Online Exclusive

03.26.13
Architectural Absence
World’s Fair: B, H, M, O, P, R, X, Y
Brise-soleil

To break up the sun like a chocolate orange but with mortar and pestle.

Yuliya took a two-year placement in Arup’s London office after completing her engineering degree. Her thesis was on concrete support systems in cantilevered bridges.
      “England is dangerous,” warned her mother over celebratory red-sauce Italian in Bensonhurst.
      “You haven’t gone anywhere since you left Russia,” said Alex, Yuliya’s younger brother. “What do you know?”
      “That’s why.”
      On the way, Yuliya traveled for two weeks in Europe: Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Avignon, Nice, Milan, Rome, Venice, Florence, Paris.
      The motorized tessellation of l’Institut du Monde Arabe opened and shut, henna-freckling her pale skin like a Hindu bride’s. She considered photographing her arms. There was a studenty-beautiful French couple murmuring at the windows by the Seine. The boy took the girl’s shoulders and called out to Yuliya in a North American accent to take their picture.
      “How’d you know I spoke English?” she asked.
      “Why wouldn’t you?”
      “Oh.”
      “Is the light here good?”
      “Sure.” The photo will be blurry and light-dappled.


 



Hermitage

A winery in exile from the Rhône Valley.

Alex came to see Yuliya on the way home from Frankfurt. Friday afternoon they went to Somerset House and saw French Drawings and Paintings From the Hermitage: Poussin to Picasso. At A Boy And His Dog, Yuliya paused.
      “What’s wrong?” Alex asked.
      “Since Bjørn left, I just stay home, waiting. Everything reminds me of him.”
      “‘Bjørn.’ Smoked fish and whispers in the boundless dark.”
      “I can’t even read a book.”
      “Let’s go. I’m starving. My bag’s in storage.”
      They went to the storage facility by the Strand. Yuliya waited outside. Suddenly she saw Gregory, in front of the Courtauld, and called out.
      “Sorry,” he said. “I’ve been in hiding.”


 



Maithunas

Figures depicting absorption through the skin, and not vice versa.

She became a flutter of sound and didn’t know who moved her mouth. Their backs were bruised and their knees were cut. It was the purifying extremities of presence and absence, darkness and light, of distance and proximity, a physical and metaphysical pas de deux, a corporeal proof of voids and solids.
      Their universe was a series of abysses and chasms, imploding with density, collapsing like black knots with unseen surfaces, and their days exploded with light scattered through the universe but it was earthly, solid and damp and green, and every time they were hurled back through it and all its layers till they reached the hot nickel core, except when it was like being pushed through the ground, faster, faster, and then, like saplings, it started again.


 



Obelisk

A harbinging stone needle of sunlight designed to represent speech.

They went for a long walk after signing the marriage papers. At the waist-curvature of the Victoria Embankment, Yuliya asked about the statue of the girl grieving at the—feet? ribs?—of an armless bust. Gregory didn’t know. At water’s edge, they came to Cleopatra’s Needle, flanked by sphinxes, casting a long shadow.
      “What does it say?” she asked.
      “I’d need the Rosetta Stone,” said Gregory. “It’s like the one in Paris. Or Central Park.”
      “There’s one in New York?”
      “Damn, Suki; don’t you ever look up?”
      Gregory, who had been studying Arabic since high school, spent his last year of college in Cairo. He fell in with some journalists and became a translator. One night he was with Bernard, an AFP photographer, when they saw an empty-faced man being beaten in the crowd. Bernard threw himself in the middle to punch the main attacker between the eyes. Gregory fled.
      “I was sure he’d died.”
      “Why’d you run?”
      “Wouldn’t you?” But this was another difference between them.


 



Pagoda

A tapered Buddhist tower asking lightning to strike at the finial.

