#5 – Janvier / January 2023

Azarin Sadegh

The Collector

This story is part of a collection of interrelated stories, linked to the previously published in Place #3 et #4 issues, The House, and The Departure.

Two a.m. Arman, still awake. Next to him, Perdita slept peacefully, unaware of his insomnia. Through the bedroom window a thin moon projected its liquid ray of light over his side of the bed, and he remembered how much this image had comforted him as a child. He watched the movement of shadows on the ceiling and thought about erratic and accumulated memories that seemed to be waiting to be revealed. A car with a broken exhaust pipe passed by, and clouds hid the moonlight. A fly buzzed in his ears and the fridge’s fan resumed its rattling noise. Maybe the room was too hot or his new pajama fabric too scratchy. If he could relax, he knew more new memories would come to him. He pressed his eyes, and images appeared like watching a story-less, unedited movie. Scattered sounds, scattered faces. He often thought about these seemingly ordinary scenes. They persisted and gradually lost their reality and became close to fiction, and these fictions developed like the branches of trees. They grew everyday occupying more space, with more buds, and more leaves. At some point, he didn’t know anymore whether these scenes were real at all. The only images that seemed true were those of a vast green plain near his grandma’s house, an angry river he fell into at five, a black burnt tree catching fire by a burning car near his school, flocks of birds passing by their house in fall, and pink and yellow ribbons in his cousin’s hair at his sister’s wedding. All random memories as vivid as life, and he tried to recount them in a linear, orderly way, in vain.

Arman’s thoughts had remained in Persian since his move to France ten years ago. As a math teacher he hadn’t improved in French as much as he’d liked. At home, he spoke English with Perdita, so she could remain fluent in what she was teaching. In each language one side of him became dominant. Shy in French. Anxious in Persian, and brave in English. This way, he lived parallel lives and wondered whether his limitation in each foreign language had affected who he could have been.

Perdita murmured unintelligible words in her sleep that sounded Spanish.

They had met two years ago when Perdita replaced old Madame Boulanger, the English teacher. The first thing he noticed was her heavy eye makeup and thick eyebrows. Petite, olive skin, long black hair, and wearing all-gold jewelry. She didn’t look French. He had rushed to introduce himself with his Persian accent.

They had many things in common: both in their late thirties, immigrants and in love with Paris, and fluent in English.

Arman turned toward Perdita. She was lucky, he thought. She loved to collect random objects. When she moved in, she took over the guest room and emptied boxes of big and small pieces from her nameless collection. Arman had glanced at all the used dolls and cheap jewelry and concluded that she must have been missing her homeland and her childhood in Guatemala, and of course, he could understand and sympathize with her.

Perdita never worried about finding the next piece of her collection. She spent a good amount of time on choosing each object, but it was always a happy and exciting prospect. Everywhere she went, Arman had noticed, she looked for a new addition. With each buy, the nature of her possessions changed. Perdita owned the collection and the collection never owned her. Among her objects, there were only a few she cherished. He was with her when she bought a wooden horse from a street peddler for seven euros. This small figurine was probably manufactured in the thousands, but Perdita saw something in it that made her so cheerful afterwards. She kept the horse in her pocket for few days before placing it next to other pieces.

“You are also a collector,” she ‘d told him once, “but you collect memories.”

He had remained quiet, but he knew that unlike Perdita’s objects, memories weren’t made in China and didn’t come from dollar stores. They couldn’t break, wear out or be stolen. His “collection” was something he could never lose.

Arman felt the light touch of an insect on his arm. He brushed it away, and it reminded him of the night before. Perdita was worried about the apparition of a colony of ants in the garage. “What if they reach my collection?” She looked anxious. “I have a few dried fruits, and oh, those little jars of honey might attract ants. They could ruin them. Please check everywhere, darling.”

Arman sat up and sneaked out of bed. Tiptoeing on his long skinny legs, he left the bedroom. The hallway was dark. The guest room door opened with a slight moaning, almost resisting his presence. He went into the room and turned on the switch. Objects were everywhere; found mostly in garage sales or thrift-stores, none were expensive. Tiny figurines of plastic or clay or metal or wood or just knitted, a wooden drawer half full with used handkerchiefs and small blankets. The bookshelf covering one of the walls displayed colorful shells and rocks she had found in parks or on the shores of the Seine, small pots of fake flowers, jars in all sizes, a few fat Buddhas, and a minuscule ballerina in a tutu. On the wall opposite the window, earrings, and necklaces hung off the nails, and the nails held frames of drawings of flowers and plants. Together, they formed a vertical vision of an illusionary tree that couldn’t exist in real forests.

