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Synopsis of Millennium 3

A World With Women in Charge

The woman you truly are, right now, is perfect for where you are on your path, but you must look at yourself honestly and not through some distorted lens — a lens formed by the ideas of someone else.”

Women today, at the beginning of the third millennium, have much to complain about. They are living in a male-controlled universe, and the males haven’t done a great job over the last ten thousand years! What if, by the end of this millennium, the women control governments and businesses? Their workdays are short. There is plenty of time for family, recreation and education. On the surface it sounds utopian. Well, almost …

There are a few struggles for today’s women that can’t be blamed on men or ten millennia of patriarchy. Some struggles are simply part of the human condition and will probably be a part of our lives forever.

Join three middle-aged friends in the year 2953 as they struggle with mid-life crises that will be familiar to many women. Mariha has been a devoted mother but now must rethink who she is after her children have all married and left home. Huma is a recent widow trying to redefine herself. Nadia is dissatisfied with her career as an artist; she feels constrained by artificial standards for public art.

This is Ron Frazer’s sixth novel. He is the author of Time Branches and the Jacinta Joseph Caribbean Adventures, all of which feature women taking control of their lives, often to the dismay of others.

 


Chapter 1

It is the fall of the year 2953 by the old European calendar. The year is 1109 by the calendar we use now. Our community is located in what was once called Virginia. Much has changed since then, but not everything.

‹‹ Mariha ››

My name is Mariha Mutrib. At the moment I am stretched out on a chaise lounge on the balcony of my apartment on the 183rd floor. On my lap is a small computer screen, displaying the draft of an agreement for a client. I’m an attorney who can’t seem to concentrate on such a warm, sunny day. My mind is wandering.

A communications window opens on my screen. I tap a button to answer the call. A smiling woman with gray hair appears in the window.

“Mariha, good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon, Umma. How are you?”

“I’m having a great day, my dear. And you?”

“I’m sitting on my balcony, almost asleep.”

She laughs. “Tell me: are you still interested in fostering a child?”

“Of course.”

“Well, we have a young lady that needs a home for a while. She’s fourteen.”

Another window opens on my screen with an image of a pretty girl with black hair.

“Her parents are going through a rough time, and Samat — that’s the girl’s name — seems to be absorbing the stress.”

“I’d love to have her stay with me.”

“When could you come down to the council offices to meet with the family?”

“Anytime. Let me know what works for them.”

After that call, I can’t focus on the agreement even though it is due to my client tomorrow. Leaving it for later, I put the screen back in my briefcase, then close my eyes to check my feelings.

I’m excited about Samat coming to live with us. A fourteen-year-old girl should be an adventure. So there is excitement, but there is something else. I wish it were joy, but it’s not. … What is it? … Something a little dark. … A wave of melancholy washes over me. That’s a shock. Where is that coming from? What could I possibly want to change in my life? If you asked me a few minutes ago, I would have said that my life was close to perfect.

I leave my eyes closed. After fifteen minutes, my mind clears.

Oh my God! … Am I sad? … I am, … a little. … Why? And this anger — what’s that about? I have a loving partner, three sons all happily married, four grandchildren, a rewarding job, and great friends. Yet, here I sit, feeling that my life needs something more.

Without opening my eyes, I close my briefcase and set it beside me. After calming myself with some deep breaths, I search my memories for past happiness. Thoughts arise of my teen years with Nadia Fanan and Huma Nasik, my two best friends — how we were always giggling at some silliness. They were so much fun.

Nadia was always the artistic one. From our first day at school, she was making pictures that amazed the teachers. She could make things looks real while the rest of us were drawing stick figures. She had the heart of an artist, always looking for a way to do things differently from anyone else, whether it was her clothes or her choice of men. She married an eccentric musician named Radi. He is perfect for her — as creative in music as she is with graphics. The choices they make together amaze me. I never know what to expect from them. They must consider me boring. I always follow the crowd, but they never do. She didn’t want to be average in any part of her life. She’s one of the great artists of our pueblo with many of her images decorating public spaces.

Nadia and I got married the same year and had our children within the same five-year period. We spent endless hours together during the first ten years of our marriages, learning to be mothers, babysitting for each other, or sitting on a couch with our legs up if we could get the kids down for a nap at the same time. My son asked one day why he had two mothers instead of one like the rest of his friends. Once the five children were in school, we spent a little less time together.

