Excerpts from Cold Feet

A novel by Kawshiki Nasser

Chapter 1
lit010I AM Norberta.
I was the first. The other came after. He split from me.
She called him Norbert.
Norbert was my twin.
I never got to breathe the air on earth because when I was six weeks and three days old, the woman inside whom I resided along with my other, was wheeled into surgery so that I, along with the tube I had ruptured, could be removed before we caused further damage to her system.
At that time, she continued to carry Norbert, the other one, in her womb.
For whatever reason, perhaps, because without me around, he couldn’t deal with the in-between living that is life within the womb, Norbert gave up just a few weeks after I was taken out, and the woman was left with no baby. She leapt from her rooftop a month later.
I wish I had known her better. She was fascinating. She spoke with the wind and could foretell the weather. She knew long before the home pregnancy test showed up positive that she was carrying a child. Maybe she knew even then that there were two.
She stopped drinking and smoking immediately when the test showed a bright pink line, which wasn’t an easy thing for her to do.
But she was uneasy. It wasn’t just the unplanned surprise of the pregnancy. It felt all wrong to her. And she didn’t know if it could be put right.
lit011She spoke to herself or maybe it was us she talked to, and her quiet, deep voice always made me safely sleepy. She sang sometimes, softly and sadly but I didn’t like it when she sang. Some things changed within her when she sang and I think it made her sad and it made me restless inside her.
Often it seemed as if she was soaking it all in as much and as quickly as she could. It was like she was aware it would all end soon and she wanted to take from this everything she could.
When she found out I was ectopic, she waited a few seconds before asking the doctors about the other, and in that brief period, she quietly said hello to me and then good-bye and I think she mourned me as greatly as she later did my twin.
The strange thing is that our mother hadn’t even been sure if she was going to keep us when she found out she was pregnant.
She thought: Why am I having such a hard time making the damn choice? I am pro choice!
She thought: Closer to 40 than to 30 and no father.
She turned on the television in the evenings while the world shifted gears and moved quietly into night and she flipped through the channels, instead of turning on the radio, probably because TV can numb your senses while music heightens them and I don’t think she was in the frame of mind to have her senses sharpened any further.
On the second evening after the positive testing, I remember she was watching the myth of dragons on either the Discovery or the National Geographic Channel when she suddenly felt a sharp and sudden pang in her abdomen that left her breathless and when the pain subsided, she said: Norbert/Norberta.
She had picked up on the dragon’s name from the first book of the Harry Potter series.
I think naming us made the whole thing truly real for her and the day after this she went to the clinic for a check-up, where she was told that she had a heterotopic pregnancy, a case so rare the doctors needed a quick huddle before advising her to take out the one in her fallopian tube (me) while keeping her fingers crossed that the one in her uterus (him) makes it.
The doctors wanted to re-check with another specialist and my mother was sent in for yet another ultra-sonogram. The radiologist left the sound on and our very rapid heartbeats came through loud and strong and it made her go cold and then numb, for now she knew this would be goodbye to one of us. She let her tears glide softly on to the narrow, sanitized bed, as she lay there, listening to the sound of our hearts beating fast and vigorous coming from the speakers of the ultra-sound machine.
In less than an hour, she found herself being wheeled into the operating theater, and she wondered: why do they call it a theatre?
She asked herself: Will there be a host of doctors attending as audience?
She was a very private person.
But before she had time to gather her scattered thoughts, she had a mask put to her face and she was out. When she came to, she threw up a little and the next morning, she was told that she was fine, and that the only damage was the taking out of her right fallopian tube and ovary and that the other pregnancy had not sustained any damage during the surgery and should grow well and fine.
I knew she wanted to see me. But she did not ask. The little lump of dead tissue that had been me was by then in the hospital’s medical waste.
I am glad she didn’t see me like that.
Days later, while she lay in bed recovering from surgery, which wasn’t as hard on her body as it was on her psyche, she read the final book of the Potter series and found out that the baby dragon Norbert from the first part had turned out to actually be Norberta in the seventh and final part.
Then my twin died and she had to go in for a shorter procedure to clean him out of her.
She stayed in bed for weeks. She slept for hours and hours, not eating much. She had many strange and fantastic dreams and then one day, or maybe it was one night, she saw me in one of her dreams and I don’t know if it was something she said or something she thought, but since she saw me in her dream, I have been living inside dreams.
