Love Letters to Those Who Came Before Me
I was born in New York City, but I didn’t learn about lower Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood until years after I left. History was partially to blame: in 1946, the city took the thriving Arab neighborhood once known as the Syrian Quarter from its residents by eminent domain, evicted its inhabitants, and flattened almost the entire neighborhood to build the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Only three buildings now remain.
I stumbled on Little Syria three years ago, as I was wrestling with the plot of my second novel, The Thirty Names of Night. I visited the last remaining buildings of Little Syria on a trip back to New York from rural Pennsylvania, where I was living at the time. I was still married and closeted then, struggling through a sophomore novel that seemed much harder to write than my debut. In those days of self-doubt and isolation, the trip to New York—even the familiar stink of the subway, with its sticky August heat—was a welcome distraction. No matter how far I travel from New York City or how much time I spend away, a part of me always remains in the city where I was born.
I took the train up to the city to visit an exhibit at the New York City Department of Records and Information Services put on by the Arab American National Museum. Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy led me to old maps of the nearly demolished neighborhood on the Lower West Side. Only three of its buildings still stand on a block of Washington Street not far from the 9/11 memorial, where new hotels, high-rises, and severe skyscrapers give way to an older neighborhood of low-rise brick buildings and tenements, some of which—including the 109 Washington Street tenement—are still inhabited. Connected to the tenement is the Downtown Community House, and next door stands St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church, a neo-gothic chapel of white terracotta originally constructed in 1812 and once used as a boardinghouse for recent immigrants.
Older Syrian Americans, those who remember Little Syria as it once was, have communicated to me a sense of loss for the neighborhood they remember and the history that is being forgotten here. The Washington Street Historical Society has fought for years to protect the neighborhood’s three remaining buildings by asking the City of New York to designate them as individual landmark sites (St. George’s won landmark designation in 2009) or even a small historic district. So far, these efforts have not been as successful as they hoped. The ground floor of the community house appeared empty on my first visit, and the inside of the church had been turned into an Irish pub. Still, something about this last block of Little Syria drew me. Growing up here, I’d never known lower Manhattan had been home to a thriving community of Arab immigrants, mostly from modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, then Ottoman-controlled Greater Syria.
The people who lived in Little Syria weren’t quite my ancestors; my father didn’t arrive in New York until more than twenty years after the neighborhood was demolished. But what conversations might I have had about Syrian American identity and history when I was growing up, had I known this place existed? Coming of age in the early noughties, it would have been encouraging to know that Syrian Americans had lived and worked in cities from New York to Los Angeles for more than a century before I was born. But like the history of the land and of the Indigenous peoples who first lived on the island of Manahatta, that wasn’t part of the American history I was taught.
Whose history is deemed worthy of preservation? Given that New York City itself was built on Lenape land by enslaved people, how can we interrogate and complicate our remembering to make space for those histories, too? Growing up, my parents didn’t talk much about the history of Turtle Island that preceded our presence here, even though the legacies of violence and displacement were all around us. Yet it would be too simple to say that my father accepted the narratives America told about itself—and about us. Unlike most of the early Syrian immigrants who arrived in New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, my father—both brown and Muslim—knew that he would never be able to claim even a tentative whiteness. But I think he believed that his children, biracial and American-born, would have a better chance at being accepted by the very power structures that oppressed him. Had he lived to see me enter adulthood, maybe we could have mourned together the false narratives each of us swallowed in order to survive.
