And Sultan’s face was not the place for a smile anyway. Deep set eyes and crooked teeth were difficult to prod into motion. His lips seemed to quiver and give forth an effort to bend upwards, but they quickly sputtered and died. Besides, there was little time for joking while working with a diamond-blade saw.
Cutting and fitting pieces of tile within strangers’ bathrooms was Sultan’s duty. The demands of retiling the client’s bathroom acted as an anchor, keeping his mouth shut and his hands working. Old materials crumbled into his hands as he dug into the wall. Bending over the shower, Sultan measured out the placement for his next piece of tile.
“You nearly done in there?” said the voice from the other room, cutting through the noise of the saw.
But Sultan did not have time to answer as he looked up and saw his current client, a large man, with a moustache that likened him to a walrus, enter the bathroom.
His eyes traced Sultan’s work without ever landing on Sultan himself. His head bobbed up and down, while his mouth gave forth fumy grunts like a volcano trying to prove itself. In sync with his breath, the man’s eyes squinted at a detail of the tile, and then went back to scanning the project at large.
Still not looking at Sultan, the man asked again, “Allora, finito?”
“Getting there, sir,” responded Sultan, trying to meet his eyes. “I believe by the end of the day tomorrow I should have it ready for you.”
A yawn of boredom supported the man’s excessive moustache. His shoulders were suspended likewise by a dramatic shrug.
“Well then, andiamo. I’m not paying you to hide out in my bathroom. It’s a discounted rate if you don’t finish it tomorrow.”
The man turned and stomped from the room, leaving Sultan to pack up his materials. In Afghanistan, he had worked with tile too. But he laid vast floors with mosaics, and cut pieces on a scale that required magnifying lenses to see. In Italy now, he adjusted to improving clients’ showers and floors. It was work stripped from what he knew.
His bag full of tools, Sultan made his way through Piazza Venezia to catch the tram. Rome was not his first choice. Or even his second choice. But it is where he was forced after making the decision to leave Afghanistan. The language came slowly. The jobs came slower. After a few months, Sultan learned to trade Dari for Italian, artwork for black and white tile.
Nobody noticed him as he boarded the tram, with the exception of the woman whose face was grazed by his bag. Mumbling an apology, the tile-cutter took a seat. The tram was going to Trastevere, across the Tiber, where he would meet his last client for the day. Sultan anticipated eyes that would look past him in order to size up his capabilities.
The tram bumped and rattled around corners. Sultan looked down at his hands. They were covered in dust and small cuts. His fingertips stung. Running through the palm of his right hand was an especially nasty scrape, the angry attack of a rather stubborn piece of tile. Sultan recognized himself in the wound, tired and injured from sheer effort.
A few tram stops later, the same hands knocked at an apartment door on Via Portuense. Feet and keys shuffled inside while Sultan sighed and looked upwards. Hoping for a short time inside, he waited for the client.
A very short and very old lady answered the door. Her grey hair was held back by a bright, glittery headband and her forehead was lined with age. Resting on her nose was—peculiar to Sultan—a pair of sunglasses. She brought the door fully open, bringing her apartment as well as her shirt decorated with a bright orange cat into view.
“Ciao, signore,” the woman said, reaching for his hand.
Sultan took it and shook. Her grip was strong.
“Ciao, signora,” replied Sultan quietly. Behind the sunglasses, he could feel her eyes upon his. He also saw himself in the lens’s reflection. Both the woman and his reflection stared back at him.
They had been shaking hands for far too long and far too few words had passed for Sultan to be at ease.
“Why yes, come in, come in. An espresso I think, yes, yes.” The last part seemed to be addressed more to herself and the cat on her shirt than to Sultan.
Earthquakes were common in Italy, and Sultan found himself wondering if this woman’s living room was not in fact used as an example of the damage they can bring to order and organization. Large piles of plates and utensils competed for space on the counter, and some even lay in shards on the floor. The table at which Sultan sat labored under the weight of an impressive amount of pots and pans. Large light bulbs hung from the ceiling on silver strings like the leaves of a willow tree.
Sultan had to duck his head and and twist his body to peer about the room. The woman bobbed through the kitchen with ease, paying no heed to the lights or the broken silverware. Her steps fell without hesitation. To Sultan, it appeared she was dancing.
Still muttering to herself, the lady poured an espresso and set it in front of Sultan. Her eyes, Sultan imagined, shone behind the sunglasses and her lips lifted in a warm smile.
“Grazie,” said Sultan, unsure of what to call her.
Sultan looked up. She was a breathing statue. Though they remained hidden by the frames of her glasses, Sultan could tell her eyes were fixed on him. Dropping his gaze to his espresso, he took a sip.
“Molto bene,” he offered to her quietly, unsure of how to proceed.
She gave another deep smile, and remained trained on him.
Sultan wanted to get around to his reason for being there. Surely, she would lead him to the bathroom soon and explain the color and shape and size and angle of tile she desired. Surely, this espresso was simply to get on his good side before the demands of perfection started. Surely, she did not want to spend all afternoon staring at him.
“Your bathroom, signora, is it the floor in addition to the shower—”
“Where are you from?” she interjected. “I really do enjoy your accent.”
Glee spread across her face.
“Oh I should have guessed it! Yes, Mattea, you should have known.” Sultan wondered if she forgot he was there as she stood up and began making her way through the dangling lights. “What a lovely country—”
Sultan heard no more as she left the room still talking. A few moments passed. He finished his espresso.
“You want to see the bathroom or what?” her voice sounded strong, but far away.
Sultan jumped and collided with a light. He thought he heard a chuckle from the bathroom as he tiptoed over the mess and out the kitchen.
