GAURAA SHEKHAR

Gauraa Shekhar is the author of NOTES (word west press, 2022) and the co-editor in chief of No Contact. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Nimrod, Sonora Review, CRAFT, Literary Hub, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The McNeese Review and elsewhere. She lives in Richmond, Virginia and serves as a contributing editor for Story Magazine.




THE CARTOGRAPHER


Two days after we move in, Adam spots a fire across the highway. “Look,” he says, stretching his arm over the sagging fern by the window. There’s a tiny speck of red on the other side of Route 1. If I squint my eyes tight enough, I can see a bright light ebb and flow in steady waves. “It’s probably one of those digital billboards,” I tell him. “Don’t they use shit like that for Hell’s Kitchen?” Adam remains unconvinced. He returns to the window after dinner, watching for the red spot flickering softly in the distance.

The days preceding our move, I thought I’d feel a deep sense of loss, some invisible pull, the city calling my name in code. I’d heard storied accounts of people turning down love and career-making positions to stay because they’d seen a showtimer sing on the A that afternoon, and the whole thing had renewed their faith in life. But I hadn’t taken the train in months. Still unemployed, I was spending most of my time browsing virtual galleries instead of job listings. I found myself skipping past the hot color-shapes of acrylic styrofoam, drawn instead to handsome landscapes of the countryside. There was a powerful simplicity to the open fields, to the idea of men painting under wartime conditions, at farmhouses of retired cattle-ranchers. I’d close my eyes and imagine myself among them: a cool possibility.

When I opened them again, all my shit was overflowing from its shelves, spilling onto limited square footage.

We left New York for Virginia after Adam was offered a tenure-track position in the English faculty at VCU. It wasn’t the countryside but it was twice his pay. “I can say no if you want to stay,” Adam had said, and I could tell he was being sincere—he had that deadpan look in his eye, face slightly cocked, one brow screwed—“but we’d have enough space to zipline if we wanted to.” I said yes. Just like that, without thinking twice, I said “Let’s do it,” and our apartment was all boxes. We packed our Tupperware into the tawny bedside drawers, taped them shut, and stacked them in the back of a U-Haul truck.

I took one last look before leaving. Thick lines of dust marked the jagged edges of frames we took off the walls. The space was boxy, grey. It was shrinking, now, without us, and I felt it—a high-intensity smallness.

Our whole life in boxes. We drove them across state lines, unloaded them in the hallway of a new apartment. Unpacked them.

I didn’t think Adam would feel much about leaving. I’d lived in the city far longer than him. He was already himself when he got there; early-thirties, a wardrobe full of button-cuffed, hyper-breathable dress shirts that belonged to the same color palette. What could he have to lament? But Adam wept as he reassembled our bed. “I miss our building,” he said, cupping a roll of wooden slats in his hands. “All we left behind are shadows.” It was the sort of fully-formed realization I’d only read in books of poetry, but Adam’s language came alive to me. Compacted. A whole world of emotions wrapped tightly into six words, a seal coming apart.

I watched him wipe warm tears with the bottom of his palm, face angled toward the raw concrete wall. I put my hand on the soaked back of his t-shirt. I knew then we had made a horrible mistake, but sometimes I think we need to say yes, if only to know the worst.

I’ve been sleeping easy since the move, a fact that’s been difficult to confront. Adam leaves for a run at daybreak. I pretend I can’t hear him jostling the insides of his bag for earphones. I wait for the sound of the door closing and fall back asleep. I dream the same vacant dream I’ve been dreaming for the past week: I’m in a black car on a stretch of nameless street. I look down at my body and realize my seatbelt isn’t fastened. I fasten it.

In the morning, I expect to wake to a wave of free-floating guilt, but there’s a pair of northern cardinals singing two-parted whistles on our balcony. I step outside to take it all in, the vast expanse, the swirl of orange-pink sky, the geometric progression of five-story rooftops. I look for the fire, a digital billboard of some sort, but all I see is a giant ad for the Powerball jackpot above the train tracks. It’s always big, the sign reads. The dot matrix is blacked out to show an updated prize of $450 million.


