WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE
I had an editor named Gazsi once. I knew him for a long time before I knew him. I called him The Gaz. He was a Persian speaking 22 year old who had been in America for ten years when we met in February of 2000, when the manuscript of one of my first novels found its way to his desk with the header ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He contacted me by post, and told me that, although I would not be able to publish my book, he was tasked with “developing me” – something I was told meant something like, “We think you suck, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.”
I wasn’t offered any money up front, but I was promised that my work would be considered by the publisher the Gaz worked for, Kensington, which was a big deal for me as an aspiring author; I had tried to publish my first story after winning South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s award two years in a row. My English teacher had sent some of my poems to prospective buyers, and she managed to get my work published in an anthology, just one poem in a collection released in 2001, not long after my 16th birthday.
I remember sending a copy to Gaz, and he said, ‘You continue to suck less and less. Congratulations!’ He sent me a card and – and I still have it – telling me, toast like and at a distance, ‘To the end of your sucking!’ And we talked on the phone for the first time not long after that. I liked him immediately, despite his shyness, his guarded demeanor. And he seemed to genuinely want to help, as my rejection had left me lethargic, unable to face the possibility of continued failure. He didn’t tell me much about himself, other than that he was born in Saudi Arabia and immigrated to the States during the war in the Persian Gulf.
He stayed at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him, even threats, in those panicked days after those two planes toppled the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. He was let go finally, on paid leave but still working with me. Of course they never clued him in on what he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all, or if it was something new in the air, some new bogeyman he would be painted as. They had found discrepancies with his immigration papers, I would later learn.
The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could; I knew someone at a publicity company and helped him interview for the job, a PR firm that sought out new authors to help develop them, as he had developed me. He did quite the same thing he had done at Kensington – they scoured the newly forming digital world for talent to develop and helped the few become the authors they wanted to be, looking over the rejected manuscripts of the many who would remain the rejected authors they feared they’d be. When I got the rejection form I called him up, as he lived nearby, unsure whether I would ever write again, but certain I needed to get drunk.
He arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of cheap vodka and explained, ‘Smoother than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, again, and we sat at the foot of the bed watching an episode of COPS. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon. We had a good time, though I don’t remember much of the evening, swirling blue and red lights running along the ceiling. I was once told that any night that begins with liquor and ends with mystery must be considered a success. Gaz and I talked, I remembered that, first about my future projects, about stories, why people wrote them, and why people needed them. Some way to cope, through shared trauma; catharsis for a beaten man.
“I think the best thing is,” said Gaz, “in a story, what is real is not measured by its facts, but by its feeling. Take Titanic, that long James Cameron movie?”
“Yes, I think I’ve heard of it.”
“Look at the main characters,” he said. “They were a total fiction. They were absolutely fiction, but that’s why people liked that movie, and why other people hated it. People are brought in by the disaster porn, but that’s not why it resonated. They cared about the people. Two beautiful young people. And how many of those others – what I mean, who does the audience cry for? A thousand people died, but the tragedy is cut down to one person. Is it right? Maybe not. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t tell a story like that, not quickly, and hope to keep anyone’s attention. Take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, and make it human, put a human face on it. That’s when it becomes real. No one cries for metal.”
He was very much a mentor to me, and being official, and speaking in an official capacity, despite being absolutely fucking wasted. The Gaz was forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual; but when he looked at you, you saw that he understood, that he felt. A song came on he seemed to like and he relaxed, and I saw, with the sweat brought about by drink, the tone of his face had darkened, his hands remaining the same vaguely ethnic color. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the peak of regret and sorrow. He saw me looking at him, the scars along the side of his face, and he responded to my unspoken question:
“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said. “Hey, it’s not as bad as it looks.”
We talked about my plans, what I would do with whatever school I managed to get in. I wanted to write. I always wanted to. Well, I always did. Wanting to do it never factored in. We looked at information about the English programs at the schools where I would be interviewed; I decided to interview at Columbia and Cornell, fingers crossed for either, with a stupid hope for Cornell, one that did not punish me for dreaming in the end. We planned a road trip to New York City, to stay there for a week before going on to Ithaca. That’s when he asked if we could visit Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centers had been. The night wound down and he was on one side of the bed, this strange little man, short and fit. I got up to turn out the lights.
