Adopt a Cat for the Global Collapse
"It Is What It Is" by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej
Online, my experience of disaster is paradoxically porous and yet distant, a break only intensified by my geographically split identity. The internet is how, throughout the pandemic, I stay up to date on my far-flung family, information filtered through an online haze—news reports about Covid’s spread through Bangkok, where my mother’s family lives, a grainy photo of my ninety-year-old grandmother waiting for her first dose of the vaccine. This is the double-edged sword of the virtual life—whipped up into a frenzy of reactions and emotions by the infinite doomscroll. Yet we’re all collectively alone, stuck on one side of our computer screens.
An internet-mediated disaster is what initiates the action of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s “It Is What It Is”—specifically, the narrator sees a tweet about a cat in Canada named Khorshid, whose Iranian family has been shot down over Tehran. As a child, the narrator fled through the same airport after the forced disappearance of her dissident poet father. She immediately sees her own history in the cat’s plight, writing to the catsitter: “‘I will take her. I will love her with all of my soul.’” She comments, “I was aware that my language was over the top. I didn’t care. The situation was uncertain, dire. I needed something to be definitive, even if that something was the tone of my voice.” This need for language to provide surety, to bring the narrator to solid ground, forces the sentences to stretch and expand beyond my own expectations until the writing strikes an astonishing pitch.
The connected world turns the story’s perspective boundless, as news of further airstrikes overwhelm the narrator even as the immediate world of Chicago recedes in the first days of the pandemic. The only other human the narrator interacts with is her roommate, Fereshteh, and Fereshteh’s mother, who speaks to them via Skype on a screen backgrounded by the mountains of Tehran. In lockdown, the women decide to summon Iran into their apartment, conducting rituals with Khorshid meant to recreate the experience of a distant home. As they do so, impossible memories of the narrator’s father return to her, and the spatial and temporal bounds of the story begin to lose their rigidity, twisting to the surreal.
The power of Van der Vliet Oloomi’s writing is to do what the internet ultimately cannot: break the boundaries of the world so there isn’t any distance between one country or another, between the ancestors and the living, the real and the imagined. The result is startling, frightening, and yet somehow also comforting, stitching all of our disparate parts into a surprising—and wonderful—end.
– Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing editor, Recommended Reading
Adopt a Cat for the Global Collapse
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
“It Is What It Is” by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Khorshid, whose name in English translates to Sun, arrived from Canada on a dreary February morning. I had been warned that she wouldn’t answer to Sun because her family only ever spoke to her in Farsi, telling her softly, Khorshid bia and Khorshid nakon and Khorshid bia bebin chi vasat kharidam, her favorite of the three commands because it meant a treat had been purchased for her, a sliver of fish or a thread from which lush multi-colored feathers had been strung for her pleasure. Her fate, which had been mostly favorable, had taken a horrifying turn. She had lost her family, a set of parents and their twin children, on the eve of January 8th, 2020, in an explosion at dusk over the Tehran sky. The family was returning to Canada after a brief visit to their homeland to attend a wedding. The pilots had barely drawn the plane’s wheels into the wheel well when it was shot down by two surface-to-air missiles twenty-three seconds apart. As the plane dribbled down the night sky, it appeared to the confused gaze of bystanders to be the descending sun ablaze.
For days, I sat at the kitchen table in my apartment in Chicago scrutinizing the videos of the explosion. I traced the missiles’ upward trajectories as they carved their way toward the passenger plane and then watched the plane light up from the impact and tumble down the bruised sky. I scrolled through social media searching for posts about the explosion. That’s how I found Khorshid. I saw her photo on Twitter. The caption, written by her pet sitter, read: “Cat needs to be rehomed. Owners died. Victims of flight 752 that was shot down in Tehran.” I stared at Khorshid’s high cheek bones and exaggeratedly long whiskers, her green eyes through which she looked out at the world in shock and concluded that her owner’s deaths had been a kind of disappearance. No bodies had been recovered. They had turned to ash mid-air and taken their place next to all of the unburied dead. Next to my father who had never been found.
I wrote instantly to Khorshid’s pet sitter: “I will take her. I will love her with all of my soul.”
