by shukyou (主教)
“I think it’d be good for you to start painting again.”
Navid didn’t answer, keeping his eyes fixed instead out the window. It was raining hard now, and the wind pushed the drops nearly sideways into the glass, giving a view of the grounds as though from behind a waterfall, everything distorted and distant. The IV in the back of his hand itched; he didn’t like it there, but Dr. Lin had told him after he’d pulled out the last one that it’d be a good idea to give the vein in his elbow some time to heal. Everyone in the clinic had lots of good ideas to share.
Everyone, that was, except Dr. Barrow, who seemed an embarrassment to the profession of psychiatry by the way everything that spilled from his mouth was utter bullshit. The good doctor was watching him for a response, Navid knew, and he wouldn’t dignify that with a response either. After a moment of this, Dr. Barrow took a considering sip of his coffee. He never offered Navid any, and Navid didn’t know if that was because he wasn’t medically allowed to have caffeine, or because Dr. Barrow was just a bastard. “We could set you up in one of the dayrooms. Or even re-arrange part of your room, if you’d like some privacy.”
“Sure.” Navid shrugged. He’d found conversations like this always went easier when he just agreed to everything. It didn’t seem worth mentioning that the thought of picking up a brush made him want to vomit.
“You’ve got a lot you keep inside you.” Dr. Barrow tapped the edge of his notebook with a pencil. “And you hardly seem inclined to share it with me. Which is fine, of course — you’re not hurting me with your silence. But you’ve got to let it out somehow, or it’ll tear its way out on its own terms.”
There didn’t seem to be a proper response to that, so Navid ran his fingers along the handles of his wheelchair until Dr. Barrow spoke again. “I’m not worried about your ever leaving this facility.” Placing notebook and mug aside, Dr. Barrow leaned forward on his knees, and his necktie hung pendulously from his throat. With a knotty hand, he tapped the center of his own forehead, though it was clear it wasn’t his own brain he was talking about. “I’m worried about your leaving that room.”
Navid, who had never so much as raised a hand to anyone the whole of his life, surprised everyone — not least himself — by lunging for Dr. Barrow’s throat.
He didn’t make it far, of course, before the pain in his abdomen and groin shot through him, and he collapsed on the ground shy of his target long before the pair of ever-vigilent orderlies poised just beyond the door got to him. As he was lifted up off the ground, shouting and thrashing, he could see that Dr. Barrow had scooted perhaps an inch back on the couch in surprise, but that his pose overall had barely shifted. Somehow, his lack of fright made Navid madder, and he yelled all the more for it, screaming obscenities in English and Farsi until he wasn’t sure he was even saying words anymore, unable to stop even if he’d wanted to.
One orderly held his arm still long enough for the second to jab a needle in, and he was filled with a deep heaviness which he welcomed for how numb it was. Dimly, his skin around his belly told him that his shirt was wet, and that meant he might have torn open his stitches again, but before he could manage to warn them not to let him bleed on Dr. Barrow’s carpet, Navid was unconscious.
When he arrived home later than expected, held up by chatty art store clerks and delayed trains, the house was dark, so he followed the sound of jazz back through the dining room and kitchen, on into the warmly lit studio. Cara called, said Hassan, not even turning from where stood in front of a broad, half-painted canvas Navid had recently declared an unfinishable disaster. She says she’s got a buyer for that monstrosity you sent her.
Navid rolled his eyes, though he was smiling, and reached for the brush he’d left tucked behind his ear, spinning it around his fingers like a drum major in miniature. I think you missed your calling as an art critic. He shrugged his messenger bag off his left shoulder, letting it down against the floor with a rattle of new brushes and paints inside. You could just stand around and tell people their things are hideous, and get paid millions of dollars.
Most things are hideous anyway. Hassan touched his brush to the palate, then dabbed on a tiny smear of blue in the corner of his large canvas. His true calling was sculpture, but he loved the act of painting just as much, even though he freely admitted he had nowhere near the talent for it Navid did. Like this cow, for instance.
Cow? Navid stepped forward, amused, and bumped his shin on the studio’s only chair; he teetered for a moment, fighting gravity, but at last found his feet. I thought that was supposed to be a portrait of your sister. He came up behind Hassan and put brought his hand to rest between broad shoulders; Hassan was nearly a foot taller than Navid, muscled and sturdy, the kind of man little old white ladies sometimes crossed the street to avoid, when in truth he caught and released house spiders because he felt sorry for them. His gentleness was one of his most striking traits, in fact, the way he hauled hundred-pound pieces of steel into place with the same arms that swept up his students’ runaway children and carried them, often upside-down and always laughing, back to their proper places.
Hassan looked down far enough that he actually peered over the tops of the wire-rimmed glasses he was still adjusting to needing. Now who’s the critic? he asked, the corners of his mouth twisting upward, looking so tall and handsome and dark-eyed and perfect.
By the time Navid heard the crash as the house’s front window shattered, it was too late.
Physical therapy was the kind of hell that only Doré could have rendered properly, and if it had existed in the nineteenth century, Navid was certain all of Dante’s tormented souls would have wandered around their eternal punishments accompanied by giant, smiling, tennis-shoed Samoan men chanting the phrase you’re doing fine.
His own torturer (whose name was, as irony would have it, Dante) kept one meaty arm around his chest as they walked — though ‘walking’ was a generous term for what Navid was doing — a short path between two waist-high rails. The goal of the exercise, of course, was for Navid to hold up as much of his own weight as he could manage, and only fall back on Dante’s support if he absolutely needed it to keep from collapse. But the steps hurt, and by the time he’d taken his second, he’d pretty much come to the end of his limit and surrendered to the strength of Dante’s arms, letting himself be carried with minimal contribution from his own legs.
“You’re doing fine,” said Dante for the nine millionth time, sounding as sure of the absolute truth of that statement as he had the first time he’d taken Navid’s tiny feet in his hands three months ago and pressed back against his quietly withering legs. Navid admired dogged persistence in all its forms, but the man was a giant human golden retriever — and he wasn’t doing fine, that much he knew. He didn’t need a medical degree to know that when you hadn’t been able to stand on your own in February and you still couldn’t stand on your own in May, that wasn’t progress, that was impossible. He’d tried explaining to Dante on more than one occasion that this was just a waste of everybody’s time, but Dante was easily twice his weight, and when the giant Samoan torture man wanted to get you out of a wheelchair, odds were, you were going.
By the time they reached the end they were both out of breath, Navid from stumbling the first two steps and Dante from carrying him the rest of the way, and when Dante lowered him back into his chair, Navid could feel the sweat on Dante’s brow dab off on his cheek. “You weigh like a bag of cement,” Dante sighed, resting back against the poles, still smiling.
“Maybe you should work out more,” said Navid, and Dante threw his head back and laughed, the warm sound bouncing off the PT room mirrors.
“Work out more! He tells me to work out more!” Dante shook his head, folding his arms across his chest. “You are my workout, carrying you every day, Mr. T,” he said, shortening what the therapy staff seemed to have agreed upon was Navid’s generally unpronounceable last name. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll make you a deal: you walk across there all by yourself, and I’ll go to the gym five hours every day! Agreed?”
Navid hadn’t managed to work himself into a funk yet that Dante hadn’t been able to lift him out of, at least a little; he smiled, drawing his hand upward to wipe his sweat-beaded forehead. “Well, since I can’t, I think you’re safe,” he said, trying to pluck a joke out of the darkness, like Hassan would have.
Dante’s bright expression faltered, and he knelt in front of Navid; he was nearly as tall kneeling as Navid was sitting, and he took both of Navid’s slender hands in his own, hiding them completely inside his massive paws. “You know, Mr. T,” he said, his voice quiet and serious, his wide brown eyes staring Navid down, “your body wants you to get better. All those systems inside of you, they’re trying their hardest to put you back together right.”
“I….” Navid took a deep breath, then let his eyes shut as he exhaled. “I appreciate all you’ve done for me, I really do, but … positive thinking won’t fix stab wounds.”
“And negative thinking will make damn sure they never heal.” Dante poked the center of Navid’s chest with one of his thick fingers, hard enough nearly to hurt. He was strong and gentle, like Hassan, which made Navid more trusting of him than he might have otherwise been, but there was only so much useless cheerleading Navid could take; he pulled back as far as his chair would let him, and Dante relented. “Unless you’re thinking about developing some sort of fetish for my big strong arms picking you up and carrying you everywh–”
“I’d like to go back to my room, please, now,” Navid snapped, and he balled his hands into fists around the metal wheel handles, cleanching them as hard as his weary body could manage; he didn’t have the strength even on good days to make them turn. A flicker of hurt washed across Dante’s face, and Navid dug deep inside himself to find the one small part that was pleased by this reaction, the venomous little urge inside him that told him the more he pissed people off, the more they’d have the decency to leave him alone. It didn’t matter if that part was so unfamiliar to him as to be utterly alien, or that he’d spent decades of his life never saying a harsh word to anyone. He’d died that night, and was bitter that he’d had to spend the past several months living with how his body hadn’t had the decency to go with him.
But Dante was as resilient as he looked, and that bright smile was back in half a heartbeat — wobbling, perhaps, but never falling down. “Back to the artist’s suite!” he announced, grabbing the handles of Navid’s chair and wheeling him on down the hall, and Navid closed his eyes and tried to learn what it was to be the kind of person that could hurt someone else.
It was difficult to claim that the days Carmela visited were the worst, because days were all the worst lately, but the ones where she stopped by had an extra edge of bitterness to them — not because he disliked her being there, but because he liked it, and he didn’t deserve to like anything.
“I brought you some puzzles,” she told him, rummaging through her giant saddlebag of a purse and emerging with a crumpled mess of newspaper sections, all folded more or less to the crossword section of the comics page, “and your doctor said it’d be okay if I brought you some pastels, so here you are, but don’t make a mess or they won’t let me back in again!” She laughed, and it might have sounded genuine had Navid not had nearly a decade’s experience of her real laugh. But at least she was trying, and that made it easier and harder for Navid all at once.
“Thank you,” he said, sliding the box open because he knew any interest he showed would please her. He hadn’t worked with pastels in years, but he was in a position to be neither a beggar nor a chooser, so he accepted them as though he meant to use them. And who knew, he might get the urge.
Cara pushed his legs to the far side of his bed, and he moved obligingly, letting her have a seat; she was a touchy-feely sort of person, not the type to sit at a respectable distance when there was perfectly good physical space to be invaded. “Navito,” she smiled, calling him by the linguistic nightmare of a nickname she’d given him five minutes after their first meeting, “how are you feeling?”