Arman approached one of the shelves, staring at the bust of Jesus on the cross, without a chest, just a head and two arms. Next to Jesus, a tiny, knitted figurine of a woman in a red dress stood. He had never seen this one. Her hair was wrapped in a red shawl, and her waist smaller than it should be. She had no eyes, but her red lips smiled. It was a strange smile as if she was looking inward. Telling a joke only she could understand. Why did Perdita buy damaged goods? It didn’t seem she had followed any rules to choose these objects or even their placement. And here it was, next to the knitted woman, the small wooden horse with two black fake diamonds used for its eyes, and its tail raised in the air. It looked frightened, and Arman remembered he was there to inspect the presence of ants. He approached every display and leaned forward to find any insect. Everything was still. Nothing looked alive. He searched every corner, behind the drawer, in the gap between the window and the windowsill. No ant had yet discovered this room. But why would they? There was nothing appetizing in the room unless they could smell the vague rotting odor of dead flowers.

Arman left, shut the door, and walked to his bed where Perdita was asleep. He glided under the blanket without making any noise and hoped to fall asleep without revisiting the past.  Maybe he should count Perdita’s things, unmoving on the shelves, always trapped, and never trying to stir his emotions.

He dragged himself toward Perdita and wrapped his arm around her. She didn’t wake up, but her fingers entangled in his and the warmth of her skin reminded him how lucky they were.  Even though they both had been hurt by their previous relationships, it didn’t matter anymore. They were happy. Right? Arman thought. Perdita had never told him why she had to leave Lazlo, her ex-husband, but she gave so many details about her house, and the routine of her life with Lazlo that Arman considered him to be an old acquaintance. They were similar, both liked to run and even looked alike, with the same height, same hair color, same jaw, and same wrinkles around eyes. Obviously, Perdita had a type. He was lucky to fit in. But she left Lazlo. Would she ever leave him too?

His last girlfriend broke up with him without any warning, but it was a relief. She had to control everything and had left him because she couldn’t control his sleep. But Perdita didn’t care about his insomnia. She even found it beneficial. “You have more time to imagine, to remember,” she said. “Or you can use the extra time to browse online to find me one discounted day of the dead figure from Mexico.”

Arman checked the clock. It was three twenty-one.

He was falling asleep. His eyes felt heavy and in this timeless space, he put on a sweater and ran to break every speed limit set for pedestrians while the woman in a red skirt chased him. The ballerina, sitting on the wooden horse, joined her, and the legless Jesus crawled behind them. They all ran, in synch, jumped over the fences, over the trees, over the buildings. They landed on busy streets and bounced back. The cars swerved and crashed into each other to give them some room, to sustain the tension. The snow began to fall and in the midst of this meaningless marathon, they all stopped briefly to build a snowman who looked like him.

Startled by the sensation of a cold breeze on his toes, Arman opened his eyes. Seven-forty. The window was wide open. The room slowly filled with light. Perdita was already up. He could hear her cutting veggies, and making breakfast, and preparing everything for dinner. Arman didn’t need to get up, but he did. He opened the top drawer and looked at his shirts, all folded and sorted in color.

The light poured into the room. Perdita stood at the doorway. “Breakfast ready, darling,” she said. “You’re late for your run.”

He chose a shirt and jogging pants in a hurry and followed her downstairs.  The table was set with croissants, ham, and hard-boiled eggs. Arman served coffee for both and sat next to her.  “Merci,” he said, and unfolded today’s Liberation, remembering the night before and his visit to the guest room. “I checked every corner and there were no ants,” he said.

“Are you sure?” Perdita said and blew on her hot coffee. “What if they haven’t yet reached the room? I will spray the garage and all the closets this weekend. Do you think the poison would damage my collection?”

Arman leafed through the news. Nothing from Iran. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “There is nothing to attract the ants.”

“How do you know? Don’t tell me you have studied the life of ants in Iran.”

Arman smiled. “Actually, you might not believe me, but at ten, I was into butterflies and insects. I’ve read a few books…” Before finishing his sentence, Perdita threw a piece of bread at him, and they both laughed.

“I’m serious. Please check the room. Look for them everywhere. They hide well,” she said. “By the way, I will be late tonight. I’m meeting with the girls after work, but I’ve already prepared your dinner. Just warm it up.”

“Great, have fun.” Arman had rarely gone out by himself, but he liked Perdita’s independence.

Perdita took a bite of her toast and smiled at him, but she seemed to drift away.

Last night when he had gone over every object of Perdita’s collection, he had envied her for always knowing what she wanted and acting on it. She rarely overanalyzed. “I was looking at your objects last night, and wished I could be more like you,” Arman said and regretted right away starting a discussion he wasn’t ready for.

Perdita stopped eating. “Who wants to live with someone else who is exactly like them?” she asked. “I don’t!”