I was aware that my language was over the top. I didn’t care. The situation was uncertain, dire. I needed something to be definitive, even if that something was the tone of my voice. I didn’t bother to tell my roommate, Fereshteh. I could hear her furiously typing away at her dissertation on Mahmoud Darwish in the next room. She always typed with aggression, offensively pounding the keyboard. I once asked her why she typed that way.
“When I write I’m taking revenge on the world,” she said curtly and I never brought the subject up again.
I stared out the window at the passersby in their long wind-proof coats, their heads wrapped in wool, walking crookedly, making little jumps to avoid the puddles of black ice that always clog the arteries of Chicago in winter. Then I leaned into my reply, my plea which was also a pledge, and DM’ed the pet sitter again: “I will pay for her to be put on a plane this instant; she is my Khorshid, I can feel it in my bones.” If Fereshteh were to protest, I would tell her that adopting Khorshid was my version of taking revenge on the world. That, I decided, would settle it.
Then I put my coat on and walked to the lakefront. I stood there in the harsh wind and watched the water crash and rebound against the breakwater. I watched the foam and froth lift into the air, shattering into a million brilliant droplets before they dropped again into the black depths that reminded me of the Caspian—just as moody, just as much of a trickster, pulling swimmers into its entrails and yanking them around until they go limp. A sea disguised as a lake, hemmed in by land and in a rage because of it.
I paced around restlessly for hours, hunched up with homesickness and sobbing in my grief. Then I went home and called the pet sitter who had written me back with his name, Roger, and phone number. “Here with my ear to the phone,” wrote Roger. Then, “Other interest, call quickly.”
Roger’s voice was deep, guttural. He told me that on the morning of the accident, at the family’s cul-de-sac home on a quiet tree-lined street in Toronto, Khorshid had sat expectantly at the picture window. The grey domed sky beyond it had dumped snow onto the city all through the long dark winter. Roger was convinced that Khorshid sensed that her family was due to return any minute now because her eyes, fixed on the wide concrete path on either side of which shoveled snow had been piled high, betrayed an expression of longing.
At least that’s what he’d thought initially, he said, pausing gravely, before describing to me in greater detail the view from the window where Khorshid had conducted what had appeared at first to be a ritual act of devotion to her humans. He repeated several times, his tone progressively more confessional, that that’s what he’d thought was happening: that the cat was yearning for the familiar scents of her beloveds, that she was anticipating the hour of their approach. But then, as news of the explosion surfaced on all of his life’s screens—the multiple televisions affixed to the walls of the family’s home, the Twitter feed on his iPhone, and then again on the YouTube channel he’d opened his laptop to—he’d begun to feel that he too was engulfed in flames.
He paused again, and in the deafening silence of his retreat I thought of my father. My father, the poet Ali Shafabaksh, who had disappeared along with a bus load of other poets. They belonged to a literary group called The Truth Bearers. That’s all I know. It happened before I was born, when I was just a fetus. The poets’ remains were never found. They were likely dumped together in an unmarked grave in a remote province of Iran.
“Anyway,” Roger started up again, somewhat irritably. Uncertain about what to do to find relief from the intense heat, from the invisible flames that he felt were devouring him, he’d ran outside into the cold where he’d suddenly snapped back to attention. That’s when he saw that the cat’s eyes bore an expression of horror and disgust not unlike his own. An even stranger feeling had come over him then, Roger said; an inability to recognize the world, and for a moment, which had seemed to him to last an eternity, he felt unable to tell himself apart from the cat. He had seen in her distressed face his own. Khorshid’s pupils, he told me, were dilated, static. Her brow was locked in anger. Her mouth was turned down in grave lament, and as he looked at her, he had the strange sensation that his own mouth was sliding off his face.
To this the sitter added that in the days that followed he had not known how to speak of the disaster to poor Khorshid, who had begun to lick her sides raw in response to her family’s sudden collective death on the other side of the Atlantic. He’d failed, he said, at soothing her. “She must have sensed the end approaching,” he muttered breathlessly into the phone. His voice kept shifting registers, exposing his distress.
