It was the damp we remember best, the sour smell of wet skin, the webs of moisture that crisscrossed the backs of our necks. We remember the mosquitoes, the beads of blood that made bracelets around our wrists. Back home we’d known dry heat: the strings of days when rain did not rap its knuckles against our roofs. We knew the sweet dust that stuck to our tongues like chickpea flour, the rough touch of dried up bark. Here we soaked our hair every night and bled dark shapes into our pillowcases. Each morning the shapes would dry up, erasing us. We were always making ourselves again.
We recall how the heat swelled that first summer between our husbands’ bodies and our own, pushed us in opposing directions like batteries of the same charge. We slept apart, kissed with economy, exchanged cold and measured words. Each morning they left us to drive across the long silver bridges to towns that looked like abandoned theater sets, all red brick and white wood. There, they worked in laboratories, hunched over desks in chilled gray cubicles with their eyes dark behind tinted goggles, heads bent over test tubes. Their coworkers mocked our husbands’ accents in the halls, sliced their names on untrained tongues. But at night our husbands only told us of a new discovery. They’d punctured cells. They’d broken membranes. Invisible creatures swam across their slides and drowned in drops of dye.
We listened to their stories and longed for the day we too could return to our labs. We scrubbed dishes with gloved hands and thought of unseeable countries we’d find swirling beneath our microscopes. We lifted our children and pictured celestial bodies hurling themselves through space. But as the days tickered by we learned new words in English and grew more fluent in silence, the language in which we made our own discovery: that loneliness has hundreds of edges.
But don’t mistake our story for a love letter to a dead place. We were happy. We watched our children run across the blacktop below an orange-bleeding sky and shake their limbs in the choreography of belonging. We ate food we made with our own wise hands. Our husbands wrote poetry. We picnicked in the state park in late July, all the families traveling in a caravan of second-hand cars, windows cracked open, bagfuls of sunflower seeds next to boxes of tea and shiny blue kettles and cold watermelon halves wrapped in plastic gleaming from the seats, the crooning of our aging pop singers measuring out the miles for which we hurled ourselves into future.
Back home the bombs fell and concrete gave and we kept humming the songs we knew by heart. We danced on the grass, our most original moves from 1972. Our children held sandwiches too big for their hands. Our husbands played badminton on sand courts, and we arranged paper plates in elegant patterns on the tablecloth, spelling out our names. The tea steamed from the electric kettle, locked its scent into the leaves our children chewed into with loosening teeth.
It wasn’t until mid-afternoon when we trekked into the belly of the park to shelter from the sun, that we noticed the damp again. The moisture kissed the backs of our calves, already sticky with repellant, but we marched ahead, determined to see this new country bloom loud beneath our feet, the earthworms that burrowed into piles of dead leaves, the scamper of deer that paused our children as they pinched fireflies in the dirt. Come this way, the deer were saying. We followed the sound of their hooves.
The wives walked together and the husbands huddled behind, telling jokes. Hands slapped backs, clasped shoulders, arms interlocked. We were reminded of our weekend camping trips as youths, when we’d drive out into the desert and sleep in tents, two bodies entwined in each vinyl bubble like snakes. We thought of the stars that illumined the desert darkness, so bright they felt like rupture, like the splash of minnows in a sleeping pond. Around the fire, smoke mingled with whispers of our future lives, lives that seemed as far away as the planets trapped inside our telescopes but were now here under our feet and embedded in lungs, pouring out of our throats in the words of English that crawled out from the backs of our minds like worms rising from the ground after rain.
A few miles in our children slowed their gait, whined for us to lift them. They curled around their father’s legs or dragged their feet through the mud. A few of them circled around a grounded butterfly whose wings had slowed their beating, like the eyelids of someone falling asleep. We tugged them away from the wildlife, pointing at the trees that were still alive, leaves rustling from the flap of bird wings and the race of squirrels around the trunks.
We looked so long at the branches, we didn’t see our friend pass by us then, didn’t notice the swell of her legs beneath her skirt, the stilted way she walked on a path separate from the rest of us. Somewhere in the periphery of our vision we might have seen her swatting the backs of her calves and her neck, but she waved her hands in a rhythm so familiar we thought she might have been dancing and so we kept laughing and our husbands kept talking and no one noticed her movements grow slower and slower or her eyes swell shut like two flowers closing up into buds until the thud of her body hitting the ground silenced us long enough to see her lying there on the other side of the creek, still breathing but no longer moving, to hear our husbands shout in alarm as the fear we hadn’t seen since the nights of our city’s bombardment returned to their faces and looked to us like a thread that would never stop unraveling; there would always be something to pull it.
Our children began to cry. We sheltered them behind the trees and asked them to stay still as we circled around our friend, our hands limp at our sides while her husband stabbed an Epipen into her thigh, already pinpricked with mosquito bites.
Later that night, she will wake up in a hospital bed near the university where our husbands worked, her body exhausted from fighting itself. There will be more sweat-soaked evenings, more picnics in state parks and she will lounge on the grass again with the rest of us, warm watermelon juice dribbling down her chin.
But for days after the picnic the rest of us will close our eyes and our future will be shaped like mosquitoes. There were dozens of them, their bodies papery and soft and still. And dozens more of them hovered inches above the water next to our feet, waiting to show us their hunger.