by Gemini Wahhaj
At the time of the hurricane, they were both still working. A few days before the hurricane hit, Lila was getting on a plane to New York for an oil and gas conference. They called it Hurricane Ike on the radio, and people laughed when they heard the warning, since it followed warnings about so many other hurricanes that season that had failed to materialize. But this time it was real.
Lila saw Ike approach Houston on TV in her hotel room in New York. She tried to call Kamal, but phone lines were down. Ike finally made landfall at night. Lila watched, minute by minute, as the giant, swirling cloud simulation of a category 4 tropical cyclone hit the speck that was supposed to be Houston. News of a train accident interrupted the hurricane coverage periodically, but mostly, during the days of the conference, all TV cameras stayed focused on Ike and Houston.
Heading home, on a flight to Atlanta (there were no flights available to Houston yet), Lila listened as the pilot made an announcement about the hurricane. Houston had been destroyed, he said. Windows had been knocked out from the high rises downtown. Trees had flattened houses to the ground. Entire neighborhoods had been flooded. This was terrible news to deliver to anyone cut off from family in Houston, trying to get home.
Lila buckled herself in her seat. She flagged down a tall, clean-shaven steward to ask him if he knew anything, but there was no way to glean any specific facts. For the first time in her life, Lila made a phone call from a plane. Although they made good money between them, their frugal, middle class, South Asian habits had always precluded any temptation to make a luxury call from an airplane, until this disaster, which warranted a change.
It was no use, though. She couldn’t get through, and finally she slammed the phone back onto the seat in front of her, annoying the passenger beside her.
Lila and Kamal had come to Houston as graduate engineering students and followed the path of others from Bangladesh, landing professional jobs, buying a house in the suburbs and two cars, applying for green cards. She was a petroleum engineer and he was a civil engineer. Engineers did well in Houston. But now it seemed to Lila like settling in Houston had been the worst decision of their lives. What if Kamal had been killed in the hurricane?
When she arrived in Atlanta, Lila could not get a flight to Houston, since all flights in and out had been cancelled. Lila’s company booked her a hotel in downtown Atlanta, and she waited there for two days, eating take-out Chinese out of cardboard boxes, as she and Kamal had done in graduate school, and watching the news on TV. Periodically, she called down to the hotel desk to ask for updates on flights.
She kept her phone plugged into the charger and called Kamal every half hour or so, but he didn’t answer. She called friends, then friends of friends, then random people she had met at the large Bangladeshi parties they attended in Houston, but no one picked up the phone.
Finally, Lila received word that Intercontinental had regained power and flights were starting up. Somehow, she got herself booked on the first flight to Houston. At last she found herself walking toward the arrivals gate, terrified that no one would be there. But Kamal was there. Dusty and ruffled, but there, waiting for her. Lila screamed and ran to him.
“I’ve been here at the airport, looking for you at the gate of every flight, from every city!”
“You didn’t call me!” she wailed.
“My phone’s dead. There are long lines now in front of stores, people trying to get their phones charged.”
They embraced tightly, like the other couples at the arrivals gate. Everything would finally get back to normal.
Together they walked to the elevator and rode up to the parking level. Kamal told Lila they had no power at the house. Their street was littered with trees. Some roofs had been smashed. But they were lucky. On nearby streets, the rooftops were battered from falling branches. People in Galveston had lost their homes and survived the flood by climbing onto their roofs. In Houston, people stood in long lines at the supermarkets for bags of ice. Food was scarce.
“But you know the saddest thing?” Kamal said, turning his earnest face toward her. “It was on the news. A couple was trying to cut down a tree ahead of the hurricane. The trunk of the tree fell on top of their son, just ten years old.”
“What happened?” Lila asked.
“He was killed.”
“How horrible,” she said, rubbing his arm. At least they were safe; their lives were unchanged.
“We don’t have power yet,” he warned. “So the house is very hot and uncomfortable.”
