ends of her dark green scarf as she turned to look up at my window. Her lips were painted the color of raspberries. She waved and smiled, tucking the scarf into the collar of her coat. I put my hand flat against the smooth glass and held it there. Paula disappeared behind the opaque windows of the taxi, and then the taxi disappeared too. Below me, the ginkgo tree was full of green, fluttering its fan-shaped leaves.
I adjusted all the sets, fine-tuning their brightness and vertical hold, wiping the electric dust from their screens. I turned up the volume for a while, filling my room with too many voices, all of them and none of them talking to me. Inside, where I lived, it was still very quiet.
My earliest memory is the sound of crying—my father waking up from a nightmare. Or was it my brother? A nameless sobbing in the dark. Julian told me I cooed like a bird before I learned to speak; I made my mouth into an O and I began, with no reason, to sing.
When I was still very young, before my mother died, we kept a pair of canaries in a cage by the kitchen window; at night, the cage was covered with a towel. Such a simple script: In the daylight, they sang, and at night, they slept. I used to wonder if they knew that outside the window lay a world they could never reach.
At exactly one o’clock on that Wednesday of Paula’s departure, a cola-skinned woman came to my door with a lunch tray. I had been warned by my sister to expect her; Paula knew better than to surprise me twice in one week. Still, though I’d already unlatched the door for her, I felt unprepared for her arrival, needing to back away and sit again in my leather chair. I was holding my breath, waiting for her to go away.
Standing in the doorway, before she entered the apartment, she took a slow look around. I found out later that she was taking photographs in her mind of where everything belonged, even me in my chair, even the way the cords of the televisions snaked across the floor. She was taking care of Paula’s apartment for the month, and she was bringing me a sandwich for lunch. Paula had shown her just how much mustard to spread, just how to place the pieces of cut bread on the plate, how to fold the napkin. Without the design on the plate I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even take a bite.
He could drown in a glass of water, the woman thought.
It was what she told me much later, that this was her first thought when she saw me. But what she said out loud was, “My name is Sola.”
I guessed her to be close to Paula’s age, maybe thirty, but I wasn’t about to study her face, even from safely across the room. Instead, I imagined myself as she must have seen me: pale and elongated, my brown hair unevenly trimmed, my disheveled clothing, my sleeves too short, exposing my bony wrists. On Paula, the related features were so photogenic: liquid blue eyes and a full-smiling mouth, a heart-shaped face, brown hair that fell in a sweet disorder of waves. In mirrors I had discovered that my own version was blurrier, less coherent, stretched too far. Behind my glasses, I felt Sola watch me.
She offered the tray to me exactly the way Paula must have shown her. She didn’t even try to look me in the eye when she introduced herself, and I was grateful. I thought Paula must have told her that too.
Did I need to say that my name was Julian? I decided it wasn’t necessary, so I said nothing and began to eat my sandwich. Avocado and Swiss. Sola walked toward the kitchen to collect Paula’s dishes from the week before. As always, I’d washed and dried and stacked them beside the sink, with the silverware wrapped in a paper towel on top of the pile. I heard Sola’s footsteps pause, begin again, and then stop.
“Excuse me,” she said, forcing me to turn around in my seat. I saw her eyebrows lifting on her forehead, her mouth stretched into an almost-smile. She was holding the pile of dishes out in front of her, her brown hands dark against the white ceramic. “You do not have to wash these,” she said. “I can come back later and do them downstairs with my own washing up.”
This was her first mistake, although I knew she meant well. I shook my head, my mouth full of sandwich. She had an accent I couldn’t quite place. I chewed and swallowed, completing what I had begun, and turned back to take a gulp of water. Still turned away from her, I thought about how many words it would take to explain things.
“I like to,” I told her.
I think she said “Oh,” and then she did a surprising thing: She laughed. It was very quiet, but I heard the flutter in her throat. I thought a long time afterwards about that laugh. There was a song buried inside it, or a story. Maybe both.
At first I am at Paula’s apartment once a week to clean, which is easy because even though she seems not to care about how she scatters her clothing and leaves piles of papers around the rooms, in fact there is a kind of order in her mess. Once I learn her system, once I memorize each room, I am able to clean around her things without disturbing them. When I am finished, it is like nothing is changed but looks like everything belongs exactly where it is.
She gives me my own key because most of the time when I come on Friday afternoons she is somewhere else, singing. The first time I see her brother, Julian, he is on the sidewalk in front of the building, staring for maybe half an hour at a tree twice as high as his head. I am cleaning Paula’s living room, and I see him from the window.