When most people asked, they wanted to hear fine or better; when Cara asked, she wanted to know the truth, so he put his best face forward and tried to make the answers match. “Fine,” he shrugged, giving her as upbeat of an expression as he could manage. “Better.”
“Good, good.” She reached out and patted his knee with a grandmotherly sort of affection, even though, as she liked to point out, she was still young enough that she could’ve baby-sat for him in high school. “You look better. You look more pink! Pink is very ‘in’ this season.”
“What about the house?” Navid asked, keeping his expression fixed from one sentiment to the next.
At that, Cara sighed and patted his knee harder. “Ay, you don’t worry about that. You just concentrate on making you better, and let your smart, talented, and frankly beautiful manager take care of the rest.”
“The house, Cara.” It was difficult to be firm with her, but sometimes it was the only option.
“I said, don’t worry.” This time, her fingers clenched around his kneecap, right where he would’ve been ticklish had he been in a better mood. “And who knows, maybe you get out of the hospital and you think, gosh, I sure like that house! I’m glad Cara didn’t listen to me when I told her like an idiot to sell it!”
He wasn’t in the mood for holding up an argument with her, so he did the best thing he could think to do, which was smile and nod. “You’re probably right.”
“I’m always right,” Cara said, and when she beamed back at him, he could see how much worry had deepened the lines on her face. She was still as beautiful as she claimed to be, but her makeup couldn’t cover the dark shadows that hung beneath her eyes. It was wearing her down so much, this entire prolonged mess of having to manage his entire life plus her own, giving him enough time and space to get back on his feet. The least he could do was pretend it was working.
His perfectionist nature was unspeakably disappointed in him when he woke up from his fifth suicide attempt, because really, shouldn’t he have been able to get it right already?
He made the mistake of trying to sit up a little, and immediately lurched over the side of his bed, throwing up liquid black. The inside of his mouth tasted like his hands smelled after his time in the figure drawing studio, sketching fleshy naked bodies with crumbling charcoals. Dr. Lin was there, scrawling something on a clipboard, and it was just like her not even to raise her eyes to watch as he vomited up what felt like everything he’d ingested since the tenth grade, then fell back against his pillows, aching and miserable.
A fussy little orderly with tight black braids came over when he was finished, looking not in the least perturbed or disgusted as she stepped around the bile and wiped his mouth with a damp cloth. That was one of the things that had really made the whole experience bearable, the way all the doctors and nurses were so real. The art world was predicated on bullshit, on praising a piece you wouldn’t want hanging under your toilet, on laughing when you wanted to stab someone through the throat with a paintbrush. Medical professionals didn’t think twice about telling you that you looked like shit.
“You look like shit,” said Dr. Lin, which Navid supposed he deserved. He shut his eyes and let the orderly swab out the inside of his mouth; he might have tried to help had the restraints around his arms and legs not put a damper on that. After a few more scribbled notes, Dr. Lin clicked her pen shut and shoved it in the tight bun of her hair, then settled the clipboard into the plastic box hanging from the end of his bed.
Navid licked his lips, letting his swollen tongue run over their dehydrated, chapped surfaces before the orderly smeared a thin gloss of petroleum jelly over them, the kind the dentist always gave you by way of apology for stretching your mouth big enough to fit a couple of fists inside. “Sorry,” he said, his voice a dry whisper.
“You’re damned right you’re sorry.” And then she looked at him, and for a moment he caught an unusual shade of emotion behind her usual professional ceramic mask of a face: her mouth set, a red halo creeping in at the corner of her eyes, some unidentifiable state between grief and anger twisting at her jaw. It was so faint as maybe to be imaginary, though, and she was unreadable again by the time she tapped the IV drip beside his bed. “If you die on me, I’m going to kill you.”
Navid didn’t even question the peculiar contradictory nature of the assertion or whether or not her sense of humour constituted good bedside manner for a patient with suicidal tendencies, just leaned over the side of the bed and vomited again.
He woke to the feel of Hassan’s mouth on his bare stomach, and blinked for a moment, regaining his bearings. Sorry, he murmured, rubbing his hands across his face and feeling a half-week’s worth of stubble foresting his cheeks, did I miss dinner?
Did he miss dinner, he asks. Hassan kissed just above the button of Navid’s paint-stained jeans. Do you even know what day it is?
Sure, it’s…. Oh, he knew this one, he just had to think about it for a minute. …Tuesday?
Hassan snorted, and the air was warm against Navid’s skin. Try Thursday. Now when was the last night you slept in our bed?
Navid turned his head sharply to the side to work out his stiffness, and a great line of joints cracked down his neck. I’ve been really busy….
And the last time you ate? Hassan patted his belly like a drum, and it gurgled a sad, empty song in response, to which Hassan just sighed. This is depressing. Without even trying, you’re better about observing sawm than I ever was.
Is it Ramadan already? asked Navid, wide-eyed, though his surprise here was wholly feigned; he could lose track of hours and days without effort, but some cycles ran deeper than intentional awareness. He glanced out the studio windows, where the sky was the dim blue of either early morning or early evening, he couldn’t tell which — though he supposed that had he actually been concerned with observance, he would have been fine either way.
Hassan rolled his eyes and took Navid’s hands, pulling them both to their feet. Come on. Even famous artists need proper care and feeding. He sniffed at Navid’s hair and made a face. And grooming. I’m not even going to ask when your last shower was.
Navid swayed a little on his feet, so he grabbed handfuls of Hassan’s t-shirt to keep himself upright. It wasn’t even worth protesting how important the upcoming show was, or how much work he still had left to do; he pressed his cheek against Hassan’s shoulder and took a deep breath. You take such good care of me.
It’s a tireless, thankless existence, but someone’s got to do it. Hassan kissed the top of Navid’s head, then swatted him on the ass in the general direction of the house. Now go on, get cleaned up, and when you get out I’ll have food ready.
Navid grabbed his hand and tugged him along. Oh, no. I’m so weak from hunger, I might slip in the shower, fall down, hit my head, and forget you completely. You’d better come in with me just to make sure I’m safe.
Demands, demands, that’s all I ever get from you, you know that? With a wicked grin, Hassan linked their hands together and let Navid lead them both back into the main house.
He knew them by now on sight, though he’d been in such a state the first few times they’d introduced themselves that he couldn’t remember their names, and thus had gotten stuck on thinking of them as Detective Boots and Detective Beard. Boots was at least ten years older than Beard, and definitely the senior in their partnership; Navid had heard her coming even before she’d gotten to the door, the precision click of her stacked heels marking time with every step through the sterile white halls. “We’d like to get you to the station and have you look at a lineup,” she told him, folding her arms across her chest.
Beard hovered behind her, his eyebrows making a mountain of concern in the middle of his forehead. They weren’t good-cop-bad-cop so much as sensitive-cop-stern-cop, and it was a novel enough take on the trope that he was impressed. “Sooner is better than later,” Boots continued, tapping her watch for effect. “We can only hold him so long.”
“Him?” Navid pulled himself as upright as he could in the bed, feeling the ghosts of knives ache in his skin. “There were four.”
“And if this guy is one of them, then we’ll have a better time tracking down the other three. If he’s not, well, that’s a few more we can check off of our list.”
Maybe it was because they’d always been so nice to him, but Navid had never found the heart to tell them they’d be better off giving up. What was the point, anyway? Some things didn’t get stitched back together. “I’m not feeling well,” he said, drawing his free arm as best as he could around his midsection, reminding them that this reminded him of injury. He’d found it was a good way to get well-meaning people out of his face, to make them uncomfortable enough that they backed down first, like winning a gold medal in the Chicken event at the Oppression Olympics.
This obviously wasn’t the answer Boots had been hoping for, and she pinched the wide bridge of her nose. “There’s a limit to the accommodations we can make, a legal limit that means we’re going to have to release–”
“I said I’m not feeling well!” he snapped, and the tone burst out of him as raw and sick as bile, and just as impossible to stop. “Why don’t you say why you’re really here, so you can get your crazy only witness to blame someone before he finally offs himself, so you can solve the fagbashing case and get a gold star and maybe a promotion and fuck off!” He strained against his bed as he shouted, yanking the IV from his elbow, and the pain surprised him so much he fell silent again, hugging his bleeding arm to his chest.
In the stillness that followed, Beard lay a hand on the plastic frame that arced to form the foot of his high bed. “That’s okay,” he said, and his voice was so low and gentle that it almost reminded him of Hassan’s, except that Beard’s vowels curled with a southern cadence cutivated hundreds of miles away from Hassan’s native Detroit. “We’ve got plenty to keep him on otherwise. We’re not going anywhere.”
“Mr. Taraghijah,” Boots said, pronouncing his name with no doubt well-practiced perfection, “I swear to you right now, we are doing everything we can to find out who attacked you and your husband.” Of all the new people he’d had to deal with in the past several months, only she and Beard had never hesitated in calling Hassan that, which Navid grudgingly admitted endeared them to him. “But I’ll tell you right now: yes, you are our only witness, crazy or not, and no, we can’t make this work without you. Now, we’ll work to give you as much time as we can. But there is a limit.”
Feeling deservedly chastised, Navid relaxed, letting his head drop back against his raised pillow. “I’m sorry,” he said, shutting his eyes to ward off tears. “I just … don’t feel well.”
He heard the sound of Boots’ boots click as she began her retreat, though the soft shuffle of Beard’s loafers was absent. “For what it’s worth,” said Beard, “we don’t think this was a bias crime at all. Just … a robbery gone bad. That’s all.”
Navid didn’t say anything, but he must have nodded or given some other indication that he understood, because after a moment, he heard their footsteps start up again, this time together, and disappear back toward the wide outside world where they belonged. He supposed that Beard had meant his assessment of the situation to be comforting, but Navid just felt sick again. Enduring a hate crime was noble, even somewhat heroic — but surviving the cruel randomness of the universe? Well, that was something that happened every day, to everyone. And in the end, it meant nothing.
“You should sign that one when you’re done; I’d like to have it in my office.”
Navid jumped, startled by the sound of Dr. Lin’s voice; he had a tendency to get wrapped up in his art to the exclusion of all external stimuli, which was a fine enough thing in one’s own locked studio, but dangerous in a semi-public space like a hospital room. “I don’t….” He looked at the brush in his hand, then frowned at the small canvas in front of him. “You don’t want this one.”
“Why not?” Casual as one friend might touch another on the shoulder, she reached for the side of the hospital gown he’d employed as a smock and began looking at his naked side and hip, then poked at the inside of his right thigh. Whatever bit of body modesty he’d had left prior to entering the hospital, it had disappeared by necessity. “I think it’s good.”
