When my friends and I left the homeland, my second departure from Kuwait, there were five of us and ten suitcases. I knew exactly what was in each bag, just as I knew the pain and angst of the five travelers heading toward the unknown. The suitcases were packed with clothes, kitchenware, Indian spices, and various items we didn’t think we’d be able to find abroad. I could only bring four books with me from my vast library back home: Al-Mutannabi, in two parts; the collected works of Mahmoud Darwish; and just one of the volumes of The Unique Necklace. These would constitute the entire library I would survive on, for however long I ended up living in estrangement. Once we’d settled into our accommodation in a small house on Norris Drive in Ottawa, I arranged the books on the sleek wooden flooring, the place being still unfurnished. Then I sat back and simply gazed at them.
It is Ramadan in Saint-Denis, the banlieue north of Paris. It is almost 21:00h on a June Sunday, and the sun hangs a hazy orange in the sky. The elevator in Amir’s building is broken so we climb the six stories, past the floors of muffled French Arabic and children’s screams. His mother’s home has one bedroom and a narrow tile-floored kitchen, like the one in my grandmother’s apartment in Beijing. There is a cigarette lighter for the stove, but I am too clumsy for this, so Amir manages.
We cherish ourselves even to the bones which like some mother’s rigid hangers hold us to our lacquered shapes in the smug dialetheia of am and briefly was until we come to our raveled ends everyone just taking up space until space takes us back one washed-out moment at a time like tea leaves steeping in a cup until we’re ready for someone to bow in close and take a quick ceremonial sip then turn the cup wipe clean the rim and hand it carefully to yet another honored guest who mindful of what we might let go to waste will not leave until every drop is drunk.
Around noon on those April days, my father would do his best to stop me from going out. After lunch, he’d stomp around the house locking all the doors: the kitchen, the front door, the back door, the main living room. Sometimes he’d even try to drag me to his bedroom and force me to take a nap.
Thomas Aquinas prescribed fervent prayer,
and I do pray, but, oddly, a bird has been
my best medicine when I find myself shrunken
and absent, as I do each year as the anniversary
of my son’s death approaches. And so I turn again
to this: a dipper I watched in Zion’s Virgin River.
As soon as I read about the albatrosses in the Times, I thought of my big sister. Natasha.
“Natasha—albatross ty nasha,” Aunt Lyuba would sing in the communal kitchen, slinging blobs of wheat porridge into my bowl with the cornflower border. Each time she’d shuffle the bowl from the stove over to Natasha-and-my table, her felt slippers would catch on the peeling linoleum floor, and I’d worry about my breakfast. But Aunt Lyuba never slipped.
During her worst fits, my waters couldn’t drown out her cries. Stacking plates, cups, spoons, and knives, her fists flailed against the sides of my bowl; she’d stare at the gushing water stream, her head slackened against her chest.
In a departure from daily routine, she went on an angry, blabbering rampage, hurling her son’s glass pill bottles into my lap, smashing cups and plates, and turning on the faucet. Water and bits of glass floated everywhere—oh, my, I got so dizzy and regurgitated the larger pieces that had lodged in the drain.
She kept kicking me as I coughed my guts up, and she smashed more plates with the skillet.
The specter of her son appeared, grabbed her wrist firmly but tenderly, and wrapped his arms around her from behind. She stopped and breathed a deep sigh but didn’t raise her head or turn around.
When I can’t sleep I drive up to the ski hill and ride around with Tic in his snowcat until all the runs are groomed and my head’s raked clean, just before first light. I bring a Thermos full of hot chocolate mixed with a few shots of Rumple Minz, stale donut holes from Village Foods, and sometimes an uplifting book about how to live a better life that I always end up losing before I can give it back to my sister, Deena. Because it’s almost Christmas, the donut holes are decorated with tiny red and green sprinkles.