After my surgery, I lie in bed for weeks. The ceiling is very high. I’ve never been able to reach the light, never been able to clean it. What happens up there in that stratosphere? Do dead skin cells float up into it? The cap over the ceiling light is circular and pink, darker at the center and lighter at the perimeter. It looks like a nipple, but not like mine. My nipples are more brown than pink. They might have been pink when I was younger. The ceiling light cap is darker at its center because of the insects trapped inside. There was a time when there were no insects, when the house was newly cleaned and prepared for my arrival by the property manager. I have been able to measure my time by the trapped insects, the darkening of the nipple. They bounce off the ceiling attracted to the glow.
I’ve been searching the corners of my mind for the name of a mathematician. It dwells somewhere among the clutter of facts I’ve stashed away. I learned his name on a walk with a friend one autumn day. She told me two stories, one about an architect and another about a mathematician. I remember the one about the architect better. The architect had been a little girl when an earthquake devastated her village. Everyone had to relocate, spreading out to the nearby towns. It wasn’t until she was an adult that attempts were made to rebuild the destroyed village. All those years, she had held tightly to the image of the village that she explored as a child. She had sketched it again and again a thousand times, every street and what had been there, including the specific trees and flowers that lined them. Among hundreds of applicants, she was selected for the role of planning the design for the reconstructed village. She knew exactly how it should be done, down to the details: a crack in the foundation, a loose brick, a narrow wooden ramp for a cat. Several years later, when the village was unveiled to the public, everyone marveled at the oddness of it. The streets were wide and long, the houses big and commanding. Bouganvillas unnaturally vivid and bright lined the fronts of homes where the stair steps leading to the front doors were fat and tall. The village park seemed endless, and one side of it was covered in overgrown vegetation that a 6-foot-tall person could get lost in. At the unveiling, there was no sign of the architect. She was unreachable after the last touches to the reimagined village were added. The person who spoke to her last, a translator for a foreign contractor, said that she seemed introspective. “It is not what I expected,” she remembered the architect saying.
My life is not what I expected. I think this as my partner brings me soup from the other room. Every meal is soup, each time a different color and texture. He is excellent at soups, patiently simmering and stirring, enjoying the task of looking through the cupboards and matching certain ingredients together. One day tomato bisque, another day split pea. This time, it is butternut squash. With every bowl of soup, I am brought from the ceiling back into my body. “They are taking out the tree today,” he says, pointing at the old cottonwood outside my window. The wind picks up and blows through its branches dappling the light inside my room. A neighbor once explained to me that the problem of the tree is that it is extending too far in all directions. Its heavy branches dangle precariously over all the houses on our street. Some parts of the tree high above are already dead, hollowing out and no longer growing leaves. At the same time, its hungry roots are drinking directly from the sewer. There is a strange almost metallic smell emanating from the tree, and its bark has been generating an ooze called slime flux that slowly drips down onto the underbrush and makes whatever it touches wither and die. I feel a connection with the tree, both of us and our slow, ungraceful development within our respective timelines, some parts of us dead and others alive.
All through the afternoon, my partner and I watch the tree people remove the cottonwood from our bedroom window. It is hard work. They cuss sharply at each other as they try to coordinate their dangerous mission. My partner winces when the tree is mangled, as if it is a part of him. They have to remove it in pieces because it is so huge, like a tree that has grown many trees from its body. A tree worker operates an industrial saw to cut a segment loose, wraps a rope tightly around it, and connects the rope to a crane hook. Then, a giant crane lifts it off the earth. We watch every piece of the tree twirl in the air for a few seconds before it disappears from view. When the last of the tree is gone, everyone cheers. The afternoon sun streams freely into my room.
Because our lives are full of dead zones and ghosts, I want to believe in reincarnation like some of my relatives do, though my version of it is selfish. In another life, I live in a palace and wear heavy jewels that sparkle on platinum scaffolding around my neck. In another life, I am a woodrat and have many babies that cling to my nipples with their claws and teeth as I forage for food in the desert. In another life, I prowl on stretches of pure white snow that never gets dirty. In another life, I know what I want and follow the straight and narrow Dao of my destiny. In another life, I passionately kiss a woman on the wide street of a foreign country. In another life, I root in the land where I was born. I’ve lived these lives before or I will live them in the future, so I can live this life now. I imagine the arcs of all my lives forming a circle in the shape of my ceiling light.
The smell of a new soup wafts into my bedroom. In the growing dark of nightfall, before I turn on the light, the coats draped over the corners of the doors look like people standing with their backs turned to me. Who could they be? I have my fantasies. The possibility is not zero that another consciousness identical to mine might manifest in this universe one day long after I am dust. It will take on a form, move around in the world, and live an unchartable life unknowable to me. I think about that when the soup arrives.
I want to reach out to my friend who told me these stories to get the name of the mathematician, but we have lost touch. I don’t know how long ago or where the mathematician lived. All I remember is that he was trying to come up with an equation for a circle. He was slowly understanding through his meticulous calculations that the impossible shape of it had to be God. With the formula he derived, there was no reaching the smooth edgelessness of a circle. On the contrary, the closer he got toward the limit the more edges his approximations created. I want to give this impossible prospect a hopeful spin: you feel farthest away when you are near. I don’t know if this mathematician figured out the equation for a circle or if it was someone else. It brings me comfort to think about all the mathematicians all over the world huddled over their lamplit desks puzzling over this mysterious shape.