“It’s wrong.” Navid touched the tip of his brush to the white paint and scraped it down the painting, leaving individual lines of paint as the brush bristles splayed. They wouldn’t give him any more oils, not after he’d swallowed half the can of turpentine he’d asked for thinning them, but Dr. Lin had consented to allowing him acrylics, in limited quantities where the most he could probably do was make himself fiercely — but not fatally — nauseated. He hissed as Dr. Lin’s fingers poked a long, deep cut that snaked around toward the base of his spine. “Quit that.”
Dr. Lin exhaled sharply through her nose, a sound that meant she was getting tired of his lip. “You’re the patient. You don’t tell me what to do.” She poked again for reasons he could only assume were perverse and sadistic, then nudged him forward to expose more of his back. “And what do you mean, it’s wrong?”
“I mean it’s wrong. You sound like Dr. Barrow.” Pushed into a position where he could no longer paint effectively, Navid dropped his brush into the plastic cup, watching as the white paint trickled tendrils into the foggy grey water.
Apparently satisfied with the amount of discomfort she’d caused him, Dr. Lin let go, and Navid drew his makeshift smock back around his naked middle. “You’re recovering so slowly. I’m starting to suspect you go out and run marathons every night, just to confuse me.”
“It’s not going to get better,” Navid grumbled, and Dr. Lin cuffed him gently upside the head, mussing his wiry hair.
“You know about the power of positive thinking? Well, I’m positive you’re not thinking.” She walked around him and the easel to his right side and pulled the gown away from there, un-doing all the concealing work he’d managed in the first place. “Nothing’s holding back your recovery except a persistent belief that there won’t be a recovery.”
There was a limit to how much forced optimism Navid could stand in a single session, and he was nearing capacity. “I’ll get you something else,” he said, hoping to pull the conversation back a few minutes. “What do you like?”
“I like you to get better.” After a few more assessments by way of poking, Dr. Lin finally gave up her exam and stood, this time taking on the task of re-covering Navid’s body herself. “But all right, in the way of art, I like … realism. Pictures of things and people, better than just lines and shapes. I don’t know, I guess I like it to be a picture of something, instead of just drips or squares.”
His former art theory professors would have been appalled at her suggestion that the works of artists like Pollock and Mondrian weren’t pictures of things, but Navid was inclined to let it go, in no small part because he understood her preference. In the modern art battle of concept versus execution, he and his insistence on his own technical perfection belonged firmly in the latter camp. “I’ll ask Cara to find you something nice next time she’s here. Something pretty that didn’t sell.” He reached for the tube of white acrylic and squirted a fresh blob onto the cafeteria-styrofoam plate that served as his palette.
Dr. Lin gave the painting another hard look, then let her eyes dart over to the table where he’d stacked all his other hospital works, and he could almost hear the unspoken question that sat just behind her lips. But the realm of his motivations was Dr. Barrow’s department, not hers, and he saw her back away from that precipice, replacing it with, “So why is it wrong?”
Navid shrugged, hoping his lack of a response would convice her to move on, but trying to out-stubborn Dr. Lin in anything was a losing battle from the start. “…Because that’s not the way it happened,” he said, hoping that a weak answer would still be a sufficient one.
Nodding, Dr. Lin pulled a pen from her hair and scrawled something in her notes. “So why don’t you paint it like it happened?”
It took nearly five minutes of his silence before Dr. Lin finally replaced the pen in her hair and left, and Navid considered it a bitter sort of victory.
It was entirely a coincidence that they were in San Francisco that particular morning; Hassan almost hadn’t come along to the opening of the show, citing the amount of grading his students had burdened him with, but had decided at the last moment that the break would do him good. Thus, Navid emerged from the shower to find Hassan seated facing the television, rapt as the cameras showed what Navid recognized as the street a few blocks from their hotel. Do you want to get married? he asked, eyes bright.
Do I … what? Navid stuck the corner of the towel into his ear, just in case excess water was causing him some comprehension difficulties.
Married. You and me. Husband and husband. Hassan pointed to the TV, where the slightly giddy-looking news anchor was gesturing to stone steps littered with flower petals. We’re not supposed to be there until eight tonight, right? That’s nine hours from now. Plenty of time.
Navid frowned, trying to work his way through the question. He’d been aware that people got married, just as he was aware that some people got to go into outer space — not impossible, in the grand scheme of things, but nothing he’d ever considered personally. The text scrolling across the bottom of the screen, however, told him that the mayor had just directed the county clerk to issue marriage licences to any couple that showed up: gay, straight, or otherwise. Are you serious? he asked, more of the broadcast than of anything else.
But Hassan took it as a challenge, and bent down on one knee at the foot of the bed, looking rumpled in his hole-ridden t-shirt and tattered boxers. Let’s get married, and do exactly the same things we’ve been doing, and live exactly the same way we’ve been living, only with being married while we do it.
You’re so romantic. Navid shuffled his feet and tightened the second towel around his waist. So if it’s not going to change anything, why do it?
Because I love you, and I want to tell everyone else who’ll listen that I love you, and come on, look at that, right there,, he pointed to the television again, that is fate. That we’re here, on this day, that’s fate. And we can’t turn down fate. So … say yes so I can get up, because I’m starting to get little rug marks on my knee.
Yes! Yes, fine. Yes. Breaking into a giant grin, Navid reached down and took Hassan’s hands, tugging him back up to his feet. But if you really want to get married in nine hours? We’d better get started right now.
Yes, dear, chirped Hassan, giving Navid a quick kiss on the lips before scurrying off in the direction of the closet, shedding clothes as he went. Navid watched him with a smile, wondering at how the world turned on moments like these, the ones that popped up in the middle of other plans, ensuring that nothing after would ever be the same.
He’d learned to expect all manner of visitors to his room, more unannounced than not, but still managed to find some surprise in him this time. “I didn’t think you made house calls,” he said coolly, trying to avoid mentioning how he doubted Dr. Barrow would ever want to be in the same room with him again after what happened last time.
“Oh, I go wherever I’m needed,” said Dr. Barrow, leaning against the doorframe in his Mr. Rodgers cardigan and perfectly knotted tie. “May I come in?”
“Everyone else does.” Navid gestured him inside with pastel-smeared fingers, then went back to the task at hand.
“Does that bother you?”
Navid rolled his eyes and wiped his ruddied fingertips on a paper towel. “Don’t shrink me, I’m working,” he said, and picked up the white stick.
“Yes, I was by the other day when you were with your physical therapist, and I see you’ve been creating quite a mixed media extravaganza.” As casual as a visitor to an art gallery, browsing his way among the Impressionists, Dr. Barrow strolled through Navid’s room, taking stock of the dry and drying works the nurses had leaned against his walls. “Does it feel good to get your creative juices flowing again?”
“No,” said Navid, because it was as true of an answer as yes would have been, and had the added bonus of being less likely to give Dr. Barrow the smug satisfaction of being right. “But it’s better than sitting there doing nothing.” He nodded to his new bed, which had been set up so he could raise and lower it as he wished, giving him access to his chair and thus — as Dr. Lin’s idea went — more freedom. He hadn’t used that freedom to do anything more than wheel himself the three feet between the bed and the art table the nurses had set up for him, but it seemed to make everyone happy, so he didn’t question it.
“Quite right. Diversions are of course important, even if they’re not constructive or particularly cathartic. I, for one, like watching classic Doctor Who episodes while I unwind, and find the lack of demands on my brainpower quite refreshing.” Dr. Barrow looked at one of the small drawings, which had been clipped up across a lightbox that might under other circumstances have showcased x-rays, then held it up next to a larger canvas, one of the oils he’d done before they’d been taken away. “I’m sensing a theme.”
Eyes still fixed on his current project, Navid put down the crayon and began smudging the white with his thumb, blending it into the deep reds around it. “I’m sensing you’re full of shit.”
He hadn’t known what to expect from that, but it wasn’t what he got: Dr. Barrow laughed hard, not a condescending chuckle, but the kind of deep, honest belly laugh you only heard when someone said something genuinely amusing. “I’m completely full of shit, or hadn’t you noticed?” With a practiced push, he tucked the corner of the smaller sketch back into position. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not occasionally insightful and thus worth my keep. A stopped clock’s right twice a day, after all. May I keep this one?”
“No,” Navid snapped with more force than he’d intended. “Why is everyone asking me for these?”
One of Dr. Barrow’s bushy white eyebrows lifted up his forehead. “We can’t be the only people clamoring for your pieces. After all, I would have thought that a successful career as an artist would have convinced you that you’re actually quite talented.”
“Well, not these.” Navid picked up the white stick again so hard that he felt it snap between his fingers, and he had to hold it practically at the tip to get any control over it at all. “These are shit.”
“They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’,” sang Dante as he hauled Navid’s body along the walkway between the two handrails, making Navid’s hips swish back and forth in time with the out-of-tune seranade. “Come on, Mr. T, the least you could do is clap your hands along.”
“I don’t think this is the kind of rehab she was talking about.” Navid grunted as he took another step out of sheer spite, hoping that a faster travel time would mean less of the song. His hands were gripped firmly against the wooden rails, aching from the exertion — but if they hadn’t been, Dante might have been able to squeeze a supportive handclap or two out of him. Maybe it had been the recent break in the weather, or maybe just the really excellent piece of toast he’d managed down for breakfast, but something had lifted him at least partway out of the crushing depression that had been weighing him down for months, and partway was better than nothing. Gritting his teeth, he made another step forward, this one almost entirely under his own power.
Dante laughed and clapped him on the back, squishing Navid’s sweat-soaked shirt against his body. “That’s the spirit! Come on, a dozen more of those and you’re home free!”
“A dozen?” Navid gasped a little as he surveyed the distance between them and the chair. “A dozen’ll kill me.”
“Yeah, but you’d die triumphant!” Dante punched the air with a rallying fist, and Navid actually found cause in that to laugh.
“Fine, fine.” He shuffled his left foot forward, shifting his balance in anticipation of putting his weight on it. “We’ll split the difference. I do six, you do six.”
“Hey, six is better than nothing.” Bracing one hand around Navid’s chest and holding him tight, Dante nodded. “Okay, whenever you’re ready, here’s number one.”
It turned out he didn’t have the strength in him for more than four, but as Dante was more than eager to point out at the end of the journey, four was also better than nothing. His legs and arms were both shaking so hard he would have collapsed if Dante hadn’t waved over another of the therapists to give him a hand; she looked like a tiny thing, barely bigger than Navid, but the way she grabbed his chest in her viselike arms left him certain that he was in good hands. Together, they delivered him down into his chair, and when he was settled, she brought him a paper cup of water. “Here you are, soldier,” she winked; the text printed on her shirt read Jenna.
