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                An excerpt from
                a novel-in-progress ...

A work IN WHICH a group of foreign migrants live in a secret city based on the once-futuristic apartment blocks built in the banlieus outside of Paris during the 1950s and 1980s. Inspired in part by photographs of senior citizens from these areas—and examining architecture and cultural dislocation against a collective memory of the future with an emphasis on dwelling spaces and the North African diaspora—it is a book about the cities within cities and the cities outside of cities; the clusters of outcast buildings at the edges of every urban area.


IN THE YEAR________,

It says this on a framed print which hangs on the wall of the entryway of apartment 2A. The words are typed out in simple block letters, surrounded by white on the page. Below the image is a small table where all of the girls leave their keys and let the mail collect, a pile that accumulates weekly and is most often left unattended to. It is amazing that letters arrive at all anymore in the Radiant City. It seems all happenings, all news relevant to life is relegated to the Real City—the forgotten ballots mailed in too late for local elections, the postcards from estranged friends, the discount pamphlets for house ware shops, are all moot in these parts.

When the girls look out the windows all they see is sand. It blows past the glass and catches in the mesh of the screens. It filters in through the cracks under doors. Even on the upper floors of the building, there is an untraceable residue of dust from the outside. They all go to great lengths to remove their shoes, to enter and exit quickly, to keep the windows closed, but the sand somehow makes its way inside, infecting everything with the glimmer and desolation of the desert. The objects on the shelves, the items left on tables, the cracks between the cushions on sofas are all coated with the tiny specks of light, like cat hairs that will never fully be gone from the furniture.

There are four of them who live in this apartment, a revolving suite of young women who divide up the rooms. Everyone in the building knows they belong to unit 2A, just at the top of the first flight of stairs across from the elevator. Some of the girls have ended up here looking for refuge, ejected from relationships or in the midst of starting new. Some have been here all along. Some are gregarious. Some stick to their rooms. Some band together on lonely evenings, to lie on the floor in their underwear with whiskey and cigarettes, lamenting over when their lives will begin. Sometimes they talk about the Real City. They wonder if they will ever have a chance to see it. They wonder if it even exists. They imagine life there to be the real thing, as if all this time real life has not been happening to them. They keep the shelves stocked with volumes by Chekhov, perhaps a bit of Ibsen. They recite the lines of famous speeches they have heard on TV, imagining themselves accepting awards for humanitarian achievements or winning medals for landing impossible triple axils. They talk of the things they’ll do one day, the places they’ll go, the people they will meet. They hear the thumps of love making between each other’s walls, they note the pairs of stranger’s shoes to be seen discarded in the entryway on such mornings.

Every few years one of the girls leaves. But she is always quickly replaced with another. They pass each other awkwardly in the halls at first, one wearing a kimono, the other with curlers in her hair, but in a long time or a short time, they become fast friends. Until the new girl moves on in life, has a baby, gets married, starts a new job, and the next one arrives. There is one girl who always remains. She is the keeper of the house, the one who occasionally attempts to clean the sand from the surfaces, who arranges the pictures on the walls and feeds the little cat who sometimes wanders in. Every building has a resident feline. They are fixtures in the neighborhood. They practically run the town. No one knows who they belong to and no one inquires. This one can frequently be seen sleeping on the windowsills or slinking through the courtyard. The girl from 2A often sees him slip in through the revolving door unaware of being watched. Where do these animals disappear to, she wonders? Do they have nests of offspring hiding away in holes somewhere? Or do they just wander alone, looking for scraps, fraternizing with lady cats in the alleys, loitering in the trashcans with beatnik raccoons?

Yesterday while watching the cat, she saw the woman carrying the suitcase arrive. “Someone is moving into the top floor,” she called out into the darkening apartment behind her, not addressing anyone in particular. The other girls emerged from their rooms and rushed to the window, peering over each other half clothed in the hopes of catching sight of her. There hasn’t been anyone new here in a while. This one seems different than the others, they all think. Look at her shoes, they say to each other with their eyes. Perhaps she’s from the Real City, they collectively hope.

The girl who has lived there longest naturally lingers at the window after the others. She remains even after the woman with the suitcase has vanished inside. She is still there the next morning and into the next night, seeing the sun rise and fall in the shadows through the blinds, a toxicity of colors dancing over her face. This is the shape she clings to more than any other. It is her frame and her screen, her eye, her theater. She stands at the window for hours not even sure what she is looking for, like a fire watcher trapped in a high tower, scanning an infinity of trees for a blaze that never breaks out. Looking out at the squares of light in the facing buildings, illuminated intermittently like a panel of elevator buttons, she hears music coming from somewhere. It is a person playing the saxophone, a song one can only imagine hearing in black and white. She listens for a while, longing to know where it is coming from, to reach out and touch this small sign of life hanging in the air in the void between the buildings.

Perhaps it is a man who is playing the song, she muses, standing on some fire escape, hoping that someone will hear him. Perhaps he is handsome. The girl from 2A imagines a whole life for this person. In her mind the saxophone player is an insomniac. He lives alone, like the cat. He plays in the courtyards. Each night he wakes up at precisely the same time—at the halfway point of the few hours of sleep he manages to archive. There are boxes of books strewn about the apartment, cowboy novels and detective series, young adult adventure tales, cheap romance. The books are from the library at the middle school his niece attends. She gets boxes of them for him, yellowing paperbacks soon to be deposited in the discount bin. When he wakes up at night he reads them—never out of being compelled by the stories, but rather in the hopes of not being compelled by them. He reads them in search of sleep. When the reading doesn’t work, he pulls out his saxophone. He plays a lonely tune which carries from his window, out to all the others alone in rooms, up through the clouds, where it is absorbed into the moonlight, transported beyond to whatever is out there or not.

But it is late, and the song could belong to any one of a thousand windows. The girl can’t see where it is coming from. The fire escapes are empty. There is no man. She slides open the glass and throws out the week’s mail, letting the squares of paper flutter down from the window like confetti, over the cat sleeping on the sill and into the courtyard, a pile of wedding invitations she will only go to in her mind, travelogues and letters from far away people. She watches the envelopes scatter to the ground, soon to be muddied or stepped on, like war leaflets dropped from the sky or he-loves-me-not petals, suggesting a world that has not penetrated the silence of this one. For her the doomsday clock stands still. She dreams of other places more than all the others. She gazes into the night. She fears she will never leave.

Of all the girls who have lived in apartment 2A, she is the only one who’s father was not an average guy.

Kyra SIMONE is a Tunisian-American writer from Los Angeles, now based in Brooklyn. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Conjunctions, The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, Entropy, The Anthology of Best American Experimental Writing, and elsewhere. She is a member of the publishing collective UGLY DUCKLING PRESSE and part of a two-woman team running the editorial office of Zone Books.



                (clockwise from top-left)

Vija CELMINS, Letter, 1968
René MAGRITTE, La tempête, 1932
Chris MARKER, La Jetée, 1964


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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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