Huma, my other best friend, was the spiritual one of the three. Even as a child, she was always looking for the noblest approach to every question. She was also the scientist. Nadia and I were not good at science, so Huma helped us through every science class. The three of us always did our homework together in one of the apartments.

Huma got married two years after Nadia and I. We both had one child by then, so she wanted to be a mother right away. After several months, they found that her partner, Jifah, was sterile. It was agony for her. Until our children got married, she was almost the third mother, spending many hours with them. She clearly enjoyed being Auntie Huma, but, for the first five or six years of her marriage, I would often see that her eyes were damp when she watched children playing.

Huma threw herself into her studies, then into her career as a compounding pharmacist. She and Jifah always were a warm couple who were pleasant to be with, but there was a tinge of sadness that surrounded them. I could see it in quiet moments if I looked straight into Huma’s eyes.

So why am I sad? I still talk to Nadia and Huma every day. We giggle some, and could giggle more if we wanted.

When I let my mind drift, it is clear that my family doesn’t need me as they did twenty years ago. Back then, there were the happy years of my twenties with my three little boys, one of them constantly clinging to the leg of my jumpsuit as I fixed a meal, or reaching up to me, so he could sit on my lap while I helped an older one with his homework. That feeling of being needed is missing now.

As my meditation continues, I see a longing for the silliness of the early years with my friends. Perhaps life has become a little too serious. The happy intensity of the relationship with my boys is also missing — boys who quickly grew to need me less and less. Lately, when I think of them, the thoughts are less about their current lives and more about their childhood.

It doesn’t help to dwell on the past. Even though a part of me longs for the chaos of raising three boys or the laughter of teenaged girlfriends, I’ve got to find some new joys. Those joys are just out of reach; I can almost feel them. It is as if the answer lies behind a dense veil that reveals only the hazy outline of what I need.

A few days later, about 2 o’clock on a sunny, midweek day, I’m with Nadia. We’re drinking tea at a wooden café table in one of the flower gardens near the south entrance of our pueblo.

We all live in the Whitetop Pueblo, a spherical structure almost 700 meters in diameter. The building stands on a slight rise above the valley floor. My partner, Amir, and I live on the 183rd floor, over 600 meters above the ground.

The spherical shape of the pueblo provides shade for extensive flower and herb gardens that surround the building — gardens whose meandering gravel walks are sprinkled with benches and small tables where people can enjoy the perfumed air and each other. During the warm months, the cool, fragrant air from the shaded gardens is vented up through the building for natural cooling. During the colder months, the warm air in the uppermost floors is pushed down to warm the building, then vented out into the gardens making them slightly warmer than the surrounding air.

Nadia and I are sitting in an alcove formed by low Azalea bushes. Both of us are wearing flowing jumpsuits of soft pastels, a typical outfit for women here, especially those whose bodies have developed Rubenesque proportions. We sit on wooden folding chairs, turned slightly toward the revolving doors of the lobby, so we can watch for Huma.

For people in our pueblo, or in any of the thousands of pueblos around the planet, the workday consists of three or four hours, either in the morning or the afternoon. The rest of the day is devoted to family and friends, hobbies or exercise. Years ago, Nadia, Huma and I decided to work in the mornings so we could spend a little time together each day.

We watch Huma exit the building, then stop to buy a cup of tea from old Mr. Ashai, a white-haired man with a wooden pushcart painted with flowers.

Huma is the tallest of us, and by far the slimmest, with beautiful, sculpted features. I have always loved watching her face as she talks. Her long, dark brown hair is frosted with gray and dances slightly as she walks toward us.

Nadia always describes herself as plain. Of course I see her as beautiful; I always have. She was slender as a girl, but, as she aged, her face took on softer, rounded features.

I am short, but a few centimeters taller than Nadia. My hair is long, straight and black. Even though the three of us are distant cousins, I must have received more Asian genes. My face is round with a small nose and epicanthic eyes.

As we watch Huma walking toward us, I quickly finish a funny story about one of my clients who bought one of the new levitation beds. The first time she and her husband tried to have sex, they bounced around between the force fields like balls on a pool table.

We smile as Huma sits down. She gives us a smile in return, but it seems a bit stiff.

“Is something wrong, dear?” I ask.

