The Architecture of Desire

As a general rule, a single person should not live with a couple – it is a recipe for heartbreak – but back in those days, the three architecture students did not know that. They found a cavernous apartment near the university and moved in together. Back in those days, rents in Cambridge were low, but this place was ridiculously cheap, eight hundred dollars a month. It was a dump. A fourth-floor walk-up, barely any heat, horsehair insulation in the walls, but the windows faced north, flooding the apartment with golden light.

Ali chose the room in the front, overlooking Massachusetts Avenue, since he was from India and did not mind the street noise. Miles and Philomena had separate rooms along the dark hallway, but they slept together in Philomena’s room and had sex every night. When Ali imagined them, Miles was always on top, his pale legs scissoring into Philomena’s brown flesh, because she was always so passive. They were a striking couple: Miles was blonde and bearded, a carpenter, a Jesus figure, while Philomena was from the war-torn island of Sri Lanka. She had hair down to her waist, but she always wore it twisted into a demure braid. 

Ali tried to stay out of their way, but he couldn’t help noticing things: Miles talked to Philomena in an offhand, almost-arrogant way, and he’d vanish for long periods, driving up to Vermont to hang out with his beer-brewing friends. With Miles gone, anxiety would flicker through Philomena’s eyes, and she’d sleep with the lights on. He noticed other things, too: Philomena’s soft, gentle voice, the dark circles of exhaustion under her eyes, the way she hid her body under baggy sweatshirts.

One day he found himself smelling her towel, inhaling the sweet coconut oil she used in her hair. Ashamed, he quickly put it down, but her smell haunted him.

That winter – as Miles’s absences grew, as the days became shorter, as snow piled up outside, filling the apartment with dazzling white light – the fragile equilibrium between the three of them started to unravel.

***

Every night followed the same routine. Ali lay in his freezing bedroom and listened to Philomena praying at an altar she’d created in the hallway – a small gold Buddha, incense sticks, and photographs of her dead student friends, Tamil activists who’d been killed in the civil war. After that, she’d join Miles in their bedroom, and the rusty, rhythmic creaking of their bedsprings would begin.  When they were done, the apartment would settle into silence, broken only by the rustle of mice scurrying inside the walls.

In the depth of winter, Ali heard, close to dawn, a new sound: bare feet shuffling up and down the worn linoleum in the hallway. Since he had been raised in India by country-born nursemaids who told him ghost stories, he did not investigate, but pulled the comforter over his head and fell back into a troubled sleep. 

He woke at dawn with a tense feeling in his stomach. Maybe it was the non-stop work ethic at the university, maybe it was his pockmarked studio professor, who mumbled endlessly about directional fields, maybe it was the intense cold – whatever it was, he was falling behind with his design assignments. While the others worked away effortlessly – Miles built a topographic model of the Charles River in the living room, and Philomena constructed, in her bedroom, a tall skyscraper out of balsa wood – Ali spent hours at the kitchen table, drawing cramped, confused designs that he crumpled up and discarded.

That morning, Ali gathered up his yellow tracing paper and pens and walked down the hallway, expecting the living room to be empty, but instead there was Philomena, curled up on the old pink couch, fast asleep and shivering. What was she doing here? Had she quarreled with Miles?

When awake, Philomena was always in motion, cooking or talking, and it was hard to really look at her, but now she lay motionless on the couch, clad only in a blue sleeveless nightgown that was intended for Sri Lanka’s tropical heat, and the slanting northern light knifed through it, outlining her small breasts, full hips and muscular legs.

Ali did not dare to touch her. He covered her with a worn blanket and went into the kitchen next door, made a mug of hot, sweet tea, and stared at his next design assignment. It said:

HABITATION: Create a spatial sequence of three or more inhabitable territories. It must include both without and within. Draw on the taxonomy you have previously developed, using the concepts of enfilade, procession and arcade. What are the cultural patterns embedded in this spatial experience? Explore.

