City Tales: My Lovely Landlord, 4

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By the time the bonsai outgrew its windswept form, CT had stopped indulging in the sweet yearnings of homesickness. She discovered she no longer wished to be anywhere else: she found plenty of inspiration exactly where she was.

Dozens of canvases lined the walls, waiting to be filled. She specialized in the flotsam of urban commercialism, finding perfection in the color and form of shapes that might otherwise be overlooked. Through her years in the city, she learned to discount nothing. Everything formed a worthwhile subject.

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She showed each canvas to Atharv. He appreciated them all.

“One day,” he said, “you will create something that will stop the heart. Not for long! Just an instant.”

“An eternity.”

“And then when the heart starts to beat again, the viewer will feel that life has changed. Nothing will be the same again.”

“I’m not that kind of artist,” she said.

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“My paintings don’t mean much. They’re just pleasant to look at. Something to fill an empty corner! Maybe something that brings a smile.”

“It will happen,” Atharv said. “I have great faith in art and in the artist.”

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In spring, she included natural forms in her subject matter. She loved the juxtaposition of brick and leaf, petals and metal, wood and steel.

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Things kept breaking in the apartment. Every month or so the fuse box would spark or the pipes would leak.

“I’d think you’d find a different place, my friend!” Atharv told her. “I have properties all through the city, and many are not in need of repair.”

“But do they come with furry friends?” she asked. “And how could I get through a month without a visit from you?”

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It was a joke, for Atharv was as likely to drop by on any Tuesday as he was to come in response to a repair call.

While CT painted, Atharv cooked a meal. He seldom ate it himself, but he would carefully pack up the leftovers and store them in the fridge.

“Artists must eat!” he said. “And if they are too busy painting to cook for themselves, then someone must cook for them!”

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Winter again, and CT prepared for her first big show in the Art Center.

“So the critic will have to review her own work!” Atharv joked.

“Hardly!” she replied. “Will you come with me to the opening?” she asked. “I’m nervous. It’s silly. But I am. If I were there with someone I felt safe with, then I wouldn’t be so scared.”

“Do you feel safe with me?” Atharv asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

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In the weeks leading up to the opening, Atharv dropped by daily.

“I’m feeling so unsure of my paintings,” CT confessed.

“But why?” asked Atharv. “They are you! They show how you see the world!”

“But they’re not relevant,” CT replied. “They don’t mean anything. They’re just pleasing to look at.”

“That is not such a bad thing,” Atharv said. “If you can show beauty where it might not be seen, that is not a waste.”

“I can hear the reviews already,” CT said. “‘Derivative mish-mash of style and form, CT’s work leaves one wondering about the future of two-dimensional art.’

Atharv chuckled in spite of himself.

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“Do you remember the night we spoke of the tiger?” he asked.

She did, of course.

“You told a story that night, too.”

CT thought back to the story she had told. She had been twelve. It was a few weeks after her cat had had to be put to sleep. That was her first experience with grief and betrayal. The cat’s illness came about because of additives in the pet food that caused liver failure. Her rage and sense of injustice threatened to overwhelm her. She lost trust in the world, trust in her parents, trust in the vet. How could shops sell something that caused harm? How could pet food companies produce it? How could her parents not know this and buy it? Why hadn’t the vet warned them? How could it be so senseless?

She took long walks in the hills around her house, sometimes following them deep into the woods. When her tears stopped, sometimes, her thoughts would stop, too, and she walked for hours in a silence that was deeper within than without.

One day, after hours of silence, the trees around her began to glow. She had no words for what she saw. It was light–but it wasn’t the sunshine. It was the light of life, in each growing thing. The world around her was vibrating in light.

She watched for an instant–an eternity–until the everyday forms returned.

When she got back home, she didn’t know how to express what she had seen to anyone. She kept the story a secret within her. Atharv was the first person she’d told, after he shared his story of the tiger.

A few days before the opening, Atharv stepped into the studio. There on the easel was a painting of the light of life.

When his heart began to beat again, Atharv wrapped her in his arms. “This is the painting that does it for me,” he said. “Now nothing is the same.”

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He laughed while she fixed a pot of tea for them.

“Someday, they will say, ‘This is the apartment where ‘Light’ was painted!’ We will have to erect a plaque!”

“Nonsense,” she said. “That you like it. That’s enough.”

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She had two more paintings to finish for the opening. After they finished their tea, she returned to the easel, and Atharv stepped out onto the balcony.

He left not long after, and CT painted through the night. Shortly before sunrise, she headed to the balcony to catch the changing colors of the sky.

Atharv had trimmed the bonsai, and her own heart stopped when she saw it, for an instant. And when it beat again, nothing was the same.