I mourn, too, the queer and transgender histories erased in the name of survival, the elders and ancestors whose names I will never know. One of the themes I grapple with in The Thirty Names of Night is the difficulty of finding a shared language with elder community members to talk about queerness and gender. For children of immigrant families of color, this is often a delicate subject, not necessarily because our families are religiously or politically conservative—though some are—but also because of cultural divides about what constitutes private and public information, and because our communities may fear further oppression from those with the power to hurt us. Some things are just not spoken about; that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
This is complicated by the fact that queer and trans spaces in the United States are so often painfully white. Growing up in suburban Connecticut after my family left New York and later, in college, I faced impossible choices as I navigated the layers of my identity. If I claimed my queerness, it became clear in majority-white queer spaces that there was little room for my brownness or for my complex relationship with Islam. Likewise, my queerness was not affirmed or celebrated in the exceedingly few Arab or Muslim spaces I had access to back in those days. This is all to say nothing of the biphobia and erasure I often experienced in queer spaces, or the suspicion I suppressed as a teenager that I was not a girl at all. It would take years to collect all the parts of myself that diaspora, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia had scattered across my internal map. Had I overcome my shame and isolation to seek out other queer and trans people of color earlier, maybe I would have been able to access models of possibility I didn’t have back then. As a teenager growing up in a white suburban neighborhood after we left New York, watching my mother hang an American flag outside our house to protect us from harassment and suspicion, I believed the lie that being safe meant keeping certain parts of myself hidden.
It took me years to unravel this internalized shame, years to build a chosen family who loved and accepted me in all my complexity. After I wrote The Map of Salt and Stars, I wanted to interrogate the forces that had kept me silent for so long, yet I struggled to speak. The Thirty Names of Night began as the story of a young, straight, Syrian American cisgender woman trying to reconnect her grandmother with a long-lost friend, along the way finding the chosen family she was seeking all along. But after I left my marriage and Pennsylvania, came out to myself and my family, and began my own transition, I realized that my characters felt flat because I wasn’t allowing them to be their full selves. Like Little Syria, parts of my identity had been erased because I didn’t fit into certain spaces the way others wanted me to. I’d learned to flatten my emotional landscape in order to cope with the closet, and the closet, in turn, had found its way onto the page.
The moment I set about rewriting the text, a queer love story blossomed, then another. Soon I realized that the protagonist I’d tried to write as a straight cis woman wasn’t one at all. It was a problem other writers had pointed out to me too—the textual clues that the character felt uneasy with binary conceptions of gender, tension in characters’ conversations around assigned gender at birth, malaise and loneliness that seemed to stem from something deeper than plot events would suggest. My character and I were both experiencing dysphoria.
In the second and third drafts of the book, I freed my protagonist to explore his gender without making transition the sole focus of his narrative. I discovered that not only had I given him the gift of chosen family, but the queer and trans elders we’d both been looking for had been staring us in the face all along.
It took me years to find my way out of the closet, to figure out who I was and what I wanted for my life independent of the expectations others had of me. Adhering to those expectations had kept me safe when I was vulnerable, and for a long time after, claiming myself in all my complexity remained an impossible risk. In the years before I came out as transgender, I began to see that staying in the closet and trying to tiptoe around the sensibilities of others wasn’t sustainable for me. My only chance for survival was to admit that I could not fulfill the dreams that some of my loved ones had for me, and to let go of the idea that the life they had envisioned for me had ever been possible. Seeing myself as valuable in all my flaws, quirks, and improbable dreams, whether or not I was deemed worthy by the standards of others, was what set me free. The queer and trans folks of color who came before me, including those whose names and stories I will never know, allowed me to imagine a future in which I could claim myself, and this is a profound gift.
Queer and trans people of color deserve stories that reflect our communities and our history in all their creativity and joy and complexity. I am grateful for every story in which queer and trans people of color are free to flirt, to adventure, to make art, and to build in all our nuances—Netflix binges, awkward first dates, and all. In revising The Thirty Names of Night this spring while at an artist residency at the Arab American National Museum, I reflected on the ways that our communities and families are often much more complex than others know—sometimes even more than we ourselves realize—whether or not we talk about them using the same language or narratives that white queer and trans people do. Giving something a new name doesn’t make it new; taking a name away doesn’t erase it. Queer and trans people of color have always existed, even when we had to hunt to find ourselves in a novel or a history book. Through my own processes of discovery, I am finally writing myself into existence in the fullness of my identities and watching others do the same. Our stories remind me that we remain, despite a world that tries to erase us, speaking our truths in plain sight.