What the hell did it mean? Instead of working, Ali stared out of the kitchen window. All around them, the old factories had been demolished, leaving empty lots, and only the Necco Confectionery factory was still functional. Its tall smokestack belched out clouds of peppermint-smelling smoke which mixed with Ali’s own raw panic and made it hard to breathe.

Still asleep, Philomena began to mumble in Sinhala, and it sounded as though she was pleading with someone. Ali went and woke Miles, who stumbled out, smelling of raw sleep and ganja. He carried Philomena back to bed, and kicked the door shut. Philomena’s confused mumble was followed by Miles’s calm voice, and then the sound of one body slithering over another. The frantic creaking of the bedsprings began, getting louder; it was as though Philomena wanted to be obliterated.

It was all too much for Ali. He gathered up his things, left the apartment, and headed for the overheated architecture studio at the university.

***

A week later, Ali came back from the studio late at night to find Miles sprawled on the battered pink couch in the living room, still wearing his tool belt. He had a part-time job building stages for rock concerts, and that night his bonus was the fragrant plastic baggie he waved at Ali. Philomena didn’t like them smoking in the house, so they walked out onto the back porch.

“It’s getting out of control, man,” Miles said ruminatively, lighting up a joint. “It’s getting crazy.”

“What do you mean?” Ali took a drag and passed it back to him.

“She’s sleepwalking, man. Every night.”

Sleepwalking. That explained everything. Why hadn’t he figured that out?

“I mean,” Miles continued, “last night, she was trying to open the front door. What’s gonna happen if she sleepwalks down Massachusetts Avenue? It’s all the stuff she’s seen in Sri Lanka…the civil war and stuff…fucks you up, man.”

Miles always talked very slowly, as though puzzling out the meaning of each word.

“She has this nightmare, that she’s walking home through the city. They’re pulling people out of their cars, pouring kerosene over them and setting them on fire. That’s when she starts sleepwalking. Weirdest thing is, she won’t tell me if it’s just a dream, or if it really happened.”

Ali remembered the tart smell of kerosene from childhood in India: They’d fill lanterns with it during blackouts, and it burned fiercely, leaving dark rings of soot on the ceiling.

“Now she sleeps with the light on. The whole fucking night. It’s driving me crazy, man. What am I gonna do?”

“What can you do? Hopefully it’ll stop.”

“Yeah, but when? This is getting too heavy.”

“Miles? Why are you two whispering? It’s late, Miles.”

Philomena slipped in between them, smelling of toothpaste and the coconut oil she used in her hair. She took a drag of the joint, and the three of them stood silently, linked by wraiths of smoke. A few minutes later, Philomena whimpered and leaned into Miles, high already. The Necco Confectionery factory let out a plume of smoke and suddenly the air smelled of sickly sweet peppermint.

“Shit,” Miles said, “I’m an ice-cube. The joint is all yours, man.”

Ali thanked him. He watched the two of them walk through the lit kitchen, and down the long hallway; looking along the outside face of the building he saw Philomena’s arms pulling down their window shade.

Ali finished the joint and flicked the butt away and its glowing tip arced through the darkness, creating a trail of light. Vapors of peppermint, thin and high, filled his nostrils, reminding him of his unfinished design assignment, and the constriction in his chest returned. He told himself that it would pass. He went back inside, climbed into his icy bed and pulled two comforters and a sleeping bag over himself.

***

Something cold woke him.

A siren song was fading from his head, and when he opened his eyes, he was standing barefoot in the dark hallway, his hand on the brass doorknob to Philomena’s room. Through the door he heard her shallow breathing and Miles’s slow voice.

“Yeah? What’s up?”

Another few steps and Ali would have walked through the door. What then? Would he have slipped into bed with Philomena, searching for her mouth with his? This is where the logic of his dream was headed.

The door opened and Miles looked out, blue eyes naked and unfocussed.

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry man,” Ali said, copying Miles’s whisper. “I must still be stoned. I thought this was the bathroom.”