“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I left the bathroom light on, not too bright and not too dim, and most comforting. I returned to my side of the bed.
“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.
He was silent for a moment. A long moment. Then he rolled over and looked at me with a smile on his face, his eyes sincere and sympathetic.
“Brandon,” he said. “I like you.”
“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”
“Good,” he said. “Goodnight.”
The drive to New York City didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I had been to Maine before on a piss-smelling Greyhound and we stopped at a connection point somewhere in the city. I had a connection ticket that was to take me from the terminal in NYC to Boston, but they couldn’t validate my ticket. So I wandered around the bus terminal in need of $5 to get another ticket, to make it up Boston. And then further on to Maine. The very first person I asked for money, a Chinese man in a suit that seemed out of place, agreed to pay for my ticket – if he could come with me to purchase it. When I welcomed him to do so, and happily, he smiled, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism. I shook his hand and thanked him. I boarded the bus to Boston in the early morning.
We had planned the day as best we could. We checked into our hotel and I left my notebook there. We found out there would be a bus tour around Manhattan, out toward Ellis Island and finally we made it out to the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee narrated for us. The statue of liberty was designed by the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the people of France, it was dedicated on the 28th of October, 1886. The famous statue has been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gaz’s bright brown eyes had swelled with a happy sadness, and I understood, everyone on the bus – or maybe not, maybe not the guy reading off his cards – from the youngest girl in the back of the bus looking out the window, to an old man covered in soot and a checkered coat, we all believed in America, its promise, and everyone on that bus, they didn’t have to say a thing – we were all a part of the same, multicolored arabesque, the tapestry that made America, we knew it in our hearts, was a quilt, a counterpane meant for everyone.
We were silent for the rest of the drive as the guy read off his cue cards in his squeaky voice, telling us about the historic buildings, the different burroughs, the Omnisphere and central park with that gold Prometheus; the history and the culture. Then the empty sky among a littered landscape somehow seemed loud, profane in being empty. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. And everyone on the bus had seen it, glowing at night, prominent and proud in the afternoon. It was a different silence on the bus, and the narration got lost in my head. Where those two buildings had been, there was no rubble there, not now, but there was the twisted metal strewn about unwavering, lingering in my mind, and that’s what I saw, the ghost of twisted metal and steel
The bus tour ended without ceremony. I think everyone was exhausted. So many people emigrating to America had seen that Statue in the distance first of all, on their boats, that giant tower in the clouds not far away, and New York became a nation of mixed heritage, the biggest in human history united under principles instead of warlords, courts of law instead of Emperors. They came from Europe, the Jews fleeing progroms in Tsarist Russia, the Chinese fortunate to get out before Mao’s revolution, the Spanish fleeing military dictators, the Irish seeking refuge from the potato famine, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodians who got out before Pol Pot and his Angka turned the clocks back to Year Zero.
My father’s side had come to America after the fall of the Soviet Union, of Ukrainian ancestry, an Ashkenazim Jewish family; and my mother’s descendants went back to the 15th century in England, and they too had fled with dreams, hearing the same whispers that statue once murmured to the world, a promise that the law was just, and justice was for all. The tour guide, despite his cards, was a sharp kid, taking questions, answering them with breadth and concision. It was overwhelming. But I didn’t want to waste away in the hotel all day so Gaz and I decided to clear our heads with a stroll.
It’s a hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale and so we ducked into a Mexican restaurant, Mesa Coyoacan on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn where I was staying until the start of term, after I was accepted into Cornell. It was a strange scene, something right out of history. The tables were aged wood and the tables were shared, a communal dining experience. It was a bit pricey for me, as was everything else. Where I was from, there was one red light. A traffic light, but one of them. It was the Traffic Light, and a pack of cigarettes was about $3 for a good brand, your Marlboro Menthols and your Newports, but there were brands as cheap as $1.99, which I often bought – living is expensive enough; never overpay for death.