“No. I’m alright.” She reaches across the table and strokes the back of my hand. “Some days, I’m a little sad — just feeling alone. This is one of those days.”

“I’m sorry, dear,” says Nadia. “You and Jifah were married for so long — twenty-six years. … Perhaps you’re redefining yourself. You know — no longer half a couple — asking yourself, ‘So who am I now?’ Anyway, that’s the way I’d probably feel if I suddenly lost Radi.”

“Yeah, … you’re right; that’s part of it. I don’t know who I am. The last time I was single, I was eighteen. I’m no longer a girl, and I’m not a married woman … only a grumpy pharmacist with too much time on her hands. I was thinking this morning that I don’t seem like myself, … whoever that is.”

I’m still holding Huma’s hand, lightly massaging her knuckles with my thumb. “What you are is a dear, dear friend.”

Several laughing children rush past the alcove, momentarily reducing the volume of their ruckus out of respect for us older women. They burst with suppressed joy after running twenty meters farther down the curving gravel path.

I turn my head to stare at the children, struck by a memory from forty years ago, of the three of us as little girls, running and laughing down the same path. I miss that silliness. I don’t want to be a child, but do I want to be me?

“I envy both of you,” Huma says as she returns her teacup to its saucer. Her eyes remain fixed on the children whose laughter is fading to a tinkle as they disappear behind a curve in the bushes. “At least you have children and grandchildren to occupy your time. …”

Huma continues talking, but I have stopped listening to her. I seem to be in a trance while staring at the point where the children disappeared.

Then I hear Nadia say, “How about you, Mariha?”

For a few seconds, I continue to stare into space, facing the last location of the children’s laughter, now silent. “What?” I say, looking back and forth at my friends, embarrassed to be caught ignoring them. “I’m sorry; I was thinking about those children.”

Nadia continues, “I was saying that I don’t see my children and grandchildren often enough. They don’t need me very much.”

“Oh! … Yes, … same here.” Then, after a long pause in the conversation during which each of us seems lost in her private thoughts, I say, “You know, I could use a change.”

“What do you mean?” asks Nadia.

“I feel stuck in the past. For over twenty years, I defined myself as a mother. The children are still around, but I’m not their mother in the same sense — no longer caring for their needs throughout the day. I need to discover what it means to be a woman of forty-five, to find something new to generate some excitement or, at the very least, some enthusiasm.” I look at Nadia, then at Huma. “Maybe you feel that way too. Right?”

Nadia returns my gaze, glances at Huma, then looks down at her empty teacup. She nods.

Huma closes her eyes and whispers, “You’re right. I am stuck. … Yes, … something new. If someone asks who I am, only the words widow and pharmacist come to mind. That’s not enough. I need a new word — a role with a little excitement.”

I reach across and squeeze the hands of both my friends. “By tomorrow, I want each of us to have a plan for something new to get us out of this funk. … Agreed?”

‹‹ Nadia ››

I’m standing on my balcony on the 172nd floor. It’s an hour before sunset. My hands are gripping the stainless steel railing while I look at the surrounding farmland. I’m recalling the earlier conversation with my friends. The idea of being “stuck” bothers me. In the past, looking out at miles and miles of nature has been an inspiration. Maybe it will work today.

Stretching to the horizon in all directions, the peaceful verdure of the rolling hills seems to sing to me, like an a cappella choir of color. Concentric bands of various crops, comprised of every shade of green, surround the immense building that houses our community of nearly one hundred thousand people, both their homes and their businesses.

Radiating out from the sphere, are nine broad flagstone avenues that extend a hundred kilometers to reach the farms that feed and clothe our community. One of the avenues approaches the building directly below my apartment.

I notice some movement about two kilometers away. A speck is moving between the gray stripe of a recently harvested field and the dark green of some low crop, perhaps beans or kale. When the speck reaches the flagstone avenue, it turns toward the pueblo. The speck is too large to be a person. Perhaps it is a cart piled high with boxes of produce. Each afternoon, as part of the cycle of life at our pueblo, dozens of donkey carts bring fresh produce to the shops on the lower floors of the building.

After some minutes at the railing, I stretch out on a wooden chaise lounge. Now, the speck is clearly a cart approaching at the donkey’s easy pace. Farther out, other carts appear. When the first cart is three hundred meters from the pueblo, I raise my binoculars for a closer look.

