The House of Discarded Dreams
The house . . . Vimbai gasped a little and sat down on Felix’s unmade bed. “All of us,” she said. “It’s the three of us—your blind universe and my ghosts and Maya’s dogs. We did it to the house.”
“I assumed as much,” Felix agreed. “So what?”
“So maybe we can control it,” Vimbai said. “Maybe we can make it into something we want.”
“Like what?” Felix asked, perking up.
“I don’t know.” Vimbai thought of the curdled milk in Maya’s coffee and wrinkled her nose. “ShopRite, for starters. Or Farmers’ Market, whatever. Something that sells food and milk. I’m really sick of canned ravioli.”
“Me too,” Felix agreed. He seemed quite eager to divert the conversation to a topic other than himself and his hair. Poor boy, dangled from some impossible hole like a piece of bait on a hook. “How do we make things happen?”
“I have no idea,” Vimbai said. “Think of them really hard?”
“Okay,” Felix said. “Here, or do you want to go somewhere else?”
“Somewhere else,” Vimbai said. “Let’s go to the porch.”
There, they sat cross-legged, their backs hunched, bracing against the cutting wind that rose from the ice-cold water, slashing their faces like steel cables. Vimbai crossed her arms in front of her chest and stuffed her hands, numb already, into her armpits. She closed her eyes, and for a moment concentrated on feeling Felix next to her, his warm breathing present, so touchingly and surprisingly human.
There was a creaking of the steps and a soft jangle of the screen door.
“What are you doing?” Maya asked. Her foxes sniffed at Vimbai and circumvented Felix in a wide arc. “Can I help?”
“Sure,” Felix said. “We’re trying to make the house do what we tell it.”
“What are you telling it?” Maya sat next to Vimbai, her warm elbow jostling against Vimbai’s.
“To make us a ShopRite. We decided that we’ve changed the house, so might as well try to direct it.”
Maya shrugged. “Makes sense.”
The three of them sat in silence. Vimbai squeezed her eyes shut and felt her forehead furrow as she imagined the cool aisles of a supermarket, shelves upon shelves, a solid white front of gallon milk jugs and white gleaming egg cartoons. Boxes of butter and cream cheese, bagels stuffed neatly into plastic bags. Thick slabs of meat in their little Styrofoam coffins, yellow cheese, red apples. All of it.
And she pictured her mother, frowning at the row of canned beans. “These are all the same thing,” she told Vimbai with irritation. “Same beans. All that’s different is a picture on the can.”
And Vimbai herself, scowling back, longing to go home. “Come on, mama. These are just brands—you know it.”
Her mother rolled her eyes and tossed a few cans into the cart, not even looking at which ones she picked. “Today at the department someone asked me about culture shock, and if I was overwhelmed with choices when I first came here. Americans, they always expect us to be overwhelmed with food.”
“I’m an American,” Vimbai mumbled and followed the cart and her mother’s receding back miserably.
“It’s not what I meant. You know that it makes no difference how many different pictures you put on green beans—they are still the same green beans inside. It’s an illusion of opulence they expect us to be impressed by and indulge in.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Vimbai had said. “People are just curious, you know? It wouldn’t hurt you to be nice once in a while.”
“After fifteen years of answering the same questions, my niceness and my patience are almost gone,” mother said.
“It’s not a big deal,” Vimbai said. She wanted to add, “Lighten up,” but thought better of it. Nothing brought quicker and more thunderous retribution upon her head than suggestions that her mother should lighten up or relax.
She opened her eyes to the sight of the leaden ocean. It was beginning to snow, and heavy viscous waves swallowed up the snowflakes as soon as they touched water. Why did her mother always have to insinuate herself into Vimbai’s daydreams? She did not want a replica of her—Solaris had scared her half to death when she first read it, and the thought of an intelligent needy fake with her mother’s personality was too terrifying to contemplate for any length of time. She just wanted a gallon of milk and some fresh fruit. And yet, her mother hovered on the inside of her eyelids, insubstantial but persistent, her narrow face wearing its habitual expression of grim readiness to pounce every time a perceived slight occurred.