“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz was looking over the menu. He’d been quiet since we went back to the hotel to change. “I’ve never seen so many tequilas,” he said. “Do you think that’s their thing here? Do you think someone said, ‘There are lots of Mexican restaurants in this city… What can set us apart? Hold on, hold on I’ve got it, this happens to me sometimes: let’s have the most tequilas of all.’”
“You could be known for worse,” I said. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in South Carolina, in Newberry County called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We are the only Mexican restaurant. Nobody has better tacos than us.’ You know why? Because nobody else has tacos.”
“You are truly from a backward culture,” Gaz said. “But hey, at least it’s affordable.”
I ordered a quesadilla and wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. Both for him, of course.
We were having an enjoyable meal until an old man wearing aviator sunglasses walked in wearing camo shorts and long, grey woolen socks pulled up to his knees. The table was communal, and despite more open space further down the bench he sat close enough to me and Gaz as to be heard. We went about our meal, talking about the fall, talking about the future. The old man started out innocently, mumbling to some people beside him, and to their everlasting credit, everyone at the table ignored him. But he kept talking, louder and louder and louder still, egging Gaz on and on. To my shame I didn’t say a thing, and to his everlasting credit, neither did Gaz. Gaz drank his two tequilas until we were drunk enough to shrug off the passive aggressive insults of that ridiculous parrot.
The waitress came back to the table.
“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “No thanks, I’m good.”
She looked at Gaz, “And you?”
“I’m great, thanks,” he said. “Could I get a go-bag for the rest of my salad?”
“Sure thing,” she said. She turned to me, “He gave you the better tequila.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
She smiled. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”
Gaz took two of the tequila glasses and slammed them on the floor.
“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he said. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”
I grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to put him back on his stool. The man in camouflage shorts took off his glasses and the waitress hurried over to where he was sitting and, despite not being able to hear what that young woman said, that guy sat back down and cleared his throat, “This ain’t a place for towel-heads and sand niggers.” The door to the kitchen opened and several men came out, all very quickly. Gaz shrugged my hands off of him and started toward him, yelling:
“I’m an American!” he shouted. “I’m a fucking American! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
The man stood up, Gaz staggered backward. The moment teetered on the edge of insanity. The kitchen staff pulled him away and took him to the front door. I hurried after him.
“I’m a fucking veteran!” the man yelled. “I fought in Desert Storm to protect you people, and you ungrateful scumbags..”
“Here, ma’am! Hey!” I called to the waitress. I put all the money I had on the table. I ran to the door with Gaz, where he stood detained by two of the staff members. They were stern but not excessive, and within ten minutes he had calmed. Still shaken, the two employees tried to talk him down. One of the guys had offered him a cigarette, which he took. I’d never seen him smoke. He shook and his teeth chattered in the heat, waves of steam rising from the tarred midtown roads.
“I was wrong, Brandon,” he said. “I wept for the metal.”
We stayed together for the rest of the summer. The PR firm Sgarlat was letting him work from his laptop. We had fun together, a lot of fun. The drive to Ithaca was longer than I thought it’d be, and the campus more beautiful than the pictures had prepared me for. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted into a good school, telling me that if he could buy a new life somehow, he’d stay there with me and finally teach me how to write.
We spent the first night at the Robert Purcell Community center for a get together of the starting freshman class. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was lovely, accommodating to not only myself but to Gaz as well. We didn’t stay long after I shook hands with all the people I felt that I should shake hands with. I got the feeling that the smattering of voices, unintelligible but loud, was a bit jarring to him, after what happened at Mesa Coyoacan, so we left, out into the open air, into the comfort of silence.
We turned off Jessup Rd. leaving the Community Center and walked toward the Golf Course where we stopped and asked an older looking student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge from Forest Home to Judd Falls Rd., and leaving us at the Wildflower Garden, he said a cordial goodbye.