The farmer guiding the cart is a slender woman wearing khaki coveralls and a broad hat. She sits on the front edge of the cart, holding the reins loosely. I listen for the clop-clop of the donkey’s hooves on the stones of the avenue, but can’t hear anything over the buzz of the force field that surrounds the building, ten centimeters beyond the railing. The farmer and her cart disappear silently below the edge of the balcony.

I scan the fields with the binoculars. There are a few dozen farmers visible. Some are in the fields. Others are riding on one of several donkey carts, or walking home along the avenue. Since the fields extend for over a hundred kilometers, there may be a thousand more workers beyond the nearest hill, completing their chores before the imminent sunset. They will be loading themselves and the day’s harvest into the elevated tube systems that connect the pueblo with the more distant fields.

I wonder how it would feel to make a living by growing food. Farmers are part of a natural process that continues relentlessly through days and nights, even after the farmer is home, washed, and enjoying her family. Would my evenings be more relaxed if I were a farmer? What if my work schedule tomorrow was completely out of my control, decided for me by the plants and the weather?

I am a forty-five-year-old artist, at present a rather unhappy artist, ten kilos overweight and short. I have been making illustrations and decorative art for thirty years. The job was enjoyable during my twenties — even into my thirties — but, for the last ten years, my images have been disappointing, merely modified copies of earlier work. I have run out of ideas. There are unwritten rules at this pueblo that force all art to be pretty and uplifting. I want to make art that shrieks my frustration, that claws at the boundaries of my world. Some days, I want to throw things.

My wonderful partner, Radi, is a musician who entertains in nightclubs on the weekends. He also works as a building mechanic during the mornings. Between us, we make enough money for our modest needs. We have two children, Shireen, a twenty-three-year-old girl, and Ramin, a twenty-one-year-old boy. Both are now married with small children. I love my family. They love me, but our relationships exist within some boundaries that seem to have become more constricted in recent years. When the children were young, every day was different. Now, each week seems like every other.

My eyes return to the western horizon where clouds have gathered. They obscure the farthest mountains and the setting sun. Nevertheless, the western sky is ablaze in a palette of oranges and reds. Overhead, the stars are coming out. My mind makes a connection between the splendid sunset and my work for the first twenty years, filled with a sense of creation and wonder. My recent images, like the overhead sky, seem to be slipping into darkness.

When did I become so … morose? … Could it be when Shireen and Ramin grew up, married and started their own families? … Yes, … Some of my happiness left with them. When they were small, I thought more about them than about art. There wasn’t time for philosophy, for worrying about whether my images expressed my soul or whether they were merely a series of pretty pictures. After the children left, there was time to ruminate in this quiet apartment — maybe too much time.

I stand up, then return to the edge of the balcony. My hands grip the railing until the last purples in the western clouds disappear. Now dark gray clouds obscure the horizon. Above me is a clear night with a billion stars and a gibbous moon. They provide a faint glow over the landscape. The lightest bands of crops are still discernible.

I look down at my hands. They seem older — more wrinkles and a liver spot — a liver spot! — my first. It will be considered a big freckle for the time being. My knuckles are white. … Where is this tension coming from?

I go inside, then into the kitchen to start slicing vegetables for our dinner.

I feel so guilty, worrying about a life that is ideal by any rational standard. I’m fed, housed, loved, and respected. If anyone knew about this unhappiness, they would probably laugh, saying something like, “I wish I had your problems!”

My thoughts wander to memories of my childhood. Why did I feel compelled to draw as a child? All children draw pictures, but my mother said I was obsessed with drawing. Was it for the applause? … No. Mother and father barely acknowledged my new images. That’s very nice, dear.

Was I dealing with some anger that was coming out through my art, even then? I remember being angry as a child. Not that there was anything to be angry about, it seemed to be a part of me.

Once Huma and Mariha came into my life, I felt happier. It was as if they were partners in my emotions. It wasn’t true. They were actually happier than I was. Perhaps I used our friendship to rise above my anger, or to distract myself from it. For about ten years, we were engrossed in giggling about boys, other people we knew, and how our adult lives would be. I don’t remember anger during those years.

Then we were all married. Mariha and I started having children. We were so busy for the next ten years; there wasn’t time to worry about anger.