Not her dreams. She died soon after this. And if dead people have dreams, I certainly don’t exist among them.
I have been living within dreams of other living people.
The only time I seemed to not be in a dream but aware, was the night she killed herself.
The evening before the tsunami devastated Japan and reaped havoc upon much of the Pacific rim, causing damage to areas as far flung as California and Chile and the Philippines, leaving a palpable taste of death in the air and on the front page of every newspaper, our mother woke from one of her marathon sleep sessions and changed from her night clothes into a lovely black evening dress. She then closed up her apartment, making sure the gas was off and left only one small lamp on in the hall. She locked the front door and going past the elevator, started to walk up the stairs. Her weeks of being in bed and eating very little had left her muscles tired and achy and climbing the stairs was not an easy task.
I suppose knowing what she must do when she reached the last step probably made it a little harder for her to go on. But she went, in a distracted yet also determined manner, taking one step after another and soon, she was panting and half laughing at her own pathetic state — running was an activity she was more used to than sitting in front of a TV. She couldn’t help but note the irony of the situation where the stairs she had needed about three minutes to climb before now took away close to twenty.
The moon that night was close to half and waxing and it would be another week till it got round and full. She gazed lovingly at the fairy tale silver of the one-quarter moon and wished in her heart that it had been full. She walked once around the roof, looking in amazement, as always, at her own shadow cast by the meager moonlight. The only thing she didn’t like about living in the city was not being able to walk around in bare, bold moonlight.
Then, slowly and very carefully, because her lower belly still hurt when she moved too fast, or too suddenly, she hoisted herself up on to the 3 foot concrete railing that circled the circumference of the roof. She got slowly to her feet and was happy to note that her sense of balance was just fine even though her legs were a little tired. She stood there for a second and looked intently down upon the street eight floors below. The breeze was gentle and it blew her long, dark hair across her face. She turned her head and looked behind her, I don’t know why.
Was she expecting to find someone there?
She jumped.
As I watched in mute horror from my piece of eternity, she was alive throughout the fall and, almost as if not to disappoint me, she had the good grace to smile, just a little, at the instant before she hit the asphalt.
Or maybe I only imagined the smile.

Chapter 19
Into the Grey — a short story by Danielle Stevens
MONA sleeps in the plushness of the gigantic bed she shares with her husband and dreams a disturbing dream. She sees a young man of breathtaking beauty with taut yellow-brown skin and a bare, lean chest gently resting on the ocean floor as fish eat his eyes and nibble at the single silver earring on his left lobe and munch on the thin black rubber band on his right wrist.
When she awakens in the small hours of yet another dreary morning, she remembers the man from her dream, the one she has never met but one any woman would give an arm and a leg to meet, (of course, they would wish they had same arm and leg once they met him cause what else would they wrap around him otherwise?), the one with longish hair curling over his shoulders with his skin the dark cream of an almond when skinned, his perfect face, from the length of his forehead through the tip of his aquiline nose to the perfectly formed cleft on his prominent chin and all she can think about is driving away.
She gets into her car, a small sedan her husband deemed her capable of getting herself around in, and drives away.
She, however, forgets to take her little girl with her.
Mona also fails to realise that this is the first dream of a recurring theme and that it will mean a whole lot more to her than wanting to drive away. Without her daughter in tow, to boot.
But Mona is not too old yet. Just old enough to not be still young. And she has always been of a naïve persuasion that allowed her to believe the best of everything and everyone around her. So, she is genuinely troubled to hear that her husband, much older and far less pretty than she, is not permitting their daughter to come and live with her when she decides to stay with her parents for a while instead of driving back to their sprawling house and their big plush bed.
Mona doesn’t get to see the girl for a long time after this.
Darling, she used to call her. Everyone thought she was just using a pet name for her daughter, but Mona was actually referring to Wendy Darling because she knew how little girls must grow up whether they want to or not. And now she chooses not to remember the name given to her daughter by the father. It must have been a drab name anyway.
But Darling is sent off to boarding school and Mona, not being particularly useful around the house or very able at any work, languishes in her parents’ house, generally keeping to the confines of her own room.
When her daughter finally comes to see Mona, the girl is already grown up and her self-assurance intimidates Mona a little. She, herself, had never had much faith in herself and had let her parents arrange her marriage to a prominent businessman with political ties when she was only 17. It’s true she had never done well at school, preferring to sit at the back of the classrooms, day-dreaming about fairies and mermaids and what not and when the results of her 10th grade exams came out, her parents feared that they may have a child on their hands whose intelligence quotient may not quite meet that of ‘normal’ people.
