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Image by Artin Bakhan
At night I worry about the dust. It covers the floor, the bedding, the drapes. No matter how much I sweep, the next day it’s back. It catches in the throat, the airways of the lungs, dries out the mouth so badly you need to swirl water for a full minute before you can swallow.
The dust. I don’t know where it comes from—China, they say, and the coal plants and diesel engines of this country, and in the morning the sky shines silver over the mountains, and then at night a halo hangs around the faces of street lamps. A phone application charts the numbers, predicts how it will be in the days ahead. It advises action: keep the windows shut. Run an air purifier. Avoid outdoor exercise. People with pre-existing conditions should avoid the outdoors altogether.
It is no surprise that people live indoor lives here. They hide away in giant apartment buildings. Each man and woman in their own block. Outside, they scurry from place to place, don’t look each other in the eye. If they’re with family or a close friend they walk closely, arms linked, buffering themselves against the rest of the world.
They are often in the way. In my way. On the subway, in the market. Unsmiling and unaware. In six years of living here, I can count the number of times someone has said hello. I know it is not their duty to make me feel like a human. Yet I feel like a ghost and have learned a simple truth: that the angriest people are always the most lonely. That’s what true loneliness does to people: it removes them, turns them into dust.
And here I am.
I am thinking about staying.
Thinking about marrying and settling down.
It’s a good reason to get married, to kill the loneliness. Because as John Lennon says, there’s nothing like being held each night by a person who you love and who loves you. Maybe that’s enough. Even when the air is toxic.
Recently I met a girl. For good or bad that has been the goal for most of my life. To meet a girl. She is an artist. She is incredibly tiny. Her hair weighs as much as her body. Her body exists to hold up her hair. The rest is made of tofu.
When she was kicked out of her home, I convinced her to move in with me. I tried not to tell her about the dust. It’s a hard sell: “Come live with me, but try not to breathe.” She doesn’t like it here anyway. How could she? There is nothing. Imagine living on the border between nothing and emptiness. I hyperbolize.
Some days we talk about starting a family. About marriage. About flying my aging parents over for a ceremony to meet her aging parents. Some days we save our money and think about buying an apartment. Then we message the landlord and ask him to fix the bathroom door, get rid of the mold. Some days we take charge of our lives.
On other days she says she is depressed, that she wants to kill herself, and I tell her to look on the bright side. “Don’t we have so much? Count your blessings,” I say. “Make gratitude lists.” I gesture to the windows, where dust piles up like snow on the windowsill. “The light is nice, isn’t it?” And it is, filtered through the silver haze, a bazillion refractions. “And we have a new laundry machine, so the clothes no longer have that weird smell.” She looks down into her lap. Her hair is coated silver with dust. “These are good things, right? And we have space, at least, for you to do your paintings, and me to do my music, and we have each other? Don’t we? To hold at night? These are good things.”
When she looks up at me her eyes are wells. “But the bathroom door sticks, and the bedroom ceiling sags, and mold is eating its way through the wallpaper.” She sighs. “And the dust, it’s everywhere.” She wipes at her arm, and a cloud of it flakes off. She shakes her head and sparkles fall out. It is beautiful but I don’t tell her this. There is something about the image. Her lion’s mane shaking, and all of the dust, like silver glitter, like shattered glass, and I laugh, and she begins to laugh, and I think, maybe we will be okay. And I get the dust pan from next to the fridge, to sweep up the pile that gathers near her feet.
Jordan Schauer explored various positions in the New York City publishing world before earning an MFA in Creative Writing from The City College of New York. He lectured in writing for several years before moving to South Korea, where he currently lives and works. He is the founder of Foreign Literary, a literary arts magazine on the theme of life away from home.