I upend my life. I don’t have much, but I pawn all that’s worth something. I sell a Patek Philippe watch I stole from my uncle’s office when I was eight years old. I sell a painting gifted to me by my mother before she rose to fame.
My fiancé learns about the affair with his best friend at the rehearsal dinner. The affair was only one of many meaningless flings, to me, but chaos ensued when the best friend tearfully confessed to my fiancé at the bachelor party. I left my fiancé that night, and took some of his family jewelry, which I also sold.
I move from one city to another city across the ocean. I find a studio and fall into an easy rhythm.
I stop rushing. I have nowhere to go. Nobody knows me here, which is thrilling. I don’t even speak the language.
I start taking classes in a second-floor office sandwiched between two off brand fast-food restaurants: Mcdoni and King Burger Sing. My tutor, Soumeya, is another expat from farther away. She is patient, and she never scolds me for not practicing. I like Soumeya, but one strange thing about her is she radiates nervous energy. She acts like she is on the run. I’ve noticed her anxiously glance out the window at the busy street below, looking for something, or someone.
At night I explore the bars. I drink alone until a guy chats me up. Most skulk off when they realize I am not from the country. How can I blame them? They don’t want more work.
The music is terrible. Nothing you can really dance to. They play songs everyone from the country knows too well. The boys in the clubs just stand and shout the lyrics.
Every morning I drink espresso in a café and sift through my cousin’s dream journal.
My cousin sent me her dream journal as a birthday gift. She sent it to me from the hospital where she was being treated for schizophrenia. My cousin has her first schizophrenic episode in college and then she struggles with antipsychotics ever since. After six months with no episodes my cousin snorts coke cut with fentanyl at a party and that’s what kills her.
I assumed she had sent me the dream journal by mistake. We were never particularly close. I couldn’t ask her about the journal because I couldn’t reach her at the hospital. I only kept the journal to discover if any of the entries had to do with me.
For every dream my cousin wrote a curtly handwritten paragraph in thick chunky pencil. Several of the dreams involved anxious settings like schools, hospital waiting rooms, or a stage. She adopts a leopard in one of her dreams. The leopard is domesticated. The leopard follows her everywhere. Halfway through the dream my cousin realizes she has forgotten to feed the leopard. She has no idea what leopards eat. She runs to the kitchen and tears open packets of chorizo. She throws the slices of chorizo and the leopard leaps into the air and catches the slices. In her dream, my cousin wakes up from a nap and the leopard has grown bigger, and the leopard has my cousin’s right arm in its warm mouth, and the leopard is swallowing her whole.
Once a month I check my email. Members of my immediate family send me emails asking me if I am checking my emails. Lawyers send notices.
My ex, a writer of novels and important essays sends brutally concise, cleverly worded missives that cut at my skin with fine knives.
I notice real improvement with Soumeya. After a lesson she widens her eyes at me, alarmed. But then she hugs me tight.
You are improving so well, Soumeya says.
After class I take a stab at going out and meeting someone but the only guys who want me at the bars have decaying faces and cigarette mouths. I order another drink and drape my coat over a chair. My drink is waiting for me at the bar when I turn back around, so I pick it up to take a sip. Before the drink reaches my mouth a blond man from a country far north stops me. His sturdy hands ground my shoulder. I don’t understand what he’s saying. He’s hitting on me, I think, and I am all smiles. He switches between languages. I am so impressed. He is very handsome.
Then he says in my language, Can I have your drink, I drugged yours. By mistake. I meant to drug his.
The blond man points to a short handsome man dancing in the middle of the discotheque who looks cut from wax, shiny like a lit candle. The blond man takes my drink.
A week later I am too wired to sleep so I read from my cousin’s dream journal. One dream has her on an airplane. She politely asks the flight attendant if she can speak with the captain. She and the captain have tea in the cockpit. There she tells him she must leave the plane as soon as possible. The pilot is understanding. The pilot glides the airplane to a stop on the water, in the middle of the ocean. The exit hatch flips up. My cousin dives into the water and swims. Under the water she discovers a city floating in the depths. That’s when she realizes she has finally made it home. I struggle to read through the following passage in the journal that’s been smudged. With water. Or tears.
I notice a guy next to me reading a novel written by my ex. It is my least favorite if I’m being honest. It is a family story about three generations of gay men in a long family lineage. They adapted a miniseries from it you can watch on one of the streamers. The guy sees me looking at the book.
You’ve read it? —He says.
We start chatting.
I don’t tell him my ex wrote the novel.
He’s handsome, a graduate student at the local university, studying agriculture. He says he loves to read, which I find sexy. Then we go to a bar, and I get surprisingly drunk midday. We have sex at his flat nearby. We fall asleep. We have a glorious afternoon nap. I wake up feeling his hand tracing up my stomach and then I open my eyes and see it’s not his hand but a bat, wings sheathed, waddling up my chest. I scream. The bat screeches and flaps up to the ceiling with the rest of them. There are at least seven bats crawling on the ceiling. The bats drop and glide back and forth across the room. The guy is fully awake now and looking at me like I’m crazy. One of the bat’s flies down onto his shoulder and he cups it into his hand and holds it out.