The Thirty Names of Night
Tonight, five years to the day I lost you, forty-eight white-throated sparrows
fall from the sky. Tomorrow, the papers will count and photograph them, arrange them on black garbage bags and speculate on the causes of the blight. But for now, here on the roof of Teta’s apartment building, the sheen of evening rain on the tar paper slicks the soles of my sneakers, and velvet arrows drop one by one from the annual autumn migration sweeping over Boerum Hill. Before stealing up to the rooftop, I drew the curtains across Teta’s window so she wouldn’t see. Still, I listen for her gasp at the window below me, any sign that she might wake to a street dashed with dying birds. I can’t bear to see her lying in the dark again, her mouth stitched shut by grief.
This mourning, at least, I can understand. Since the first time I closed my hand around a robin’s egg, I understood the love of birds the two of you shared, the way each egg was its own shade of blue, the way its warmth left behind the wild thrill of possibility, as though I could come home from school with a fistful of rainbow pipe cleaners and sticky goose down and build myself wings.
The sparrows’ feathers are brushstrokes on the dark sky. This I don’t have to imagine in watercolor or set down in charcoal. This night is its own witness, the birds’ throats stars on the canvas of the night, their wings thrown open against gravity. On the edge of the rooftop, I reach out over the wet street as the birds plummet down. The evening’s fog has lifted, leaving the city a smear of light. The lights must have blinded them. You used to say the city was dangerous for migrating birds. Until this moment, I never understood what you meant.
The sparrows thud onto the houses around me, old three- and four-story brownstones, generation homes with sculpted stoops, a handful recently bought from the families that have owned them for decades and gutted for resale. Something inside me is also shifting. If my foot were to slip and a neighbor were to find me, what would they think? Would they jot me down as a clear specimen, wings pinned, markings unmistakable? Or would they find the shapewear Teta gave me to smooth my belly and my hips, the one I cut at the ribcage in secret that now flattens the chest that hides the surface of me? Would they find these hidden things and realize I don’t fit into the borders they’ve drawn?
The birds come down like thunderbolts, clapping wet against brick and concrete. A strike, an uneasy pause, then another. They crash into cars and through skylights, thunk into steel trash cans with the lids off, slice through the branches of boxed-in ginkgoes. The sparrows drop, dead or dazed, toward Teta’s rooftop. It’s the kind of freak event that stops everything: traffic, public breakups, toddlers’ tantrums. Below us, people look up in wonder.
A single sparrow strikes my hands.
The impact bruises me, and the sparrow’s beak gashes my palm. His damp body falls at my feet. You taught me a long time ago to tell the species apart by the yellow patches around their eyes, their black whiskers, their white throats, and their ivory crowns. You were the one who taught me to imitate their calls: “Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” In your career as an ornithologist, you taught me two dozen East Coast birdcalls, things I thought you’d always be here to teach me. I reach down to scoop the bird from the rooftop. He weighs almost nothing, as though he were carved from mist. I realize for the first time how much of you—how much of myself—I will never know.
Maybe that’s why, since you died, the birds won’t leave me alone. The sparrows are the most recent and startling of a long chain of moments into which the birds, like you, have intruded. They arrive in unusual places: red-tailed hawks perched on the iron fire escape above Sahadi’s burgundy awning, the same female barred owl always alighting on Borough Hall when I emerge from the subway. For all my prayers the night you died, the divine was nowhere to be found. The forty-eight white-throated sparrows that plummet from the sky are my only companions in grief now, the omen that keeps me from leaning out into the air.
▴ ▴ ▴
My gynecologist is using purple gloves again. They are the only color in this all-white examination room. I set my feet in the stirrups with my knees together, only separating my thighs when he taps my left foot. The paper gown crinkles. The white noise of my blood thrums in my ears. There is no rainbow-colored ceiling tile with dolphins here like the one at Teta’s dentist. Last spring, I got my teeth cleaned while she had a root canal just so I could hold her hand.