Arman couldn’t tell her how much he envied her. “I was amazed by your collection. It has grown so much since last year. I just wished to know…” He sighed. “Never mind. I was about to say something stupid about your pieces. You know my over-examining of everything.”

Perdita pushed her plate and got up, standing over him. Her instincts told her there was more to what he’d just said, considering his obvious anxious expression, but she was late. Plus, as much as she was proud of her collection, she had a hard time explaining her attachment. Arman got up too, wiping his mouth with the back of his bony hand, ready to apologize. Her sweet darling! “So happy you appreciate my objects, but I can imagine you want to love them as much as I do,” she said and looked for the right words. She didn’t know how to justify her love for the collection. She only knew that after collecting these objects something inexplicable happened, maybe a feeling of comfort, some obscure connection to a familiar place in history. Her objects talked to her in a sense as if they were living beings and they belonged together. She’d look at them, and they’d looked back at her too. But how could she say something like this without Arman mocking her for months?

“Of course I understand,” Arman said.

She stood on her toes, lifted her chin toward him and looked at his inquisitive expression, and imagined him standing among her objects in their guest room, still, wondering endlessly. She placed her hands on his chest. She spoke quietly. “Don’t read too many psychology journals, love,” she said. “I’m sure you understand why they are so important to me. You do,” And she reached him and stole a quick kiss, walking away.

“But I don’t,” Arman whispered, confused, watching her leaving the house.

After coming back home from his run, he took a quick shower. He got ready for work, but before leaving the house he went to the guest room to see if any insect had penetrated the precious space of the collection. In the daylight, the objects looked different from last night; even the horse had lost its shine and tenacity. Arman looked around and as he was shutting the door the sight of an ant stopped him. He watched it moving upward in a hurry. It was probably on a mission to find edibles. It was so small that Arman could kill it easily with the tender touch of his finger. He couldn’t let it go back to its colony. He reached the insect and let it walk on his skin. It moved up his wrist, and as soon as he left the house, he crushed it with the palm of his hand.

 

Three weeks later

Tik Tok. Tik Tok. Tik Tok. Arman, still insomniac, sat on the rocking chair he had moved from the living room to the guest room. He watched the silver arrows of the big clock on the wall, barely moving. The eyes of the wooden horse shone in the dark. He got up, turned the switch on and started counting the objects. Fourteen figurines: one horse, two cows, eleven dolls, fifty-two black rocks, twenty-one necklaces, one hundred and three seashells, nine handkerchiefs, three blankets and seven wool socks with a missing pair. He stopped counting, turned off the light and sat back on the rocking chair. He didn’t need light to see the collection. They were etched in his mind. Two hundred and twelve types of flowers and plants: roses, lilies, tulips, daisies, gardenias, dahlias. The names of flowers paraded in his mind, floating like giant air balloons.

At first, he had come to the guest room only to look for the ants, and every day he found a few. He even started killing and crushing them, but it wasn’t enough. They showed up again on the bookshelf, in the kitchen, on their bathroom counter, or at the closet. He bought nontoxic ant traps and spread them all over the apartment. But they were ineffective. The ants’ perseverance was beyond his patience. So he decided to make some homemade traps with sticky glue.

He placed his gluey insect-traps in every corner of the guest room. Only after a few hours, there were tens of ants glued dead to the sticky paper. Now they had become part of the collection. He didn’t want Perdita to see them, so he had to hide the traps before her special time in the guest room and put new ones back once she was out of the house. But more and more the guest room had become hisspecial place too. Every time he discovered a new detail about the collection, and for some reason, as soon as he left the room, a new memory had emerged, and he felt a strong need to write down these invading memories before he forgot their specific details and the order of their emergence. As if he was afraid to lose the vision of these incomprehensible images and by writing them he could give himself time to make sense of his whole life.

It was the third night he had slept in the guest room. Perdita was coming home later and later. Three nights ago, when he asked her where she was, she had just shrugged. “I thought you like my independence. You don’t own me.” Arman had lowered his voice. “I’m sorry. I was just worried.” But she had shut and locked the bedroom door. It had never happened before, and it made Arman even more anxious.

In the morning, Arman woke up in pain. Too much light in the room. Eight-thirty. He was late for work. Perdita had already gone, without waking him up. He thought about their argument. Was it really about him calling her ten times, or more about his awakened interest in her collection? She had warned him to stay away from her objects. “You can’t use them for your insomnia,” she’d told him. It was two weeks ago, but he couldn’t help it. Walking to this room, looking at these pieces had become his routine. They helped him with their quiet presence, and their inactivity and boredom.

“Why would you care?” he’d asked.

“Because they are mine. Only mine. I’m the one responsible for them. I share common history with my objects. In fact, I didn’t find them. They found me. How many times do I have to tell you? You don’t get it. For you they are only things to count. For me, they are part of who I am. They changed me. They even changed you, but you didn’t notice.” Perdita yelled and yelled, until her voice cracked.