He smelled of sweat.
They climbed into Kamal’s car, a smart silver Honda CR-V, and Lila breathed out finally.
“I just want to go home,” she said, sliding down in her seat, “to lie down in our own bed. To go back to work! I’ll bet the air conditioning at the office is working.”
Once they came off the highway to their neighborhood in Spring, north of the airport, the streets were ghostly. The traffic lights weren’t working. Cars stood stopped at every intersection, as feeble policemen tried to direct masses of traffic with stop signs. They passed several pile-ups, accidents caused by a confusion about whose turn it was to go.
“It’s like a scene out of a hundred years ago, or a third world country!” Lila said, thinking that they had left their own third world country to escape such backward conditions.
“Or it could be a science fiction movie showing the future,” Kamal said.
There was more bad news waiting at home. No matter what Kamal had said to Lila in the car, he could not have prepared her for what she was about to experience. There was no air conditioning, and it was dizzyingly hot. There seemed to be no air in the house. Kamal had flung open all the windows, but this meant that by evening the house had filled with mosquitoes. Lila slapped her arms angrily in the dark.
For the next two weeks, they passed evenings by dreary candlelight in the prickly heat. Most evenings, they ate out or cooked a laborious meal they had shopped for that day and then threw out what they didn’t eat. It was tedious, having to plan a meal, buy the ingredients, throw out the leftovers, and wash the dishes by hand, but also somehow, like play-acting, like being in a different life in which one could pretend that life was about cooking and cleaning dishes and planning the meal one was to cook.
Even eating by candlelight felt like playing house. It was frustrating, of course, and hot, and expensive to eat out so often, but when they looked back on it later, they had to admit that it had been lovely too. Neighbors came out for the first time and sat on their steps in the dark with candles, talking across the street. Sometimes a neighbor would cross over with a bottle or a cigarette, wanting to chat. People borrowed generators from one another to hook up to their TV sets and refrigerators for a few hours. Lila and Kamal met everyone on their street for the first time in the five years they had lived there.
Their house had been hit the hardest among all the houses on the street. Their roof was intact, but a pipe had burst underground, apparently. When Lila tried to take a bath one day, the water in the bathtub backed up with sewage. Black water gurgled up, and she detected the smell of swamp gas, ammonia, and sulfur.
She stopped taking baths at home. Sleepy and dirty, she stumbled into the office building before anyone else every morning and took a long shower in one of the bathrooms two floors up from where she worked.
The city warned that the water supply was contaminated, so Lila and Kamal stopped using the water from the tap at home. They suffered through mosquito-filled evenings, labor-intensive cooking, and sleepless nights, going to work for relief, so glad that they worked, that they could spend eight hours a day in air conditioned offices, earning money, able to wear nice, steamed suits, able to drive clean cars that purred on gasoline on wide highways.
At the end of twenty-one days, their lives returned to normal. The transformer at the end of their street had been fixed. Lila and Kamal hired a plumber, and for a thousand dollars he fixed the sewage pipe that ran under their yard (a tree had settled on it in the storm) and thus also fixed the problem of the water backup. They had clean water again, a working refrigerator, and a working microwave oven.
They were relieved, eager to get past the hurricane. However, with time, it became clear that the hurricane had changed other things too. It wasn’t entirely clear to anyone in Houston how the surreal atmosphere of the hurricane was related to the recession and layoffs that followed, but by September a lot of people had lost their jobs. In the middle of the layoffs, Kamal came back one day and told Lila that a man in another office in a different building in the Galleria had jumped out of a sixteenth floor window to his death. This incident also seemed to be logically related to Ike and the recession. If someone had asked either Kamal or Lila to explain, neither of them could have articulated how they were related, but they would both have said that they were related: the hurricane and the unreal weeks without power or water that followed and the layoffs that came later.
