Nov '02 [Home]


The Earth Moves in Circles
by Jenna Kalinsky


The Halloween pumpkin decal in the window of the early-rising office is backlit in fluorescent stripes. Today is the thirtieth day of November. Above the naked and sodden trees, here and there still strung with a single, tenacious leaf, stranger still, sometimes still green, as if this leaf hadn't heard the date or didn't care, it grins like a fool.

This is not the cupola window where the round woman goes to smoke at ten each morning, a hanging ivy obscuring her face. It is the window to her right, the office's archive or attic, thick notebooks tucked into tall shelves, no one ever going in or out.

These early-risers clearly like their decals, like to decorate the window spaces with pictures of unreal things:  flowers, rabbits, gnomes in floppy hats. If the sun were to shine, the decals would surely become translucent, soak the floorboards with weakened winter rays of pink, red, green, provide a disarming distraction from the otherwise incessant grey light which infiltrates every corner, swarming through cracks and fissures; stealthy, the way cancer seeps into marrow; aggressive, the way ocean fog looms up from the horizon and without warning swallows the shore. The unending winter grey of this place is nearly tangible enough to rest heavy on the skin, leave a film coating the lens of the eye.

It has been a long time since the sun has broken through the clouds. A very long time.

Decorating windows is perhaps the same offense as wearing rose-tinted glasses. I could be naïve; I am still new here. I sit inside, needlepointing after the dishes are dripping dry into the sink, the beds aired and sheets re-tucked. I watch the light mope about outside, feel it slither up the cracks in the floorboards and around the windowpanes and, like an invisible and toxic poison, into me, too.

Today, the day is even danker than it's been. Along with the gloom, is the drilling, drilling of the buildings all around, beginning every morning in the black. Between the gnashing of drill, hammer and saw, loud, long harangues of metal against brick, are even longer periods of an eerie and cavernous stillness. The whoosh of cars and buses do little to dent into this.

'Germany is beautiful,' they said. 'You'll love it. They're a jovial people, red-faced. Lots of wood-paneled taverns, sausage and beer, cheeks smeary with that jovial grease.' Everywhere, trees, thick with fur, look lonely.

The pumpkin glares at me, at nothing, jeering, alone up there stuck to his window, forgotten. I prepare a loose tea in the silver filter and switch on the television. I switch it off again, not understanding anything but the pictures. This is floorless somehow, disconcerting. The phone jars the silence. It is a European ring, and still feels more like film than reality.

It is Joanne, my closest friend in California, Salinas. I ask what time it is, too lazy to do the math. She is blonde and sturdy and engaged to Richie from Nogales, her Latin Lover, she calls him. I hear her kids; they're getting ready for school, whereas here it's late enough that the daylight has already descended into faded strains. Soon, spent, it will die away. Little deaths, these things, these days. No one could be aware of just how many there are to endure. Joanne's learned to enjoy the early morning, she says in ironed tones. With over-wound smiles, she champions things like fish fingers and early dinners, extracurricular activities for smart and tactile brains, stitching lion costumes and witches hats deep into the night for every school play.

"Hi, World Traveler," she says. "Sun come out yet?" The phone slips off her shoulder and clatters to the floor. Her hands are full, I imagine, with sandwich preparation or a washcloth. "Sorry about that. Dropped you."

"Why don't you tell me what's new with you?" I say.

"Oh, you know, everything's the same. We finally put down an offer on a house." She paused. "Down by where the vineyard was." We both know which vineyard:  where we grew up, developed into people. It was torn down to make inexpensive tract homes after I left. Without a last walk amid the brambles, the spindly vines and grapes dehydrated with the past season to say goodbye. My life.

"Oh." I say.

"It's a nice house, hardwood floors, and has a big stained glass next to the tub. Can't beat that."

The earth moves in circles.

"It sounds just right."

She whispers, 'Go get your books. We're going to be late.'

"I should let you go. Sounds like you're busy."

"Sorry. There's band practice before homeroom today." She let out a sigh, pushed to sound happy.