But Mona was an astonishingly beautiful girl and if she had been at all aware of the boys who whistled when she walked by, she could have had her fair share of romance. But, when her parents were asked to be allowed to woo their beautiful, if somewhat dull, daughter by a 40-something man who was successful and not entirely unhandsome, they didn’t have to think twice. And since Mona was never really awake to what all was going on in the world around her, she nodded absently when asked her opinion and the engagement was announced and a lavish wedding soon followed.
But after she left the marriage on a whim one early morning after waking from her bizarre dream, she kept one secret from everyone else. She never told anyone about her continuing dreams of the man she first saw dead at the bottom of the sea.
The second time she sees him again in a dream is the night she is told that her daughter will not be joining her at her parents’ house. After realising the extent of the damage she had inflicted upon herself by leaving her husband’s house without the girl, Mona weeps herself asleep. And she dreams about him. He is still in the ocean, but this time he is very much alive, swimming under water with the very fish that had nibbled on his flesh in the first dream. It is a short dream, as abrupt as the first dream had been, but just before Mona wakes up with a start, she has the distinct impression that the man had looked right at her in this instance. She can’t shake off the strange cold feeling that pervades her room until the morning sun shines through her eastern window.
And then soon after, Mona hears from her mother that her daughter has been sent away to attend boarding school abroad. She shows no reaction and her mother, who had been prepared to soothe and comfort a bereft daughter, is left standing awkwardly as Mona gently closes the door behind her.
After that, she sleeps for days. No one can wake her. Well, she does wake up from time to time to eat a little or to drink a gallon or so of water. But there is no schedule for her sleep/wake cycle and everyone is alarmed at first and then just befuddled. Doctors are called in, family friends, at first and then, more renowned ones from all over the country, with many certificates hanging on their office walls and many current and published theses, but no one can diagnose anything wrong with Mona. Her parents even break through the taboo of possible psychological disorder and consult a psychiatrist but this is also of absolutely no use because Mona doesn’t respond to any medication or any therapy and sleeps until she awakens, eats, and then goes promptly back to sleep again and keeps sleeping.
It is almost as if she is in a coma, albeit one from which she awakens for nourishment of, and excretion from, the body. But for all intents and purposes, she is more or less in a vegetative state.
And as she sleeps, she dreams. She dreams of streets and shoes, avenues. She dreams of hotels and parks and rooms. She sees places she has visited at some point in her life and she sees phantasmagoric sites that only her dreaming mind can conjure up, and soon enough she comes up with places like a hotel or a shop that she re-visits in her dreams from time to time. She dreams of staircases, and lifts are of particular importance, because in her dreams, they not only go up and down but also and very often, from side to side and sometimes they even revolve all the way around a building. She dreams of people she knows and those she has never met, and yet who feel like family.
But most of all she dreams of water, especially the open ocean, sometimes calm and deep and lovely and sometimes stormy and grey and scary.
And, without fail, each time she awakens for some food or water or just to use the bathroom, she wakes up from a dream about the man she first saw lying dead on the ocean floor the night before she drove away from her husband’s, leaving her daughter behind.
All the time she sleeps, she waits for him to appear and that is also her own signal to herself that it is time for her to awake.
Toward the beginning, the man inhabits the ocean, swimming playfully in the sea, undulating his body as a dolphin would and not at all like Mona had seen swimmers swim under water. With each passing dream, he looks more often and more closely at Mona, as though watching her. Then as the months pass and Mona keeps on sleeping, the man begins to circle closer to the surface of the ocean and closer still, while Mona’s perspective always gives her an eye-level view of the man. And finally one day (or night), he breaks the surface, and for the first time since Mona had seen him, he swims with his lovely head up out of the water.
And then finally one night, (or it could have been a day) he finally emerges on dry land, with all limbs unwebbed and human-like and Mona, for the first time, feels as if she may want to meet this gorgeous fish-like and androgynous being for herself in real life.
Promptly, the dream ends and Mona wakes up, goes to the fridge to get something to eat and then after drinking several litres of water, she goes back to bed and finds that she can’t sleep.