Another ten years passed, during which our children got married and started their own families. I suddenly had hours of free time each day in which to sit, looking at images on my worktable, analyzing, searching for the inspiration that would generate the next image.

That was when the old emotions arose — that childhood anger that was never resolved during the thirty years that seemed a perfect life. I sat, and still sit, in an empty apartment, a silent apartment, feeling something that there are no words for. It is something that could be called anger, but maybe it is simply a craving or some deficiency in me. Whatever it is, it creates a silent pain that gnaws at my ability to concentrate.

Maybe it is a good thing. Maybe this — whatever it is — is there to push me toward a better me.

My mind wanders back to the conversation in the garden with Mariha and Huma. What would I change? If pushed toward a better me, who is she? What is the next step?

I know my art will change, but how? Perhaps the artist will have to change first, then the new art will follow from that. It’s been said that people don’t change. That can’t be true. I’d hate to spend the rest of my life feeling the need to change, but not being able to do it.

Tomorrow Mariha and Huma will sit with me in the garden, sipping our tea. What will I tell them?

‹‹ Huma ››

My long hair pulled back in a ponytail, I am cleaning out Jifah’s closet. This is part of a larger project that includes going through the apartment, clearing out cupboards, bookshelves and closets of everything not needed for the next year or so.

It has been over a year since the aneurysm in Jifah’s brain burst, leaving me a widow — sitting alone, stunned, hour after hour, trying, and failing, to put my life on a meaningful track. During the first several months, whenever attempting to imagine my future, my thoughts would be pulled into the past, into the pain of my sudden loss. That pain was a black hole, swallowing my hopes and energy.

Once able to resume working at the pharmacy, I enjoyed the distraction of my job. I didn’t want to go home. Day after day, when my shift ended at noon, when it was time to return to the apartment for lunch, I found myself procrastinating by spending more time in the pharmacy or wandering the corridors of the pueblo, looking in the shop windows.

After my daily tea with Mariha and Nadia, there were long hours at home that found me taking too many naps, causing me to sleep poorly at night. Midnight would often find me wandering around the apartment or sitting in the dark living room, watching the sky through the window. Other times I turned on all the lights, then opened drawers and cabinets to examine the vestiges of twenty-six years of marriage. There was no joy found in the residue of my former life; it seemed to belong to someone else. It was as if I was in some other woman’s apartment and looking at the mementos of her marriage.

The walls seemed to press in on me. During my marriage, I failed to notice how much the apartment had been defined by Jifah. I had loved him, had loved caring for him and creating a space where he could relax. But now, his continuing presence is overwhelming. I will save a few things — the photographs, and a few knickknacks that we bought together. The clutter has to go — his clothes, tools, tennis gear, the things that make the small apartment seem more his than mine.

I’m standing in my kitchen, sipping some water. The closets have been cleaned out, and the liberated spaces dusted or vacuumed. There is a pile of junk gathered on the living room floor. A recycle shop will send some boys tomorrow to collect it.

I’m looking into the living room at the pile. I blow my nose, wash my hands, then slump on the sofa, exhausted, staring blankly at Jifah’s belongings for a minute. With a groan, my chest falls sideways onto the couch. My head rests on the cushion. Only a few minutes pass before my neck and my side start to hurt. I stretch my legs out, then close my eyes. Some time passes; I don’t know how much. My arms are cold, so I pull the blanket from the back of the sofa to cover myself. The cool trace of a tear trickles toward my ear. With the tips of my fingers, I wipe it away.

I open one eye to peer at the pile again. This feels … draconian. Why am I getting rid of all this? … There’s a nice racket; I could take up tennis. He always wanted me to play with him. Maybe Mariha would play with me. His clothes, yes, but some of his tools might be useful some day. Is this just an attempt to rip away the memories of him? … If I put some of his things back, would it be denial? Would I be pretending that he has gone away for a few days, to return at any moment? … Do I want that?

No. … I’m on my own. I need to become the kind of person who can be at peace when alone.

I close my eye, then dab at both eyes to clear the tears that are pooling in the corners. I visualize his empty closet as last seen: emptied, dusted and vacuumed. I remember standing there for some minutes, holding the handle of the vacuum, gazing through the open door at the worn wooden pole that had held his clothes, at the scuffed white paint near the floor on the right side where, over the years, he had tossed his boots. Now, lying here on the sofa, — Oh God! I’m crying again — as I continue to visualize that barren closet, it seems to represent my recent life, empty and tired.