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City Tales: My Lovely Landlord, 3

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Evenings in the city brought nostalgia. With roughly 837,440 people living in approximately 47 square miles, it seemed strange to feel so alone. But after a day of painting and writing, CT often realized she’d spoken to no one. Surprisingly, when she stood on her balcony looking over the empty streets, no one in the apartment building across the way ever looked out at her, standing there. She felt invisible. Her neighbors in her small town always said hello.

Fortunately, her work drew her outside many nights. She had festivals to cover, new musicians to discover, and gallery openings to review.

Walking out of the Art Center, the night air felt bracing. And when she looked up, she was startled to notice that she could still see the stars. It was as if night imposed itself over the entire region. I am Night, more powerful than city lights. You cannot dampen my stars or the depths of my darkness.

And no matter how much noise the city let loose, Night somehow absorbed it all in the silence of its space.

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Paper lanterns spread magic through the squares, and the dragon-river mural on the brick tenement seemed enchanted, moving as if it were real.

The reviews CT wrote became touched with this magic. “It’s as if you’re describing a foreign land,” her editor wrote to her in an email. “Why! Your review of the food stands in the Art District garnered 125,062 hits! The commission reports that booth sales skyrocketed!”

“It’s not supposed to be about commercialism,” CT wrote back.

“Yeah, keep believing that  :),” the editor wrote in his reply.

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CT longed to bring a bit of enchantment into her apartment. She picked up gallons of casein paints and began a mural on the studio wall. The sweet scent of caseins relaxed her. She was so focused on her painting that she didn’t hear the knocking on her door.

Her landlord let himself in with his key.

“Anyone at home?” he called. “I am here to check the suspicious smell in the hallway that the neighbors reported!”

“Back here!” she called back.

“Ah!” Atharv cried. “This is magic! And it smells like milkshakes!”

She apologized. Was the scent of the paints that strong? And was it OK she was painting the wall without permission? And she was sorry she hadn’t heard him knock.

“Too many worries!” he replied. The scent of the paints was not a problem, and the mural added beauty to the apartment, and when one is creating a thing of beauty, one cannot be expected to answer the door at any random moment.

“You’re a kind man, Atharv,” CT said, and he rewarded her with a warm smile.

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A few weeks later, he dropped by unannounced late at night.

“I was walking by, checking on the kestrel nests under the eaves of the building, and I thought to myself, ‘Let’s see how that magical mural is coming along on the wall of the studio of my favorite tenant!'”

She invited him in to see the finished work.

“This is magic!” He said. “What do you know about color properties and the ways that colors, when used with skill,  create an environment that can keep a person cheerful?”

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She didn’t know much–only what she’d learned through experience and intuition.

He shared the color principles he’d learned from his grandmother in India, who held that each color carried a specific frequency that affected mood and health.

Talk of color led to talk of light. Talk of light led to talk of growing things. Talk of growing things led to talk of wilderness, and soon they found they’d talked through the night.

Atharv told of summers he’d spent as a child on his grandparents’ tea plantation in Darjeeling.

“One summer, a tiger had been seen in the jungle surrounding the plantation. The field hands worried, keeping pitchforks and machetes always nearby. I was a wild thing, spending all my free time in the jungle. One afternoon, I climbed down a vine and there, standing right beside me was the tiger. He looked in my eyes. I looked in his. He saw the light of my eyes. I saw the light of his. It was like that.”

Atharv looked into her eyes so that the light sparked from his irises to hers.

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“That moment of connection,” Atharv said. When he got home he told his grandfather that he had met the tiger. “He’s nothing to fear!” Atharv had told his grandfather. That afternoon, his grandfather told the laborers that Krishna had come to Atharv in the jungle in the form of the tiger. They put away their pitchforks then. And the tiger harmed no one.

“But I got no peace!” Atharv said. “All the rest of that summer, people followed me everywhere I went! I was the boy who met the Holder of the Disk in the face of the tiger!”

Before the sun rose, the sky turned the color of a ripe plum. Atharv and CT walked out to the balcony, where morning felt cool and fresh.

“How long before this color changes?” Atharv asked, looking at the sky.

“Not long,” said CT. “An instant.” They watched silently. “An eternity.”

The sun rose.

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City Tales: My Lovely Landlord, 2

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Slowly, the view from the balcony stopped beckoning CT elsewhere and began to welcome her here.

Each morning, she looked for clouds. Sometimes, they were wispy remnants of fog. Other times, they preceded storms that rushed in from the ocean. Rarely was the sky without cloud, except perhaps on a chilly night. Through the months, the clouds became friends of a sort.