I clench and unclench my sweaty fingers. The speculum is a rude column of ice. I focus on a pinprick of iodine staining the ceiling tile and force myself to wonder how it got there. I will myself out of my body the way I used to do when I was bleeding. The summer after you died, my periods were the heaviest they’d ever been. I spent the rainless evenings standing in fields at sunset, waiting to be raptured into the green flash of twilight, wishing there were another way to exist in the world than to be bodied. It had been less than a year since I’d closed my hand around those eggs in the nest, and still I wanted nothing more than to disappear into the weightless womb waiting inside each round, perfect eggshell, that place of possibility where a soul could hum unburdened and unbound. The man between my legs checks for the string of my IUD, and I am flooded with the urge to return my body and slip myself into a different softness: the stems of orchids, maybe; the line of sap running up the trunk of a maple; the fist of a fox’s heart.
Instead I am jolted back to my body by the shiver of lube running down the crack of my ass as he pulls off his gloves and tells me to get dressed. There are never enough tissues, so I use the paper gown, then ball it up in the trash. My gyno returns just as I tug my T-shirt over my makeshift chest binder.
“Everything looks good,” he says, sitting down at the computer. He adjusts the pens in the pocket of his lab coat, though none of the doctors in this place write on paper anymore. “I can’t find any reason for your pain, though.”
“But I’ve been spotting and cramping all the time.”
By the look on his face, I can tell he doesn’t take this seriously. He hands me a pharmaceutical company pamphlet on the IUD, the kind with women laughing on the glossy front, shopping or hiking or holding their boyfriends’ hands. He urges me to wait a few more months until things stabilize, then asks me if I’m using backup protection. I say yes, though I haven’t had sex in years. For some reason, the first girl I had a crush on pops into my mind, the one in my high school biology class who loved acoustic guitar music and apple rum. It’s been so long since I’ve allowed myself to want anyone or anything.
“I thought this thing was supposed to stop my period.” I pick at a hole that’s starting on the knee of my jeans. “And my chest is sore. Didn’t know that was a side effect.”
“Sure, breast tenderness can happen in the beginning.” The gyno looks at me like a puzzle he’s lost some of the pieces to. “Give it a few cycles to settle down.” He asks me about my moods, but I can tell bleeding, cramping, and sore breasts aren’t going to be enough to convince him to take the thing out. In his mind, a woman should be used to these things. There is no way to explain the eggshell or the fox’s heart. My insufficient, unnameable suffering is my own problem.
When I tell him I’ve been feeling down lately, he softens. You went to him before I did, and you still hang between us in the waiting room when I come for my appointments. He asks me if I’m back to painting, trying to make small talk, but I don’t know how to answer him.
“Maybe you need to get inspired. Get your mind off all this.” He suggests an exhibit at the Met on Impressionist painters and pats me on the shoulder as I leave. On my way out, the receptionist calls me miss.
It’s late when I get out, so I take the 6 uptown to the Met. Now that I’m taking care of Teta, their pay-what-you-wish policy makes it one of the few museums I can still afford. The Great Hall with its columns and vaulted ceilings feels so grand, but I’ve always hated the undignified way my sneakers squeak on the marble. I wander through the medieval hall and the European sculpture collection and somehow, as at most museums, end up in a room stuffed with oil paintings of white women’s bodies in various states of undress, not a single female name beneath them. Occasionally there are flowers, fruit, a jaunty self-portrait of a bearded painter. The last time I saw one of the boys I went to art school with, he tried to console me about my artist’s block by saying he was pretty sure none of the girls we studied with were painting anymore.
I stop in a bathroom to wash my hands. The mirror reflects a print on the back wall of a white woman bending over a clawfoot tub, her round belly as pink as her breasts, her eyes sleepy and demure. Seen through the artist’s eyes, she is more symbol than human, her face static and unreadable. Her body is twisted into an unnatural curve as she turns to regard the viewer, so severely posed that it feels as though the artist has painted, instead of a woman, a porcelain bowl for holding pears.