Miles nodded slowly. He’d seen stranger things.

“Hey,” he said, “Can I use the head first? I’ve gotta piss real bad.”

Ali leaned against the cold wall, listening to the hard spatter of urine. When Miles finished, he went back into their bedroom, muttered “Fuck it,” and the light clicked off.

In the bathroom mirror Ali saw his pale, exhausted face: four hours of sleep a night, six cups of coffee a day and still his assignments weren’t complete. Had his exhaustion, plus the weed, led him to sleepwalk?

The lock on Ali’s bedroom door was broken, so he wedged a chair under the doorknob and balanced a tall pile of books on the seat. If the chair was moved, the sound of falling books would wake him.

It took him a long time to fall asleep. Sometime close to dawn he heard the soft slither of Philomena’s bare feet, and next morning, there she was, lying on the pink couch, saliva dribbling from her mouth and puddling into the cushion. Ali covered her up, went into the kitchen and stared at the handout for the next design assignment. This one said:

THRESHOLDS: We will interrogate and deconstruct an architectural element that is ubiquitous yet invisible: the threshold, and particularly, the door. We will look at practical considerations (connection, dis-connection) as well as symbolic uses (access, denial). Your exploration of the door should choose from one of these programs: embassy/checkpoint; educational institution; hospital/mental asylum.

He stared at the words, but all he could think about was Philomena lying on the couch next door, her long eyelashes fluttering as she dreamed. 

***

A month passed. It was deep winter now, and the world was stark black-and-white. Early one morning, Ali stood in the kitchen, peered into the refrigerator and started swearing.

“That’s it,” he said to himself, “I’m moving out, I can’t take this.”

Now, along with her sleepwalking, Philomena was cooking incessantly. The goddamn fridge was full of plastic boxes of food: cashew-nut curry, jackfruit, string-hoppers; there was no place for Ali to put the eggs and bread that he had just bought. Philomena’s food taunted him through the clear plastic, and he desperately wanted a plateful of hot curry and rice, but instead he scrambled some eggs in a skillet and ate straight from it.

Ever since his stoned sleepwalking episode, he’d spent his nights working in the studio, and returned to the apartment early in the morning, when it was silent as a tomb. He hadn’t seen Philomena in days, and the only trace of her was the cooking pots she left soaking in the sink.

That morning, though, Philomena and Miles were awake: he heard them arguing in the bedroom, and then Philomena walked into the kitchen. Ali looked up – it was her skillet, and she didn’t like him eating directly from it – but that day she didn’t seem to notice.

She made a soft boiled egg, placed it in an eggcup, and ate like a cat, licking bits of white from deep within the fractured shell. That morning her hair was shiny, and a black ribbon was woven through her plait; even the dark semicircles underneath her eyes enhanced her beauty. As usual, she plunged right into the middle of a conversation.

“Best way to cook a soft boiled egg,” she said, “How? Come on, I taught you this before.”

Ummm, six minutes?”

“Wrong. Three and a half. Start in cold water or boiling water?”

Cold, boiling, what did it matter? Ali was happy to just sit with her. He shrugged.

Miles walked yawning into the kitchen and yanked open the fridge. He noticed Philomena eating and spoke slowly and reasonably.

“Hey. They said don’t eat anything, okay? It’s probably not a good idea, eggs and stuff, okay? They said, an empty stomach.”

Philomena rose, opened the lid of the trashcan and threw the half-eaten egg into it. She turned and glared at Miles.

“Satisfied?”

The fetid, rotten smell of garbage filled the room.

Ali said, “Oops, I forgot to empty the can, it’s my turn, I know, sorry,” and got up to leave.

Miles said, “No, man, you’d better stay.”

Shit. Now Miles was going to bring up Ali’s sleepwalking episode; he was going to say that he was tired of Ali sniffing around Philomena, that he had to leave. Ali started to assemble an explanation: It only happened once, I was stoned. It will never happen again. I swear, I promise.