She spends a few hours in bed, not really noticing whether it is night or day and then she gets up and paces the hallway. Soon her mother is up and is dumbfounded upon meeting her in the corridor and calls her father out of the bedroom to witness this development. Once the parents get over their disbelief, they all huddle around the mahogany coffee table and sip at their morning tea and each silently wonders at the strangeness of life. And within the hour, the door bell rings and there is Darling, all grown up, back from boarding school but already eager to set off for university, standing proud and tall on the doorstep, having come to make peace with the ghost of the mother who left her behind many years ago in a large sprawling house to grow up all by herself.
Mona has not ever felt as out of her depth, even when she was dreaming of the deepest depths of the ocean where a beautiful man swims with the fishes, as she now feels.
She hasn’t been allowed to see her own daughter even once since she had notified her husband of her decision to stay with her parents and her life since his decision to send the girl away to school has passed in the constancy of sleeping and dreaming. This tall young woman who now stands facing her squarely as if challenging her to do or say something daring, greatly upsets her introversion and breaks through her dreamy reserve and quite frankly, scares her silly.
And today, of all days, she had to be awake, she thinks bitterly to herself.
And then she realises that this was no coincidence and that until she made peace with her offspring she would not be able to go back to the man of her dreams, for whom she had given the child up in the first place.
Clumsily, Mona tries to start a conversation. ‘Darling,’ she begins but the girl asks her to please call her by her name and Mona is, if possible, more befuddled now than in all her years of sleeping because she never could remember the girl’s given name having always thought of her Wendy, but of course she isn’t Wendy, but what is Mona to call her now that she can’t remember her own daughter’s name!
Mona’s mother comes to the rescue for once in her life, deciding to overcome her own aloofness and steps in and takes the young girl by the hand and leads her to the dining room where she can meet her grandfather and say hello and perhaps join them for a cup of tea, loudly announcing to the house in general that Sheila is here, their darling grandchild and how happy they all are that she could make it here after all these many years.
So, her name is Sheila, thinks Mona, gratefully, and not knowing what else to do, follows the pair into the dining hall.
From her years of sleeping through life, Mona has lost touch with words with which to express herself and cannot articulate her exultance at her daughter’s arrival at her doorstep. Sheila, she repeats to herself like a mantra to remind herself of the name of her child, though she much prefers (but realises that she cannot continue to address her as) Darling.
Sheila, for her part, takes no more than a few minutes to gauge the situation and in the mature way of children who have to grow up quickly, lets her mother off the hook, for the time being, she says to herself, ready to take up arms if/when the time comes for the long and messy battle that she has come prepared for.
Sheila spends the rest of her 4 weeks’ stay in either her father or her mother’s house and throughout the 28 days, Mona does not sleep for a second. At times, she longs to see again the man she has kept seeing faithfully for so many years, but she knows she can’t sleep as long as her daughter, who has so wonderfully and without reason, chosen to forgive her, is in town. She does not sleep and does not really want to, not wishing to tarnish this precious time she has been given with her daughter, on a make-believe lover from the deep.
She knows that what she has with the man of her dreams, though she will never disclose this sentiment to anyone, is the perfect love affair. At times she wishes she got the chance to at least touch him or feel his skin or run her fingers through his hair, even though she knows that sharing the affection each felt for the other through so many years of dreams was a bond that was beyond all the hullabaloo of sex and desire. But still, when the hours drag long and hang heavy in the still night when everyone else sleeps and dreams, Mona thinks with longing about the face which drove her away from her husband and home and into years of dreaming.
She stumbles upon a book, and picks it up. She hasn’t read anything in about a decade. It turns out to be one of Sheila’s books on psychology, that being the subject she intends to major in. When Mona opens the book at random she comes upon the most beautiful lines she has ever read: Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love. Where this active concern is lacking, there is no love.
With great regret, she realises after 18 long years that she has failed to show an active concern for her child throughout the girl’s life. And even now, though she lies awake and knows that she will not sleep or dream until the girl is safely at university, she is failing miserably to show her care in an active manner. And sadder still is the realisation that though she understands her own shortcomings, she does not have the capability to overcome them and learn to show her complete and absolute love for her only daughter. One whom she has loved so much in her own way that she had to withdraw from the world when she was no longer a part of it. But she has never managed to show her Darling girl this.
The next morning when Sheila comes to visit, Mona greets her at the door and pulls her into a clumsy hug and she doesn’t let go until she realises that she is almost knocking all the breath out of the girl.