That was his favorite moment, I think, of the entire trip, seeing the Wildflower Gardens. I got some flowers for him while he was preoccupied with a ghost orchid. I had picked a single flower from each species after he wondered aloud if we were allowed to take any. I planned to give them to him when he left the morning after. We didn’t stay too long, hoping to see as much as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way with a little help back onto Judd Falls, then headed for Werly Island, and on to see Beebe Lake.
We weren’t the only ones along the similar path; as the Gardens and the roads between had been sparse, there were many, many students camped out around the lake.
“Hurry!” he said. “Let’s talk to those ladies.”
We hurried after them and when we finally caught up Gaz said:
“Hello,” I said. “Mind if we walk with you?”
“Not at all,” said the brunette. Both were sweating, hair pulled back in a bun and wearing wind-breakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blond girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller, more earnest friend was named Vanessa.
“How can you tell?”
“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed too.
“My friend Gaz here,” I said, “he told me this lake was magic. It’s not as silly as it sounds…”
“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. They kept walking and we kept pace as best as we could.
“Well the legend goes that if you walk around the lake with a friend or with a girlfriend or a boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know! I know! But I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.”
And we were, Jennifer and Vanessa and I. I knew them all the way through graduation. And I was friends with until he disappeared.
His last night with me Gaz got to stay in my cramped dorm. I was sitting at a desk looking through a list of books I’d need. Gaz had the news on again. One channel after another, news and violence, opinions about violence in the news: also featuring violence. Then he saw that tape. You know the one – one of the tapes posted to the Al Jazeera news agency in Qatar, an old VHS video tape that would leak onto the internet, onto smut sites, gore porn like Rotten.com and Ogrish, the digital faces of death. I watched them, how could you not? You know it’s going to hurt you – if you’re not a fucking sociopath – but you feel the need, at least I did, I didn’t watch it to enjoy it, but as some way of misguided empathy, to need to suffer for the people who suffered I could have never helped.
A copy of the New York Times was open on the bed beside him, the one that ran the infamous Judith Miller story, as it had been circulating around campus as an effort to discredit the push for war. I finished looking over the long, long list of books I’d need and sat beside him in the dim light of a small lamp I’d bought the day before, the dim light of the flickering TV. I finally fell asleep sometime after midnight, somehow keeping my spirits up in spite of the deluge of horror coming from the small TV set.
Sometime in the early morning he woke me up with surprising strength.
“Hey,” he said. “Brandon? Are you awake?”
“Dude, I’m fucking awake now cause you woke me up!”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
We both had a laugh together.
“Have you ever heard of Saudi Arabia?” he slurred.
“Dude,” I said. “You woke me up for that shit?”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of Saudi Arabia. You’ve seen Aladdin. Read the Arabian Nights. What do you think about when you think of Saudi Arabia? I was born there. Do you know where it is? Don’t look at me like that! I’m kidding!”
I laughed: the most casual way to admit ignorance without actually admitting ignorance.
“But you know, smart as you are–and I don’t hold this against you! I was born in Seqaren. Most Americans, when they think of Saudi Arabia, you think of deserts and Lawrence of Arabia. And camels. The camels, ah! The camels aren’t even indigenous! We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed those buildings… And any country with that kind of … But they weren’t from my home. There’s something about home that doesn’t change. What do you call it? A characteristic of a place, something that speaks to you when you see it? It’s not a landmark, it’s something in the blood… And it can’t be taken from you. It’s printed on you, understand? Yes, there are deserts in Saudi Arabia and there are camels in those deserts, but in Saqeren – where I was born, what a beautiful place! And there are waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the sides of mountains
“There was a waterfall not fall from my house, where I grew up, nothing fancy, nothing chic, nothing modern. The waterfall started as a little stream high up on the hill, a large drop off and at the bottom is a small pool of water. I never seen the top. It might not have been perfectly clean but we thought it was safe to swim, to cool off, to have fun. We were children. Where… wait, I have a point. I… Fuck, Brandon. It was a sewer and I miss it! Maybe I miss the memory, the happiness of being a kid. How quickly does it end, childhood. Maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by starved memory searching out images of comfort and home.”
