Words by: Molly Schmidt
My feet are on the footstool. It makes me uncomfortable to have my feet on a piece of furniture. I lift them up and brush them and the footstool off, then place them back in the same position. The television is on, but I have the volume turned down. I don’t like the sound of strangers in my own home. My radio fills the room with static. I see my daughters in the kitchen, their hair flecked with morning light through the window. I want to open the photo albums and look at my little girls with disbelief, poke their tiny glossy faces with my finger. Time has greedily sucked away their chubby cheeks of youth, and although Camila still reaches on tippy toes to open the cupboard, I have two young women in my kitchen and I don’t know where my daughters are.
I feel old.
English words tumble quickly from the girls’ mouths so I turn up the static. I fiddle with the radio knobs until it speaks to me in Afghani, turning it down again so we can whisper together about home. The armchair feels too big and the house feels like it’s watching me. I close my eyes, holding the radio to my lips.
For the first few days they hover over me, a hand on my shoulder, or an arm around my waist. They want to sit beside me at the kitchen table, the girls want goodnight kisses, and sometimes when I stoop down to place one on their foreheads, they wrap their arms ferociously around my neck and will not let go. My beautiful wife, Amana, cries at nighttime, her tears sliding down her cheek and pooling on the pillow. I am so in awe of her that I can’t remember how to touch her. We sleep with our noses touching, breathing the same air. The house blinks, unsure whether to welcome its newcomer, or spit me out.
When I sleep, I dream of the detention center. I dream of the trundle bed and the lines I carved in the left leg. Each line had hurt as if it were carved in my own skin. Sometimes, when I was alone in the shower cubicle that smelt of piss and was slippery with mold, I used to carve more lines, hidden, on the soles of my feet with a sharp lead pencil. The blood smelt better than the piss and it helped me let out some of the memories. Amana’s voice would ring in my ears, and I’d remember brushing Rana’s unruly hair whilst she sat in my lap, her little hand on my knee. It reminded me I did exist, even if the guards looked straight through me and pushed me in the chest for whistling. When I placed my injured foot down I would imagine my youngest daughter Camila singing and the pain felt good.
In the morning we eat toast with the girls, all of us in our bed, and it reminds me of home, when the girls used to sleep curled together in a small bed at the base of our own. Rana gets me to taste Vegemite and I bite a bit of her toast. It is so sharp in my mouth I feel as if I have been bitten, and I reel back in surprise. They all laugh, my girls and my wife, and the sound makes me stop and watch them, breathless. I want to wrap a strand of Amana’s hair around my finger, hold the moment in my hands, but if feels fragile, like it will shatter at my touch. The bed feels too big and soft, but the three of them seem to sink in perfectly. I notice Amana’s chipped tooth and convince myself she is still the same, still my wife. Camila climbs into my lap and her skin smells like mine. I breathe deeply.
After the first few weeks they are frustrated with me. Camila wants me to read to her in English, but the words feel poisonous on my tongue. At dinnertime they give me the seat at the head of the table and Amana makes Kabuli Palaw like we used to eat back home. Camila spends a long time picking raisins out of her rice and Rana says she isn’t hungry. I ask why the television must be on when we eat, and Amana hurries to turn it off. I sense them speaking to each other across the table with their eyes, and I put down my fork too.
On Monday the girls walk to school and Amana goes to her cleaning job. When they leave, I stand in the shower, biting my lip till it bleeds down my chin. The blood mixes with the salt water leaking from my eyes. I kneel on the tiles and thank Allah that my daughters finally have the education I have dreamed of. I want to tell the girls it was all for this – every day in detention, every minute on that boat, every push from the guards, was so my girls could sit behind a desk, or place their heads in a book. When I’m done I wrap a towel around my waist and pick up the telephone. I key in Rana’s mobile number then hang up. I try again. And again. She picks up on the fourth time before I have a chance to hang up. “I’m in class!” she tells me, and suddenly I feel ridiculous and my words get stuck on my tongue. “I’m sorry,” I say.
The supermarket is a nightmare. The shining shelves hold too many things and the lights seem to grin down at me. I lean on the handle of the trolley and peer at the list my wife has written. I don’t know where to find anything, and the signs are all in English. I choose some red apples that look nice and a few other things that are close. I smile imagining the girls eating a chocolate bar. The lady at the checkout speaks slowly, as if I am a small child. It makes me feel ashamed. My hands fumble with my wallet and I give her a twenty instead of a ten.
On Tuesday Camila brings a picture home from school. It is of metal bars around a yellow bird. She has drawn a line to the yellow bird and labeled her “CAMILA”. The teacher has written in texta on the back, “Camila says this is Manus Island.” I hold the paper in my hands and it feels like there is a bird trapped inside of me, fluttering up my throat. I place the picture on the kitchen bench and close the bathroom door behind me. I vomit into the toilet bowl. I don’t want Camila to have those memories, like mine. I stand in the bathroom and wash my face again and again.
The first time we make love I have no idea what to do with my hands. Where do they normally go? In her hair? Around her breasts? On her cheek? Amana’s kisses taste like salt and some of her tears fall on my chest. Her tears make me sad in a way that distracts me from the sex, despite my years of longing for her. We lie in each other’s arms; her head on my chest and it rises and falls with my breath.
That afternoon I sit in the same armchair, my feet on the very edge of the footstool. As if through a window I observe the way they touch each other. The way the girls move around Amana and the way they glide with ease through doorways, gently touching shoulders, or kissing cheeks, or catching strands of hair. The women in my family, so comfortable in the bright yellow kitchen, as if they are no longer aware of the roof over their heads, which both comforts and oppresses me. The chair I sit on feels like it is trying to caress me, so I sit on the edge, uncomfortable with its familiarity. I can’t help but notice how smooth the tiles are under my calloused feet, and in amongst the chiming laughter of my family, I feel ashamed. I try not to notice how thoughtlessly they flick light switches, turn on the fan, adjust the knob of the radio. How quickly the girls have forgotten the turmoil of their youth. Amana comes towards me, sits on the arm of my chair. I notice every movement, the flutter of her blouse as she walks, the easy way she leans behind me to switch on the lamp. I feel threatened by the lamp – I’ve never seen it before, where did it come from? The whole house feels like a stranger that has cheated me, become friendly acquaintances with my family, embraced them as they slept at night and protected them from wind and rain.
“We missed you,” Amana says, placing her cheek on my shoulder. “Every night I would tell the girls you were back where we came from, working so we could be here.”
She takes the radio out of my lap. “Be with me,” she whispers.
I hold her hand between both of mine and I want to squeeze it till she cries out, just so I can be sure she feels it, be sure I am really here. Instead, all I can think of to say is
“Why do we have a footstool?”