Every morning I wake up to the sound of sweeping. Below or above I’m never sure. But the steady hush of straw on concrete is the first sound I hear.
After that, it’s the Squabblers. I’m not entirely sure what they look like. They are the birds here. I hear them from up in the trees but don’t see them come down. They always sound angry, like they are arguing with one another. I think they must not like it when the sun comes up. I only hear them squabbling in the morning.
Then there is the steady hum of traffic and the voice of my neighbors lifting up from below. I hear the scrape of feet on cement. A baby’s cry. The whir of a washing machine below me, the trickling of water from above.
My flat is not much to look at. At first glance it looks nice enough. Slick linoleum tiles that resemble polished wood. Bright white baseboards, trim and coffered ceilings. Textured paper lines the walls, shiny and dotted with the spiral pattern of flowers. I can never quite tell what color the wallpaper is. Depending on the light, it either shines a pale pink or a more subdued beige. The door handles are ornate, fake brass and carved like the detailed hardware of centuries old homes. Each is equipped with a pair of keys dangling from it that I never bothered to move. The lights are equal in show. Ancient calligraphy etched into the light boxes to resemble old lanterns.
Of course, upon closer inspection one is bound to notice the dark spots on the wallpaper, bruising purple. They are likely to notice the unevenness of the paper too, asymmetrically pasted in each room. Notice the seams gaping and folding down like the dog-eared pages of a book. They will see the coffee table held up by copious amounts of tape. They will notice the mark of water on the ceiling. See the warped floorboards gathered together like the peaks of tiny hills, sputtering black water from below with each precarious step. They will see where the raised step outside the bathroom has mostly rotted away, black and peeling. They will observe the ever pervasive and cloying smell of damp and mildew. If they stay long enough, they will catch a glimpse of the tiny dots of mold peppering the walls throughout the week before they are scrubbed down again with bleach.
My apartment is not always pretty. And while it is my refuge from the world, sometimes I truly loathe the tacky wallpaper and lament the perpetually wet floor. I get angry at the damp smell that persists here in winter, trying in vain to find better ways to air out the place.
But it is home. At least for a while.
Sometimes I hear the cries of the newborn from the apartment below in the early hours of the morning. Above, I can hear the tinker of a piano. These things remind me of a home far away. Of my sister’s tiny little fingers curled into fists. Of a piano collecting dust in the corner.
My neighbors keep their windows open. In the evenings, I hear the sizzle of the fire. The cooking smells drift out of their open windows to greet me as I come up the stairs. The food doesn’t smell familiar and it makes me miss home.
On the way back to my flat I see the grandmothers with their grandchildren. They play in the neighborhood playground together. A girl, not yet two and with a gummy smile only punctuated here and there with a tiny tooth, sees me. “Ayi!” she yells. The grandmother smiles and there is something familiar in the gap between her two front teeth.
“Ayi!” she cries again and toddles toward me. And I am home.
Ayi means “aunt.” It’s a respectful term you’d use to address a woman old enough to be your mother.