Miles spoke woodenly while looking out of the window.

“I’m moving out, man. It’s where we’re at right now. Best thing for us. I’ll find you guys another roommate.”

Ali was stunned. Another roommate? He was the damn roommate! Miles had dragged in the pink couch, painted the walls canary yellow, built the shelves for Philomena’s spices. This was his kitchen table, his dishes. Even Philomena was his.

Miles read Ali’s mind, and waved his hand around the kitchen.

“You guys keep all the stuff, okay?”

Right then, Ali thought only of Miles’s generosity and felt guilty, as though all this was all his fault.

Philomena sat listening, dry eyed, and looked steadily at Miles. Then she said, “Lets go, we can’t be late for the appointment.”

She put on her olive-drab army coat and long scarf, and they left. Ali went to the window and watched them in the parking lot, sitting side by side in Miles’s old Volkswagen van. Its engine caught and died, then ground into life. Philomena’s dark head looked straight ahead, and her hands lay lifeless in her lap.

***

Miles moved out to a place across the river. Philomena spent hours inside her room, talking on the phone with him and crying. She stopped cooking and became very thin.

The academic year ground on to its end. Ali survived, but just barely, with many incomplete design assignments that he had to finish over the summer; instead of flying home to India, he stayed in the apartment, and got a brainless job at the architecture library. Miles found a gig in upstate Vermont, building houses with a bunch of ponytailed guys, and left town. Philomena decided to accelerate her time at the university and finish her thesis over the summer; she was developing a prototype for a tropical skyscraper.

She set up shop in the living room, and one evening Ali came home to find every light burning and Philomena pecking miserably at her electric typewriter. He moved his old Apple II computer into the living room and spent an evening teaching her how to switch it on, how to put in a disk, how to cut and paste. He grabbed her long-fingered hand and taught her to double-click the mouse.

To thank him, she said that she would make him chicken curry the next day, and he came home early to help her. Before she started, she twisted her hair up into a bun, the glossy bundle too heavy for her slim neck. Her hands moved deftly, plucking bottles of spices from the shelf.

“These are cloves,” she said, sticking a handful under his nose. “You know cloves?”

She said, “This is how you break cinnamon sticks. This is how you float curry leaves.” 

Seeing his incomprehension, she wrinkled up her snub nose at him.

Chee, you don’t know how to cook anything? You left India when you were too young, you had too many useless American girlfriends, that’s the trouble. Don’t worry, I’ll fix you up. You’ll be a hot catch when I’m done teaching you to cook.”

Ali turned away and hid his face in the steam rising from the rice.

The kitchen was too hot, so they took their food out onto the back porch and ate while the setting sun turned the smokestacks of the Necco factory a dull orange. With Miles gone, Philomena could make the chicken curry as spicy as she liked; Ali’s tongue burned, but he ate everything and urged her to make it spicier the next time.

After dinner, Philomena said she would help him with his unfinished assignments. They stood at the kitchen table together and read an assignment that had stumped Ali for weeks. It said:

SHELTER: For our final project, each student must choose a marginal site in Cambridge. Concentrate on liminal spaces: alleys, rooftops, sheds, ruined/abandoned buildings. Design a space for you to live. Project your life decades into the future to accommodate any additional needs that may arise. Concentrate on the practical, but remember, architecture always satisfies multiple human needs: Do not sacrifice beauty.

Ali frowned. “I have no idea what my life is going to be like. How do I even start?”

Philomena crossed her arms and stared at him.  “Well, what do you want from life?”

 “Fuck if I know. Survive architecture school?”

“Look, to design something, you have to draw on your emotions, your memories. What’s your favorite place in the whole world?”

Ali thought for a moment. “My grandfather’s old house. In India.”

“And how does the light work there?”

“They have these wooden shutters on the windows, you can open and close sections. And each window has a stained-glass transom above.”

“That’s a start. Maybe you design a house where light is a priority. See, what you do is…”

She showed him how to draw sketches of different ideas, to quickly create and discard options.