Dante clucked his tongue, shaking his head at her. “Sister, you are barking up the wrong tree.”
“Who, me? I’m being friendly!” She punched Dante in the shoulder. “Though doesn’t it seem like you always get the cute ones?”
Navid, who had not heard any comment on his appearance outside of the you-look-terrible family in nearly four months, looked away bashfully, and Dante laughed. “I’ll tell you what, if you want to haul this guy’s so-called cute ass all around the room one day, you just let me know, and I will trade with you in a heartbeat.”
Their good spirits were contageous, and Navid smiled as he drank half the cold water, then dumped the other half over his head — which delighted both of them nearly into hysterics. “You want we should get you one of those big things of Gatorade, pour it all over you like you’re the winning football coach?” Jenna teased.
“Football?” Navid blinked, looking as innocent and confused as he could muster. “That’s the one on ice, right?” That set them both off again, and this time Navid let himself follow them, sweaty and hopeful, laughing until his stitches hurt — and for a moment, everything seemed all right.
He was drunker than he’d planned to get — which was to say, drunk at all — but it felt so good to be like this, boneless and weightless and successful, that Navid collapsed on the hotel bed with Hassan between his legs. I want you to fuck me, he whispered, tugging at Hassan’s earlobe with his teeth.
Hassan, still done up in his tuxedo to the bow tie, laughed. Come on, be serious.
I’m absolutely serious. Navid squirmed out of his jacket, then kicked his shoes off the end of the bed. I’m the famous one now, so what I say goes. And I say I want you to fuck me.
Are you sure? A hesitant tone hummed through Hassan’s voice. We don’t even have any–
Check the basket. Giving Hassan’s cock a playful squeeze through his clothes, Navid pushed him off the bed toward a huge gift basket Cara had prepared for them. Edibles covered the top — dried fruits, coffee packets, tins of nuts — but beneath that, Navid had found some more personal supplies. That crazy woman knew him so well it was a little eerie.
By the time Hassan returned to the bed with a handful of rainbow-coloured lube packets, Navid had stripped down to his dress shirt, half-done tie, and socks, which he figured was about as naked as he needed to be. If you aren’t inside me in the next twenty seconds….
You’re an adorable drunk, Hassan laughed, but Navid could see his hands trembling as he twisted open one bright yellow packet; he unfastened his pants, then slicked up his already-hard cock with all due haste. It took him about sixteen seconds longer than Navid had budgeted for, but as Hassan nudged the head of his thick cock against Navid’s ass, Navid had to admit, it was worth the wait.
The first stretching pressure made him gasp, as it always did; it had taken Navid a long time to figure out that he’d wanted Hassan to have him this way, and even longer to work up the words to ask him if they could give it a try, but it was everything he wanted right now. He spread his legs as far wide as they could go and lifted his hips, remembering to breathe deep as Hassan found his way slowly inside. He went soft briefly with the effort of concentration, as he always did, but it never took him long to get back. Focusing on Hassan’s handsome face helped, so he watched Hassan watching him, feeling an electric twinge of pride at finding arousal there and knowing he was its cause. At last, Hassan brought their flush together and stopped, letting them both adjust to the togetherness.
Navid moved first, reaching for Hassan’s hips and drawing his cock inside a fraction of an inch more. Don’t be gentle, he ordered, even though that was essentially a ridiculous thing to demand of Hassan; he might have had better luck telling a tube of scarlet paint to be less red. All evening, I was just looking at you and thinking how much I wanted you in me. Navid smiled as Hassan’s breath hitched, and as predicted, his own cock stirred, well on its return to hardness; he smiled and stroked it with the backs of his own knuckles, pleased to put on a good show.
Hassan swallowed and bent down, stretching his long, broad torso enough to kiss Navid hard, and as he stuck his tongue inside Navid’s mouth, he began to move his hips. Navid grabbed hold of Hassan’s lower lip with his teeth and tugged, driving him on. He was exhausted from standing for hours, and his throat was dry from spending the lion’s share of that time making meaningless art small talk, and the single glass of champagne he’d been handed still felt like it was bubbling its way up from his stomach to his brain, but as long as he had this, everything could still be put to rights. Fuck me like you mean it, he hissed, laughing at how easy it was now to let some of those champagne bubbles slip out of his mouth, carrying with them dirty words he’d be too embarrassed to say under other circumstances. Other times could wait, though — this was now, and now he was in heaven.
Having more wisely declined the offer of champagne for the evening’s final toast, Hassan had no more control issues than he ever did; he rode Navid hard and soft at once, making the hotel bedframe slam into the wall with each thrust without ever coming close to hurting his lover. Navid let himself relax back against the bed, pushing as hard against Hassan’s body as their position would allow, completely wrapped up in sensation, his whole world for the moment focused wholly on being loved and fucked at the same time. His own cock abandoned for the moment, he clutched at the sleeves of Hassan’s tuxedo jacket as though they were reins and he might get thrown if he let go.
At long last, Hassan gasped and thrust hard, and Navid smiled as he felt Hassan come inside him, trembling and warm. They held together like that for a minute more, and then Hassan pulled out of Navid’s body, trailing come and lube all over the comforter. That, too, was another reason to leave getting fucked like this for special occasions: hotel laundries were more than accustomed to the challenges of such stains. Panting, Hassan collapsed next to him, and Navid kissed him again, this time with more gentle consideration.
Finally, Hassan took a deep breath and let it out in a long, slow sigh. Best gallery opening ever? he asked, petting Navid’s bare belly.
Navid shrugged, rolling onto his back and letting Hassan have as much of his body as he wanted. Let met get a second one and I’ll tell you how it stacks up.
Hassan laughed and pushed Navid’s hair back from his face, smiling at him with no jealousy whatsoever. Every other artist Navid had met (including, embarrassingly, himself) reacted to the accomplishments of others with an ever-present hint of that-should-have-been-mine bitterness; Hassan, however, seemed completely incapable of being envious that Navid’s success as an artist had well overshadowed his own, so long as it made Navid happy. My famous painter boyfriend, he said, and bent down to finish what Navid had started.
Her hands shook as she paced back and forth beside his bed, and Navid wondered if she had started smoking again, which she shouldn’t, because it was so terrible for her. He wanted to reach for her and hug her, but his arms were bandaged and tied to the sides of the bed, unavailable for hugging or cutting open. “I just can’t do this,” said Cara, and it was the first time since waking up in the hospital that she’d let him see her full-on upset. “I can’t, I’m sorry. I love you, Navito, but this is like hell for me.”
Instead of pointing out that it really wasn’t much of a picnic for him either, Navid closed his eyes. They’d allowed him a low dose of painkillers, but not enough to make him feel wholly better, and he suspected this was Dr. Lin’s doing; he didn’t fight it or ask for more, figuring that he deserved to feel exactly as bad as he did.
Cara fiinally stopped pacing and folded her arms across her chest, taking a deep breath and letting it out again before saying: “I called your brother.”
That was enough to bring Navid out of whatever anaesthetic fog had been working, back to raw awareness. “No! Fuck!” Now he wished he had his hands free so that he could strangle her, or at least check through her phone’s list of recent calls to make sure she wasn’t bluffing. But the look on her face was serious, and Navid shouted again as he strained against his restraints. “Fuck! Why?”
“Because I’m going to have to call him anyway if you die!” The Puerto Rican edge to her voice always came back when she got upset or angry, and now it was as thick as Navid had ever heard it be. “And what’ll he say then? He’ll say why I didn’t call when you were still alive, and what should I say, I’m sorry, your brother was a shitty selfish pendejo who thought killing himself quietly was the best thing for the people who love him? Is that what?”
An orderly passed by the door behind Cara, but after seeing that no one was at that moment actively murdering anyone else, just kept on walking; Navid supposed emotional shouting matches were just another day at the office around here. “Oh, I’m sorry I’m not thinking about you!” he bellowed back, surprising himself with his own volume. “I forgot, I’m just the one who’s going to be stuck in this bed or a chair for the rest of my life–”
Cara let forth with a string of Spanish profanity that won the argument by sheer shock value, and when she realized Navid wasn’t speaking anymore, she leaned in and took hold of his trapped hand. “You are a coward,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “I thought you were a man, but you’re just a coward. Do you think this is what Hassan would have wanted?”
“Hassan’s dead!” he shouted back at her, and now it was his turn to stun her into silence; it was at once the first time he’d said it and the first time he’d really believed it, and it sounded like the end of the world. “He’s fucking dead, all right? And I should be too, so why don’t you just all fuck off and let me kill myself in peace?”
Pale, Cara took a step back and crossed herself. “You don’t mean that,” she said, as though trying to make sure the sentiment didn’t go from his lips directly to God’s ears.
“I do! I really fucking do! Fuck, why does no one let me decide things for myself anymore? I get knifed in the thigh and all of a sudden I’m a two-year-old again?” He jerked against the restraints and felt the whole bedframe shift with the force of movement. “My brain still works fine! So fuck off, all of you!”
He heard the cracking sound first, and wondered what it was in the split second before his cheek lit up with the fire of having caught the back of Cara’s hand. For a moment, he wondered if he could get Cara thrown out for hitting a patient, but sighed as he realized that Dr. Lin would probably not only look the other way, she might even give Cara a medal. “You deserved that.” She pointed a red-manicured finger at Navid as though he might be preparing some sort of counterargument. “Hassan would be ashamed of you.”
Stung by blows and words alike, Navid closed his eyes and bit his lips between his teeth, concentrating on the pain in his arms and stomach in the hope that physical agony would win out. Cara was wrong, the doctors were wrong, everyone was wrong — he couldn’t survive this, no one could, and it was stupid to drag them all along with him into a losing battle. It wasn’t selfish to want to give up, it was cruel to keep him alive like a wounded animal begging to be put out of its misery, and they were all monsters for pretending like there could be any other outcome.
The worst part was, for all that she was wrong, Cara was right about one thing — Hassan would be ashamed of him. But instead of emboldening him for the fight ahead, that just made him want to die even more than ever.
“Does that bother you?” asked Dr. Barrow, peering over the top of his coffee mug.
Navid didn’t look up from where he sat at the table in Dr. Barrow’s office, bleeding large black inkblots into white watercolour paper. “Should it?” He dipped the pen into the inkwell and let it soak, then touched the nub to the paper and watched it all run out again. “He’s their son and brother, they can do whatever they want or say whatever they want or bury him wherever they want. Besides, it’s not as though they snubbed me just to be mean. I was on life support at the time. That’s a good enough reason not to invite someone.”
