Ah, last day of the semester. The professor goes on a long walk into the winter woods near the Highland Park Reservoir, her pale face chapped with cold. She’s had one glass of wine.
OK two and a half. It’s perfect out here! The sky looks pink, sweet and pillowy as seen through bare black branches, and she’s touching as many trees as possible. This is a ritual that had been given to a character in one of the student stories she’d read this term. The story had moved the professor to tears, partly because the kid who wrote it was such a sincere person, so full of effort. He was Italian-Latvian, from South Philadelphia, used a flip-phone, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, watched ancient re-runs of The Waltons on his laptop, and was the most brilliant of students—like nobody she’d ever taught before. A double major in writing and physics.
Anna Lidia Vega Serova’s stories make my mouth quirk and make me wince, usually not simultaneously. The pitiless sweep of her narrators’ gazes spares no one, not even the characters they’re latched fastest to. When my own eyes are fixed on the task of translating her words, of scooting puzzle pieces around until they snap satisfyingly into place, I forget how unblinking that narratorial gaze is, how its effect sometimes abuts brutality, and sometimes tips straight in. I remember when I watch other people react to my translations, after it is too late to offer content warnings or make excuses for unlikable women. (What can I say? I like unlikable women—or, more accurately: I admire them.) Vega Serova’s stories brim with them, which is one reason I am drawn to them.
The farmer’s daughter began her fifth period, more excavating, more mortal than the previous. The toilet under the stairs flushed half-heartedly, returning red-brown effluent. Go down, go away, be off to the underworld! She pumped a second time, jangled the handle to make her point. But there would be more. Dark clumps and entrails, another six days of the end of the world.
“Tupac’s not dead,” said Sami. “He’s at the sheikh’s palace.” Sami had heard from his friend Nadia, whose uncle arranged security for the sheikh, that Tupac Shakur, the king of hip-hop, Mr. Thug Life himself, was on Jebel Jais.
Early one morning, when the sky was still dark, Annie locked herself in her room. She turned the key three times, then went to her bed and opened a book.
At half past seven, her mother knocked on her door and told her to get up. When Annie didn’t appear, her mother tried the handle and found the room locked. Half an hour later, she put her ear to the door and heard nothing, not even the loud whisper of the ceiling fan. A strange feeling got hold of her; she knocked and spoke more sharply. “Open!” She slapped the wood with the palm of her hand and began to shout for her husband. “Come quickly! Annie’s not coming out—something has happened to her!”
As the car passed the Flag and sped toward Za’abeel, Avi’s crisp V’s became softer and less pronounced—“wees,” even. By the time he crossed Sana Signal, coffee shops and villas having given way to the old city’s chai stalls and low-rise apartments, the languid, questioning “ahs” at the ends of his sentences had been abandoned, the tongue clicks dropped. “Paps, what time do we have to make a move to the souq?” he said to his dad on the phone, sounding like just another Bur Dubai kid. “Okay, I’ll be downstairs in an hour.” He gestured to the driver to pull up outside his building and hopped out, throwing the Capri-Sonne straw he had been chewing all the way from school onto the pavement. His gait had changed, too: on the Jumeirah side of the Flag, he adopted the exaggerated chest-swivel of the Khaleeji, ass jutting out, body taking up far more real estate than someone of his frame reasonably should. Here, however, he stepped within himself.
There were rules, though. If even one lochal or premium expat were spotted, accents would be drawn. Intonations would warp midway, vowels replaced with dressier ones like guest bedsheets.
“Saudi wastemen came over the bridge for boozy orgy celebrations.” —Noor Naga
The horror of the city. As Dhari tapped the steering wheel, he calmed himself by visualizing the beautiful woman who should be sitting next to him soon: shoulder-length blonde hair and sky-blue eyes. He eyed the two security guards idling at the gate of the hospital, joking with each other. The gangly one spit on the ground, then turned to the one with long hair, who handed him a cigarette. Dhari’s friend Dawood got caught with a woman he wasn’t related to once. Dawood was actually lucky to spend only a week in jail, but Dhari knew he couldn’t handle prison for even a day. If only he could have been born somewhere else, where people weren’t separated from one another like this. Whenever he watched American movies, he marveled at how men and women got together, threw dinner parties, clinked glasses. Relationships, dances, first kisses, all these things were taken for granted. How would they view Saudi weddings? Separate ones for men and women. At a wedding, all one did was shake men’s hands, drink tan Saudi coffee in small ceramic cups, and sit, waiting for meat and rice to be served.
A slight wind picks up and moves over the lake, clinking rocks together in the wash. Salvador squints into the darkness. The way his fellow construction workers talked about America’s proximity, he’d half expected to sight the faintest outline of one of its cities’ skylines as a shimmer set deep against the horizon. Instead, there’s only the night and, stretching to meet it, the mumbling water.
He was, locals agreed, the quintessential Kaverinagar retiree. In his wool-silk trousers, navy-blue sweater, and plaid scarf wrapped tight about the ears, C. K. Rajgopal, former Air India pilot, cut a lithe figure as he strode down Eighth Main. On his feet he wore the ergonomic shoes his son had brought him from America. Designed for trekking—or for Indian sidewalks, his son had said—the shoes had, for the past weeks, felt heavy, like stones tied to his ankles. But this morning, strangely, it was no longer so. Perhaps his leg muscles had needed time to adjust to their new load, perhaps he was rejuvenated by the winter air—whatever the reason, as he made his way to Wodeyar Lake, past the provisions store and the barbershop, still shuttered at this early hour, past the temple and the sugarcane juice stall, Mr. Rajgopal experienced a lightness, as if the ground were falling away from him and he were floating, gliding, over the pavement stones and under the gulmohars, through clouds of golden dust churned by the municipal workers’ brooms.
My thirteen-year-old sister, Mara, wakes me to tell me that she is dead.
She believes this.
I’m twelve, the younger one, though the age difference has never really mattered between us. In the dimness of our bedroom, she’s pressed close to me, her skin warm and a bit sweaty. Just beyond our window–invisible to me now in the dark–the ocean thrashes. I hear and taste it; it makes everything here salty, even the indoors.