CT made slow friends, too, with Geeta, who lived next door with her grown son, Raj.

Sunday mornings, Geeta loved to casually drop by.

“Something smells wonderful!” She’d say. “Is that basil?”

The balcony garden provided plenty of herbs and spinach for CT’s dishes.

“It’s fresh from the garden,” CT would say. “I’ve got plenty. Take some!”

Geeta never would, though she’d always accept a plate of whichever dish CT had cooked that morning.

Atharv had stopped by to check the fuse box one Sunday when Geeta knocked at the door.

“Come in!” cried CT. “I’ve just made quiche! Grab a plate!”

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“Mr. Kumar?” said Geeta. “Rent’s not due ’til next week. I hope there’s nothing wrong with the building.”

“Oh, my dear Ms. Rasoya,” Atharv said. “Something’s always wrong with this building. Fortunately,” he added under his breath.

“It’s not rats again, is it?” Geeta asked, aghast.

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Relieved to hear that the rodent infestation hadn’t returned, Geeta finished her quiche and drank a cup of coffee before heading back to her apartment.

“The fuse box awaits,” Atharv said, as she was leaving. “Wish me luck!”

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When he finished with the faulty wiring, he found CT at her easel. He stood behind her while she worked.

“Art assumes new meaning in the city, yes?” he asked. “When Mother Nature hides, the artist helps us see that, even here, surrounded by concrete, we find beauty.”

CT thought about his words. What was beauty?

What made some shapes and patterns of colors settle the mind into a sigh?

“Fibonacci,” she said.

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Atharv stepped onto the balcony while CT continued painting. She was just squeezing a little more phthalo blue onto her palette, when he came back in.

“Tally-ho!” he said. “Until we meet again!”

By the time her attention emerged from the canvas, the front door was closing. Atharv had left.

When she reached a stopping point, she stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. In the corner of her balcony, stood her bonsai, freshly trimmed by Atharv into a windswept form.

She remembered rocky bluffs along the coast and a feeling of home rushed in on her.

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Through the winter, she often took her canvas out to the balcony. She could always find something to paint: the windswept bonsai; the container garden; a corner of night sky; the city streets.

Across the avenue, the arched windows of the Queen Anne building spoke of warmth and faded opulence. Maybe human history could be as interesting as natural history, almost.

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The apartment remained in tip-top shape for months on end: no rodents, no roaches, no sparking fuse boxes, no leaking pipes.

CT pursued her career as art critic, squeezing in plenty of time for her own painting, writing, and music.

One evening, when she was listening to a new violinist busking in the square, she heard someone call her name.

It took a moment to recognize her landlord without his tool belt and red baseball hat.

“So you really do exist!” she said.

He laughed. “Ah, yes! I am more than the apartment fix-it genii! I have a life outside the bottle of antiquity!”

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They talked about music. Atharv’s father played sitar, and he grew up with music as part of the landscape of his life.

“The ears learn young,” he said. “This is strange for me, these tones.” They listened to the Irish folk songs the violinist played. “Bach, too. Or, your favorite, Brahms. It sounds funny to me. But I learn to listen new. I learn to hear that beauty doesn’t need a drone or raga. Beauty exists in Western harmony, too! And so, my understanding of beauty, it grows!”

The next afternoon, CT looked over the Queen Anne apartments towards the hills. She still felt a pull on her heart every time she saw a natural expanse. Could she, too, experience an expansion in her understanding of beauty?

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Beauty, for her, was connected to expanse–to wide views of sky and cloud and sea. To hills that rolled back towards the horizon. To blues that belonged to nature. Was there a division between the natural and the constructed? Could beauty expand to such a degree that it integrated all? She wanted to ask Atharv how his ears managed to hear home in both the tala of the east and the meter of the west.

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City Tales: My Lovely Landlord, 1

Every day, roughly 150 people move out of the city. Some leave because old dreams have died. Others, because new dreams are born. Some lose their jobs. Others accept new positions. Some have lost love, or found love, or grown bored, or developed new interests. Some move to forget themselves, others to find themselves. Whatever change has happened, it takes them away.

These aren’t their stories. These are the stories of four of the roughly 145 people who move to the city on any particular day. And the reasons that bring them are much the same as the reasons that eventually will take them away.

CT surveyed her dank apartment, trying to hold in her mind her purpose for being here. Any recent MFA grad would consider herself lucky to have found employment within a few months of completing her degree. And to find employment that actually ties in with that degree would be even luckier.

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So when newly graduated CT came across the advertisement for arts critic with an online city magazine, she knew she had to apply. And when she was offered the position, she knew she’d be foolish not to accept.