Her trying is desperate. Too young, too stupid, she found herself suddenly with a whole family, her own, unready. The struggle to right herself, the doubt, I knew. This falsetto voice laden with resignation, this is alien to me. Since coming here, two long years ago, I assumed everything in the world I knew would freeze, like the photograph we're used to seeing on the wall, while I toddled through my little new life here. I wouldn't be there to see it, so of course, nothing would change.

We've become foreigners to each other. Without place. Without context.

We hang up and the house resonates with chill, the drills resume, drilling their way into a better life, a refurbished life. Were it not for the war, perhaps everything would still be standing, as it had always been, maybe a ceiling sagging, the portico caving in, but living in consistence, perfunctory and inevitable as time. Now against the stucco of modernity, stuff from the thirteenth century looks beaten. They renovate that, too. The whirring, pounding, sand sliding into concrete pits through garbage cans linked together, these are the sun salutation, the daily prayer.

The first time I heard the sand making its way down the plastic cans, though still asleep, I felt the smallish seed of sorrow in my stomach grow, bloating quickly into something wide and lasting with a vast, tentacled reach, extending up to my heart, hooking around my tongue. It was summer, warm, and I allowed myself to believe, like a fool, I was at home again, the ocean shifting through the sand, scrabbling guiltily up the shelf, caught in its unending, familiar circle of stealing and returning; tiny grape explosions beneath bare feet. I smiled, the stretch of it long since familiar, and with my eyes closed, beyond what was sensible, everything made sense.

Stephan is gone for the day already. Five of the seven days in a week, I don't see him in natural light. He tends to treat his work as if the numbers and computer programs were an endless string of beautiful girlfriends. His enthusiasm is as pungent as my retreat into something that looks like sorrow, but that I refuse to name. I am a happy person, I am in love. His fervor perplexes me, as does my silence, him. It isn't our job to understand. Neither one of us makes any pretense beyond what we are capable. Instead, we exist between the folds of another space, something untouched by the worlds from where we come, the ones that made us who we are. Here, we have the purest union of two souls, unfettered by things like ties to place or whoever we'd been before arriving at each other.

We are making our own history.

I will not see Stephan until Thursday. Though I moved here to be with him, he must still travel to make his money, build his career. Today is Monday. I do not work during the day, I cannot speak and no one can speak to me. I am not too old to learn new things, but feel too old to start over. I lean on what I know. The phone connects me to things I understand but cannot see; I cook but the foods taste odd; the keys of his piano hammer bullishly into the quiet. As the months pass, from spring to summer to fall and it is now again winter, those in my old life continue to spin, and the hole where I'd stood, the deep space of air I used to occupy, this is closing up. Of course. Holes should be filled. An empty seat at the table reminds us of death, in that roundabout way absences do. 'Did you know that Germany was nearly completely rebuilt just ten years after the war ended?' Stephan is proud of the speed with which the holes were re-sewn, without discussion and briskly, like darning socks.

Joanne talks and talks, but I can't see any of it. Her son, Bryan, has begun kindergarten. I am accustomed to seeing him, tiny in overalls, dangling from a pant leg, or pulling his baloney slices into rings, eating them like spaghetti.

I am needlepointing the scene outside my window. Two rows of Victorian homes run down the center, ending in a palatial white two-storey with elaborate balconies and dramatic halos of light beaming from the sculpted ceilings. A fountain, empty of water, sits like a roulette wheel in front; the ducks have fled. Across from me is the early-rising office and the occupants of the adjoining buildings. One has a movie screen in the living room. The erratic light from the evening's action sequences chops up the night-bare street.

The buildings are rooted to the ground the way the occupants are not, instead, floating in and out, butterflies dashing against the brickstone. I leave out the pumpkin, leave the windows without decals, to allow them the illusion they can fly through the glass and away. I will mark the passing of time with the blackened trees, the fog blanketing the tip of the church steeple, the strings of white fairy lights far off, like stars, swinging from the wind over the Christmas market, smoke rising from people's mouths up, up into the air and disappearing.

(Jenna Kalinsky is a recent graduate of Columbia University's Fiction Writing program and has been living in Germany for three years while writing a novel. She has written text for the internet magazine, 2wist, and published a short story in EM Literary. This is her second contribution to Big City Lit. The first, "A Good Life," a Short Prose piece, appeared in the Jul '02 issue.)