Gregory was advising a master plan for a new cultural center in Hong Kong. Saturday morning he went to the art museum, where there was a selection of works by Mark Rothko from the National Gallery in Washington and some early paintings from Guangdong. He disliked Rothko. Sometimes he thought he left America because of Rothko.
      He was staying with Sadia, his flatmate from college. They went to meet her friend Nathalie in the New Territories in the afternoon. She was making a documentary about sex trafficking and would interview police in Shenzhen before meeting them.
      “I told her you were catnip,” Sadia teased. “Don’t disappoint me.”
      “I’m married.”
      “Uh-huh.”
      Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda squat in mud, encircled by the city. Sadia, who ran the Ping Shan Heritage Trail in high school, said, “Well, I feel accomplished: This is the oldest pagoda in Hong Kong.” Her phone buzzed. “She’s at the station. I’ll tell her to come here.”
      Nathalie was dressed for a Benetton safari in the 1980s—khaki shorts, a men’s white T-shirt, Jesus sandals—but Gregory understood it as refined and nuanced sensuality.
      The first thing Sadia told her was, “The description says it’s supposed to prevent flooding.”
      “Epic fail,” he said. “Gregory.”


 



Rococo

The catalyst of the crisis of modern science, characterized by asymmetry, grace, and lightness.

In French her husband signed his name with an accent: Grégory. He was being wooed into directing an eminent commercial gallery. The president was an investment banker with an ornate hat collection and cluttered office: seashells, stones, potted palm trees. She took them to Versailles. In the Queen’s Apartment, she said—in English, for Yuliya—“Most of the royal family were born here.” Gregory asked about the ostrich-feathered baldachin.
      Yuliya’s pregnant face swelled to Brobdingnagian proportions, and even at three months she felt phantom tension in her lower back and ankles. That evening she declined another dinner with curators, so Gregory took his friend Nathalie, to their delight: Her documentary was the jewel of the festival circuit. Nathalie so loved her subjects, he told Yuliya, that her work was more like a poem or a painting in which great devotion had been invested, and visually so stunning that it flew in the face of the rigid political correctness with which sexual slavery was frequently depicted.


 



Xylography

The contemporary art form of engraving ephemeral objects for eternity.

Gregory became a curator of Asian architecture at the Musée du quai Branly. He crashed in Céline’s consulting room until his lease began. In the morning Bruno, her six-year-old son, pounded little fists at the heavy door to rummage through Gregory’s masks and carvings. The boy had just discovered Egypt in school and demanded drawings of pyramids and elephants from Gregory, who obliged.
      Bruno’s father, Bernard—Gregory’s photojournalist friend from Cairo—was leaving Monday to cover the Uighur riots in China and took him for the weekend. After declining invitations to the Cinéaqua, Gregory and Céline had lunch at a Moroccan restaurant in Gambetta.
      Gregory laughed. “I had a screaming match here with a girl. She said I’d carved my name on her soul.”
      “You must’ve been hot shit. When was that?”
      “Nineteen ninety-six. I stayed at yours after she kicked me out of the flat she shared with three dreadlocked antipodeans.”
      “No, those were my Aussies,” said Céline, scraping lamb off the bone.
      “Don’t you wish it were still so easy? Narcissistic fury attests to your eternal love.”
      “No,” she said. “Bruno is leverage. I never married Bernard, but it’s beyond law because he is ours, no matter what. It keeps us civilized.”
      “Tabarnak, you are one selfish shrink.”
      Céline shrugged and kissed her teeth. “After lunch I want to see if the graffiti I did under the footbridge is still there. ‘Bush plus Israel’ with a big heart around it.”


 



Yurt

A circular or octagonal wood-framed dwelling imprinting one’s homeland in the sand.

She ceded most of her things to Gregory, Oxfam, and the piano factory tenants and shipped the five boxes containing all her belongings to New York. As a cheering-up present, Alex took her to St. Petersburg and Moscow, then on the Trans-Siberian to Beijing. For a few days, near the end of the journey, they joined a guided tour and shared a yurt in the Gobi Desert.
      One night Yuliya remembered being in Bensonhurst Park, building mud huts and sprinkling them with straw. Her father, also an engineer, taught her that word: “yurt.” He went back to Russia when her mother was pregnant with Alex, but before that taught her little science experiments: setting fires with magnifying glasses, baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes.
      “I saw him,” said Alex, flippantly.
      “What do you mean?” demanded Yuliya.
      “He looked me up online and called the bank, like an investor. He lives in Chicago and asked if I ever passed through and I said no, but I went anyway, and there he was.”
      “What did you talk about?”
      “Geodesic domes. He lived in Montréal for a few years. I told him your ex-husband was Canadian-American. He didn’t understand.”
      Yuliya realized infant Alex was in the mud-hut memory; it was a dream, or she’d made it up.

Monica Datta’s work has appeared several times in Conjunctions' print and online editions, as well as in The Collagist.