“Well, tell me about your last day there… In … Sekaren?”
“I was the youngest in my family… My sister was the oldest Anahita, Hiti… I was not close to her. So pretty, I wish I could see her again. She ran away when she turned eighteen and we never saw her again. She didn’t get along with dad. But I had two brothers, and I loved them! Of course I did… But my oldest brother, what an ass! Kohinoor, so fucking stubborn. You know? He always talked down to me and my other brother Kaveh, who was fourteen. But he looked up to Kohinoor. Kohin was the oldest, the heir to our meager lands. He wanted to play hero, too, but in games, with toys, make believe! Kohinoor believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, he was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. These people are not born monsters. Maybe he just wanted to fight, for his country or his religion. He had gotten in trouble a lot with the local military, the police had been taken away and replaced. We never saw them again…”
“Gazsi’s not my name! Just some vaguely ethic nickname. We have Roberts and Georges and Micahs. Even Todds and Tuckers yes speaking Persian, you think they want to use a Kalashnikov? They want to go to Starbucks and see Tarantino films… But these kids will die, thousands of them, no one will print a word. Only leaders of monsters, figure-heads, that brainwash children into being fodder for dispassionate carpet bombing which, it’s just a fucking button issue here, anger! I’m not angry, at that fucking phony in his camo he risks nothing! Nothing! But he was born better so he’s entitled to fucking judgment!”
“Okay, okay, relax. It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s all right, man. If I fail, you know, getting in here was pointless.”
“And you look at me like that. Yes, Ivy League, how modern and cultured, and you’ll sit in those classrooms and pretend you care until refugees start pouring out and then that Statue of Liberty doesn’t apply. Surely it is no crime to be born! I’m not a barbarian! Those police officers, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen now. They weren’t fools or barbarians they were regular fucking people with families and just regular fucking people. Ah! And they just disappeared. Pop, pop, pop in the dark. Like blowing bubbles. We got those little plastic toys, a little stick with a hoop on the end. We dipped it in gasoline and blew through it and they’d float for a while pretty in the sun and pop! Haha! Pop, pop, pop. They disappeared, and everybody was angry. Who wouldn’t be? The problem was, they had to be mad, and they had to be mad at something.
“What makes you angry when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but dark itself, no way to fight it without becoming a part of it. No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. Just because they were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them. They become monsters or they become ghosts and there is no other choice except to run and hope that someone here, this country I love, won’t hold you accountable for the sins of your father, or your people, or your culture. I ran. That’s what I did. That’s what the smart people did. From my family… Both my brothers, they were kids. They never grew up. Kaveh became a ghost, not an angel, and Kohimoor, he became a monster first and then a ghost. Ghosts are real. Some are kind, those that died in their sleep. But some, like those people in those buildings, those are angry ghosts. And what can I do? I don’t know who to fight, but I want to fight. I need to fight, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, not like my brother. I want to be the kind of ghost that helps the others on, through the fire and into peace. And they changed names all the time, easy, yes? So many names you forget who you are, and the regret eats you from the inside, like a botfly, inside out until your heart is black and you want to cover this world in darkness with you.