▴ ▴ ▴
By the time I come up from the subway in Teta’s neighborhood, it’s the golden hour. There are no signs of last night’s sparrows, just hot pavement and sweating brick. I’ve rounded the corner onto Hoyt and am one building down from Teta’s apartment when I spot the owl feather, white against the green ivy that snakes over the brick posts on either side of Teta’s stoop. The tangled down at the base of the feather’s hollow shaft gives away the species, the delicate brown striping on the upper part of the feather. It’s a fat, weightless thing, the tip oiled with soot, the down still warm from the leaves.
I tuck it in my pocket and climb the stoop, tugging out my keys. Out on the street, the early autumn is still soaked in summer damp; Brooklyn simmers in September, when the urine-and-soot stink of the subways sifts up through the sidewalk vents and Atlantic is noisy with restaurant goers who don’t know that hummus is Arabic for chickpeas. While I fumble with my keychain, a white family pushes a stroller down the sidewalk under the trees, and the toddler inside reaches for the Swedish ivy bursting from Mrs. King’s window boxes. Lately I’ve been wondering how long Teta will be able to stay in this building. It’s the same story in every borough these days, every neighborhood: Crown Heights, Bed Stuy, Harlem. The weekends bring the expensive strollers and the tiny dogs, the couples who take up the whole sidewalk and comment on how much safer the neighborhood has gotten. Rent goes up and up and up. The family-owned bodegas keep on closing, replaced by artisanal cupcake shops and overpriced organic grocery stores whose customers hurry past the homeless and the flowers laid on street corners for Black boys shot by the cops. Some people go their whole lives in New York shutting their eyes to the fact that this city was built for the people who took this land from the Lenape. Sometimes I wonder why you never spoke of this—I’ll never know if you thought I was too young to understand, or if you were only desperate to eke out an existence here, defending our fragile claim on what was long ago stolen from someone else. Now I am old enough to understand that we live on land that remembers; I hear the voices when I touch the brick or pavement, catch the wisps of words exchanged hundreds of years before the island of Manahatta was paved. I sometimes think about the Arabs and other immigrants who came here a century before my own family, hoping they wouldn’t be devoured by the bottomless hunger of the very forces that drove them from their homelands, hoping they could survive in this place that was not built to protect them.
Teta’s been baking: the stairwell is perfumed with walnuts and rosewater. Inside the apartment, a fresh pan of bitlawah steams on the counter. If I’m honest, no matter how much I long for the apartment I had in Jackson Heights before Teta’s back pain got worse and she needed someone to take care of her, I’d miss the smell of her house if I left it. It’s just the two of us now, fielding the occasional call from Reem up in Boston. I can’t blame my sister for not wanting to be reminded of what we’ve lost, the gears of memory locking their teeth every time I remember.
I slip off my shoes by the door, settling my bare feet into Teta’s plush Persian carpet, letting the purls of wool separate my toes. Asmahan gets up from the living room couch and stretches, then jogs over with a mewl. When she shakes off her sleep, the ruff of fur around her neck sways like a tiny lion’s. It wasn’t long before that horrible day that Asmahan came to us, but Teta and I never stopped calling her your cat.
“Better let the bitlawah sit, habibti,” Teta calls to me from her favorite armchair without looking up, “it’s hot. Get us a cup coffee, eh?” The afternoon light catches on the brow feathers of the owl that sits on the sill watching Teta every evening, and though Teta meets its gaze, I pretend not to see.
Asmahan follows me into the kitchen. On my way, I pick up the half-empty plastic water cups on the coffee table. Asmahan loves to drink from unattended water glasses, so Teta indulges her by leaving cups of water around the house. Asmahan knocks one over now and then; thus the plastic. I run my thumbnail over the ridge at the lip of the cup and can’t help but smile a little. The way Teta spoils that cat.
