Ceilings

KARTHYANI SATISH
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Illustration by Zoe Shields

THE ceiling, it turns out, is trying really hard not to eavesdrop. 

 

It was a Tuesday afternoon when it happened.

 

I  —  for no reason I could imagine  —  slid straight off a square of brown suede couch and planted myself flat on the carpet, face up. Maybe I wanted to see the world upended. Maybe the heat was just getting to me.

 

I, like most people, have spent the majority of my waking hours more or less upright ; poor posture, easy chairs, and lean-able surfaces aside. Sleep finds me contorted and uncomfortable; on desks, on shoulders, on hospital chairs I pray tuberculosis hasn't yet colonized. My bed and I are estranged spouses; sharing only the dark and parting with relieved goodbyes at dawn. In four months of the year, I haven't looked at my ceiling once. 

 

At six, I thought everyone I met was magnificently tall. Best-friends and cousins and neighbors from just down the road - towering and long-shadowed as they went about looking at the world from all that way above. And the view was, I knew, stellar. My mother could probably make out the signs on the mall nearby. My father, the tallest person in the world, likely only did so much squinting because he was straining to look right over the border.

 

To my bewilderment, nobody ever discussed this enormous power of being grown-up. Nobody ever put away their plates at dinner and looked out of the window and went, “my god, I can see the beach from all the way up here!” I gulped down mugs and mugs of Horlicks-flavoured milk (that my mother swore she put two heaped teaspoons in, when she only ever put a half) and waited for the moment; the moment I would tower over the cousins and the neighbours from just down the road, part a sea of envious heads, and look out at the ocean glimmering all the way in the distance. 

 

I grew. Horlicks and hope gave way to shocked whispers. I didn’t quite hit the ceiling, but the opinions of others closed the gap. With gangly arms and lanky legs, I took up far too much space. 

 

I slouched. I hunched. I cultivated a half-bent stance where I could pretend that the scale stopped a good hand short of where it really did. In bed, I curled into an inoffensive crescent of cotton sheet. In my dreams, I shrunk; lower and lower, past the best-friends and the neighbours, past crossed legs and potted plants, until my eyes were level with the floor and I was the right-size, pocket size. 

 

From the carpet, I see now what I’d always wanted to see. From here, everything is enormous; the legs of the couch hold up a cavernous suede ceiling, a cushion left on the floor is now a sovereign island on a sea of terrazzo tile. A swarm of tiny insects have been hard at work whittling away the bottom of the ottoman, and I marvel at how much of the magenta fabric has disappeared into crumbling decay. I think to myself that if the meek really do inherit the earth, it would be a slow, silent annexation, under the cover of time and the backs of bookcases nobody ever bothers to sweep. The horsemen of the apocalypse are many, and they scamper underfoot.

 

The phone chimes with a text; a friend, making dinner plans. I respond in voice message; because lately, I’ve begun taking a perverse joy in inconveniencing people as much as I possibly can. Why say in 140 characters what you can hmm and haw your way through in a two and a half minute soliloquy? I realize partway that I am smiling at my own voice; I am Echo, swapping mountain stream for carpet. I must remember to steer well clear of any philandering Greek gods.

 

I abandon my phone and turn away, until my cheek rests on fading carpet of questionable origin. It was made somewhere far and foggy, I decide, where mountain goats and mountain streams run hand-in-hand, where a ‘factory’ is a string of nonsense syllables that means nothing at all to anybody. A tag pokes out of one corner, the black print on it implicating, and I pretend I don’t see it. I prefer the origins of my furniture imagined.

 

I scratch at a patch of brown paint in the corner. Being facedown on the carpet is a little like being in Pompeii, I realize; time, in stains and lost earring backs, immortalized in a layer of dust and wool fiber. Through my childhood, I’d painted dog after imaginary dog sitting on the carpet; popcorn-kernels of Pomeranian, amorphous blobs of Golden Retriever. Five birthdays ago, my parents had come home with a mournful-faced hound who shed handfuls of fur everywhere he went. I brush away a strand. On the carpet, real dog and wish-for-dog jostle for prime place.

 

I look up again and think to myself how unremarkable ceilings are; bottom in the architectural hierarchy, not a rug or a houseplant in sight. House-hunting with my mother, I'd leave school two periods early to go driving through sandy-walled neighborhoods all afternoon. We’d go through sixteen houses a day; the windows were too small. The bedrooms were too dark. And most often of all - in houses with pools and houses with trampolines and houses with yards large enough to host a dozen simultaneous barbecues - the ceiling was always, always too low. The goddamned ceiling, I’d muttered every time we left behind a beautiful home. The goddamned ceiling, I'd scowled as we finally settled on a yard-less, pool-less villa, where we never even wired the chandelier. The goddamned ceiling. 

 

But now, from the floor, the ceiling feels a little less damned as it arches high above; hovering a polite distance away and careful not to eavesdrop. The flatulence of letting out an opinion, especially a rank, controversial one, has never appealed to me; it is terrifying to shout my thoughts into the void and have them stay there, suspended in mid-air in a noxious green cloud where the commuters and the dog-walkers and the schoolchildren waiting for the bus could all smell it as they went about their daily business. From the floor, though, the opinions seem a little easier to let out; they will, I decide, float upward and bonk against cement as they come to a halt. I take a deep breath, and denounce all religion. I mutter what I think of the neighbor’s new dog. I tell an empty room and a few stray carpet fibers all my thoughts on the ruling government.

 

From the floor, I issue a begrudging pardon; the ceiling can stay, for now. And on a hot Tuesday afternoon lying on the carpet, I have finally understood my mother.

Karthyayani Satish is a medical student who enjoys writing whenever she gets a moment free. Her writing has been featured in Vice India, and the Hindu Open Page. You can find her on Instagram @karthyeahknee.