Perhaps the day after tomorrow, or the next, I will paint the walls of the closet a cheerful color, a pastel yellow, then varnish the woodwork. Holding the image of a freshly painted closet in my mind, I drift off to sleep.

Upon awakening, my mind is clear — well, as clear as it gets these days. The word “gratitude” drifts in. I start to list the things to be grateful for.

There were the twenty-six years with Jifah, but, in that thought, there is still too much grief for gratitude to squeeze in. I recall my forty years with Nadia and Mariha. Today, if forced to choose between my marriage and those friendships, I probably would choose my women friends. That wouldn’t have been the choice twenty-seven years ago, but, at that time, I didn’t know that choosing Jifah would mean having no children.

That was another grief that I have never gotten over. When we were young, Nadia and Mariha’s five children were like my own in many ways, but, when I looked at them, it was with a mix of love and anguish. Since before they were born, I have loved each of their children and my love for them has grown each year, but they have been a reminder that I would never be a mother. Lately, while watching Nadia and Mariha with their grandchildren, I have the same mixed feelings.

I’m grateful for my career. The other compounding pharmacists and I make all the drugs required within the pueblo. It’s a struggle to keep up with the evolving science of pharmaceuticals, reading the daily barrage of studies from around the world, and the recommendations coming from the planet’s pharmacy council. The level of work keeps my mind off my grief — mostly.

‹‹ Radi ››

I’m sitting at the dinner table, looking across at Nadia as we nibble on our salads. I can see that she is moody again.

“How did your work go today?” I ask.

She gives me an exhausted look, sighs, then says, “It was alright.”

I know it wasn’t. She had recently spoken about her frustration one night during pillow talk. As a musician, I understand creativity. I respect the artistic struggle for excellence. Nevertheless, her artistic quandary baffles me. A few weeks earlier, when she showed me the first few sketches that expressed this inner conflict of hers, I praised the composition and technique, but I couldn’t relate to the message. It was as if I could see the notes and chords of her drawings, but not the phrases or melodies. I didn’t, and still don’t, know how to relate to an image that portrays psychological pain. In college, I saw angst in the ancient art from before the Calamity. In modern times, conflict in art isn’t forbidden; it just isn’t done. The conflict that existed throughout the world a thousand years ago is gone now. No one cares about it but the historians.

I wish I could understand her — understand what is troubling her at such a deep level. Whatever it is, can’t she just set it aside and be happy. Our pueblo is peaceful and prosperous. Our children are thriving. We’re healthy and so is the land around us. As I walk the corridors or the gardens, all I see are people enjoying their lives. Why get upset because people want artists to make pretty pictures?

I am studying Nadia’s face as she looks at her bowl. I picture her sketches in my mind and wonder, why bring the pain up? Does anyone want to see this? Nadia’s new pictures seem, at least to me, to be a needless rehashing of obsolete art. I know better than to tell her that.

Instead, I say, “I can tell something is bothering you. Please. What is it?”

“I met Mariha and Huma in the garden today. We were all saying we needed a change, or to change. You know I’m upset about my art. I don’t know what to do. I know I can’t sell the images I want to make.”

“Can’t you do both — make commercial images and the intense ones?”

Nadia gets up suddenly. She starts clearing the table. “No. Absolutely not! I cannot make happy, vapid pictures anymore.”

I get up to help with the dishes. “So … we’re going to have to live on my income alone?”

“I’ll find some way to make money.” Her voice is a little loud.

“What would you do?”

Nadia grits her teeth. “Maybe I’ll be a cook or a nanny.” She spits the words at me.

“I’m sorry. … I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

‹‹ Nadia ››

The next weekend, I follow a boisterous young couple through the glass door of an art gallery on the fifth floor. Three of the long, white walls of the gallery are arranged with twenty-four, meter-wide, video screens in a single row. The new show represents work by three younger artists who went to school with my children. I scan the small crowd to see if Huma and Mariha are here. They aren’t. I know almost everyone in the room; the art community in the pueblo is small.

I wander through the room, greeting the other artists, glancing at the screens containing stills, holograms or short videos. When I feel myself starting to frown, I force my face to relax. The work is all so predictable. Every image is a variation of something seen many times before.