He hushed her. “Come here,” he said, grabbing her arm. “I’m sorry.”

She got quiet. “I’m sorry too,” she said.

“Promise,” he said, pulling her closer. “I won’t go to your room anymore. Lock the door and hide the key.”

But he broke his promise the following night, but this time she ignored it.

Arman stood up, still in pain all over, still digesting Perdita’s past words. He should be able to get it. Everyone had boundaries. Everyone needed some private space. But what was his boundary? His past? Memories he couldn’t share or maybe just didn’t want to. He was beginning to feel a certain relief trying to capture them in notes, to give them a fixed form and a materiality.

His phone dinged. It was a text from Perdita, telling him she was going to be late. Don’t wait for me, she wrote.

The previous weekend he’d accompanied her to the flea market. Perdita didn’t express any objection to his presence. They took le métro. She was in her own world, looking out the window, glaring at her own reflection. He imagined the real Perdita was the one behind the glass, the one he could never reach.

Perdita pulled herself more toward the window. Her image didn’t reflect the joy she thought she had been experiencing. She was going to buy a new piece. But there was no more room on the shelves or on the wall. Where was she going to place it?

The flea market was so crowded that she had to hold his hand. She pushed him behind her. His hand was freezing. She knew exactly where to go, annoyed by Arman’s presence, always clinging to her as if without her he couldn’t breathe. She saw her favorite Moroccan merchant. He always possessed the most unique items without knowing their real value.

“Bonjour Monsieur Khalid,” she said, and the old man’s face lit up.

“Madame Perdita,” he said, rising his arms in the air. “Come check the new batch I received this morning.”

She almost shrieked at the sight of a bloody human mouth; the tongue pierced with two rings. “A real mouth?”

Monsieur Khalid smiled. “Don’t be afraid. Get closer. Touch it.”

Perdita stepped forward, but Arman pushed her back.

“Be careful,” Arman said. “Don’t touch. You could get sick.”

Perdita freed herself. “Let me be,” she said, and walked toward the old man’s goods.

Arman saw the unwelcome glare of the merchant, and the other customers. He stepped back and rushed toward the subway.

At home, he grabbed his laptop and went to the guest room. He started writing what had just happened, but soon it shifted to the memory of his mother on the day he left Iran for good; the way she didn’t cry and held her head high and didn’t plea with the short guard at the airport gate to let her in for one last embrace. People suffered real pains, not whining like him. He should have been content with his eventless life. And he wrote more, and more pain emerged and grabbed his throat and squeezed the bloody vein going into his chest. When he was finally done, relieved by typing the last word, he lifted his head and saw the wooden horse looking at him with pity. He closed the laptop and left the room.

Perdita was not going to come home tonight, he thought, but it didn’t scare him.

 

Two months later

Morning light crept into Arman’s eyes. Sunday. He didn’t need to get up. The apartment was too quiet, and no noise came from the kitchen. Perdita must be still asleep. He yawned, sat up and stretched his body. His back ached. His neck too. A terrible night. He had slept on the sofa in front of the TV.

He got up and took the stairs. Expecting to see Perdita sleeping, Arman opened the bedroom door quietly, but she wasn’t there. At the sight of the pink envelop on her pillow, his mouth turned dry. He swallowed his saliva, all his blood rushing to his head, and it felt like his body was fighting against the earth’s constant downward pull. He touched the envelop and took out the piece of paper. It was folded multiple times.

It read: I am not coming back. Sorry.

Arman dropped the letter, grabbed her pillow, and smelled it. It smelled like soap. Her clothes were still hung in the closet. Almost all her twenty pairs of shoes, and all her winter jackets. Was she going to catch a cold? He remembered the collection. He rushed to the guest room.

The collection was there, untouched. Every object in its place, staring at him. He listened, trying to hear all they told him. They talked over each other. There were too many noises, too many stories. They all shared the same disappointment, and memories of lives they had never revealed. Things they had never told. And all the lost desires.

Was she going to come back to claim her collection? At what point did the collection turn into the only obstacle to her freedom? Arman felt the weight of his attachment to Perdita that now had gotten heavier. Every object in the collection sat on his shoulders and he held them tight with his long arms. Maybe one day, like her, he could let them go, but not now. The collection became the center of his world, like sun, and its gravity pulled him toward the predictable trajectory of planets, a life of stability and solitude.

Arman noticed a vague movement on the wooden horse. It was an ant, probably lost, probably hungry, roaming, looking for a way back home. He watched the insect going in all directions, without panicking or losing its energy and enthusiasm.

He checked his phone. He was late for work. As Arman left the room, he wondered if they had eggs for breakfast.

Aliso Viejo, December 2022