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  • Writer's pictureJohan Olofsson

Naked Flower

The towering concrete blocks loom like sentinels as I slide across the nearly worn-out lawn, feeling the coarse blades of grass under my shoes. I can feel the vibrations from the drone’s engine against my skin and hear the monotonous buzz as a constant reminder of surveillance. Its soft whirring is a constant reminder of its vigilance, and I keep my gaze straight ahead, careful not to meet the drone’s unblinking electronic eye. I sense the drone near one of the balconies but do not look directly at it. Everything I do, everything everyone does here, is controlled by Black Vortex.

The jokers wear their European media-given name with a twisted pride, strutting like peacocks in a kingdom of concrete. They talk about not wanting to be part of society, yet they baptize themselves in its waters and accept its name. Criminal clowns is what they are. Back home, they wouldn’t last a week. They are allowed to be kings here because no one dares to say or do anything.

No one does anything. They just keep their heads down and hurry on. Hurry to work, if they have a job. Hurry to the store. Hurry home. Keep their heads down.

Most people here wrap themselves in heavy, dark veils, their eyes downcast, mirroring the oppressive atmosphere that blankets our lives. The thick fabric of the burqas and the soft fall of the khimars over their shoulders conceal not only their bodies but also the fear in their eyes.

When I moved here, these clothes were just as popular, but there were more color variations then. Now, almost everyone wears black. That way the drones see less. Understand less. Vortex says they only use their drones to monitor the police, but no one believes them. Not even their own people. They stash the drugs. Stash the guns. Sell the drugs. Use the guns. Go to jail. All for Vortex. Yet, only Nikolá and his princes get to see the video feed from the drones. So, everyone hurries. Dresses alike. They all keep their heads down.

Tonight, I’m going to meet Leon, who lives two subway stations away. I want to look extra fresh. Mom will help me with my hair, and I have an appointment to get my nails done this afternoon. In between, I have four hours of studying.

As I enter our building, the drone’s buzzing halts abruptly, like switching off a fan in an otherwise silent room. The sudden quiet is both palpable and welcoming. I opt for the stairs; the elevator perpetually reeks of urine. My footsteps echo softly against the concrete walls. Despite some people’s persistent efforts to dirty the place, the building remains surprisingly clean and well-maintained.

In a suburb plagued with problems, you’d expect graffiti and litter. Instead, you’re met with clean walls and freshly mopped floors. There is no trash, no food scraps, and no dead animals. In Europe, there’s always someone to clean up after you. I want to believe my countrymen would do the same. I want to, but I can’t quite convince myself. This entire area feels like an impossibility. Just on this floor, eight countries are represented. Calling them countries is wrong; some are just lines on a map drawn long ago.

When I open our apartment door, everyone is up except Dad. He works late four days a week, and we don’t wake him until breakfast is ready. I set tomatoes, cilantro, and parsley on the counter, taking a deep breath of the labneh Mom made while I was out. The tangy scent of yogurt mixed with herbs and olive oil makes my stomach growl. I kiss her on the cheek; her skin is warm and soft. I go to wake Dad. Sitting beside him on the bed he shares with Mom, I kiss his slightly wrinkled forehead. His breathing is too fast; he’s probably having a nightmare. I whisper a stupid old rime from my home country over and over until he slowly wakes. The wrinkles ease from his forehead. He smiles broadly when he sees me.

When we all finally sit at the breakfast table, Mom asks me what she always asks. I answer what I always answer. The drone was there. I kept my head down. I hurried. Then the conversation turns to the salon. As it almost always does. Everyone thinks Mom should open the hair salon she’s always dreamed of. Mom doesn’t dare. She continues to cut hair at home. No change. The predictability is ever-present.

Dad asks me what’s going on in my life today. He leans back in his chair, eyes sparkling with interest. I talk about hair and nails, weaving in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism in between. We linger on Sartre’s teachings about the self and our condemnation of freedom. We delve into how his ideas relate to my other readings until Mom shifts the topic to my education.