“The last day in Seqaren I do remember, and it’s real, and I know it’s real, and that is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down the hill towards the pond at the bottom and there were children already in. The little pool was always dirty, but that day was as dirty as I’d ever seen it. I thought that someone had spilled paint into the water, but I got in anyway. I stood on the edge of the little pool on sharp little rocks, cutting my feet on the glass from broken bottles. I saw my younger brother coming down the hillside in a hurry, chasing a ball but fell and slid dust coming up behind him and down he went from the sheer cliff, the drop off where the water comes…
“Once he hit the incline and started running I couldn’t tell if he was crazed with happiness or with madness or with fear, but I was a child. I was afraid, and got out of the water to try to help. He ran and ran and ran finally I saw… My brother Kohin was chasing him and he had a gun. I thought that it was some stupid game until my brother Kaveh grabbed me and pulled me into the water and jumped in with me, with all his clothes on taking me down beneath the black water grabbing my nostrils and he yelled ‘Take a deep breath!’ That’s what scared me! He had his clothes all wet and I knew mother would be very angry with him. And my father…
“I struggled to stay above water, but Kaveh tried to hold me under, and I thought, Maybe he’s horsing around? Then I saw the group of men behind Kohin, all dressed in black, and the… It’s… it’s god damn, god fucking damn. God dammit! Have you ever heard a gun being fired? There were dozens of shots at once, rippling, and it just tore Kohim apart, tore him to fucking pieces. Metal doesn’t bleed, nothing like that, when you get hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and air. And they followed him to the edge of the water. He crawled across the glass towards the water, towards where I was hiding with Kaveh, and before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air breathing oil; there had been an oil spill in the water, no paint! and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows had kept us safe until the surface of the pool caught fire.
“A group of people all garbed in black were running after him shouting in a language I didn’t understand and when he saw me he stopped running and he stopped crawling and the water was boiling in my eyes but I was covered by the oil in the shadow watching as he knelt, hands behind his head with his fingers interlocked. He stopped trying to get away, and he just closed his eyes and lay there. I froze there unable to move, as the muffled sound of the Kalashnikov rang out dead and muffled with the water softening the shots. He tumbled over, same stupid smile on his face, dead or pretending I had no idea, I didn’t know, I don’t I fucking I was … I was a child! And the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and whether he was dead when he stopped crawling, he was ten feet or so away from us. They shot him in the head. One of those men in black, I guess he was the leader and he pointed at the water and I grabbed my nostrils and dove deep into the black underneath the fire white now blanketing the surface, their muffled shouting and gunshots. I don’t know who he was. I just saw his eyes, the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up when he took out that gun, that little pistol and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse.
“What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.
“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and thought, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. Two of the other men came over and with a little effort they flung my brother’s body into the shallow pool. He was dead and another body was just something they couldn’t carry, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me. That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow, wet, we kept burning, deep down, and breathing in each breath was pure fire filling your lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.
“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. My brother wouldn’t leave Kohin’s body, but me and mama left anyway. We left without him. We got into the back of a truck and waited. I think we were waiting for papa. I don’t remember his name, he had changed it so often, and mama told me it was best I didn’t know. If one side didn’t kill him the other one and the cleanup crew didn’t notice the differences in the eyes or face or those wrinkles in a man’s forehead that say so much or the sadness for a mother having to leave without her child. We waited until we couldn’t anymore and besides, the truck was too full anyway. Had he made it, we’d have had to tell him he couldn’t leave. Brandon, they waited on papa, not to take him with us, but to apologize for leaving, they were waiting to say goodbye.
“He was probably somewhere with a gun or in a ditch, being noble, fighting the cause, while we left down a long long road, people were stacked on top of each other, kids stacked like piles of folded pants. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”
There was a long silence.
“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”
“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brother, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”
“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Being practical, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”
He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.
“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”
“I knew I could rely on you.”
I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.
“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”
He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was an a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.
He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.
“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”
“I like you too, Gaz.”
“I’ll try, my friend.”
“And …” he added, “Failure is not final, quitting is.”
I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers. I wondered if he’d make it into that peaceful place and have a garden, a home and a wife, something worth being peaceful for, for his daffodils and daisies and orchids, a laminated lotus flower in my notebook on top of a list of books for class:
Not all pain is the same, nor equal. Some pain may teach you. Something about life, something about yourself. Then there’s this other kind, the kind that shouts at you until your ears ring, until you can’t hear anything but white noise, the kind of pain that breaks you, leaving you worthless, and thereby breaks you twice. Study hard. You’ll be a writer someday. Remember, if you base a story on the truth, the spirit of it must be true or else it’s a lie, not fiction.
The friendly ghost,
I never saw him again. And I looked, I looked through newspapers and the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I still tend the flowers prepared for him, and keep a living ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d just disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop. I still leave a light on for him.