There was something the hurricane had brought on, or slammed through, besides slamming down the houses on the coast in Galveston, the hundred-year-old trees all through the neighborhoods in Houston, the glass windows of the downtown high rises, the air conditioning and the traffic lights and the refrigerators and the TV sets. It had smashed all the certainties of modern life, all the things that had made things real. Soon, there were dogs on the streets that had been set loose by owners no longer able to keep them. Houses were put up for foreclosure. People who hadn’t lost their homes in the hurricane were now being driven out of their properties because they couldn’t pay their mortgage.
The layoffs happened over several weeks. Lila lost her job first. Kamal kept holding on as more and more people in his office were laid off every day. At last, when Kamal’s office was down to thirty people, with everyone sweating and trying to outperform everyone else by staying late and taking on the projects of all those who had been fired, Kamal finally received the email. He came home almost jubilant. Lila was up on a ladder, frowning, trying to repaint a section of the ceiling that had cracked during the hurricane.
“I’ll have time to do that now,” he said as he came in through the front door in his pressed shirt and slacks and put down his smart leather bag on the dining table. For a brief moment, he felt like whistling.
That mood soon passed. Laid off, they lay in their pajamas on separate leather sofas in the living room of their enormous house, their chests panting from simultaneous panic attacks. What would they do? How would they pay for the house, their cars, or their health insurance? How would they live in the only way they knew how? Kamal snatched the remote control off the coffee table and turned on MI-5, a spy thriller on a cable channel. But the high-stress episodes seemed to mirror their own lives. There was one particular episode in which all of London had gone awry. Nothing worked. Traffic lights didn’t work, and there were accidents everywhere. The plot reminded Lila of the day she had landed in Houston and witnessed the traffic pile-ups on the streets. She shouted to Kamal to turn off the TV. After that day, they stopped watching cable television. They discontinued their service.
At first, they were both on the computer all day, desperately searching for jobs in their respective fields. Lila was on the phone to friends in the oil industry, asking for job leads. Kamal locked himself in another room and carried on the same search in his field in hushed tones. They were both filled with shame. They didn’t know who they were without their jobs. They didn’t recognize themselves in the bathroom mirror, in their uncombed states, in their pajamas. Kamal had to sign on to the Internet every week to fill out forms to claim his unemployment benefits. On the radio, people speculated about rising crime because of unemployment. Kamal felt desperate enough to commit a crime, to get into some sort of shady scheme, to make money, anything to return to their former state.
Then a particularly nasty strain of flu hit the city. Lila and Kamal had attended a Bengali birthday party at Maharaja, full of sick people, and they both caught it. For days they lay without eating, unable to either cook food or keep the food down. Vomit filled the three bathrooms of the house and lay there untouched. The cleaning lady had been fired. One day, Lila crawled off the sofa on which she had been lying in an inclined position, supported by three pillows so that she could breathe out of her congested chest (the hospitals were overflowing with people with the flu, and the flu was turning to pneumonia with a peculiar cough that sounded like a drum, which ultimately killed the patient, according to the radio), and made it to the bathroom. With the radio still blaring, the world went black in front of her. Slowly, she lowered herself onto the cool tile floor and lay there crying. Her chest was pounding and she couldn’t breathe. The radio in the living room pleaded with patients to listen to their coughs, to listen for a drumbeat, which would indicate a turn to pneumonia and certain death. Patients who had a drumbeat-sounding cough should immediately check themselves into a hospital, the radio advised. But all the hospitals were full of patients already. Tents had been erected to manage the overflow. Lila listened to her cough, which sounded like a drumbeat, and her tears flowed.
After a long moment, Kamal stumbled to the bathroom and leaned against the doorjamb for support.
“What is it?” he asked weakly.
“If we don’t get jobs, what will we do?” Lila sobbed. “We’ll lose the house. The cars. Everything. What will people say?”
In response, Kamal coughed for a long time. His cough sounded hollow and drum-like, the way they had described on the radio. Lila’s panic increased and she wanted him gone.