She didn’t allow herself to consider commuting. Sure, the towns across the bay promised bucolic charms, but if she was gonna rock the talk, she’d have to rock the walk: commuting wouldn’t cut it.

She traded her old car for a bike and walking shoes, and reduced her footprint by a good 50 percent or more.

She just hadn’t realized that the city would be so much of a city. She counted all of two trees on her block, and those were spindly, suffocating things without enough leaves for the sorriest of house sparrows.

She could barely see the sky over the ugly faces of brick and concrete.

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Buck up, she told herself. The job was one-in-a-million, offering time for her own painting, music, and writing, with a salary that would keep her in oil paints and maybe, in a year or two, let her save up for a half-way decent violin.

If only the apartment held a bit more color. Think of it as a blank canvas, she thought, and her first night, she pulled out her spray paint and covered the stained, frayed carpet with a mural of rivers and stones.

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It would do, she realized, before she turned in on her first night in the city. After all, think how many people would give anything for this opportunity. Least she could do was give it a chance. Maybe she’d find a vacant lot somewhere where some wildflowers grew. Or dandelions, at the very least.

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The job kept her busy. Chasing down art shows, checking out buskers, and frequenting festivals got her out of the apartment. She had to admit, with scents of cinnamon, chocolate, and coffee, sights of rich Indian hues, and music from every country, the city had charms of its own.

Late one night, leaving an evening tea festival, she ran into the man who lived next door.

“I know you!” she said.

He raised his left eyebrow. When she explained they were neighbors, and she’d seen him getting into or out of the elevator a few times, he sighed heavily.

“I suppose this makes us friends of a sort,” he said.

“Well, acquaintances, at least!” she answered.

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She wondered sometimes if the lack of green, growing things made people grumpy. Hardly anyone smiled, ever. She hadn’t lost her country habit of walking with a grin on her face, greeting neighbors, friends, and strangers alike with a cheerful hello.

But it slowly began to occur to her that, maybe, friendliness wasn’t a trait native to the city.

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She didn’t mind. Just because she worked and lived here, she didn’t have to belong here.  She could keep her country ways so that when, at last, she followed her career out of the city, she would still remember the warmth of a smile and a friendly word.

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She found nature where she could find it: in the garden plots surrounding the squares, in the planter boxes lining the sidewalks, in her container garden on the patio, even in the cracks in the sidewalks where she might find a willow shoot or a mahonia seedling struggling to grow.

Her first response when the brown rat scampered out of the hole in the floorboard in her living room was to welcome the four-legged furry creature. But it didn’t look all that healthy. And she supposed it would find its way to the pantry, eventually.

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She dialed her landlord’s number.

“I really am not even sure if I should be calling you,” she said when he answered. “Maybe it’s something I should take care of myself? I mean, I don’t want any poison used or to have it killed, but I also think I probably shouldn’t just let it keep running around here. It might eat the wires, right? Or get into my oatmeal? Though I could feed it.”

“I’ll be right over,” said Atharv Kumar, her landlord. “No need for concern!”

When he came, he explained his methods. “This is a green zone apartment!” he said. “No poisons, no chemicals! Everything natural! No kill! No worries!”

He explained that he belonged to a capture-and-release program for mammals and birds. He and the other members of the group had been trained in using live-traps and nets, and then once the creatures were captive, they were transported to wildlands near the park, where they were released under the park manager’s supervision.

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“This is wonderful!” she said. “And you don’t mind having come over to take care of this?”

“Of course not!” replied Atharv, who suddenly leapt up, tossed his canvas work bag onto the floor, and cried, “Got it!”

Then ensued squeaking.

“Don’t hurt it!” CT yelled.

“I won’t!” said Atharv. “Can you get me a towel?”

All the towels were in the wash, but CT grabbed an old T-shirt. “Use this.”

And Atharv gently wrapped the T-shirt around the rat, who stopped squeaking and looked out at them with bright eyes. “See?” said Atharv. “I didn’t even need to use the trap.”

CT didn’t know who he was talking to, her or the rat.

“Tally-ho, then!” said Atharv, and off he and the rat went, to the wildlands beside the park.

Her heart still beating quickly from all the excitement, CT stepped out onto the balcony. A cool breeze blew in from the bay. She could see the water, if she leaned over the railing. And there was a little corner of sky, right above those hills that called to her every day.

Maybe it wasn’t home, at least not yet, but at least, from out here, she could see home.

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She thought of Atharv in his truck, with the brown rat in the canvas work bag on the passenger’s seat next to him, driving to the wildlands. At least someone is getting a new green home today! She hoped the meadows would welcome him.

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