Sheila is accustomed to silence and reads it much better than spoken words. She lets her mother completely off the hook this time and for good.
Soon it is time for her to leave and Mona waves from her window as a long black car from Sheila’s father’s garage takes her to the airport and then she plops down onto her bed and falls asleep.
For the next 4 years, Mona sleeps and dreams of nothing else but the man whom she now calls Pan. He had come out of the water for her the day before her daughter got home and he waited until Sheila left so they could be together again. The short breaks that Mona now takes from sleeping are, if possible, more perfunctory than ever before, because while she guzzles down food and water in mouthfuls she is already moving across into the limbo where her man always waits for her.
And these four years, stretched as far as possible into every minute, are the best that Mona ever had from her life. It is a love like she had never known possible and Pan magicked into being feelings and emotions and wonders that she had not known existed as they travelled the realms of her expanded dreams together.
And then abruptly, Mona wakes up one day, or perhaps it was really night, and knows that it is over, that it will never happen again for her, that her love has ended and that life as she knew it is about to change once again.
She pulls a chair up to her window facing the east and waits until Darling Sheila, 4 years older and freshly graduated from university with a degree in Psychology pulls into the driveway in a cab. It appears she has come straight from the airport and will stay with her mother for a month or so to organize her things so she can move back to where she has been for the past four years and marry the man she has fallen in love with. Mona does not need to look at the photo Sheila brings out of her purse to know that the man will have dark, longish hair and that his eyes will sparkle brilliantly in the light or that he will be wearing a single silver earring on his left ear lobe. She is not really very surprised when Sheila tells her his name is Peter.
And then, the month goes by. Sheila leaves. Mona sleeps and wakes in a normal, day/night cycle.
She knows that when she sleeps again she will no longer meet the man from her watery dreams. Never before in the last 15 years of her life had she realised the importance of the passage of time and finally now, looking at her own reflection in the mirror and remembering the photograph of her daughter’s lover, she understands that while she slept, time did not stand still for her, but the man in her dreams remained as young and as beautiful as the first time she saw him. She understands that once he commits himself in real life, the man of her dreams will no longer be able come to her, and though in the long still hours of the night she longs to see him swim with the dolphins again, if just for a moment, she understands firmly and finally that it is far more important to her to see her daughter content in reality than be happy herself in dreams.
And Mona’s life after this continues in the way it does for all of us with days when we are awake and nights when we sleep. She dreams like usual people, with mostly mundane visions she can hardly recall upon awaking, and a few vivid dreams and fewer nightmares. She manages to hold down a job at long last, at a local primary school as an assistant to the administrator and spends her leisure time reading textbooks on dreams and love. Sheila sends her hand written letters from time to time since Mona doesn’t care much for the Internet. Her Darling girl sounds as healthy as any girl in love should. And Mona is honestly happy when her daughter’s love story keeps on going well into the lives of her children and their children. But then, Mona knew from the day she first saw Pan under water that he was the one who could love so wholly as to complete a girl who had never been given the chance to complete herself.
Much time passes and though Sheila never returns to her mother or her father’s home, she keeps in touch with her mother through her letters.
When Mona’s parents pass away, they leave her the house and their modest savings, and Mona, who has never really needed much in her life, lets out the two bedrooms and the drawing room for which she never had any use, and lives out her days from the room of her childhood.
And then one night when Mona is 73, past her prime and past being of much use to anyone else except as someone who lets younger people board cheaply in her house, she drifts into sleep and the dream hits her with a suddenness that almost strangles her.
And even as she tries to wake from it, she sees clearly the young man of breathtaking beauty with taut creamy brown skin and a bare, lean chest gently resting on the ocean floor as fish eat his eyes and nibble at the single, silver earring on his left lobe and munch on the thin black rubber band on his right wrist.
She is awake before she can scream but once up, she knows there is not much for her to do but wait for the call from her Darling girl who will not really need words to tell her that her husband of so many years has died in some freak accident while swimming, or perhaps sailing, in the ocean that he always loved.
She goes to the chair that she had long ago pulled up to the eastern window and watches the sun come up and in her mind’s eye she sees Pan as she knew him when he never grew old and cries for her daughter who has just lost the love of her life, the love of many lives, the love that comes only infrequently and to a very few.
She waits for the phone to ring as the gray of dawn slowly tugs at the velveteen night.

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