“It’s entirely possible,” I said, sensing an opening, then I closed my eyes and saw the concrete path Khorshid had studied through the windows. I don’t remember what the sitter said next. In my mind’s eye, the sidewalk, cracked from the cold and exposed to the elements, suddenly morphed. It became elongated, as though it were made of rubber, and took the shape of the lit runway at Imam Khomeini airport from which the family’s passenger plane had taken off—the same runway from which I’d fled decades earlier, once my mother had given up on waiting for my father to reappear—and my whole body shuddered.
“Are you still there?” the sitter said.
I confirmed that I was. I told him not to worry, that I would adopt Khorshid and give her the best Iranian life ever. I said this so emphatically that he was taken aback. I felt myself getting nervous, growing taut with the energy of madness that stretched me from limb to limb every time I thought of my disappeared father. What does one do with the unburied dead? I filled the silence when I should have kept quiet. I said, “Don’t worry, I promise the samovar will be going at all hours, releasing cardamom vapors, and that she will always have her share of white fish served on decorated ceramic plates.” I spoke as though I were relaying a message of comfort directly to her dead beloveds. I was convinced that any pleasure I provided her with would be conveyed to her deceased humans.
I didn’t explain any of this to the sitter. Sure, he was tender hearted. But still, I considered, this pet sitter, sensitive as he may be, was not my people. There was no one planting grenades at his feet or watching his thermal shadow on a screen or tracking his every move convinced that he was a purveyor of violence. His life, I’d thought, remembering again the black ribbon of the runway which had taken on a liquid aspect as the plane on which I’d fled Tehran took off into a sky stripped of stars, was not conditional. I refrained from providing explanatory notes. Neither did I care nor think about how this transmission of pleasure from Khorshid to her family, who had been eviscerated mid-air, would take place. I just needed to believe that it would.
It took a few weeks to settle the adoption. In the interim, Fereshteh and I barely spoke a word. She’d taken the news about Khorshid in stride, perhaps because her attention was elsewhere. She was exhausted from her looming dissertation deadline and a severe advisor she was convinced had a mood disorder, a young aspiring poet on his first tenure gig who changed his hair style every semester and who had an uneven email habit that drove Fereshteh mad.
Occasionally, she would come into the kitchen, where I did most of my reading, to make herself some lunch and call home. She would leave her computer open on the counter behind her. The Skype screen displayed her mother, her maman, seated on a sofa beneath wide windows through which I could gleam the triumphant ring of mountains that crown Tehran, making it difficult for the pollution to escape. Each time I saw the Tehran sky on the screen, it appeared to be heavy with artillery, full of ashes and the soot of the dead. Her mother and I would wave at one another politely and shake our heads, as if to say I have run out of words. Fereshteh’s brother, Iraj, a famous wrestler, had been at Evin prison since the Green Movement protests of 2009. No one had heard from him in years. Her uncle, Ahmad, a defender of the Islamic Revolution, had disappeared in the Iran-Iraq war in the early 80’s. A second uncle, alive and locatable, lived in Beirut. There were framed photos of the two missing men—Fereshteh’s brother and first uncle—hanging on the wall behind the sofa where her maman sat. Occasionally, I’d steal a glimpse of their faces. They looked alike: round tanned faces, plump cheeks, a full head of black curls except that Iraj had a clean-shaven dimpled face and bright blue eyes and Ahmad had a wiry speckled beard and piercing black eyes sunken beneath a unibrow. Looking at their faces helped me to imagine my father’s. I’d never seen a picture of him. All ties to him had been destroyed to preserve my life.
In the days leading up to Khorshid’s arrival, Fereshteh and I barely spoke. She was always in a gloomy mood. If we did speak, it was to exchange verses from the latest Darwish book we were reading together and which we kept on the living room bar cart next to the bottles of Arak we had accumulated over the years. That week we were reading Memory of Forgetfulness. Every time we crossed paths in the living room, one of us would pick the book up and recite, “Are you well? I mean, are you alive?” The other, having memorized slivers from the book, would answer, “Don’t die completely,” or, maybe, “Don’t die at all.”