“Mm.” Dr. Barrow scrawled something else in his notebook, scratching out his observations. Navid wondered if the pencil was so he could erase things later if he changed his mind, or if he just liked the sound it made. He could respect either way. “Your friend tells me she wants to have another memorial service for him, one you could attend.”
Navid raised an eyebrow, then snorted and shook his head. “Cara’s weird like that.”
“Do you think it’s weird to want to have a funeral for a loved one?”
“I think funerals are weird, period.” Navid held the pen against the paper and let the ink seep through; maybe Dr. Barrow could ask him next what he saw in those inkblots. “They’re depressing and I hate them.”
There was a rustle of pages as Dr. Barrow flipped back through his notebook. “Your mother died when you were young; did you attend her funeral?”
The pen slipped in Navid’s hand, and the paper ripped in half. “Of course I did.”
“And how did you feel about that?”
“How should I have felt?” snapped Navid, feeling his temper rise and struggling to drag it back down. He pieced the two halves of paper back together, holding them in place so he could continue like he had been before. “She was my mother, and I loved her, and she died. It was a long time ago. I went to her funeral, I was sad, I got over it.”
Dr. Barrow nodded. “And, in your opinion, would your father and brothers have been justified in omitting all mention of you during it?”
Navid left the tip of the pen in place so long the ink saturated the paper and seeped through to the table below, giving the wood beneath what was probably a permanent black scar. “It’s just a funeral,” he said, watching the stain spread. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
The pause button beeped as Navid pressed it, and the answering machine obediently silenced itself. He let his fingers run over the boxy machine’s surface, half-considering ripping it from the wall and flinging it out the window and having done with it. On the other side of the run-down studio apartment, Hassan set down the bags of groceries and began unloading their contents; Navid’s was still the only name on the lease, but it had become essentially theirs from the first morning Navid had woken to the sounds of Hassan’s rummaging through his refrigerator, complaining about Navid’s lack of turkey bacon. The migration of Hassan’s accoutrements had begun that afternoon, and it’d now been nearly two months since Hassan had spent even a single night in the garage apartment he rented from his sister and brother-in-law.
The good things about having Hassan around outnumbered the stars in the sky, and Navid would have cut off both his own arms rather than go back to the way things were before; as long as they were together, just the two of them, everything was perfection. What was becoming quickly and unavoidably clear, however, was that the world didn’t end at their apartment door.
Let’s get a place somewhere, Navid said, still staring at the answering machine. Together. My lease here’s up in August, but we can start looking now.
Hassan turned, frozen in mid-reach with the peanut butter halfway to the top shelf, where all the things Navid didn’t like to eat lived. I’d … well, I’d have to explain to my family where I was going.
Don’t you have to explain that anyway? With a shrug, Navid grabbed the cold bag closest to the fridge and started stacking its contents on the shelves inside.
I think they…. Sighing, Hassan leaned back against the kitchen counter and folded his arms across his chest. I think they think I come home a lot more than I do. Or that I sleep at the studio.
Oh. Navid stuck his arms back farther into the crisper drawer, rearranging its contents to give him something to do that wasn’t letting Hassan see the hurt written on his face. It was just a thought. The carrots made the trip from the left of the drawer to the right, then after a moment of consideration moved back again.
Such a long silence followed that Navid assumed Hassan had wandered off to do something elsewhere, and thus was surprised when he stood again to find Hassan waiting in the same spot. Let’s do it, he said, holding out his arms. I love you, and I don’t want to live without you, and it’d be even nicer if I could live not without you somewhere with more closet space.
With a wash of relief that threatened to knock his legs out from under him, Navid darted forward into Hassan’s embrace, wrapping his arms around Hassan’s neck and kissing him hard; Hassan straightened his back and lifted Navid several inches off the ground, and Navid laughed, walking on air as literally as he was figuratively. I love you too, he said, amazed to hear the words he’d been thinking nonstop finally leave his mouth, and he wrapped his legs around Hassan’s waist as Hassan staggered like Frankenstein’s monster the few feet to the bed.
When they finally stopped to rest an hour later, Navid noticed that he’d managed to miss a pint of sherbet on the counter, and pulled himself free from the tangle of sheets and limbs to see if it could be salvaged. He pushed down the few vestiges of modesty the last two months had left him and padded naked across to the kitchen, aware (and, honestly, more than a little excited to know) that Hassan’s eyes followed him the entire way. The sherbet was a little squishy, but still salvageable, so Navid tucked it into the freezer. Rescue accomplished, he turned back to the bed — and stopped short as his eyes saw the still-blinking red 1 on the answering machine. He hesitated only a moment before reaching down and yanking the plug from the wall, erasing the machine’s short digital memory.
Hassan snorted a laugh as he watched this, propped up atop every pillow in the vicinity like the king of all he surveyed. You can always tell it’s a telemarketer when they don’t know how the hell to say your name.
The joke was apt, especially for all the years of strangers’ pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘David’, but Navid didn’t quite manage a smile. My brother, actually. A new apartment would be nice, a new place with a new telephone number and no more coming home to his family’s quiet, recorded inquiries, no more half-truths and flat-out lies to stave off their inevitable disappointment: a new home, a new way to disappear. My eldest brother.
Hassan’s expression softened, but did not crumble; if there was anything they both understood about the other, it was the weight of family. What was his name again?
Farouk stood in the doorway, and Navid’s first thought upon seeing him was that he had finally managed to kill himself, and the djinni that would torment him until the Day of Judgment would wear his eldest brother’s face.
His second thought, this one only slightly more coherent, was that his brother had managed to age a thousand years in the fifteen since they’d seen each other last; premature tendrils of white, slight flecks two decades ago, had snowed fully half his beard. He’d been twelve already when Navid had been born, sixteen when they’d come to the United States, and the weight of foreign-ness still hung about his shoulders like a garment he did not wish to remove. It had been that way for their father, too, and it occurred to Navid that he did not know if his father still lived, or what had become of their middle two brothers, or anything at all since he’d committed himself to exile, a pre-emptive strike against their disowning him. They couldn’t fire him; he’d already quit.
He tried to say, I don’t want you to see me like this, but his tongue was fat with dehydration and refused to respond to his commands. A sheet covered him from the belly downward, but his chest and shoulders were bare, and he knew Farouk’s eyes widened to see him so thin. He’d always been slender, a gangly youth grown into a lean man, but now he could count his ribs in the mirror, and his jaw had taken on a skeletal look in the right light. Of course, in a hospital, everything was always the right light for skeletons.
At last, Farouk drew his spine straight and fixed his face into a perfect plaster frieze that contained all tempest beneath it. He was the eldest, and he had always known best; he had been the one to give up half his bed and let his youngest brother cry out his grief for their mother where no one else could see; when Navid had pulled away, Farouk had been the last to stop calling. With the heavy accent he’d never quite made the effort to shake, he gave Navid an appraising nod and greeted him: “As-Salamu ‘Alayka, brother.”
Navid raised one shaking, IV-strapped hand. “…Hi.”
He and the orange plastic bottle had been locked in a staring contest for nearly an hour, and he was growing certain the pills were winning.
Everyone at the clinic was careful, of course, but that was easy enough to get by if you could fool them into thinking you were well enough that they didn’t need to be careful anymore. They’d been perched on the edge of the nurse’s station, and he’d swiped them as Dante had wheeled him back from therapy, a bit of pickpocketing that he felt nearly proud of. A nurse had been polite enough to fetch a drink of water before he’d turned out the lights, and now Navid sat in his near-dark room, facing down his options.
He poured the pills out onto the wooden tray that stretched over the middle of his bed, pushing them into a neat line. He couldn’t tell what they were — the bottle had only a barcode sticker for identification, and the pills themselves had a three-digit number stamped into them that didn’t mean anything to him — but they were long and eggshell-white, and when he’d finished stretching all twenty of them out in a line, he arranged them in a circle. They were small enough that he could probably swallow them all down in three or four gulps, if that was where his decision ended up, but for now he was content to use them as a medium. He put all but one of them back into a crooked line, and sailed the last pill-boat up and down the pill-sea. He made a pill-box, the best approximation he could come by of the nine-lined, three-dimensional figure he’d drawn in all the margins of his notebooks when he was first learning the art of perspective. He made a pill-mountain, and rode a little pill-bike up and down its peak.
It was a gamble, not knowing what they were. They might be enough tranquilizers to kill him, or they might just be enough vitamins to make sure he got 2000% of his RDA of Vitamin C. Or worse, they might indeed be lethal, but only in numbers larger than twenty, meaning that the most he’d accomplish would be making himself even more miserable than he was already. Statistically, based on his previous experiences, her was more likely than not to wind up no deader than he needed to be to vomit more charcoal for hours. Dying, as Plath had said, was an art, like everything else, and it didn’t seem to be one for which Navid possessed any particular talent. Of course, she’d had an oven on hand to stick her head into, and not an unmarked bottle of unknown pills, so she had no room to talk.
He made a little pill-flower, and a pill-bee to crawl up its stem, then had the pill-bee fly around the table for a little while. It wasn’t as though he wanted to die, not specifically; he wasn’t especially looking forward to death itself, and though he was fairly sure he no longer believed in the afterlife of his childhood faith, he didn’t want to be wrong. But he wanted not to have to think about any of it anymore, and he was running out of ways to escape his own mind. A pill-tree grew in a pill-forest. A pill-family went to the pill-circus and rode pill-ponies on the carousel. Two pill-lovers kissed beneath a pill-moon–
With a broad stroke of his arm, he swept the table clean, and the pills went scattering across the linoleum floor, clattering their way into dark corners and hiding under cabinets. “Not tonight, then,” he said to no one in particular, and he pushed the button by the side of his bed to call the night nurse, who would bring a sleeping pill and a broom to clean up his mess.
Making love to Hassan was like nothing he’d ever experienced or even tried before, and the only thing that made his awkwardness and embarrassment bearable was that Hassan was just as lost as he was, and if they were lost together then that was all right. Navid reached for the hem of Hassan’s shirt and tugged it upward, revealing the strong, well-defined body beneath, and Hassan raised his arms, letting Navid pull it all the way off. He was always the brave one, the one willing to go first into danger, even when that danger was no more dangerous than undressing.
Except that was the most dangerous thing in the world, Navid thought as he ran his hands over Hassan’s muscled chest and shoulders, feeling his smooth skin and the tension coiled just beneath. My turn? he asked, lowering his face so Hassan couldn’t see his cheeks flush dark.
