On the drive home, Lazlo Hestia thought of Perdita’s absence. He remembered his missing wife not as a whole, but fractured: her face, her hands, any particular body part he missed, or only her voice repeating a single sentence, her last: Don’t wait for me. As he drove toward the sunset, the light reflected on the front windshield, and in the blazing view, his memories of Perdita’s crooked toenails, misshapen knees, eagle nose, and barren uterus, along with his own buried judgments began to burn, evaporating all at once. As the garage door opened, his mind had already been wiped clean of Perdita’s fragmented presence. Now, he looked forward to finishing The Fugitive, the sixth volume of In Search of Lost Time. But as soon as he set foot in the house, he detected a faint odor of smoke coming from an unknown source. Perdita-the-Parrot, his wife’s precious pet, was screeching, Quiero ser libre, I wanna be free, the only words Perdita had taught the bird. He hadn’t changed the name of the parrot as an insult or a joke, but to have a reason to call out his beloved wife’s name, and to hear someone talking to him, no matter how hurtful the words could be. Lazlo watched the parrot — screaming, flapping its wings— and wished he could teach it more meaningful sentences.
No mistake. The air smelled like smoke. He closed the freshly painted garage door and dropped the bag of groceries on the kitchen counter. He inspected the stove, the oven, and all the appliances. The smell was everywhere. In the living-room, he checked the plugs, the lamps, the TV and all the tangled cables behind it, even the ashtrays—he’d bought a set of six from Ikea years ago, though he rarely smoked and when he did, he made sure the butt were crushed. Lazlo squinted to detect any fumes in the air. Afternoon light seeped through the drapes, and dust particles danced in silent descent. He pulled the curtains open and admired the sight of the clouds hovering over far mountains on the horizon. The view, and a fond appraisal of the lower floor of this splendid home reassured him that there was no real danger. This place was his only pride. Here he was safe; nothing could happen to this house.
After leaving his home country of Poland, and settling in California, Lazlo met Perdita, an English teacher originally from Guatemala, and it was love at first sight. It took him one year to design and to build their dream house while Perdita spent all her free time finding the most extravagant pieces to furnish the rooms. “You chose the structure of the house, the thickness of the walls, and the shape of the rooms, so I should choose all the objects in it,” she told him, and he agreed. When they moved in ten years ago, every object had been selected with love and displayed with exquisite taste, in just the right place. His beloved Perdita had a penchant for cherry-stained wood and splashy oil paintings of still-life picked up at vintage stores. She covered the floors with Turkish rugs and sheepskin, and adorned the windows with layers of burgundy velvet and white tulles drapes. The gigantic crystal chandelier hung in the middle of the living-room, and would have grazed Lazlo’s head if he hadn’t learned to slouch so that his six-foot-three-inch frame wouldn’t dwarf his petite and birdlike Perdita. Their framed wedding picture on top of the slick gas fireplace made the room comparable to Home & Decor magazine’s photographs of “perfect” homes where happy families lived.
But deep down, Lazlo was a pessimist and knew that a majority of people use “perfection” — which doesn’t exist — to describe the most banal objects or facts. Perdita, his perfect wife, was an exception. Except that their perfect life ended two years ago, when Perdita, without an explanation, left and never came back.
For many days after she left, Lazlo went through Perdita’s side of the walk-in closet to study every piece of clothing to make sure there was no trace of a lover. Instead of love letters, Lazlo found Perdita’s old photo albums where she was still an innocent child and smiled at the camera with terror in her eyes. Perdita never talked about her childhood, except that she didn’t want to remember it and refused to give any details. Still, Lazlo didn’t feel offended or too curious. After all, he didn’t want to recall his own childhood either.
Lazlo’s sentimental attachment to his home had nothing to do with the fact that this was his first architectural work in the US, but this house – their bedroom to be precise– was also the last place where his beloved Perdita spoke to him. Every night, when Lazlo visualized that moment, he remembered a new detail. But in all those memories their last kiss felt lukewarm, in a rush, loveless, even sad, a detail to foreshadow what was coming his way.
He went upstairs to check every room. He passed by the open door to the nursery, as Perdita used to call it. He hadn’t set foot in that room for at least a year. That room’s only electrical appliance was the Winnie the Pooh music box attached to the crib. In his bedroom the odor was as strong as everywhere else. He wondered whether he should call the fire department but abandoned the idea as sirens blared through the half-open glass door to the balcony. He had a partial view of the boulevard; he was relieved that multiple police cars and firetrucks were rushing to save someone or something. The smell must be coming from a barbeque incident, or worse, a house burning. He shut the glass door and went downstairs to make sure all the windows were fully closed. Lazlo refreshed the bird’s water and seed buckets and tried to caress the animal like a pet, but as always, he failed. At least the parrot had calmed down, pecking at the seeds. Lazlo left the cage door open, just in case the bird decided at last to venture out, and put all the groceries in the fridge. It was time to prepare dinner in Perdita’s favorite room. He placed the salmon in the oven and took the green beans out. The island in the middle of the kitchen, with its handy secondary sink and ample room for her oversized cutting board, was Perdita's favorite feature. As he carefully cut the green beans, he remembered how many times he had observed Perdita using the same cutting board with so much joy and commotion: celery, carrots, apples, and pineapple, all cut in small pieces, flying in the air. She chopped as though in a trance, in another world where fruits and vegetables were her enemies. He had always feared she’d cut her fingers or miss the board and scratch the granite surface.