That was the extent of our exchange until Khorshid arrived, bald, her skin raw from all of that anxious licking. The day of her arrival I stood on my toes and squinted beneath the bright overhead lights that lined the low ceiling of the Chicago airport. I strained to look over the beanied heads of passengers and those who’d come to greet them, eager, expectant. My heart was racing. I was trying desperately to spot her crate, sweating despite the fact that the airport air was damp with a biting winter chill. I kept imagining her fearfully pressing her face against the bars of the crate. That face of hers which I’d first seen on my Twitter feed and that had stolen my heart, seized it instantly and with such brute force that later, once she’d settled into our apartment, I would come to forget that I’d ever lived without her weaving between my legs, licking my tired eyes, yawning in my face at dawn.
I kept thinking I’d spotted her amid the parting airport crowd and would squeeze Fereshteh’s hand and whisper “Khorshid!” with a sigh I suspected she found grating but which she nonetheless echoed in solidarity. After all, things had been taken away from our lives more often than they’d arrived. It was hard not to feel giddy.
When I finally saw her, I grew ecstatic. I thought my heart was going to explode. Fereshteh was smiling too, a broad smile that momentarily shattered her icy dissertation mood. On the way home, I said Khorshid’s name over and over again. We drove along the belt that hugged the curves of the lake, so blue that day, bright and full of an unexpected light. Khorshid occasionally emitted a reluctant reply which we took as an indication that she knew she was safe again, that somehow, by the grace of god, if Khorshid, unlike us, was one to believe in god, she’d made it through the worst of it.
Halfway home, Fereshteh’s mood shifted again. She turned serious, austere. I was convinced that the anticipation of sitting again at her desk was making her shut down. Wide shafts of light came through the car window and made her fingers, white from gripping the steering wheel, look translucent. In that oxidized light, she looked to me like a ghost. She turned to me and said, “Today, while I was finishing my second chapter on Darwish’s oeuvre, I had an awful feeling that the world is a book and that we are all characters trapped in separate chapters, on different levels of reality that don’t necessarily intersect, and that the whole thing, this book that is our lives, will be torn to bits soon and that we will all be floundering in a sea of sorrows.” I was alarmed. She was so seldom dramatic. Prosaic in conversation even less often. She was a woman of few words.
I said nothing. I stopped speaking to Khorshid. I looked at the lake. It was beautiful, glittering, immense. I wondered if Fereshteh was quoting Darwish, but I couldn’t recall having read those exact words. I had read almost all of Darwish. I had already finished my dissertation, a study of “revolutionary madman writers” who either lived solitary monkish lives in exile or who, like my father, had disappeared, but who, unlike my father, had left letters and sheaths of poetry behind. I looked over at Fereshteh. Her eyes were shining with remorse, as if she’d betrayed a secret she’d been entrusted with and had been unable to bite her tongue.
I tried to make sense of her words.
“Do you mean to say we need a new script?” I asked. “That this life as we’ve come to know it is about to expire?”
“Worse,” she said, fixing her gaze on the road, “like our lives are going to gradually disappear from us, rather than the other way around, and this vanishing of our lives will feel to us stranger than death, than dying, than the disappearance of our brothers, uncles, fathers, that we will be alive, able to see and hear the world, but we will lack all understanding of how to operate within it.”
I didn’t say a word. I thought of what Roger had said, of that odd sensation he’d described to me; how the boundaries of his body had become diffuse and merged with Khorshid’s and pictured his mouth sliding off his face. I thought to myself, great ruptures have happened before. Empires have collapsed. Civilizations have gone extinct. I wished I could read my father’s poems. That some piece of paper, some scrap existed in the gossamer of the universe with his words. I wished my mother had memorized his poems and recited them to me, transcribed and published them under a pseudonym. But she hadn’t and besides, she’d passed away a decade ago.
I looked again at the lake. It appeared swollen to me, as though the water levels had been rising by nearly imperceptible degrees. Up above, the sun was lit. A thousand flames shot out of it. It looked like a wheel caught on fire; it was branding its burning tentacles onto the immense lake.
“I’m telling you,” Feresteh said, turning to look through the passenger side window at that sun, “something sinister is afoot. I can feel it.”
I opened the crate and put my hand on Khorshid’s arched back and felt her slim body twist to find a new shape. I felt her muscles relax. Her engine, that little roar, ancient, subterranean, came on. The sound of her purr kept my heart beating steady even though I could see shadowy figures rising from the glassy blue horizon, plumes of grey smoke being sucked into that rabid sun.