“Don’t try to get it right the first time,” she said. “You’ll freeze up. Relax. Play. Design is iterative.”

Ali felt as though a weight had been lifted from his chest. He began to draw, and Philomena sat next to him, and offered guidance in her soft voice.

And that’s how the summer progressed: every evening they made dinner together, and afterward Ali sat at the kitchen table, working on his design, which soon evolved into a tiny rooftop aerie, high above the city, with a sleeping loft, and one wall of windows that could be modulated by an elaborate system of wooden shutters. Philomena tap-tapped away at the computer in the living room, and sometimes Ali went over to read what she had written – paragraphs about creating sky-gardens, about the importance of letting sun and rain fall into a tropical skyscraper – and he leaned in close and inhaled the scent of her hair.

One night, after they had been sitting in silence, Philomena sighed, leaned back, unbraided her hair and shook it open. It fell down her back, thick and lustrous. Staring absentmindedly at the computer screen, she asked Ali to comb out the knots. He stood behind her, his hands trembling, and followed her instructions; when the teeth of the comb raked against her scalp, she sighed with pleasure.

“Thanks,” she said. “It helps me to think better.”

That night Ali fell asleep with his hands smelling of her hair. As usual, Philomena stayed up late working on her thesis. When she got tired, she’d walk over to the pink couch – piled high with photocopies, reference books and layers of yellow tracing paper – sweep everything off it, and fall asleep there, all the lights burning around her.

She had stopped sleepwalking, and Ali told himself that it was because he was good for her. He felt a twinge of guilt, because he was hiding something. Since Philomena never checked their mailbox, that task had fallen to him, and, a week ago, he found, amongst the grocery store flyers, a postcard of a scrubby mountain in Vermont; on the back Miles had scrawled some banal, neutral message, and the phone number of the place he was living. Ali had meant to give Philomena the postcard, but seeing her so calm, he decided to hold off, and slipped it under his mattress.

There was no need to upset her just now. Miles’s stupid postcard could wait.

***

By midsummer the days were endless.

Late one evening, Ali was hurrying back to the apartment after watching a movie; he’d finished his last assignment, and it looked good: it was both practical and poetic, an amalgam of modern architecture and Ali’s memories of India. To celebrate, he’d invited Philomena to the movie, but she said that she didn’t want to interrupt her writing routine.

Ali walked down Massachusetts Avenue, which was deserted at this time, except for a curious trail of conical paper cups strewn down the sidewalk. He followed them and came upon a van serving lemonade to men who wore black jackets with bumblebee yellow stripes; it took him a second to realize that they were firemen. Further down the Avenue, fire engines were skewed across the street, obscuring his view, and the sky was bright orange.

Their apartment building was ancient, dry as tinder, and Philomena always ignored the fire alarm. Ali sprinted down the street and saw that the building directly across the street from theirs – a five story walk-up – was burning fiercely. It was the same vintage as their own apartment building, from the 1880’s, with an ornate copper cornice and bands of patterned brickwork. Now its stunned inhabitants stood on the street, clad in pajamas, and watched tendrils of flame reach out from deep inside, soundlessly shattering windows.

 Ali ran up the stairs to their apartment. The living room and kitchen were empty, and he found Philomena standing at the bay window in his bedroom, looking across the street at the conflagration.

He said her name and she jumped.

“Hellava thing, no?” she said quietly. “It’s been burning for an hour.”

“It’s a four alarm fire, for sure. Jesus. How did it start?”

“Must have been some fuel inside. Look at the way it is burning. Varnish, maybe, from the furniture store downstairs.”

He stood next to her and watched the show: firemen on ladders fed water into the blaze, while others stood behind the fire engines and gulped lemonade, as though at a picnic.

Philomena’s voice came from far away.

“That’s the best way to set a fire, you know. Heap up any old thing, soak it with petrol and set it alight. The walls burn first. Then the floors collapse. When air comes in from the roof, there’s no stopping it.”