As usual, she questions how I’ll make money from all this knowledge and suggests switching to a more practical field. She wraps her concerns in compliments about my intellect and winning mentality. The latter she says while holding her fingers up and out from the side of her head like she has horns. Even my brother who hasn’t said anything today laughs together with the rest of us. My mother making horned air quotes is the surest way to make my whole family laugh wholeheartedly. My older brother asks for bread, and I toss a piece of saj right into his face, drawing even more laughter, even from him.

Dad asks about tonight, and when I mention meeting Leon, my brother’s laughter freezes. He says nothing but throws a glance at Mom, who does what she always does. She says she doesn’t want to interfere, then looks at Dad, and before he can say anything, she breaks her promise and starts telling me that I should stop. She keeps going for a while before Dad raises his hand. His silent authority calms the room. Dad’s raised hand always works, as long as she’s not angry.

He calmly chews the food in his mouth. As always, he says that what makes me happy makes him happy. My brother pushes the last bits of labneh around his plate and still says nothing. At no other breakfast table on this floor, maybe at no breakfast table in this entire suburb, would this happen. That they accept. They accept me for who I am; for what I want to do; with whom I want to do it. I am a twenty-two-year-old woman with an older brother who is supposed to protect me and my honor. I know my brother and mom judge me. But they back down. They back down because my father, my wonderful father, who loves me and respects me so much that he not only accepts, not even just respects, but actively supports what I do.

The day goes as planned, and when my nails are ready for Leon, so am I. When Sartre has finished explaining freedom and responsibility to me after a couple of hours, my regular clothes come off. I replace them with lingerie that I bought just a few days earlier and a daring black velvet dress that perfectly matches it. The sit on the side runs all the way up my leg, and I feel like it gives me the power to seduce.

Since I live where I live, I also put on a black abaya that covers everything except my head. I refuse to bow to anyone, including Nicolá’s imbeciles, and cover my hair. I get some hard looks and barely audible comments, especially from older women from my homeland, but no one spits on me as they would have if they saw what I had underneath. Or knew what I’m going to do tonight. And what I do almost every other night. Before I head out my mother gives me a completely redundant warning about the ever-present drones. She tells me to never interact with Nikolá’s minions. As if I ever would.

The nail studio is on the outskirts of our area, and after a few meters, I can’t hear the drone’s buzz even if I try. On the way to Leon, I listen to Charlotte de Witte. Loud. So loud that several passengers on the subway ask me to turn it down even though I have headphones on. Charlotte, who to me is the empress of Psy-trance, cannot be listened to at a low volume. I turn it down a notch and press the headphones to my ears. Get lost in the music until I realize that it’s my stop and I must get off. I walk quickly but without sweating. I just want to be there, want to do what I do best.

When I get to the house where he lives, I take the elevator up to his floor, number seven. I stay in the elevator for a moment, take off the abaya, and check my appearance in the cracked mirror, adjust the cleavage. Everything looks perfect. With a press of the button, the elevator doors open, and I step out. Leon’s door is the third on the right, marked with his name in crooked white letters on a dusty black plate. Most doors here are overflowing with names, but he lives alone. Leon opens the brown wooden door and lets me in, and I can see the appreciation in his eyes.

Two hours later, I get dressed again and get the same question as always after two hours with Leon: How about tomorrow? I reply that it’s not possible, just as I always do. He nods with that exhausted and pained look, accepting that he’s not the only one for me. I explain, again, that he will never be my only one. That what we have is special, but I’m not the kind of girl who wants a guy. Just one guy. He accepts. Almost. He temporarily steps out of the hallway, allowing me time to fetch the hundred euro note that he placed for me on the table. I put the abaya back over my head.

When he returns, I kiss him on the cheek, smile when I see his reaction to my clothing, and step out into the now overly bright stairwell. 

Written by Johan Olofsson.

Cover photo by Marcus Lenk.


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