By late April, Khorshid’s fur had mostly grown back. She appeared to be in the spring of her life. In the afternoons, I would often find her pinned to the hardwood floor by a slant of auburn sunlight coming through the east facing windows. If I approached her she would roll on her back and her soft doughy stomach would spread on either side of her; she’d elongate her legs, expose her claws, and let her head bob from side to side in greeting. She was most active at dawn and dusk, during the twilight hours, those electric libidinal hours of uncertainty that impart awe on us feckless humans. I began to suspect that her activities during those charged hours of possibility—her crooked runs at top speed across the length of the apartment, her acrobatic jumps and backflips, the way she crouched in the shadow of an armchair with her nose pointed straight at the floor—were simply a mechanism for communing with her dearly departed, evidence that she was in league with the dead. It was not a leap to think so. Roger, who I hadn’t spoken to since the first time, believed that she had intuited the disaster, that her body had registered the loss before it became a known fact of her life, or to be more precise, that she had perceived the disaster at the exact moment of the explosion. When I shared my thesis with Fereshteh, she merely shook her head in disbelief.
“She’s an average cat,” she said. “Stop projecting on her.”
“But you saw the pandemic coming the day we drove her home from the airport,” I insisted. She said nothing. “Don’t you think it’s possible that Khorshid was intimating news of the cosmic violence we are engulfed in?” I cried in a supplicant tone.
“Coincidence,” she emitted tersely, “and besides, the only prophet here is Darwish.”
The next time she spoke to her maman on Skype, I brought it up again. Maman was slicing a watermelon in their kitchen. The neon-green soot of the Tehran sky was visible through the rectangular window over their sink. For a brief second, before her maman turned her head to look into the camera, I thought I saw Iraj and Ahmad’s faces swimming in that green sky, their curls and Ahmad’s beard bright orange flames of fire. Maman pointed the knife she was holding at us and said: “Life is short. There’s a pandemic raging. It’s summertime. You two should go out and buy yourselves some watermelon. I had to queue for over an hour to get this.” She was always trying to be instructive for Fereshteh’s sake, unaware that seeing her mother whip herself up into false decisiveness when her realm of control was ever diminishing only made Fereshteh feel more weighed down, as if lead had been poured into her veins.
“Seriously,” I objected, “think of all the reasons why cats were revered in ancient Mesopotamia!”
“Hearsay!” Fereshteh whispered under her breath. Maman simply replied that there’s nothing special about our Khorshid, or nothing especially special she said, and brought the knife back down into the rind of the watermelon.
“See?” Fereshteh said glaring at me with the white of her eyes. “Don’t confuse myth with life!”
I said nothing. We ended the call shortly after that and maman vanished from the screen with the same electric swoosh of her disappeared family member’s faces as they dragged their tales of fire along.
Days passed, monotonous, tense, foreclosed. All through June the atmospheric humidity in Chicago was unbearably high. Everyone walked around slick with sweat, moist masks obscuring their features, shoulders slumped as they ambled through air loaded with humidity and death. It was like the days of curfew in Tehran, the long nights of silent terror, of search lights and distant sirens when the march of war was interminable, taking everyone hostage. If only my father had lived to see those days. What would he have written? On the streets of Chicago, strangers neither greeted nor acknowledged one another. They marched past one another like zombies, as if they belonged to separate planets and had happened to coincide on earth by way of a terrible accident they had no recollection of, but which they foolishly believed would be reversed, restoring them to the lives they’d known so intimately before the pandemic. Our neighborhood was largely a ghost town except for a few bars and restaurants that had cautiously reopened; they had placed their tables and chairs six feet apart on the sidewalks between giant planters of green elephant leaves, hydrangeas, dense blazing stars. Such remarkable flowers.
By mid-summer, our lives had shrunk to the size of a coffin. Fereshteh and I became increasingly plagued by feelings of homesickness. We barely ever left the house. We felt we were in Tehran again. I would be going about my business—washing dishes, refilling the water in the samovar, reading at the kitchen table—when I’d suddenly hear the awful thud I’d heard when the wheels of the plane detached from the tarmac at Imam Khomeini airport. I’d hear the plane whistle into the thick of night and feel a yawning void in my guts, an abyss that sucked my heart into its bottomless depths. Then I’d turn around to realize it was the samovar signaling a boil. Every once in a while, Fereshteh would lift her head from the sofa where she’d be laying recumbent, reading, and ask, “Do you remember the sound of the creeks in Darvand?”