In the kitchen, I get out the tiny coffee cups you brought with you from Syria when you and Teta came over to the States years ago. The painted jasmine blossoms look almost new. I don’t know how Teta keeps them so pristine, how she makes sure they don’t get dropped or chipped in the cabinet by the plates or the forty mismatched jars of spices we’ve got knocking around in there. We always make our own spice mixtures, just like the women in our family have been doing for generations. Teta’s got everything labelled neatly in Arabic, so those were the first few words I learned how to read. She has her own chai mixes, her own baharat, her own fresh za’atar. I love that she makes them from memory, never measuring anything out, just estimating by the handful or the scoop or the pinch. The mothers and grandmothers of the other Arab kids I knew in school never wrote a recipe down; it was something you learned by heart. I’m sure Teta thought you would be around to teach me those things when I got older. Instead she had to teach me herself.
I fill the long-handled coffeepot with water and add the coffee, sugar, fresh-crushed cardamom, and cinnamon. Out the window, impending rain hangs like dusk. Asmahan trots over to the kitchen table and hops up. Someone’s staring at me from one of the chairs. I don’t have to turn to know who it is.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I say without turning my head. “You don’t have to get up.”
But you do, and I know you’re coming over to me even though I can’t hear your footsteps these days. When I turn, you’ve got your hands on the countertop, gazing out the window. You’re always smiling, smiling at everything in this half-sad way like there’s still so much of the world to be experienced. I let the ring of electric coolness that surrounds you raise the black hairs on my arms, wishing, as I do every time, for some sign that you are real: a touch, a sound, a shadow. Instead the scent of fresh thyme fills my mouth as though you’re holding a clipping under my nose, and I want to cry. You turn your head and smile at me. I smile back in the tired way the living have of appeasing the dead. How are you supposed to smile at a ghost without feeling lonely?
The coffee froths up, and you wait while I pour off the froth into our cups. You reach down and offer your hand for Asmahan to sniff. I almost put out three cups instead of two.
“You’ve been around more often,” I say, turning my face as though I expect the scent of thyme to weaken. It doesn’t. “Summer must be getting on.”
You look at me—that stricken look. This is our agreement: we don’t talk about the awful night of the fire, not even as its anniversary hurtles toward us like a planet each year and you continue your wordless visitations. Every year, the end of summer is the same. You’ll come in the morning and sit in your favorite kitchen chair, the one you always used to sit in when Teta had us over for dinner. Teta can’t cook like she used to, so I’ll be in the kitchen, bringing her spices or making sure the onions don’t burn. It’s been four—damn, five years ago now—since we lost you, and nothing has tasted the same since. You’ll watch me cook, watch me clean or read or make coffee for everyone but you. Sometimes you’ll lean in close to my ear, and the earthen smell of thyme will offer up the names of things in Arabic to me, calling the coffee ahweh and the oil zeit, and in this strange and silent way we’ll talk until it gets dark and you disappear.
The coffee froths up the second time. I shut off the gas range and pour it out into your tiny cups, careful not to slosh them and disturb the grounds. I leave the coffeepot on the burner, avoiding our reflections in the window above the sink. You consider the long handle and the dark liquid in the pot, like you want to join us.
“Yalla,” I say, beckoning with my eyebrows toward the living room. It’s no use: outside, dark has fallen. Teta coughs, and Asmahan trots toward her between my legs. When I look up, you’re gone. In your place is that same scent of fresh thyme, the kind you used to grow on the fire escape to make za’atar from memory.
I bring the coffee and a diamond of bitlawah to Teta in the living room, setting it on the table beside her armchair. She’s fallen asleep with her favorite blanket folded on her lap, a lavender underscarf wrapped around her head like she always wears in the house, even though we don’t get visitors anymore. She winces, and I help her sit upright in her chair, arranging the pillows behind the small of her back and her shawl around her shoulders. It’s been a few years since her multiple myeloma went into remission, but she never seemed to regain the bone density she lost, and her back is a knot of pain.
“Keef halik, Teta?”
“Alhamdulillah.” She squeezes my hand. “Sit, sit. I never see you sleep anymore. Where you go all night?”
I kiss her papery forehead. “Let me get you the heating pad.”