6 PM. Dinner was served: pasta with salmon and green beans. His usual Thursday menu. Lazlo took The Fugitive from his shelf, (bookmarked on page 187), and sat comfortably on the sofa. This was part of the routine he had established to indulge his tastes and pleasure. After reading a few pages, he fought against his desire to go upstairs, turn his computer on, and continue working on his masterpiece. An architect by day, Lazlo was an aspiring writer at night. His latest work, his third — the two others unpublished — was a dark literary novel questioning not the possibility of ever finding true love — which Lazlo found in Perdita, so knew existed — but of maintaining true love in a world bent on destroying it. He dedicated most of his free time to writing, except on Saturday mornings when he walked around Woodbridge Lake. Unfortunately, he rarely welcomed the time he spent outdoors. He used to enjoy walking, tantalized by the prospect of discovering new horizons and going beyond, via a simple altering of his route. During the last ten years, he had witnessed how the bulldozing of parks and single homes to build condos and apartment complexes had deprived his neighborhood of green areas and all signs of wildlife. As time passed, with advancing age and the loss of parks and hiking trails to constructions, he spent more and more time in smaller spaces. He wondered whether it had to do with the shrinking of his physical strength, or his fear of getting lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood where the street names had been effaced. Whatever the reason, staying in his room, and not leaving the house, gave him the same amount of satisfaction as if he had already conquered those horizons and gone beyond.
The phone beeped. He closed his book. It was a text from the fire department. Major winds are speeding the spread of the wildfires near freeway 260, it said. Not too far away from here. Watch out for the next notification. Pack a bag and be ready for emergency evacuation. The location of your local shelter will be on our website.
Lazlo went to the window. Perdita-the-Parrot squawked a word, impossible to decipher. He opened the curtains to locate the fire and see how close it might be. He examined the foggy view from left to right, top to bottom. The clouds appeared to descend, orange fading to black at the exact junction of the earth with the sky where the sun always set. But it was too far away for him to take the threat seriously; there were hundreds of buildings and houses between the sunset and his home. He lived in the middle of the city, surrounded by look-alike houses built along cement boulevards. Asphalt was everywhere. The only thing wild around him was this fire. The wind rattled the branches of the solitary cypress tree, the only remnant of the now-dead woods that used to be the symbol of the county. He poured himself a glass of wine, took up the book he was reading, and climbed the stairs to his room.
When Lazlo designed the house, he had initially planned to add an attic above the master bedroom, but the impossibility of building a decent staircase to the attic and the risk of suffocating the room’s natural brightness made him apprehensive. This explained the excessive height of the ceiling compared to the room’s other dimensions. The master-bedroom faced the boulevard. If he didn’t look down, he could only see the pieces of the sky framed by tree branches. And if he was bored, which rarely happened, he watched the squirrels playing on the tree in the daytime and the movement of the moon through the passing clouds at night. Most of the time he closed the door to the balcony and drew the curtains, so he wouldn’t get distracted by the outside world. Perdita continued to hope that he’d construct an attic for this room. “If you can’t do it, honey, let’s find a better architect who is not afraid of difficulty,” she said only once, or perhaps twice, but he never forgot the exasperation that darkened her brown eyes so enchantingly.
Lazlo carefully placed the wine glass on the nightstand and proceeded to his walk-in closet to change into his pajamas, but with the fire nearby, he thought he’d better be ready to flee. He packed a small suitcase, filled with an armful of necessary garments, and went back to the room. Still wearing his work outfit, he sat on the bed.
The bed and its matching pieces were his choice; Perdita let him have them, so unlike her. This was because she had a hard time finding a bedroom set that was tolerable. They looked all over town, in every furniture store, until he saw the picture of this bed in a luxury catalog at his doctor’s office, and “perfect” was the only adjective he could think of. The day the set arrived, Perdita was in the kitchen, at her chopping board, feverishly cutting pounds of potatoes in small pieces. She didn’t say a word about the huge size of every piece of the bed set, not even a single direction on where to place them. Yes, she could be that good sometimes, but her silence lasted only one day.