By the time I finish the circuit of the room, my agitation is probably visible. My hands massage my face, making sure the frown is smeared into a bland mask before anyone notices.

I decide to leave, but as I turn toward the door, Huma and Mariha walk in. They are laughing at something one of them said. They smile and wave, but my returned smile is tight and insufficient to hide my mood.

“What’s wrong?” whispers Mariha as she puts her arm around my shoulders.

I look around to make sure none of the artists are close enough to hear. “This stuff is boring and repetitive. Every image is only a pretty picture, a slight variation of something that’s been done a dozen times. I’m sorry. I’m so tired of this trend.”

Mariha slips her hand into the crook of my arm. “They all look nice to me, but walk us around and show us what you mean.”

The three of us stand in front of the nearest screen which is showing a short, dreamy video of nature scenes overlaid with pastel mists that slowly change color. I pause while looking for the right words. After watching the film for a few seconds, I whisper to Mariha and Huma, “There’s nothing wrong with this work, but there is already a screen in the bank lobby showing a film very much like this, and two more in restaurants. You’ve seen them, right? … We need something new.”

“They are a bit boring, aren’t they?” says a voice behind us.

I gasp. The three of us turn to face a younger woman who, judging by the flowery, cotton kaftan she is wearing, is obviously from another pueblo.

She holds out her hand to me, “I’m Latifeh.”

I take her hand and continue holding it while saying, “I’m sorry; I hope you’re not the artist. …”

Latifeh smiles. “No. … No, I’m from Fairy Stone Pueblo — just visiting friends for a few weeks.”

“Have we met before?” I ask, tilting my head a little while studying her face. “You look a little … familiar.”

“I believe we have — a few years ago. You had some new pieces on display in one of the lobbies.”

“Now I remember. You complimented the work … even though my images were similar to these.”

Latifeh smiles, but blushes. “Well … the art in my pueblo tends to be less about scenery.”

“These are my friends, Huma and Mariha.”

Everyone shakes hands. The four of us tour the remainder of the exhibit while Latifeh and I become deeply involved in a whispered discussion of the theory and history of art.

After the last image is dissected, we all go to a small café on the same floor for tea. The room, which holds about fifty people, is nearly full. There is an infectious and joyous mood, a din of happy voices. Working our way to the back, we find a booth bounded by two worn wooden benches with high backs. Latifeh and I sit together on one bench. Huma and Mariha sit on the other. The server takes our order for a pot of tea, then Latifeh and I continue our enthusiastic comparison of trends in modern art.

“Do you have any photos of work from your pueblo?” I ask.

“Yes, quite a few.” Latifeh pulls out a screen, then quickly flips through images until she finds the ones she is looking for.

Turning the screen so the four of us can see it, she begins to slowly page through dozens of their current work. “As you can see, our art is not as soft as those by your people. We prefer images that are crisp and lifelike but stir the imagination. We often find a fragment of a scene that speaks to us rather than including the entire vista. Here are two good examples: a few autumn leaves.” She slides another image in place. “… and a closeup of some rocks in a stream.”

The slide show goes on for some minutes while Mariha and Huma sip their teas. I’m afraid they are getting bored. When Mariha finishes her tea, I notice her squeezing Huma’s hand. Huma nods.

“Those are very nice,” says Mariha, sliding out of the bench, “but we’re going to leave you ladies to chat.”

“I’m sorry if we got carried away,” says Latifeh as she and I stand up to hug them.

“Not at all. It was interesting meeting you,” says Huma.

Huma and Mariha leave, working their way through the café, greeting several friends on their way out. Latifeh and I sit down, then resume flipping through the photos.

“I’m excited about these images,” I tell her. “They are pretty, but that’s not the point they’re making. … They force you to look beyond the beauty, don’t they? — to appreciate what the artist is saying.”

“Exactly. There’s a message in each image, … but it’s subtle and open to the viewer’s interpretation.”

She hands me the screen so I can look at my own pace while she finishes her tea. I spend ten minutes looking through the images, getting more excited, making embarrassingly loud sounds of surprise or pleasure at several of them. When I see that Latifeh has finished her tea, I hand the screen to her.

“Before you return to Fairy Stone, come visit me,” I say, transmitting contact information from my screen to hers.

“I would love that,” she says, glancing down at the incoming message. She slips the screen into a large, tapestry shoulder bag.