When I come back, Teta’s nodded off again with the demitasse of coffee in her hands. I take it from her to set it on the table, but my hand slips trying not to wake her, and I spill some of it on my jeans. The cup clatters back onto its dish.
“Storm of the storms!” Teta exclaims while I curse under my breath and wipe myself down with a napkin. She’s been calling me that ever since I broke one of her teacups as a kid. She must have heard it on the news at some point, storm of storms maybe. Somehow it journeyed through Arabic and was resurrected as storm of the storms, and now that’s my nickname whenever I’m too clumsy or too much to handle. Teta means it lovingly, but my face burns anyway. I try to inspect the cup for chips without Teta noticing.
When I turn back to slide the heating pad behind her, Teta’s looking me over with a furrowed brow. I bend forward, a force of habit, and hope my loose tee hides the fact that I’m using the shapewear she gave me to bind my chest.
“Hope I didn’t wake you banging around in the kitchen,” I say before she can question me again. I sit down across from her on the sofa, a gorgeous old Damascene thing with a wooden frame and rolled arm pillows whose damask patterns have long since faded into vague gold and burgundy braids, an heirloom from the bilad.
Teta holds my eyes for half a second before glancing away out the window. She laughs, shifting her back against the heating pad. “I sleep heavy these days.”
There’s no way she didn’t hear me talking to you in the kitchen, but this is the response I expect. Though we both see you, we never admit it. You are first on the list of things we don’t talk about, questions we don’t ask, ghosts we don’t count. I’ve never told her about the others, but I know she’s seen you.
I drain my demitasse and roll the warm ceramic between my hands. I’m sitting in that way you used to correct me for, legs spread like a boy, elbows on my knees, leaning forward so my hair drops in my eyes. I clear my throat and try to draw myself up, mussing my hair out of my face, but the movements are wrong. They are always wrong: my elephant feet, my way of closing cabinets with a bang, my bad posture. I’ve memorized even the things about you that used to drive me crazy.
“Mom would’ve been fifty-five this year.” I glance up to meet Teta’s eyes. “Wouldn’t she?”
Teta sets the half-empty cup of coffee on the side table and folds her thick arms over the blanket in her lap. She shifts her weight forward and then back, rivulets of pain cabling her face until she settles back into the heating pad. “It was beautiful, the day, until the rain.”
The cup in my hands yields its heat to my palms. “Beautiful.”
“When I was young,” Teta says, and a smile sneaks onto her face, “we used to stay inside and play tawleh when came the rain. My father, Allah yarhamo, when he was alive all the men in our town used to come to our family café to smoke narghile and talk politics. Immi kept the coffee hot all day. When it rained the men start to come, until we had all our place full.”
I want to ask her how my great-grandfather died, but it is one of the stories Teta has never told me, one of the many she keeps in her locked trunk of memories. His death, too, is on the list of things we don’t discuss. “How old were you when he passed away?”
“Seventeen,” she says, and then she drains her coffee and falls silent.
It’s no use. The television drones from the corner, too low to be heard. “Tell me again about the bicycle woman.” I look up from the sludge of coffee grounds at the bottom of my cup. “The one who flew.”
Teta perks up in her chair. She’s always preferred to tell fantastical stories rather than recount the past, and this is one of her favorites, a failsafe. The first time she told it to me was after Jiddo died. In that first version, Teta spoke of a woman in her village in Syria who built a flying machine out of a bicycle and two sets of linen wings. She peddled hard to gain speed, then hit a ridge and became airborne for a quarter mile before crashing in a field outside the village. The story didn’t bring me any comfort then, but it felt real, and I never quite believed the version she told after that, the one where the woman on the bicycle escaped gravity, never to be seen again. As a kid, it was more comforting to imagine this woman ending up somewhere warm and colorful, like San Francisco or Miami, but it was too easy an ending. Teta never said where the story came from. I knew better than to ask.