Yes, I’d say, and I’d hear the water gurgling over the ancient rocks and smell the tender green leaves of the trees. Her mood had softened. She hadn’t seen her advisor in months and his absence from her daily life combined with Khorshid’s presence had changed her in subtle ways only a close observer could identify.
“Did you play hopscotch on the roof?” she’d ask, and I’d see the numbers I’d drawn in chalk appear beneath my feet. I’d smell the bitter scent of hot asphalt. I’d see the courtyards of the neighboring houses with their pruned roses and shallow pools. I’d hear the salt seller as he worked his way down our network of crooked streets, pushing his wheelbarrow of salt around, yelling namaki, even as the war raged on.
After that, Fereshteh and I began to call each other across the apartment that way. Namakiii, we’d say emphatically. But no sooner we’d uttered the word, we’d retreat in anger at the seductive call of nostalgia, its vampiric hunger for snatching souls in the night, leaving bodies to burn from the sting of emptiness. In those bitter moments, I’d find Khorshid at my feet, waiting to receive me as if we were one spirit knocking on the gates of death. Pishi, I’d say, pishi…and we’d trail to my room and lay like suicidal lovers in bed.
In the morning, I’d find her next to me purring, squinting her eyes ever so slowly, her front paws stretched out before her like a phoenix. She’d pretend she hadn’t been hunting down messages from the dead all through dawn. I’d lay there, and admire her shiny patches of fur which were orange and full of tiny white stripes that looked like commas, semi-colons, em dashes. I would say to her, “You are as beautiful as language,” and she would purr louder. “Just as mysterious,” I’d say and she’d rub her mouth on the crease of my thumb and index finger. She was striking in her simplicity during those lazy morning hours.
Once I got up, she’d move along with me: first to the kitchen where I’d drink my morning coffee—always Turkish, with a generous spoonful of sugar—and then to the dining room where I would sit on the turquoise blue velvet armchair I’d purchased at Goodwill and light a cigarette. I read the news while she languished the morning away sniffing at the window screens, her pupils as narrow as a sentence. Our day would progress calmly, statically, until dusk would arrive and her routine of cartwheels and message retrieval would begin again.
By July, Fereshteh and I decided we needed to bring the noise of Tehran back into our lives. That we should live as though we had never fled Tehran. This impulse, too, I attributed to Khorshid’s presence, as if she were demanding such a life from us, a life that refused to recognize its difference from that other life we would have lived had we never left, a cheap copy, a butchered mimicking job. She was drawing the past back into the apex of our lives, resuscitating memories we had given up for dead.
When the midsummer festival of Tirgan came around at the start of July, we celebrated. We put small bowls of water all over the house and encouraged Khorshid to slap the water with her paws; Fereshteh and I would say to her, look Khorshid jan, like this, and we’d dip our hands in the bowls and flick the water onto one another. Fereshteh played the Daf in the evenings, and as she dragged her slender fingers against the taut sheep skin drawn over the frame, it emitted a deep guttural sound that attracted Khorshid’s attention. The cat would sit at our feet the whole time, and I would read a few lines by Rumi or Khayyam to the rhythm of the Daf, and we’d close our eyes and sway side to side in ecstasy. In those moments, I felt my father was standing next to me. My father whose face I could not picture. My father who had been reduced to energy.