Lazlo checked the phone. Nothing. He adjusted the moveable computer desk adjacent to the bed and made himself comfortable by adding another pillow. He lifted the glass of wine and took a sip, opening the book to the marked page. But he couldn’t read more than a few pages. There were striking similarities between the protagonist’s loss of Albertine, his lover, and Lazlo’s own life. But Lazlo didn’t need to search for his lost past. The past was here, all around him. He could still hear Perdita telling him, hourly it seemed, “The bed set is too big. We scarcely have room left for your computer,” and projecting her angelic soprano voice like a diva singing an aria. Sometimes Lazlo imagined the musical notes of her voice still resided in the room, rising to the ceiling, and pouring down like cinder, ignited by the light through the skylights.
Lazlo leaned against the pillows, the phone in his pocket, thinking of the past, as an orange sunset filled the skylights, entered the room, and hit the extreme left side of the headboard, appearing to slice through his shoulder. A strange pain startled him as if he were being stabbed by the sunset. He examined the rays of light on the ceiling, so high he could never reach. Spider webs had formed at the corners and sometimes, like now, he could see bugs fearlessly stroll from one side to the other. The skylights were stained with good luck, as Perdita called the bird waste. Such a wise woman, his wife, although painfully mistaken about this; not one of those birds had brought luck to this house; otherwise Perdita would have stayed and their love would have thrived — and then he remembered the fire.
“Stupid fire,” Lazlo said, sitting up, his fear of the wildfire growing. Outside, cars honked and tree branches rubbed against each other and created the music of the wind. The room was falling into a murky dusk, the half-moon and all bright stars hiding. But he knew they were up there, somewhere trapped behind the transient smoke-clouds, like Perdita, or like his childhood home in his old country where he didn’t want to return.
He got up and turned on the light, checking his phone for news about the wildfires. His house was still in the safe zone, but any minute it could change, and he could do no more to prevent this than he had done to stop Perdita from leaving.
Lazlo took another sip of his wine. The sweet-bitter taste ran down his throat and dissolved his resistance to optimism. The specter of the wildfires faded. No text, no other warning. He opened the laptop and started editing the last scene where his protagonist leaves her husband to return to her home country to find true love with someone who spoke her mother tongue. Every once in a while, he looked up, glancing at the photos on the dresser. The framed photograph of him and Orhan Pamuk, both smiling, was propped up, faced the bed. It chronicled the evening he attended Pamuk’s book launch in LA and got lucky when the Nobel Prize-winning novelist allowed Lazlo to take a selfie with him. A cherished moment. Next to this glorious picture, taped to the wall, was a waning image of Kafka cut out of an old book. This photo was the only picture he brought from his old country. Each year it got blurrier, and Lazlo feared that one day there would be no pixel left of Kafka. Orhan Pamuk always looked happy (although not as happy as Lazlo) and full of confidence, but Kafka’s thin lips pressed against one another in a slight frown; he looked worried. If Lazlo glanced up while writing, Kafka was not really looking at him but at Perdita’s side of the bed, at the exact place where she used to rest her head. Does he know some of her secrets?
Tonight, Lazlo was, if not relaxed, in need of company. He tapped on the keyboard but liked to pause between sentences to check his photographs. Orhan Pamuk kept smiling as if he had no worry about his next book, but Lazlo always caught Kafka’s near frown, evidence the great writer was pretending not to be there at all, and indeed, paler than ever, he was slowly erasing himself.
Perdita-the-Parrot’s cries had grown less frequent. Lazlo got up to go check on the bird. It had left the cage and sat on the windowsill, something it never did. Lazlo noticed, in horror, a spot with plucked feathers on the parrot’s torso, a sign of the bird’s anxiety. He opened the glass door so it could fly away if things got out of hand. The air had thickened. It was cold but it calmed the bird. It stopped shrieking. His phone beeped. Another text from the fire department. Be ready to evacuate, possibly in the next two hours. The wind had picked up, the fire was closing in. Lazlo went back to his room, lying on the bed, his phone nearby and his suitcase by the door. He was not sure how he would take Perdita-the-Parrot with him. The cage, even though the smallest size for parrots, was still too large, barely fitting in the back of his car. Truly he hoped it would fly away, and even if it didn’t or couldn’t, there was still time. His eyes burned, and he envied those who fell asleep without a fuss.
4 AM: Sirens blare like in a war movie. Lazlo awakened, slumped in his bed, opened his eyes. Still dark. Ashes bittered his tongue. He sat up and grabbed his phone on the nightstand, wiping his eyes. There were three messages:
This is an evacuation order. You are advised …
And so on. The other two unread messages repeated the first. How come he hadn’t woken up? He knew he must get up now, to fetch his suitcase, to leave. He read the text again.
You are advised to leave your house as soon as possible. Before leaving make sure to:
Shut all windows and doors (interior too) and leave them unlocked.
Remove combustible window shades and curtains, close metal shutters.
Move furniture to the center of the room, away from windows.