Mattea’s tile was not in dire need of repair. Sultan scanned the floor and found a few chips here and there, but it looked as if the job would be merely patching up a few places.
“I want you to make for me something new,” said Mattea, looking at him when he arrived in the doorframe.
“Something new! Perhaps a scenic vista or an exciting pattern. In any case, something I can feel.”
She said the word feel with such intensity, Sultan took a step back. Lowering her glasses in explanation, she revealed to Sultan her eyes—blue stones in a sea of gray.
He knew at once she could not see. They were still full of light, making them bear the weight of that which Mattea could not enjoy. Sultan was caught looking at these two lighthouses, spilling forth—but unable to contain—brightness.
Sultan nodded, “Yes, signora. I can start right away.”
Mattea was delighted.
The next few days, Sultan worked tirelessly. His phone rang on the second day and the walrus-man informed him of his bathroom’s need to be tiled. Sultan found he no longer cared about that project and informed the man of his change of heart. He could hear the screaming as he set the phone down and resumed his work.
Unlike most, Mattea was intrigued by Sultan’s journey to Italy.
“Do tell me about your hometown, Sultan,” she would implore him over the noise of the saw and the filing of tile. She asked questions to Sultan and to herself, always mumbling away, and walking in and out of the bathroom as if she were caught in a game of tug-of-war between two different rooms.
Sultan gave small details to appease her and shuffled about his work. She no longer wore her sunglasses, and Sultan was growing more and more comfortable with her eyes trained on him like a pair of strong magnets. In all of Italy, she looked at him the deepest.
Still, Sultan tried to keep the words between them to a minimum. A rule for which Mattea seemed to respond with the opposite in mind. Sultan’s curt refrain of “grazie mille” and “sì, signora” were met with long trails of anecdotes, chuckles, and even more questions about Afghanistan. She seemed indifferent to the noise of Sultan’s hammer, speaking over the din as easily as swatting away a fly.
Mattea looked at Sultan. Her eyes were unfettered from her inability to see. She wound through the maze of her apartment with no trouble, and did the same when it came to looking upon Sultan. Her face remained locked on him while she told stories and offered small meals of bruschetta.
Sultan looked at the bathroom tile. For his part, he was not disturbed by Mattea’s gaze, though he was never comfortable with it either. His time in Rome had been built upon a scale balanced by a desire to be noticed and discomfort at the thought of being recognized.
In any case, Sultan had little time to think about his feelings. The project demanded his focus, as did any other, but this bathroom was unique. He found himself thinking about the tile to be cut while away from Mattea’s apartment. The pieces that needed smoothing and resizing, the position of the shapes, and how to answer Mattea’s loose instructions of something that she could “feel.”
“Shortly after I went inside the basilica,” Mattea’s voice resounded throughout the bathroom the next day, “I found my way to the statue of Pope Pius and gave him a big kiss! You wouldn’t believe the gasps I heard afterwards.”
Sultan heard a chuckle escape from his unguarded lips. While he struggled to reconcile Mattea’s stature with the height of a papal statue, he found the story amusing. Perhaps she would do the same to his art when he revealed the tile to her.
“Then of course July in Rome can be brutal, the only cure is a dip in the Tiber!” Her words bounced off the glue and saw in Sultan’s hands. “Cornetti!” she exclaimed suddenly, jumping and running from the room.
Sultan was left to himself for several minutes while the sound of pots colliding with the kitchen floor floated down the hallway. Today was the day to show Mattea her new bathroom. At this point, Sultan was merely fiddling with minor details and adjusting small pieces of tile. He had redone the entire east wall and interior of the shower.
Returning from the kitchen, though looking as if she was returning from a dangerous battlefield, Mattea arrived in the bathroom with a tray of croissants.
“You never answered me, Sultan. What is your favorite place in Rome?”
This time, Sultan was prepared. Still not saying anything, he took her hand and guided her to the appropriate spot on the wall.
Ponte Sisto was now in Mattea’s bathroom composed of tile. Pieces were raised and deepened to draw the bridge from the wall. Running her hand across the art, Sultan heard Mattea breathe, “Sisto.” For the first time, she seemed to be at a loss for words.
In fact, every last one of Mattea’s many questions for Sultan had an answer somewhere in the bathroom.
“What did you do as a child?”
Why, the tile near the shower faucet spoke more to that than Sultan himself ever had. The tile told the story of the field in Kabul where Sultan played cricket with his friends.
“How did you arrive here in Rome?”
Feet and trucks stretched across the wall near the sink. Raised from the wall, the pieces of tile comprising the objects were smoother than their counterparts lining the normal parts of the wall.
Mattea’s hands grasped at each detail. Sultan looked away as she examined the bathroom tile. He had given her something she could feel, but at the cost of revealing himself. Most other clients looked on a new pattern on which to spill toothpaste and do make up in the morning. Not so with Mattea.
“Do you miss home?”
The Colosseum stood raised against the depression in the tile that Sultan used to form the Tiber. Standing on the other side of the water was Kabul. The buildings perched against the background of mountains. Sultan’s home among the city was magnified, made to be as large as the Vatican standing on the other side of the shower. Through every feature, the Tiber flowed, connecting home to the present.
She opened her mouth and closed it again. A single tear fell down each cheek. Mattea was receiving her first lesson in Sultan’s language of bathroom tile.
And Sultan found his face was welcoming a smile. Mattea could see it in his voice and mirrored the bend of his mouth. Looking at Mattea’s joy and the scene of Kabul mixed with Rome, Sultan smiled on.
Cover image by Neil Cooper.