Hassan thought about this for a moment, his expression teetering on the brink of yes, before he stood and pushed his pants and boxers of his hips; fully naked, he sat back against the pillows on Navid’s bed, a shaky smile on his face. Now your turn, he said, resting his hands on his slightly spread knees. Nervous or not, he knew he was beautiful, and Navid agreed with all his heart and all his body. Unless you need help?
Navid took a deep, solid breath in through his nose, and let it out between thin lips. No, I’ve been doing this by myself for a while. He stripped off his own clothes in record speed, then scrambled beneath the covers, not looking back at Hassan until the sheets were up nearly to his chin.
With a deep laugh, Hassan pulled back the covers himself and slipped beneath. Hey, there’s no need to be nervous, he said, stretching his arm out across the pillows; Navid moved close to him by inches, first pillowing his head against Hassan’s bicep, then nudging the rest of his body nearer. …At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. It’s almost working.
At that, Navid smiled, and he touched the side of Hassan’s face, brushing his stubbly cheek. It’s just … I don’t think anyone’s seen me naked since I got my last diaper changed.
They were missing out, Hassan said, and when he bent his face down, Navid lifted his own closer, and their mouths met in a kiss that only now, even after three months of practice, was starting to feel familiar. They stayed like that for several minutes, just kissing, until Hassan placed his hand almost casually on Navid’s hip, and Navid became electrically aware of how hard he was, and how hard Hassan made him, and how no matter how nervous it made him, he wanted this more than he was afraid of it. Wrapping his hand around the back of Hassan’s neck, Navid settled himself against Hassan’s warm body; he could feel his pulse thrumming throughout his body, all the way out to his fingers and toes.
What finally broke the kiss was when Hassan reached down to stroke Navid’s cock, and Navid gasped so hard he thought he might have sucked all the air from the room. His fingers grasped for where hair might have been, if Hassan hadn’t shaved his head down to scalp every other day, and he buried his mouth against Hassan’s neck, tasting the dark salt of his skin. I’ve got you, Hassan rumbled, leaning his head back so that Navid could feel the words rumble from Hassan’s throat to his own lips. He felt Hassan’s hand circle his cock, rubbing the soft pad of his thumb across its wet head, and all the anxiety and fear and anticipation of the situation caught up to him in a rush; he cried out as he came suddenly, jerking his hips and spelling come into Hassan’s hand, helpless to stop.
And then it was over, or so it seemed, and before the first wave of embarrassment could even trouble the surface of Navid’s mind, Hassan was kissing him again, wet and hungry. Boneless, Navid wrapped his arms around Hassan’s shoulders and kissed back between attempts at catching his breath; when Hassan rolled onto his back, Navid rolled with him, becoming Hassan’s personal limp human blanket. Hassan’s locked hands came to rest at the small of Navid’s back, and Navid shivered as he felt the cooling wetness of his own come on Hassan’s fingers. You’re amazing, said Hassan, kissing at his jaw.
Navid felt his face flush with blood that had until very recently been needed elsewhere. That wasn’t amazing. That was, like, two seconds.
Hassan laughed and hugged Navid closer, and as he did, Navid could feel Hassan’s still-insistent erection push against his own bony hips. That just means I get to try it again, don’t I?
The blood that had made it all the way to Navid’s cheeks turned right back around and headed south again. Giddy and overwhelmed, Navid had the near-divine revelation that the only thing he’d ever have to worry about again — at least, as far as their relationship was concerned — was finding an adequate way to express how much he’d fallen in love. Your turn first, Navid smiled, and with a surge of confidence and desire, he took Hassan in hand.
After their first awkward minutes of reunion, Navid had claimed he was tired and medicated, and had shut his eyes, hoping Farouk would take the hint and leave him to sleep; sleep, however, took several hours to take him, and even as he finally drifted off, he could still hear the muttered Arabic of his brother’s prayers from his bedside. Perhaps, Navid hoped, Farouk would consider this pilgrimage sufficient to absolve them both of family obligations and make the decision to let his youngest brother destroy himself in peace.
As luck — or some other more malevolent force — would have it, though, Farouk lived less than an hour’s drive away from the clinic, so two days after his first visit, he was back, and Navid, mid-painting, had no pretext for sending him away. “This is a very nice place,” he said in Farsi, brushing the rain from his hair; the late spring had been unseasonably wet, and Navid had heard some of the orderlies mention bridges and roads that had washed over. Water obviously hadn’t stopped, Farouk, though, who sat quietly in a heavy-backed chair one of the orderlies had fetched for him, keeping his hands fixed in his lap, worrying the hem of his sweater in his fingers. “Your Mrs. Batista has good taste.”
“That’s what I pay her for,” Navid answered in English; his Farsi was as good as it ever had been, but he’d hated the linguistic reminder of his family’s difference when he was young, and wasn’t shocked to find it still raised his hackles. He kept his eyes fixed on his work in the desperate hope that saving him from eye contact would somehow save him from the rest of the agony of the encounter. Somehow, it wasn’t working.
After a moment, Farouk rose and walked to where he could see over Navid’s shoulder. “You’re very good, yes,” he said, following Navid back into English. “Your art is very good. I went to many of your shows, when they were close and I could get to them.”
The words took a time to process, but when they finally coalesced into sense, Navid nearly dropped his paintbrush in shock. “You … went to see my paintings?”
“Yes!” Farouk’s eyes brightened, and he grinned. “When they were in Manhattan, we took the train and went to see, Shadi and I, and when the girls were old enough to make the trip without a lot of bags and crying.”
“The girls,” Navid echoed, testing the weight of the word; he’d been at Farouk and Shadi’s wedding, his last appearance at a major family event, but it was still hard to wrap his mind around how far the world he’d left behind could have continued even in his absence. “Your daughters?”
Beaming as only a father could, Farouk reached into his wallet and pulled out a portrait studio photograph of two young girls, both with their mother’s dark eyes and their father’s indulgent smile. “Ava is thirteen next month, and Darya is eight. They both send well wishes to their Uncle Navid, and hope he is well sometime soon so that they can meet him.”
Navid felt something wet on his cheek, and when he brought his hand up to brush it away, he realized he was crying. He swallowed hard, but couldn’t find speech again; instead, he took the picture from Farouk’s hand and pulled it closer, studying the faces of the two strangers who knew him as ‘Uncle’.
“Brother,” said Farouk softly, and when Navid looked up, he met his brother’s stern, patient eyes, “did you think I would not care if you lived or died?” Handing the photograph back, Navid looked away, building up the courage to nod, and Farouk made a soft noise of pained understanding nearly swallowed in the driving percussion of the rain.
They sat across the table from one another, a pair of the clinic’s coffee mugs between them. “I want you to tell me about what happened that night,” said Dr. Barrow.
Navid reached for his mug and held it under his nose, letting himself linger in the thick smell. “You’ve got the police report.”
Dr. Barrow nodded, considering this for a minute, then stood and turned toward the orderlies at the door. “Would you close that, please? With the both of you on the other side?” One of them opened his mouth, likely to mount a protest, but Dr. Barrow cut them both off with a wave of his hand. “Your presence is appreciated, but unnecessary. Now shoo.”
Only when the door was shut tight behind them did Dr. Barrow take his seat again, taking his mug and shaking two sugars — not sweetener, Navid saw, but real white-packet sugar — into his coffee. “Why’d you do that?” Navid asked.
“I like it sweet,” Dr. Barrow shrugged.
“No. Not that.” Navid pointed to the door. “That.”
“Ah.” Stirring his coffee made lilting little chimes as his spoon tinked against the insides of his mug. “I want you to know I trust you. And I hope you can trust me.”
He hated to admit it, but Navid found himself bested at a game he hadn’t even known he’d been playing. “Fine,” he said, bending his head down to the first sip of coffee; it was harsh, and not particularly well-made, but it was coffee nonetheless, and that was good enough for government work. “What do you want me to tell you?”
“Well, for starters, your injuries were far more immediately life-threatening than his — even I, with my limited anatomical knowledge, can understand what a nicked femoral artery will do to you — but his were far more numerous. In fact, it says here he received over a hundred individual lacerations and stab wounds, did you know that?”
Navid wrapped his hands around the mug, linking his fingers together. “No. I don’t want to talk about this.”
“And here,” Dr. Barrow flipped to another page that had the words CORONER’S REPORT printed across the top, “it says many of them were on his arms — defensive wounds, like when you raise your arm to block your face — but the most serious ones were in his back. Did you know that as well?”
He hadn’t known, actually, but now that he did, nothing else made nearly as much sense. He could still feel the weight of Hassan’s larger frame hunched over his own, still feel the push of every blow as the force passed through Hassan’s body and slammed into him as he lay bleeding out on the studio floor, praying that someone had taken his barely begun 9-1-1 call seriously. “I don’t want to talk about this,” he repeated, pushing the coffee away; the thought of drinking any more made his stomach curdle.
Another page turned in Dr. Barrow’s endless notebook, and Navid couldn’t read the writing on the photocopied page stuck in there, but he could see one side had an outlined human figure with deep black slashes drawn across the same places Navid’s own lines of stitches fell. “And when the medics arrived on the scene, they report they found you with a bloodied towel wound tight around your leg, and one of them reports … let’s see, where is it … oh, yes, ‘without this, patient would not have survived until help arrived’, are you aware of that as well?”
Aware was a strong word for anything related to Navid’s mental state that night; dimly conscious, perhaps, of the growing coldness of the world, of the way his own heartbeat had drowned out his capacity for all other sound, how the only thing he’d been able to think was how much he hurt as Hassan fell atop him again, lifting his leg from beneath and making Navid scream in agony. He’d have to take their word for a towel’s having been involved. “Is there a point to this?”
“And you two apparently arrived at the hospital several minutes apart, brought by two different teams.” Onto a third page, this one much like its predecessor, only with scratched-out arms and abdomen; Dr. Barrow’s fingers skimmed down the page until stopping just beneath what he wanted to see. “In fact, the first medics report only that they found a second victim awake and conscious at the scene, and that he refused treatment. Were you also aware of that?”
Navid pressed his palms flat against the table, splaying his fingers wide. “What do you want me to tell you?”
Dr. Barrow closed the file and looked straight ahead, squaring his shoulders and clasping his hands before him. “I want you to tell me that you’re mad at him for saving your life.”
The next few seconds ticked by in heavy silence, the two of them frozen in their own painted moment, secure in their immovability, beautiful and truthful as Keats’ Grecian urn. Then with a loud cry, Navid flung his coffee mug across the room, sending it hurtling into the far white-painted brick wall, where it collapsed on impact with a tremendous crash; shards of white porcelain flew everywhere, and a great brown liquid explosion burst wide in an instant, then ran slowly downward to seep into and destroy the white carpet beneath. The orderlies were at the door in a flash, but Dr. Barrow held up his hand to stay them, and after a moment they retreated again, leaving the room to the broken things inside.