Philomena shivered and her eyes were unnaturally bright.

“Hey,” Ali said, “hey, it’s okay. We’re safe here. The firemen have it under control.”

Her chest heaved and she closed her eyes, and he realized she was crying. He took her into his arms – she was as yielding as a child – pulled her into his chest and held her, amazed at what he was doing.

 “You’re freezing,” he said, “get into my bed.”

She lay down on his futon, and he covered her with blankets, hesitated for a moment, and then slid in next to her. She did not resist his embrace, but somehow she was absent.

They lay listening to the crackle of the flames. She spoke softly, her breath warm in his ear.

“Gas cylinders go boom,” she said. “But if you’ve hidden ammunition inside your house, that goes pop, pop, pop. During the war they’d burn your house and then listen to the noise. Easier than searching the whole place. Pop, pop, pop; if it’s ammunition, they just make you kneel and shoot you in the head.”

She laughed soundlessly.

“Not very elegant, no? But quite effective. When they burned our house they lined us up facing it. My father, my mother, my brother, and me. I was calculating in my head, okay, the beams will take one hour to burn through, the tile roof will collapse then, it will be over. I told my mother, Ma, don’t worry, nothing to be afraid of. But then I remembered something. You know what it was?”

Ali shook his head, No.

“My father’s soda decanters. Cut-glass and pressurized. I kept thinking, why can’t the old fool drink his soda from a bottle? But no, he had to have decanters! If those blew up, one by one, pop, pop, pop, then we were dead.”

She leaned forward and hugged her knees.

“Our house took five hours to burn. The beams were thick teak wood. Luckily the men got bored. They let us go and they set fire to the house next door. Bloody decanters, man!”

“Hey,” Ali said, “that was years ago. It’s all over now.”

Philomena must have seen the worried expression on his face, because she turned to him, her face illuminated by the firelight.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll be fine. You’ve been very good to me, but I’m not your responsibility. Miles knows how to handle me. He just got freaked out, that’s all – it was too much for him. He’ll be back.”

Ali looked confused, and she continued, “I thought you knew about it. That morning, when he didn’t want me to eat the egg – I had an abortion.”

Philomena gently removed Ali’s arm from around her shoulders. She stood up, walked out of his room and shut the door gently behind her.

Ali remained in bed. Across the street, the fire burned on in muffled silence, as though the flames had eaten all the sound. He sat for hours, staring at the firelight flickering on the walls. He must have dozed off, because when he woke the fire was out, and it was curiously quiet. In the silence, he heard a shuffling noise.

He opened his door: it was Philomena, walking down the hallway in her faded blue cotton nightgown, her eyes open, but completely blank, mumbling something in Sinhala.

He did not go to her that night. He finally understood that her sorrows were enormous, and that he did not have the strength to save her. Tomorrow he would retrieve Miles’s postcard, and call the number on it, and Miles would drive down from Vermont in his battered Volkswagen van and reassure her in his calm, measured voice. The frantic creaking of the bedsprings would resume.

Whatever. Ali was exhausted. He craved sleep, but when he got back into bed he found his body infused with a strange, electric energy. Outside his room Philomena’s bare feet slithered endlessly over the worn linoleum, until finally, at dawn, she climbed onto the battered pink couch and fell asleep.

Ali got out of bed and walked to the window: the top two floors of the building across the street had burned away completely, leaving a shocking view of the pale morning sky. As the sun rose, the light, unobstructed now, poured into Ali’s room, golden and clear and powerful. It burnished every surface and illuminated the dark corners of his room. Everything looked different, and very strange.

Photo Credit: Zbigniew Mierzwinski via CC0 1.0

About the author

Amin Ahmad was raised in India, and worked as an architect for many years before turning to fiction. His essays and stories have been published in literary magazines and listed in Best American Essays. As A.X. Ahmad, he is the author of the suspense novels The Caretaker and The Last Taxi Ride. He teaches creative writing at Duke University.

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