Our new space can’t accommodate a zipline but it’s large enough that I can hear Adam without knowing exactly where he is. There is comfort in this, in spectral observation.

“There’s a Welcome Lunch today,” Adam says. I follow the shadow of his voice to the bedroom closet, where he’s toweling off wet hair. I watch him thumb through his row of dress shirts indecisively. “How’s this?” he asks, holding up a gray button-down. I suggest his half-sleeved denim shirt instead. He puts it on. He looks younger—a version of himself I recognize from old bar table polaroids—and for a moment I forget where we are.

“Do you want to come?” he asks. “Errol’s bringing his wife.”

I look down at my red pajamas, worn tissue-thin at the thighs. “I’m not ready.”

“I mean, I’m happy to wait.”

I want to tell Adam that I’m trying to say I’m not ready in the larger sense, that my period of prolonged unemployment has lulled me into a permanent cotton-blend haze I can’t seem to part. And I hate these kinds of things—tables routinely divided into sides with colleagues on one end and wives on the other like some sort of sad, suburban, pre-teen boy-girl birthday party, and—

“It’s just lunch,” Adam says. “Plus, it’s outdoors.”

“Fine.” I cede. The word rushes up my throat like an admission of guilt. “Give me, I don’t know, twenty minutes.”

At lunch, I’m the only non-white non-academic present, like always. My side of the table is relegated to conversation about children, or giving up academia for children, or homeschooling, I can’t keep track. Becky, Errol’s wife, asks if Adam and I have ever thought about kids. I tell her sure, just to keep the conversation polite. A woman who introduces herself as Chrysel tells me she’s recently “gotten into” making her own laundry detergent out of castile soap and baking soda. “Once you experience the all-natural…” she says, waving her manicured hands with spiritual passion. I mentally prep myself to answer the inevitable “so what do you do?”—I could say that I used to work in the music industry back in New York (true), or that I recently quit my job in PR (stretching the truth), or that I’m a self-employed writer (vague and gray), or that I like to get high and study the tacky interiors of nineties movies until I’m bleary-eyed and supine, wondering if the sound I heard was a spirit or a murderer (too sad and real).

But the question doesn’t come up. More nods and smiles and inside jokes. It occurs to me that I should feel less lonely in the company of other women my age, that perhaps I’ve lived my years wrong and stayed frozen at the age of twenty-three, old enough to order drinks at the bar but too young to think about posterity. I briefly consider painting my nails pastel pink and taking up a gym membership. I picture my old self day-drunk in Alphabet City, smoking cigarettes outside Sophie’s. Was I happy then? Or was unhappiness so all-affecting that it was almost accepted, neutralizing?

Every now and then the word “triangulate” pokes out of conversation from the other end, and I am inspired to embark on a one-woman drinking game with spicy brunch margaritas—a decision I begin to regret as soon as the bread bowl is emptied. I check my purse for cigarettes.

Where do you step out to smoke if you’re already outdoors?


On the drive home, it begins to rain. Mist to downpour within seconds.

“That wasn’t so bad, right?” Adam turns to me. He looks hopeful.

“No, not at all,” I say, trying to sound like the movie version of myself. “Is that hail?”

I point to small buttons of ice deposited on the windshield.

“I guess.”

“Do you realize it always rains over the weekends here?”

“Is that true?” he asks.

“I think so.”

Sometimes I wonder if we got too comfortable with the lag in our conversations.

“Music?”

“Yes, please.”

A familiar swell of guitar quickly identified as Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny”—we hum along, shyly at first, then Adam turns up the dial and I feel encouraged, our karaoke voices rising with each eight-six-seven-five-three-oh-nine, Adam drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. When I start to recognize the streets that lead to our building, I float the idea.