One morning while I was lying in a bath I’d drawn to cool off from the terrible heat, I heard a leak. Khorshid, who was perched on the edge of the tub grooming her tail and paws, stopped instantly and stood in a frozen rictus, attempting to perceive the origin of the noise. It sounded like water was running over the tub, across the floor, coming down the walls in a thin but steady sheet. I wondered if I had gone so deep into homesickness that reality had begun to part altogether in order to clear access to the great beyond. For a moment, I had the odd sensation that the floor was opening up beneath me, that the tub was going to go through it and eject me on the other side. I felt as though I were being birthed again. As though I were floating around in my mother’s uterus and a sudden unannounced pressure were being exerted on me, a force larger than life emerging to suck me through the narrow channels of her groin. For a moment, I thought I heard my father cooing, reciting cliche verses of doves and cherry trees, telling my mother that her face was more beautiful than the full moon to encourage her along. An inside joke, those lines. A wink, as though he was saying to her, the system wants only these tired words, so here they are…your hair is like a river, your mouth sweet as nectar, your breasts soft hills I yearn to climb. Then, again, I heard the water spreading across the floor. I closed my eyes and saw my father for the first time, a thin man, a defeated man with a gaunt face whose pride has been broken, whose spirit has been crushed, standing blindfolded in a soiled linen button down and brown slacks with his hands tied behind his back at the edge of a ravine. I heard the woosh of a bullet as it spliced the air and broke his skin, as it ripped through his flesh and buried itself in his heart which closed around it like a bloodied fist. I saw him stumble backward over the precipice and as his body tore through the air I heard him say down with the shah and the water spread shhh shhh shhhhh until he disappeared from view. It was all very odd. I’d never had a memory of my father before and it seemed impossible to be having one now. I opened my eyes to Khorshid letting out a loud and urgent meow and pointing a stiff paw at the fogged pane of the bathroom window beyond which I could see the white palette of the sky smeared with blood.
Fereshteh appeared at the door with the spent aspect of those returning from a long and brutal war. She was carrying her lap top, the screen open to a news channel. “Another plane!” she said. Khorshid kept rubbing her ears with her paws, first one, then the other. There was something disturbing about the intensity with which she kept flattening her ears. Shrill voices came through the speakers. I felt my vertigo kick into high gear. I climbed out of the tub, hastily wrapped a towel around me and stood next to Fereshteh, whose eyes were fixed to the screen, her face aglow with its pale blue light.
“Look,” she said, and shoved the laptop into my arms. At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at. I could see a cloudless sky recorded by an unstable camera. The patch of sky kept bouncing up and down. The screams grew progressively louder. An F15 fighter jet appeared. So did the wide white wings of the passenger plane. I saw the beaked mouth and elongated sting, the sharp, sturdy wings of the fighter jet as it approached the passenger plane with an intent to kill, or to say, Boo! You can’t see me but I have my eyes on you and I’m ready to draw your blood. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it departed into the white horizon. The camera flipped to capture the passengers. A man looked numbly into the camera; a river of blood cleaved his face in two. His head was bleeding. He tried, unsuccessfully, to reach for one of the oxygen masks that were dangling from the overhead compartment, but he failed. His hand moved imprecisely through the air. His lips turned blue as the blood dribbled down his chin onto his shirt. The camera panned around to capture weeping children; their mouths looked like shriveled rolls of old bread. In the narrow, carpeted aisles, next to the restroom doors at the rear of the plane, two bodies lay motionless, their eyes closed. It was Fereshteh and I. I was convinced of it. It was as if we had multiplied: one version of us stood in our bathroom in Chicago, warm from the steam coming off the tub, and another version of us was lying supine on the dirty carpeted floor of that plane, flying over the al-Tanf garrison in Syria, leaving Tehran for Beirut on Mahan air. I stood there staring at the screen, trying to figure out what had come over me. Was time bending in recognition that we had been split in two? Were the individual lives of who we’d been in Tehran and who we’d become in the land of the free separated by a wall that acted like a looking glass through which we could view one another without touching? I looked over at Fereshteh. We sat on the floor, Khorshid at our feet, our only witness, and sobbed for so long we felt our ancestors shiver in the heavens above us and in the ground below us, deep inside this dark brown earth.
Weeks passed. It seemed to us, or perhaps we wished, that time would soon cease to exist, that the world which was a book would soon turn to dust, that the days would end their relentless march, that the seasons would stop their eternal change of clothes.
One morning, unable to take the monotony of our days any longer, I decided to leave the house, to go to the lakefront, take a swim even if I had to risk proximity to others. Khorshid climbed into her backpack. As the door shut slowly behind us, I heard again the squeal of that plane as it lifted into the starless Tehran sky and turned westward. I felt like a fugitive, an eternal refugee adrift on the streets of the world. I felt I was running out of time. Time for what, I did not know. I felt as though something momentous was on the precipice of revealing itself.