Relax, he says, they are flying squirrels. I just let them out of their cage. They’re harmless.
A flying squirrel flops down onto my head. I scream again and punch the flying squirrel away. The guy gets angry.
What the fuck? he yells.
I grab my clothes and twirl my shirt like a lasso because a flying squirrel is caught in the sleeves.
Later I am early for my class with Soumeya. I arrive at the office and sit in the waiting room and wait for her to let me into her classroom like always. After an hour a sweaty woman walks into the office. She startles at me.
What are you doing here? She asks.
I tell her about Soumeya, our classes.
Nobody’s told you? The woman says.
I shake my head.
The woman says Soumeya has disappeared.
She says, The police were here earlier looking for her. I have no idea where she is. I stopped by earlier when I didn’t receive the rent check.
I must have looked visibly stunned because the woman hugs me.
If you find her, the woman says in my ear, tell her she owes me rent.
The elevator in my building opens and a harsh disco smell pinches my nose. On the floor of the elevator is an exploded bottle of pink nail polish. I press my floor and hold my breath. I feel dizzy.
What happened to Soumeya?
In my flat I collapse on the bed, smelling nail polish.
Without thinking I check my email. Today I have received two. The first is a press release from a gallery presenting my mother’s work. The second is an email from my mother. It says: Everyone is looking for you. I know you won’t show up, and it would be best if you didn’t.
I feel the edges of my reality shimmering.
What am I doing here?
The weeks sludge by. I sense a strange new menace in my surroundings. Drinks taste bitter. Faces puzzle when I speak—even when I know I am saying the right words. At the bars I am newly ignored. I shrink into the back, into the shadows of the dance floors along with the older men and the unfortunate-faced.
I go to the first restaurant that will take me. I always eat alone, and I know of nobody else who I can make reservations with. The menu is indecipherable. The items are written in cursive. The waiter stares, tapping on his notepad. Frantically, I glance about and notice other tables eating a delicious looking thick pasta in a red sauce. I point and ask for the same. The waiter nods, snapping closed his notepad. I worry about money and chug iced water. I get a headache. I realize the ceiling lamps drooping like ferns across the restaurant are flickering. Very subtly. I feel nauseous. I don’t have epilepsy, but I wonder if this kind of strobing light causes seizures. I call over my waiter. I ask him if he can adjust the lights.
Excuse me? The waiter says in his language.
The lights, I tell him. Look!
The waiter squints at the lamps and then back at me.
He says, there is nothing wrong with the lights.
My eyes blur when I try and stare at the lights directly, like I am staring at the sun. My forehead sweats.
I recall one of my cousin’s dreams. She is in prison in the dream, and miserable. Everywhere she goes, the other inmates throw food at her. She has no peace in her cell. In the yard. Anywhere. She is covered in prison food. My cousin discovers in the bowels of the prison a chamber housing one circular bathtub. My cousin steps into the water, which is cold, but comforting. The food covering her sloughs off into the water. She scrapes off a piece of bread that has been stuck to her right cheek like a scab. The bread bobbles on the surface. My cousin grabs the bread and eats it.
Sir? —the waiter says.
My plate has arrived. I start eating the noodles. They are shockingly cold. The noodles are much thicker than I imagined. I slurp at them one at a time. It tastes rancid. The texture is gamey and tough like it was uncooked. I force myself to eat a little more, but I am so nauseous from the flickering lights that I can’t even stomach the food. That’s when I realize I am eating entrails. My throat seizes. I swallow rising bile. I abruptly stand up and nearly topple. I feel faint. I rush towards the bathroom. Along the way I notice all the food on everyone else’s tables is raw. Mealy steak tartars, thin livers, and citrused fish. In the bathroom I can finally breathe, relieved. The strobing light is gone. I wretch out a few sickly ropes of entrails into the toilet. I stare at myself in the mirror.
On the way out of the restaurant I pass by a happy looking couple sharing a bottle of wine over a small plate of pasta topped with raw egg yolk. It’s Soumeya. With a man. I am sure of it, but I am too nauseous to stop and confront her. She looks relaxed, a smile massaging her cheeks.
Back at my flat I check my bank account and realize I don’t have enough money to afford another month.
I have one new email in my inbox. From my ex. He has sent me a link to an essay he has just published at a reputable journal. I read the essay. It is an accounting of our relationship. He unpacks my lies, my manipulations, all the thefts—including my uncle’s Phillipe Patek watch. He reveals the cruel way I left him. The essay has already gone viral. Hundreds of thousands of comments. Millions of shares. The essay has metastasized into a living thing breathing hot on my face. I shut the laptop so hard it breaks. I tell myself I am still in my body. I am still me, whatever, whoever I am. I imagine I am a misspelled word. A cursor has clicked and dragged over my body. Someone else presses delete, and I’m gone.