“Hey!” I say.

“Hey!” he says. “What’s up?”

“What if we keep driving?”

“Keep driving?”

“Yeah, like a road trip.”

“You want to go on a road trip,” he repeats with a steady voice, enthusiasm dwindling.

“Yeah, come on, it’ll be fun.”

“Now?”

The music fades. We lose the moment. I lose my nerve.

“Never mind. It was just a thought.”

I secretly wish for an impulsive swerve—I want desperately to delight in overcorrection—but Adam makes the turn to the garage. The engine dies. Silence.


A package arrives the next evening. Adam quickly unboxes it, removing a smaller box with a stock picture of flamingos on a tropical coast. I haven’t seen him this animated since the move.

“What did you get?”

I watch him pull out a pair of black binoculars from the smaller box, uncapping the lenses.

“We’re about to take a closer look at the fire.”

“You mean the digital billboard?”

“I guess we’re going to find out.”

“It’s still raining, Adam, I don’t think you’ll be able to see much.”

Adam opens the blinds and perches himself on the arm of the couch. He fiddles with the lenses.

“Anything?”

He sets the binoculars down at the table next to the fern, and returns to them each night after dinner. A week passes by, and the results yielded are same each time: the fire remains just beyond the scope of magnification.

When Adam is at work, I pull out a bag of edibles from the bedside drawer—untouched since he accepted the job—and slice a gummy bear into two halves. I place the gooey head on my tongue and print out a map of our new city, trying to make sense of the yellow lines. I learn the names of the neighborhoods—Oakwood, Blackwell, Bellemeade—I repeat them to myself, an incantatory loop I hope might regionalize me on accident. I mark several locations we could drive to, get a closer look. When the lines start to snake and breathe, I pick up Adam’s binoculars and peer into strange apartments. I keep thinking I’ll catch a couple fucking by the window, or at least a glimpse of someone standing naked in the kitchen, but all I see is glare from distant television sets and a man typing furiously at his computer. I set the binoculars down.


I think of all the times we used to watch people on the fire escape of my old apartment, Adam and I, before we got together. Him trying to find his balance, the first time, as he held his hand palm-out against cracked paint to demonstrate the Michigan mitten. We were two sets of cosmic possibilities, converging—it didn’t matter what we were searching for; just that we were looking together. We’d peer into kitchen windows across the street, I’d make a jab about how some woman arranged her wine bottles, and he’d look at me with a roaring newness. Once, as we watched a couple piece together a puzzle on their coffee table, he asked me: “Are we just them to other people?”

Of course we were, and we still are, but I didn’t answer. I didn’t want it to be true.

I wish we could climb back through that window, just to make the moment ours again.


I look at the flickering light in the distance. The Powerball jackpot with its updated prize of $636 million glistens through cobweb string. I want to shake the stillness, keep moving. I want to inhabit the fire, somehow.


When Adam comes home, I hand him the map, my hands shaking with nervous energy.

“What’s this?” he says, putting his bag down.

“The fire, I think we could drive to it.” I point at the spot I’ve marked.

He hesitates, and I half-expect him to call me out on my bullshit, tell me I need to find something meaningful to occupy my time if I can’t get a job. But Adam says “let’s go,” and I can tell he means it, face slightly cocked, one brow screwed, and we head out in search of the elusive fire.

We drive in circles for an hour, over Oakwood, Blackwell, Bellemeade, but there’s no sign of smoke, blazing light. Or even a digital billboard. Just the train tracks, too big and too close.

I feel like a perfect fool. I want to tell Adam I’m sorry. I’m sorry for missing the mark on the map, for being bad at faculty lunches, for being so damn lonely for a place that only exists in the past. I want to tell him I’ll try harder, but I’m not ready. I don’t want to go home yet.

“What if we keep driving?” I say.

I look down at the James River from my window. Adam reaches for my hand over the cupholder.

There’s water all around us.