Navid surveyed the carnage for a moment, then bent over double, falling out of his chair and onto his hands and knees on the floor, pressing his forehead to the ground, weeping out great howling wails that he was certain would tear him apart on their way to the surface. Some things just couldn’t be put together again, some things could never be taken back, and damn the doctors for pretending it was possible, and damn Cara for thinking he wanted to live through this, and damn himself for being so weak that he couldn’t live up to what was asked of him — and, yes, damn Hassan for believing that leaving him this tortured, limping existance was somehow better than holding his hand and kissing his mouth and letting them both bleed quietly to death together.
“Well,” said Dr. Barrow between Navid’s pained sobs, his voice unimpressed and compassionate all at once, “that’s a start.”
Poor impulse control, Navid’s father had often cited, was chief among his youngest son’s myriad failings. Forgetfulness and flightiness ranked right up there, but to the gentle Rumi scholar, no sin was greater than the unconsidered action. But Navid did not think of his father’s repeated admonitions until well after he had turned his face and kissed Hassan’s lips, stopping him mid-sentence.
Hassan floundered against the unexpected touch, his mouth frozen halfway through the never-to-be-completed word architecture, and Navid took a deep breath and drew back, instinct pulling him toward the edge of arm’s reach. Sorry, he said, bringing his cold fingers to his flushed face. Sorry, um, I–
The expression on Hassan’s face remained fixed for a moment longer, as seconds stretched out into years and Navid paraded through his head a list of excuses, seeing if he could find any that fit — up to and including the claim that spontaneously kissing the mouth of a man you’d met six hours ago was an everyday Iranian gesture of respect, and seeing if Hassan knew enough about Middle Eastern culture to call bullshit on that. But Hassan didn’t look displeased, and as Navid watched, a bashful smile transformed his otherwise confident face. No, it’s okay, I’ve kind of spent the last couple hours wondering how to do that myself, so … thanks for beating me to it.
In the silence of the otherwise deserted art studio, with the first suggestion of sun just barely beginning to pinken the sky beyond the thick-paned windows, Navid reached for Hassan’s hand and lay his own, much smaller, one over it. I’ve never, he started, then stopped as he realized reciting the litany of things he’d never would have kept them there talking through another whole night.
With another man, or with anyone? Hassan turned his palm upward, capturing Navid’s slender fingers in his own, stroking the back of Navid’s hand with his callused scupltor’s thumb.
Anyone, Navid confessed, breathing deeply through the strange light-headedness of realizing that something he’d spent his whole life thinking was impossible now sat well within arm’s reach.
Me neither. Hassan laughed, but there was a sad distance to the sound, the shadow of the reason for abstenance. Navid slid closer along the spot of floor where they’d come to rest once they’d tired themselves out after hours of trying at once to talk and balance on the high studio stools, and placed his head against Hassan’s shoulder, settling his forehead against the warm skin of Hassan’s throat. Too full to speak, he closed his eyes and tried to distinguish the sound of Hassan’s heartbeat from the thunder of his own.
“Is this supposed to be him?”
Navid didn’t have to look up from his sketch to see what Farouk was talking about; frankly, he was surprised it’d taken this long for someone to ask. “That depends on what ‘him’ you mean.”
“Your … lover,” Farouk clarified, pausing not as though offended, but as though looking for the right word to use and, finding none, selecting the best among poor options.
“My husband,” Navid answered, taking a deep breath and bracing for what sermon might come next. “Hassan.”
But Farouk only nodded, and there was no judgment to his voice when he echoed, “Hassan. A good name. That is Hassan, then, Hassan in all of these?”
“…Sometimes,” Navid answered, which was as honest as he could be about it. “I mean, yes, always. But sometimes it’s less him and more … something I was thinking about him. Does that make sense?”
Farouk didn’t answer right away, and they stayed that way for several minutes, Farouk at the completed art, Navid at his half-finished piece. He’d draw the last few lines with pencil and come back with watercolour, shading in the spaces with the soft bleed they had, the mechanics of imprecision. “No,” said Farouk after his long consideration of the matter. “But it does not have to be for me to understand.”
That startled Navid into a quiet laugh, and he blew across the surface of his drawing, clearing it of all detritus before he started in with the paint. “What happened to you, brother?” he sighed, conceding a retreat into Farsi for the sake of conversation — if Farouk could make the long journey to the clinic on his brother’s behalf, the least Navid could do was meet him halfway. “What made you so comfortable with an uncertain world?”
“I had daughters.” Farouk shrugged, holding out the bare planes of his palms. “I lack the energy to understand them and still get everything done I need to do in a day. So I simply shrug and love them, and let them do what they need to do to be happy.”
“They sound like lovely girls.” Navid took a brush from an empty glass, then handed it to Farouk. “Would you put water in this for me?”
With a nod, Farouk stuck the glass beneath the room’s small sink and filled it halfway. “By the grace of Allah the Merciful, they are beautiful and kind and have not yet started to turn the other half of my beard white.” He set the glass on the table, then took a seat beside Navid. “Darya is like you were, at her age; she has your passion for art, and also your dreamy mind.”
“Does she?” Navid touched the wet-tipped brush to the black paint, swirling it into a thin grey cloud before touching it against the paper’s surface. “Then she’s lucky to have a father who considers those good qualities.” Pale lines followed his brush across the paper, making thick strokes.
For nearly half an hour, Farouk watched him paint in total silence, hawk-like in his observance, as though even blinking might cause him to miss some fine important detail. Navid had never been particularly comfortable with the idea of art as a spectator’s sport, but he found that he didn’t mind this attention; it was nice, after everything else that had transpired, having someone so invested in something about him that wasn’t him. He’d had his fill of concern about his physical health, his mental health, his overall well-being, his immediate plans, his future plans, his everything — and it was a pleasant change to have someone want to see only as much as he wanted to show.
When his brush began to form the dark figure of a man by the blank canvas, though, Farouk cleared his throat. “Is he the reason you stopped returning my calls?”
“No,” said Navid, quick as reflex — then he paused, and considering, added, “Yes.” He sighed, trying to construct an explanation that didn’t place the blame for his absence on Hassan’s shoulders. “He didn’t make me stop. I stopped because I knew that if I didn’t, I’d have to explain him — and myself — to all of you someday. And there’d be a fight, and you would yell, and Omid and Husayn would yell, and Father would just weep quietly, and at the end of it I’d leave anyway. So … I passed over the middle steps and went straight to the leaving.”
Farouk nodded, his eyes still trained on the strokes of Navid’s brush. “I won’t say you’re wrong, or that I would have understood then, or even that I claim full understanding now,” he admitted, leaning back in his chair. He looked so much like their father when he did that, stern and leonine, patient enough to wait out the end of the universe if it came to that.
Navid put the final strokes to the paper, then lifted it to let the light catch the way the wet paint soaked the paper transluscent. “Then what will you say?” he asked, staring at the further evidence of his own compulsion, another view of the inescapable room Dr. Barrow had warned him about.
With the brush replaced in the now-murky water, Farouk stood and carried the glass back to the sink, dumping its contents into the drain below. “…Do you know why the iconoclasts prohibited representations of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) in art as he was in life?”
Of all the matters he’d expected to hear Farouk bring up, the finer artistic points of Islamic doctrine had not numbered among them. “Idolatry,” he answered, trying to recall the lessons of his childhood. “Fear that the people would come to venerate the images, when they should venerate the man.”
Farouk considered this for a moment, then smiled. “Yes and no, as you would say. They feared the veneration of images, but they feared the images themselves, that an undignified depiction of a holy subject would become so dangerous as to defile the subject itself. Blasphemy, worse even than idolatry. But there is no such thing as a dangerous image; the danger is only what we do with them. The source is untouchable.”
Navid frowned, pushing away from the table in his chair. “I don’t follow.” He set the completed watercolour against the window, letting the late afternoon sunlight illuminate it from behind.
“How to put this another way….” Striding slowly like the scholar their father had been, like the schoolteacher he himself had become, Farouk paced the length of the room, letting his gaze fall on each of the pictures in turn. “The unseen is the only truly accessible thing, because it exists, unverifiable, inside each of us. The understanding of Allah is within me, and a painting of someone else’s understanding of Allah cannot hurt my own. But … if I were to create that painting myself, I would run the risk of being so bound to that one single perspective that I would lose sight of how Truth is greater than can ever be contained on a single piece of paper.” He stopped his pacing and leaned against the wall, slipping his hands into his pockets. “I have kept a photograph of you for many years. It is a good likeness, and it reminds me of everything I expected you would become, and it cannot hurt or disappoint me. And I might be tempted to stare at it so long that I forget I have a real, living brother.”
As Farouk talked, Navid rubbed at a streak of paint that had smeared the side of his hand, and by the time his brother finished speaking, he had nearly worried it clean again. “So you think I should stop painting.”
“No! No, never.” Farouk put up his hands before him as though pushing the suggestion away. “But I watch you work and I see … I see you put these between yourself and your own heart. They become a substitute for memory, and you make them again and again so you can pass judgment on what’s outside without having to make the harder journey inward. I know these men who attacked you hurt your body badly, and that you stand at the start of a long road. But the first blow of jihad must always be struck against the self, and until you stop running away from that battle, all other movements are empty.”
In the silence that followed, Navid ran his hands through his hair and down his unshaven cheeks, feeling the contours of his body shift beneath the pressure of his hands. “You missed your calling, brother,” he said at long last. “You should have been an imam. Or a psychiatrist. Or both.”
“Hey,” said Farouk, shifting back into English and trying his disastrous best to approximate a thick Brooklyn accent, “I calls ’em like I sees ’em.”
They were very clearly not supposed to do this, but when Farouk had looked him in the eye and said I know what needs to be done, Navid had known there could in truth be no other solution. Dr. Lin had stopped him two seconds into the explanation, actually clamping her hands over her ears and telling him in no uncertain terms that no matter what was about to take place, she wanted to be able to claim ignorance at the end of it. Beneath her stern exterior, however, Navid thought he saw the hint of approval, a quiet pleasure that there might be something left in the world that could make Navid think it was worth breaking the rules.
The hardest part of it was getting him there; his chair would only trundle so far across the gravel parking lot before its wheels simply stopped agreeing to roll any more, and Farouk wound up nearly carrying him the rest of the way, one of Navid’s arms slung across his shoulders as they stepped carefully together. “We make a fine pair,” Farouk grunted, nearly too out of breath with exertion to speak, and Navid could only nod as he hobbled along beside him.