Vimbai’s mother remained in her heart forever, her bitterness as familiar as the smell of coffee in the morning. She wasn’t always like this, Vimbai reminded herself—there were times when she was happy and carefree, and laughed easily. There were times when her parents whispered and giggled like guilty children, and no matter how old Vimbai was, these times always made her feel like the rift between her and her parents simply disappeared, leaving no trace, no scar.
But Vimbai had to make an effort to remember the happy times—she often wondered if this was a defect in her, or if it was something common to all people, this reflexive dwelling on the anger and the distance, on all the times where her mother and she squared off and argued in circles, as Vimbai’s gentle father sighed and tried to ask them be nice to each other; how desperately he tried to smooth the wrinkles that creased the surface of the life he would like to have, disfiguring it. Vimbai felt guilty for not thinking about him often enough, for focusing so much on her mother and the many ways in which she made Vimbai angry.
“Are you thinking about ShopRite?” Maya asked, jostling Vimbai back to the freezing porch and the cold waves, to the hidden horrors under the deep, deep water.
“Kind of,” Vimbai answered, and dutifully imagined the beading of condensation on the sides of milk jugs and the doors of walk-in freezers fogged by breath, hiding stacks of frozen pizza boxes and foil packets of cauliflower and chopped spinach.
“Should we check on how it’s going?” Felix said. “I’m cold.”
Maya stood and stretched, her dogs following her lead as one. “I suppose, I only wish we knew where to check.”
“Huh,” Felix said, and stood too, shivering. “This house is very big.”
“Can’t your dogs sniff it out?” Vimbai said. “They have to be good for something.”
Maya ignored the implied insult, and laughed. “A good idea, only they don’t know what a supermarket smells like. I guess we’ll just have to go look. Come along, Vimbai.” She grabbed Vimbai’s arm and pulled her to her feet. “You are just not content with hypothermia, are you? You want to add pneumonia to the list?”
“Or pleurisy,” Vimbai mumbled, and followed Maya and Felix inside. “Maybe I like the cold.”
They bade the chipoko and Peb to hold down the fort in the kitchen, and set out on a search for a supermarket, through the pantry and across a narrow jungle strip. Vimbai contemplated the mountains off in the distance, and did not bother to try and figure out how they fit inside the house.
Vimbai had to admit that there was certain fun in discovering a new world and getting to name everything. Thankfully, Felix was content with his stub of a universe, and did not presume to offer names. But Vimbai and Maya, oh how they argued. Martin Luther King Forest was not a problem, and Malcolm X Mountains had a ring to it; Vimbai insisted that the lake with the catfish (which they wisely circumvented, not yet ready to deal with the cunning adversary) had to be named after Marechera, and the thin gurgling brook that flowed from the lake and then roared to magnificence somewhere down at the basement was fit to maintain a literary kick—Achebe River it was, even though it was no Niger. They argued about whether a plain covered in nettles and rusted bed frames was impressive enough to name, and if so—whom would it belong to.
“You can just call it the Bedframe Valley,” Felix suggested. “Or think about it later—now, I want to keep going.”
“Fine with me,” Maya said. “But the next thing will be named after Oprah.”
Vimbai snorted. “No way. Wangari Maathai is next. Surely, a Nobel laureate is more important than Oprah?”
“And I want more literary tributes,” Maya said. “How about Octavia Butler?”
“All right,” Vimbai agreed. “And after that—Tutuola and Fay King Chung.”
“Who’s that?” Maya asked, and whistled for her dogs to get back as they chased something up a steep pebbled ridge. “I mean, the second one.”
“Zimbabwe’s former minister of education and culture,” Vimbai said. “My mom says, she is Chinese, and in Rhodesia she could get an education and black people couldn’t. And she wrote children’s books.”
“Good enough for me,” Maya said.
Vimbai thought how happy would her mother be to visit the house—the only country in the world where not a single pebble was named after a white guy.