By lunchtime, Beijing had reached 102 degrees and our four-year old twins were hungry. We’d spent the morning exploring the shadeless Yonghegong Lama temple and now sought out the refuge of the simple vegetarian buffet nearby where my vegetarian husband and I had had a transcendent meal on our last trip six years before. To our dismay, it had been, according to a nearby security guard, demolished. One of our twins emitted hangry squeals, the other went boneless. The air was dense with humidity and pollution. On our way to the temple from the subway stop at the top of Yonghegong Street, we’d passed another, fancier-looking, vegetarian restaurant and so we elbowed our way all the way back up the narrow corridor of manic Buddhist commercialism thick with incense and the calls of hawkers selling religious tchotchkes and crowds of midday worshippers and tourists; we drowned in sweat.
It was the summer of 2013, a formidable summer in Egypt. We walked from our villa toward the sea, carrying collapsible aluminum chairs, bags of cucumber-and-cheese sandwiches and pea-sized yellow grapes that are called banaati—literally, “girlish.” This had been our ritual for the past seven Fridays. My grandmother walked ahead with my aunt, and I followed floppily in their morning shadow. We spent every weekend at Qariyet El Muhandiseen, one of many gated compounds that have sprung up in the last four decades, providing summer getaways for the Egyptian elite. Completed in the late eighties, only twenty-six kilometers west of Alexandria, this one in particular is considered démodé.
When people speak of my city’s river, they say: declined. What they mean is: dry. Only modern cities can survive on the promise of water. Early people settled just east of the river, on the then-fertile floodplain that offered easy access to water, mud, fish, grasses, all the necessary components to forge a life in the desert. In the summer, I imagine cool breezes.
Tucson lies in a valley between four mountain ranges, so each range becomes a landmark. A trained eye can decipher a way through the desert using these mountains alone, though this eye will also see the lines of cottonwood trees, will find where water runs silently underground—the Santa Cruz River (translation: “Holy Cross”) long buried under a bed of pummeled stone, sand, bits of mica.
Sixteen years ago, my mother found my father behind the shed on a Saturday morning in June. “Get up off the ground in your good shirt,” she told him, before she understood he was dead. “He looked like he was sleeping,” she told us. “The gun glinted in the grass.”
Seven years after my father’s suicide, I opened the envelope containing police photographs of the scene. He did not look like he was sleeping. Limbs: a swastika. Angles inhuman. Violence and velocity rendered in two hundred pounds of a six-foot man. The gun glinted in the grass—she was right about that.
The room was full, though not as jammed as the time I’d visited the summer before, when the space felt hot with the exhalation of hundreds of miserable souls. It was still full enough that I bumped into people and they bumped into me as we moved around with our heads bent uncomfortably backwards. A couple of women sat on the floor and leaned back to stare at the ceiling more comfortably, but an official, known unofficially as a shusher, indicated that they should rise. He and other shushers moved through the crowd of upturned faces whispering “shush” and “silenzio,” reminding us that the Sistine Chapel is a place of worship and not an art gallery.
I think in words, not images, which I imagine is a form of dementia rarely studied by brain scientists—it’s a disadvantage when looking at a map or a set of architectural plans, and I have long believed it also to be a disadvantage when building the big complex geography of even the most pared-down fictional world.
What if I told you some of the most enlightened women I knew in youth took to the beach and spread oil across their shining décolletage in order to receive the divine? To place themselves in the present and in the path of nature, gazing for hours at an uninterrupted horizon?
Think of Buddhist monks in Tibet sitting cross-legged and naked in the wild, practicing g tummo, the art of inner fire, drying wet sheets on their bodies, melting snow with their minds. It is a matter of radiance and belief, harnessing the power of breath.
We all dreaded the Butterfly Haven, a greenhouse whose thermostat was set to an oppressive eighty degrees. We were tasked with ensuring the museum’s collection of exotic butterflies did not escape into other exhibits—Mysteries of the Marsh, Birds of Chicago, Wild Music—or suffer at the hands of visitors. The Butterfly Haven was a new addition, a garden under glass, the wild and fruit-bearing world reassembled. It was nature trimmed and mail-ordered, the gestation of life contained in a laboratory and maintained through ongoing shipments from Australia, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Butterflies died and were replaced in equal number.
When the drugs came, they hit all at once. It was the eighties, one in ten residents slipped into the deep of heroin addiction—bankers, university students, carpenters, socialites, miners—and Portugal fell into a panic.
After the mine fell quiet, the town slowly went to sleep. The barber changed his hours to Thursday and Friday, by request only. The bank hung a handwritten note to transfer accounts and securities by the end of the month. The last passenger bus pulled up to the curb and drove away.
The streets lie empty now, so quiet you can hear the leaves breaking from their branches. Ghosts on the baseball diamond, in the bowling alley, in the gymnasium. Long shadows across overgrown grass. The afternoon sun sinks early into the mountains.