I walked through the tunnel that runs under Lake Shore Drive and across the lawn to the concrete steps overlooking the water. I noticed there was something sublime in the air, a euphoric energy. People had come to the lakefront in droves despite the restrictions of the pandemic. There were colorful towels spread on the lawns. There were beautiful earringed boys in bright pink and orange speedos tanning together, their limbs oiled and slippery as fish. Chicago’s buildings, handsome and glassy and blue, stood erect as soldiers surveilling the waters from a distance. The lake was green and even. An unblemished surface. Each time someone dove into the water with their legs drawn into their chest, plopping through the surface like a bomb, the lake sealed over them and instantly reestablished its calm indifference. I heard the beautiful boys cheering the divers. Then my cell phone rang. I picked up. It was Fereshteh. I could hear her screaming on the other end.
“Beirut exploded,” she said. “It exploded!”
“What do you mean?” I asked, in disbelief, feeling instinctively for the heat of Khorshid’s body against my back.
“That’s where my second uncle lives, remember?” she said, breathing in gulps, “the one who didn’t disappear in the war.”
I pictured a third photograph going up behind her maman’s sofa, a third martyr, all of them gone to inconclusive causes, disappeared or dead—a framed face all that’s left of them.
“When?” I kept asking. “When?” I repeated the question as though I had gone stupid.
She couldn’t answer.
She breathed heavily into the phone. I sat down and held the cell to my ear. I looked at the lake. I detected an odd movement on the horizon, the water cresting as if it were being rolled back the way I’d sometimes seen her maman roll her Persian carpet on the screen through which we observed her life. I got up with the phone still to my ear and walked closer to the edge of the water. The liquid horizon appeared to be trembling, as if somewhere at the edges the water was registering that distant perturbance in Beirut. I felt the void in my guts open its jaws. I walked even closer, more slowly, as if I were walking toward the water for the first and the last time. I heard Khorshid move around in the bag. I turned the backpack toward me and looked down at her through the clear bubble of her carrier. She looked more orange than ever. Brighter. Warmer. Shinier. I whispered Darwish’s words into Fereshteh’s ear. I said, “There’s no end, no beginning, no first, no last, no presence, no absence.” In the background I could hear Trump’s voice streaming through a boy’s iPhones, his rotten lips moving on their screens which glowed as he said, it is what it is, it is what it is, it is what it is. The beautiful boys had gotten up and begun to dance. They were joining their voices into a chorus, singing: It is what it is, it is what it is, it is what it is. They began to choreograph a dance. They kept putting their masks on and tearing them off, flexing their bronzed arms, moving their lips with the same disturbing suckling motion. They sang with mock astonishment, It is what it is. I looked away from them. We were trapped in different levels of reality. I kept staring at the horizon where the water had begun to move ever so slightly at the edges.
And then it happened. A deafening roar boomed through the air and blasted the lake open. I saw the water shoot out into the sky, shatter into a million shiny droplets, then sink back into the belly of that lake so eager for a hunt. The silver gleaming needle-shaped buildings in the distance reflected the rising waters. Khorshid began to emit a terrific orange light, and her shafts shot out of the holes carved into the bubble of her carrier. I heard Fereshteh’s voice come through the phone. She was finally speaking, reading Darwish back to me, whispering, “Intense bombardment of Beirut! Intense bombardment of Beirut!” She was chuckling nervously in my ear. Her mind was sliding through her hands. I could hear her losing her grip. The cratered surface of the lake made the void in my guts open its jaws even wider. A merciless light came on. A sickly crimson mushroom cloud billowed out from the lake and rose further and further into the sky, a fist of fire rising to land a punch on eternity’s ancient face. Beirut is on fire. It is what it is. Beirut is on fire. It is what it is. I heard the choir chanting those words as I staggered home. I called out, “Father! Mother!” I felt my confusion turn to an icy panic. I asked myself, Whose death shall I mourn? Khorshid and I looked at each other through the bubble of her carrier. I felt so much love. Love spread through my body the way the water had spilled over the tub, shhh shhh shhh, and in that quiet susurrus I heard the song of my ancestors. Whose death shall we mourn? I asked, and they answered, We are all here together.