As we pass through the crowd on our way to the door, I introduce Latifeh to several people from the art community. We ride the elevator up to the residential floors. When the elevator stops on the 136th floor, Latifeh holds the doors open, then turns to me, “Are you free tomorrow?”

The next afternoon, Latifeh is at my studio. We are sitting at my worktable, flipping through my recent images as they float on the rear of the angled, glass surface, about two meters wide and a meter deep.

“I’ve never seen such, such … These are very strong images,” says Latifeh. “…such intensity of feeling!”

“I am experiencing something intense. Although, the feeling isn’t exactly clear. I’m exploring my emotions through this series. Here’s the most recent; it resonates with me more than the others.”

I stretch the image to fill the worktable. We pick up our teacups, then roll our chairs back a little to study it.

“You’re the first artist I’ve met who is doing this kind of work. It would be great fun for you to come visit Fairy Stone. You should meet our people to talk about what you are doing. It would give you a chance to see their most recent work and hear them explain it themselves.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve never been away from Radi. For that matter, I’ve never left the pueblo.”

“Why not?”

“All my family is here. My work is here. I enjoy seeing films of other places but have never felt compelled to visit them. We’re so comfortable here. ”

“Wow! … Well, do you feel compelled now?”

“Hmm …,” I smile. “Maybe I do.”

‹‹ Huma ››

The following afternoon, Nadia and Mariha are sitting on the sofa in my living room, sipping tea and commenting on the new furniture arrangement. The room is much less cluttered. I eliminated a large, tattered chair that Jifah used and some chests where he stored his tools and sports gear.

“I like it,” I call from the kitchen while arranging a few buns on a plate, “but, it doesn’t feel like my home yet. It was the old way for so many years.”

“Give yourself some time,” says Mariha, “it will grow on you.”

“You get so much sun since you’re on the south side of the pueblo,” says Nadia, “some plants would do very well by your windows.”

I smile while settling into the chair opposite them. “Yes, that’s a good idea. … The other day we talked about making changes. Clearing out the apartment is only my first step. The next step hasn’t made itself known to me yet, but it’ll find me at the right time.”

Nadia says, “I’ve been considering some changes too. Latifeh invited me to come stay with her at Fairy Stone for a while. Maybe that’s my first step.”

“You can’t!” gasps Mariha.

I look at her, surprised.

She continues, “What would Radi say?”

Nadia says, “He’ll be shocked. He may not agree at first, but he’ll get over it.”

I tell her, “I think it’s a great idea. We’re all in such a rut. We need to shake things up a bit.”

“But, … what about us?” says Mariha. “We always have tea in the afternoons. I’ll miss you.”

“When I come back, we’ll have much more to talk about.”

Mariha isn’t crying, but her eyes are red and moist. She gets up, then stands at the windows to look at the fields. After a minute, she turns around to face Nadia and me, then says, “Since we were five years old, we’ve never been apart. You are both more than sisters to me, more than friends. I can’t imagine not seeing you every day.”

“I promise it’ll be a quick trip — maybe a week or two at the most.”

I walk over to Mariha, then rub her shoulders. “I’ll miss Nadia too.”

Tears start falling down Mariha’s cheeks. “I’m sorry. … I’ve been trying to imagine changes, but keep coming back to the friendship we’ve had for our whole lives, to how we’ve supported each other through our marriages and motherhood. I’m so afraid that any changes will affect our relationship.”

I look at Nadia, who is still sitting on the couch. She is looking back and forth from my face to Mariha’s.

Nadia puts her teacup down, then stands to join us in a group hug. She says, “You are both a part of me, an essential, wonderful part of my past and my future. I have to make this trip. I promise it won’t change our relationship, at least not in a bad way. We each want to make changes in our lives. Right? That means to stop doing things that are boring while finding new exciting things to replace them. It would be crazy to stop doing the fun things we’ve shared for the last forty years. My art is boring. That’s all I want to change. Really! That’s all! With a new direction in my art, I’ll be happier and have a stronger relationship with each of you. ”

While we continue our hug, I kiss their cheeks, then say, “You’re right, Nadia, it’s the right thing to do. We can’t make progress if we keep doing the same old things. Change is always a little uncomfortable, but in the end, either we arrive at a happier place, or we learn a lesson about a change to avoid. Either way is progress.”

* * *

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