"Repetition," Lydia Naser
Lavender Sky by Stella Lei
The smell of lavender is overpowering.
I soaked my room in its essential oil to help me sleep, to soothe my mind from the bustle of the apartment building and the din of the city around it. I was a heavy sleeper before I moved to New York. In summer, the cicada’s screeching song would fade to static. An unnoticeable buzz.
But now, the noise is a never-ending reminder of the thousands, millions of lives in motion around me as I flounder and gasp, barely better than stagnant. Now the stench of lavender oil rises from my bed, boxes, books like rot from a corpse. Now I lay, wide awake, drowning in the burning sweet.
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to breathe through my mouth. A camphorous tang curls around my tongue and creeps down my throat, strangles and suffocates me.
I cough out of bed. Throw open my window. Bundle saccharine bedsheets and pillows into the washing machine and jam the button. Wipe my table and the trinkets on it with unscented Lysol, wipe my nose against the bite of sharp overpowering sharp. ‘Unscented.’
Cocooned in a quilt, I lumber to the balcony and huddle in my chair. The city glows below me, above me, around me, an encapsulating constellation of lives. Are the cars headed to jobs? Clubs? Restaurants or grocery stores? Are the shadows in the windows studying? Working? Cooking dinner or washing dishes?
I tilt my head to look at the moon, glowing singularly in the charcoal sky. A shining coin against dark velvet. I stare at it, tracing its shape and shadows with my eyes. And for a moment, we are alone, the moon and I, in a world of stars.
"At Christmas Diner," Shreeya Gomatam
Miniature Dioramas by Stella Lei
Clanging trains rouse the paper dolls. They shudder from slumber, peeling themselves from the table, shelf, floor, and stretching their card stock arms. They have been still for so long. Wind rushing from the window topples three, and they flounder, rosy cheeks pressed into crumbs and lint. One skids across the rooms, sliding into the darkness under a cabinet.
The dolls wobble to unsteady feet. They brush their two-dimensional skirts, tissue paper crinkling under chipped hands. Paint flakes off the corners.
The legs of some are bent, material creased in pulpy knots that fold at the slightest touch. These dolls kneel, palms to the ground, spines arched in eternal question.
Eyes wide, the others meander—they have missed so much during their sleep. Unvacuumed corners cradle them in dust. Their colors are faded in the fingerprint-greased mirror and their silhouettes bulge around glass, distorted by years of sweat-sweet hands.
Some open a drawer and uncover a stack of postcards buried under stamps and pens, strange worlds glowing from glossy paper. Soft mountains dissipate into clouds. Canyons bite through stone. Sunlight, sunlight, sun.
Bolded script leaps across the photographs. The dolls trace unfamiliar names, hold Rocky Mountains and Zion between their chapped lips, press each syllable into the roofs of their mouths and let them dissolve. They stare at the images, touch the paper until they too are dusted and pale, clouded by grime.
So, for a day, for a moment, the dolls sculpt a landscape in the room. Prairies sway in beige carpet. Hills ripple through swollen cushions. The furniture looms—great mountains reaching for painted sky. And yet everything presses together, table against chair against wall. A room cannot contain a world.
If they squeeze their eyes shut and fling them open, the blinding light almost halos the room in ethereal glow. But technicolor brightness pulses behind their lids, steeping scenery in oversaturation.
Pretending is difficult once dusk casts the world in monochrome. Cloth becomes cloth, scratchy against worn palms. Everything is frayed and soft and gray—charcoal smeared across paper—indistinct in the waning light.
The dolls return to the drawer and trace the postcards, lining the edges of the earth.
They rummage a roll of stamps from the shadows and dress in 4¢ postage. Even the broken dolls, the ones who cannot stand, bandage themselves with flowers and flags until they quaver upright, shaking like grass in the breeze.
A single fluttering body, they pry open the window and step outside. Still air embraces them like a forgotten friend. Around them, the world is drowsy and slow, half-formed under the moon’s gentle hands. A train flashes along the tracks, whirling the paper dolls into the sky like swallowtails taking flight. The deep, guttural roar is sweet against their ears.