“It was my friend saw her go up into the air,” Teta says when she’s finished recounting the story. She’s told it so many times I could probably relate it by heart. “No one else in the village thought she could do it. Immi kept me home that day, but I heard every detail. We were all of us amazed.” She ends with the same bewildered shake of her head and a reminder to believe in the unbelievable.
“They called her Majnouna,” she says, wagging her finger.
“I know, Teta. The crazy woman.” I take our cups and pat her hand. “If Asmahan starts drinking our coffee, Majnouna will be the least of our worries.”
Teta clears her throat and calls out to my back. “Fifty-four.” When I turn to look at her, she directs her eyes to her hands in her lap. “November, she would be fifty-four.”
▴ ▴ ▴
I retreat to my room. Your presence is still here, everywhere, your hand on everything. The photo albums I saved, stuffed with pictures, my first days of ninth grade and high school graduation, shots of you braiding my wet hair before bedtime and making goofy faces at the camera. An old, half-empty bag of henna powder in a ziplock bag, the last one you used to make my hair soft and shiny. Your prayer rug that I keep in a place of honor, draped over the bench that sat in front of your worktable where you kept your birdwatching supplies and journals. You always said you’d replace the scarred worktable someday, but here it is, covered in your stray pen marks and smears of acrylic paint. It’s cluttered with the books that were in your study when you died—birdwatching manuals, Audubon’s Birds of America, a few Arabic ornithology texts I can only read the short sentences of. Everything I know of birds, I learned from you. When you were gone, I learned from these pages turned by your hands. These books taught me the names of birds in Arabic, things you must have thought you’d have time to explain. Your last sketchbook sits in the corner, a couple of your colored pencils still lodged inside as a bookmark, deforming the binding. I remove the pencil, and a photograph slips out onto the floor. It’s the two of us posing in front of my elementary school door: me in patent-leather Mary Janes and a polka-dotted dress you’d picked out for me, you with that unguarded grin that showed your gums, your arm pressing me to you as though you could fuse us forever.
When you came with me to first-grade parent-teacher night, I was so excited to have you meet my teacher that I’d begged a friend’s dad to take this picture beforehand. You’d somehow gotten the money together for a private school. You wore your best silk blouse that evening and dressed me in a new outfit, hoping we’d both make a good impression. I had the sense, without being able to name it, that we didn’t quite belong. We arranged ourselves in front of the school’s wooden door, me tugging down my hideous dress while you laughed and hugged me to you, my shoulder curving into the space just above your hip. We held the pose while my friend’s dad fumbled with the camera. We pressed into each other with the rise and fall of your breath. Then came the flash, blinding.
I tugged you inside, the warm stripe of your touch still painted on my shoulder. Mrs. Wilson greeted us at the classroom door, the blackboard free of chalk, her can of pencils still full, and a pristine leather handbag perched on her desk. Then Mrs. Wilson’s face twisted into shock, and when you started to speak, my teacher frowned and leaned in as though she couldn’t understand your accent. She forced a smile, looking from me to you and back again.
“It’s lovely to meet you,” Mrs. Wilson said. “But I was expecting—well. It’s only that she looks so—”
My fingers twitched in yours, our knuckles interlocked. You pursed your lips and knit your brows. Mrs. Wilson pushed her chin forward above my head and raised her voice, taking your unease for a lack of understanding.
“She must look more like her father,” Mrs. Wilson said, slowing and separating her syllables. “You understand?”
I dropped my eyes to the floor and crinkled the polka dots at the hem of my dress into twisted and bulging lines, my pulse lodging itself in my cheek. You tensed and shifted your thumb against my hand, the nail scraping my skin like nicked leather.
Then you smiled without parting your lips. “A colleague told me that once,” you said in smooth English, “when she saw the picture of us in my office, next to my master’s diploma.” Then you squeezed my hand and steered us away.
You said nothing more of Mrs. Wilson that day. You shut the door that night when you ran the water for your bath, and I laid my head on the wood. I listened for the squeak of the faucet turning off and wished I never had to leave this little studio apartment again, tried to imagine a home where other people’s words couldn’t separate us as cleanly as any wall.