“This reminds me of Bengali novels I read as a child,” Kamal said in a pause between coughs. He narrowed his eyes, as if trying to remember what he was about to say, as if remembering a life from a long time ago that he had forgotten.
“In a novel, things take time to happen. A problem resolves itself over six months or a year at least. You have to give it time, I think.”
Lila didn’t answer. She continued to breathe in a shallow way, thinking that she would choke to death. Kamal didn’t bend down to check on her, but instead stumbled back to the living room. Lila didn’t have the strength to get up and turn off the radio, which by its powerful force was taking on the world and morphing it, filling it with the flu, deaths, foreclosures, and unemployment figures, making it impossible to go back to the way things were. So she tried to concentrate on something long ago, before the horrors of sickness and unemployment. Finally, she remembered the parents who had been trying to cut down their tree ahead of the hurricane to stop it from falling over on their house and how they had killed their son instead. Lila didn’t have children, but she thought that would have to be the worst thing that could happen to you. Your life would end if you lost a child. Somehow, the thought made her feel better. Ultimately, she fell asleep.
In the following months, as fall turned to winter, Lila and Kamal gave up the idea of finding jobs soon. They began to read novels to each other in Bengali, and sometimes they turned off the lights on purpose and read in the dark by candlelight. Or they went out and sat on the front steps talking in the dark, as they had done in the period following the hurricane and as they remembered doing in Bangladesh during frequent power outages. One day, Kamal went out in his car, and drove aimlessly through the neighborhood.
He came back and said, “I know what I’m going to do. I’m going into real estate.”
He had suggested wild things before, such as working at McDonald’s or at Home Depot, and Lila had been filled with shame. They were professionals. They had a certain class. They didn’t work just for money, just to get by. What would their friends say at the Bangladeshi parties? Of course, they had stopped going to those parties, out of shame, and also because they didn’t want to spend money on expensive presents or gas to drive so far, to other suburbs.
Now Lila looked at Kamal with a tired face, resigned, not sure what he meant exactly, but willing to look at new possibilities.
That winter, Lila and Kamal sold their house and bought a small, tear-down bungalow near downtown. Their new home was in a “changing” neighborhood, as the real estate people called it, and some of the houses were falling apart and old, while others were newly-built, big, two-story mansions. There were young families with children living in the neighborhood alongside old people waiting to die.
Kamal stayed up nights, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, singing tunelessly and drafting a plan to remodel their house piece by piece, now that he had time on his hands. Lila sat in the same room, which doubled as office and living room, sometimes reading a book, sometimes a magazine, always with tea in a ceramic mug in her hand.
Sometimes, late at night, they would turn on the radio in the background for company. Another hurricane season had started, and already there were radio advisories about filling up on gas and storing batteries to prepare for a hurricane. In memory of the previous year’s hurricane, the newspaper had run a story recently about the family who had lost their son trying to cut down a tree ahead of Hurricane Ike. The article described how the couple had finally accepted their child’s death and begun their life anew.
Lila remembered her own low moment following the hurricane, lying on her bathroom floor without a job or money or means to keep her house.
In their new home, Lila cooked a meal with fresh vegetables she had bought that morning from the local farmer’s market downtown. Then she turned off the stove to take a walk down the street and say hello to the elderly neighbors who came out in the last rays of sunlight to chat about their dying days. As she walked, her feet in their open-toed sandals caught the dust and twigs lying on the sidewalk. She felt alive, breathing in the smell of pine cones falling off the tall trees and the barbecue cooking in neighboring houses.
Gemini Wahhaj’s fiction has appeared in Granta, Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard Review, Night Train, The Carolina Quarterly, and Northwest Review, and is forthcoming in Silk Road and The Chattahoochee Review. An excerpt from her novel has been published in the volume Exotic Gothic 5, published by PS Publishing. She has a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Houston and she teaches at Lone Star Community College in Houston.
Image credit: Patrick Feller on Flickr