Leave indoor and outdoor lights on.
Shut off HVAC and ceiling fans.
Shut off gas at the meter or propane tank.
Connect garden hoses with squeeze grip nozzles to outdoor spigots for use by firefighters.
The list continued, but Lazlo stopped reading. How could he complete every task and leave “immediately”? Impossible. And if he didn’t do these things, he was (as he understood it) forbidden to leave. The air had grown so thick it hurt him to breathe. He knew he could just lie in bed, or he could run around trying to save his house, doing everything he was supposed to do. He could shut the windows, shut the doors, turn off the gas and electricity, grab Perdita’s bird, and escape. Except that this was, he convinced himself, only happening in his mind. He closed his eyes but couldn’t keep them closed and couldn’t keep them open.
Restless, he looked around, walking back and forth between the bed and the door, the same way he did when Perdita left. Everything unsettled: the wall containing the door, two feet away from the bed, appeared to curve over him, while the ceiling turned in slow-motion, and the skylights shrank, as if he was deep underwater, drowning, and staring up at the square outline of a swimming pool.
Sirens blared. Perdita-the-Parrot repeated a mixture of words and sounds. Lazlo dropped his weight on the bed, and this time all the room’s dimensions expanded, making the objects tiny and meaningless.
A new text lit up his phone: If you disobey the evacuation order, the fire department does not accept any responsibility for the damage to your property.
Lazlo whispered to the phone. “Stop it, I haven’t yet completed your first instruction. I am not a robot.” As still and quiet as he was, he could hardly speak, let alone breathe, and the flow of new texts from the fire department beeped like a broken cuckoo clock. Even so, he made himself get up. He sweated profusely trying to move the dresser to the center of the room. It didn’t budge. He didn’t even try shoving the bed. He sat back, thinking if Perdita hadn’t left him, the two of them, together, could move anything.
The room danced around him in this fluid world. If he could choose one single piece of the house to take with him, what would it be? When he left his country, other than the cash he carried under his clothes, Kafka’s picture was his choice. He looked back at his dresser. The sun was rising. But the picture was not there. Where was Kafka?
Lazlo panicked and rushed to the dresser. Last night, it was here. He clearly remembered. The framed picture of Orhan Pamuk was still there. He grabbed it to look behind it, under it, around it. He swept everything (a tissue box, this week’s bills, and his voting ballot) off the dresser, and knelt to aim the beam of a flashlight in the space between the dresser and the wall. It wasn’t there. Lazlo gasped for breath, his limbs shaking.
But then. He calmed down. The phone still in his hand, he lay on the solid bed. The thought of the approaching fire faded away like Kafka’s frown in the photograph; his fear was vanishing, and yet he knew it was there. How could he give up this house to the burning fire? Here he needed no mask to cover the flaws.
He pictured the invisible attic hanging above the bed like the starry sky that the fire had taken from him — vast and full of objects toppling over each other in disorder: Perdita’s laptop with a missing password, photo albums of a life no longer lived, broken mirrors, broken hair clips, old lipstick tubes, and the box of unwanted gifts. Along with Perdita’s unborn child’s belongings; the seldom-used winter clothes she didn’t take with her — that he, in a moment of rage, gave to charity. As he did nearly every night, Lazlo imagined bringing order to the disordered space of the lingering objects in the sky above him, and he wondered what Kafka would have seen facing this same sky. He might have questioned the innocence of the universe or the severity of the laws of physics that applied to all objects that no longer existed.
The attic grew closer, stuffed with objects both measured and immeasurable, bloated with infinite lives lived and unlived, all as mathematically impossible as Zeno’s paradox, as though Perdita had never left the house, but subsisted in this illusory attic, surrounded by her favorite objects, each shining in the dark, like constellations undiscovered, like burning stars already dead.
Lazlo’s vision, concocted by his own yearning to survive through a fictitious love, was detaching itself from absurd pains. Like a repetition of life, he didn’t need to go back each time to the same place where things were still falsely held. Did love matter, regardless of what or who or how he loved, regardless of why it wasn’t reciprocated? His life was a suite of instants he hadn’t lived, the memories he had made up, a past that didn’t exist anywhere else other than in his dreams, and it was enough. He had nothing. He had everything.
Dark sunlight crept into the room. Perdita-the Parrot had stopped crying. Maybe it had already left and would never come back. Lazlo couldn’t bear looking at the ceiling anymore. He got up, pulled the curtains, and opened the window. Smoke entered the room like a smoldering fog. The fire had formed a life of its own, independent from the objects it burnt. The day got darker and the branches of the cypress tree moved in the storm, shorn of its needlelike leaves. Lazlo, astonished by the silence of the tree, held his breath, his body stiff like wood, his arms swaying in the quiet gusts, lips whistling, and his hair dancing with the wind.
Aliso Viejo (California)