At long last, though, they came to the place where Farouk had cleared off a disused section of ground, making a ring where there was nothing flammable inside — nothing, that was, except the things placed there that were meant to burn. Farouk let Navid down as gently as he could manage on a low stone wall, then sat there himself, huffing and puffing almost in unison until they pulled themselves together again. “I will do this once for you,” Farouk threatened, setting his face into a mock scowl, “but if something like this ever comes up again, and I do mean ever, make sure your friend calls Omid first. He at least still plays basketball twice a week.”
“I’ll mention it to her next time I see her,” Navid wheezed, leaning back as far as he could without toppling over. “Did you bring the matches?”
Farouk reached into his jacket pocket and produced a small box, rattling it within Navid’s easy reach. “All for you.”
Navid plucked the box from Farouk’s fingers and slipped it open, considering the half-dozen red-tipped sticks inside. They didn’t look like much, but any one of them could burn down a forest in the right — or wrong — set of hands: tiny objects, all so full of meaning, their potential existing only in the realm of the unseen. With a great deep breath, he moved to stand, and when Farouk reached over to help him, Navid shook his head. The first battle was against the self, after all, and the only way to lose was not to fight. Grunting an shaking, he drew himself to his feet, neither relishing nor ignoring the pain, but pulling through it regardless.
When he’d gathered his balance, he clenched his hands tight and took a step forward, and then another — and might have fallen on the third, had he not reached out into the thin air around him and found instead Farouk standing by, steadfast and strong. “Are you ready?” he asked, wrapping one arm around Navid’s waist for support.
“I think so,” said Navid, who wasn’t nearly as certain as he sounded; after all, hours of work and time and even love were contained in each one of those images, and Navid feared destroying them would destroy a part of himself in the process. But this was not a place for fear, and so Navid struck two matches on the side of the box, holding them alight in his fingers for nearly a full second before tossing them on the topmost work.
The oils shot to life with fire almost instantly, bubbling and browning the paint even before the canvas beneath began to burn. It was strange, really, how easy it was once it started going; the first spread like a secret from one image to the other, curling the edges of the pages and scraps he’d decorated, destroying the last pretenses he’d had about anything. He started to weep as the fire rose into the windless, cloudless night sky, the embers dotting the darkness like stars, and Farouk held him close, never letting him fall. “Tell me about him,” he said at long last, his voice as dry as the papers that scorched and blackened before them.
Navid laughed even as he sobbed. “You would have hated him,” he said, dragging the sleeve of his oversized sweatshirt across his sweaty, snotty face. “He was a Red Sox fan.”
“Ah,” Farouk sighed, stroking his little brother’s hair. “Some things Allah does not forgive.”
Had he thought himself anything but alone, he never would have thrown such a tantrum; as it was, though, the studio seemed as empty at midnight on a Wednesday as it ever did, and Navid felt justified in throwing a brush laden with paint at his canvas, splattering the front of the work with a glob of sticky yellow before it fell clattering to the ground. I’m a hack! he announced, to no one in particular. I’m a fucking hack! He kicked the leg of the easel out of spite.
That’s good, said a voice from the back door of the studio, and Navid’s heart jumped into his throat as he spun around, nearly dropping his palette into a gooey, rainbowed mess across the cement studio floor. That’s stage two.
Stage two? Navid echoed, reaching for a high stool to sit on lest his still-shaking knees give way beneath him.
The owner of the voice stepped out from behind the forest of high, easel-mounted canvases, and Navid recognized him — one of the slightly older students, maybe not even a student at all, maybe just one of the community members they let lease out studio time. Navid had seen him before in passing, and perhaps even at one of the life drawing sessions, but never long enough to catch his name. Of being an artist, the man clarified, and as he stepped closer, into better light, Navid felt the hammering in his chest regain its earlier fevered pitch. Stage one is that teenager place when you think everything you do — and I mean everything — is poignant, full of meaning, the greatest work since Picasso. Even the stuff you hate, hating it doesn’t stop it from being the pinnacle of meaningful artistic expression or some shit like that.
Only a few months into his twenties, Navid let his shoulders slump a little, and he rubbed his hand across the back of his neck to quiet its nervous tremble. …Yeah, he said, turning his face back to his painting before this handsome almost-stranger could see a trickle of shame creep into his expression. It wasn’t a bad painting, at least not technically speaking, just some pastoral summer bridge-and-river scene — but it was the same damn painting probably everyone else who’d ever taken up an art school easel had done before, and he didn’t know why he’d thought, right up until he’d tried to create a cluster of daffodils by the water, his version of it might be different.
So then you hit stage two, the man continued, and by the time Navid glanced up again, the man had made his way around the room nearly enough to see Navid’s work-in-progress, so Navid nudged the easel as subtly as he could, turning its surface away from view. That’s the fit of soul-crushing despair where you realize it’s all been done before, all of it, and you can’t possibly do anything new or different or world-shattering. And it’s all crap, and it’s going to be crap forever, and nothing you do will ever make you any better because you’re just not good enough to begin with, so you might as well give up and put your skills to use doing fine-artist reproductions for rich people. Steadier income, probably more money. Right?
Navid sighed and closed his eyes, leaning crossed-armed back against a nearby concrete pillar. Kind of depressing, huh? He forced a smile he didn’t feel.
The man’s footsteps advanced slowly, until Navid opened his eyes and saw him smiling at the hopeless painting. Only if you’re like the people who never push past it to stage three, he shrugged.
That, at least, turned up an honest corner of Navid’s mouth. Okay, I’ll bite: what’s stage three?
Stage three is when you just damn do it anyway. The man poked a knuckle at the blob of misfired yellow paint, coming away with a dot of it bright against his dark skin; he then brought his fist down to where Navid had placed the darker shades beneath the place daffodils should grow. Inexpertly, he dabbed out a tiny yellow cluster, haphazard and imprecise, and when he pulled his hand away, there were the most perfect flowers Navid could have wanted. Because it needs to get done. Not for anyone else, but for yourself. And you just do it for so long that eventually everything else follows.
Navid tried not to make the fact that his heart had caught in his throat too obvious as he rubbed his sweating palms on the knees of his torn, baggy jeans. And you, you’re … what, already at stage three?
The man burst into a laugh, the tones of his amusement ringing off the hard walls. Oh, no. It’s all soul-crushing despair for me right now too. But…. He extended a hand toward Navid and looked him straight on, poised at the precipice of changing both of their whole lives, of changing Navid so deeply as to be inextricable, maddening and terrifying and perfectly imperfect. Hey, I live in hope.
With a shy smile, Navid completed the handshake. Navid Taraghijah.
Hassan Brown, said the man, and even when the handshake was well past over, Hassan didn’t let go.
He’d insisted that he could walk, but Dr. Lin had put her foot down, and thus he had been wheeled all the way out the front door, waving good-bye to all the staff as though he were making some grand final exit — when, in fact, he’d be back in three days for more physical therapy and another session with Dr. Barrow. But as Dr. Barrow had said, smiling, it was all right if things weren’t all fixed at once, so long as they were on the road in that general direction, and thus it was all right to celebrate every small victory as though it were a great one.
Darya followed along beside his chair the entire way, chattering on about the crayon drawing that had won her first prize at her elementary school’s art fair, and promising to bring it home as soon as they stopped showing it in the display case in the front hall. Ava, as per usual, had chosen to wait in the car until the last moment, texting away on her phone with all the wonderful self-importance of a teenager, her pale blue hijab the same shade as her fashionable jeans; still, she put down the device and hopped out of the van when she saw the parade approaching, and bent down to kiss her uncle on either cheek. “Go and help put his things in the trunk,” Farouk told her in Farsi.
“I’m going, I’m going,” she answered in English, and she gave Navid an eye-rolling, do-you-see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with? glance, which he met with a conspiratorial smile. The other half of Farouk’s beard didn’t stand a chance.
“And when we get home,” Farouk explained for at least the tenth time, setting the brakes on the chair before opening the passenger door, “Shadi will have dinner, and Cara will be waiting there.” He held out his arm before him, his muscle tensed and elbow bent into a right angle, and Navid put his hands around Farouk’s forearm, using his brother’s steadfastness to pull himself upright. With a series of semi-coordinated movements that looked half like dance and half like a comedy routine, he and Farouk traded places, and Navid hoisted himself gently into the passenger seat. Farouk adjusted the seat back into a slightly less upright position, then tugged the end of the seatbelt out from the side wall. “Perhaps you and your friend will even join us afterward for dusk prayer.”
Navid belted himself in, then took Farouk’s hand in both of his and patted its back. “We’ll see.”
“As you like,” Farouk shrugged, and went to see to the final loading of items and daughters into the vehicle. With a few last waves, a high-five from Dante, and a stern warning from Dr. Lin not to overexert himself, they were ready to depart.
Less than ten minutes down the road, Darya just plain ran out of steam, and fell sound asleep in the middle seat nearly mid-word. From the back, Ava snorted a quiet laugh at her sister’s expense before she went back to tapping away on her phone, and Navid chuckled as well. He’d known it would be difficult, living with his brother as he recovered — not least because he hadn’t kept a daily prayer schedule in well over a decade, and wasn’t entirely sure if he felt up to re-adopting theirs just yet, or ever — but that was hardly the beginning or the end of having a home.
He’d finally convinced Cara to put the house on the market, using as his winning argument the fact that it was not wheelchair-accessible in the slightest, and even if he could manage to putter around its giant spaces with only his cane for assistance, it would still be a long time before he found his way up a flight of stairs again. As an act of concession, however, he had agreed to let her plan the memorial service to coincide with Navid’s return to the real world. He’d even agreed to let her invite Hassan’s family, and maybe they’d care enough to come see who their son had really been, and if they didn’t, that was all right as well. It was only a funeral, after all, just another kind of image; it wasn’t the real thing.
When they got home, he’d ask Farouk if he could set up in a small corner of the garage and start painting again — preferably something not doomed to fuel a bonfire, though maybe nothing he’d show to anyone anyway. Maybe he’d try to capture the same sort of abstract movement Hassan always wanted to draw out from his sculpture. Maybe he’d finally make one for Dr. Lin, a picture of something concrete, something real. And anyway, it didn’t matter what became of the paintings; it was just about the doing, and doing it for so long and with such determination that everything else followed.
Navid closed his eyes and let the car’s motion and the engine’s hum carry him away from there, back into warm memory. He’d never stop being mad at Hassan for saving his life, but he’d never stop being grateful for it, either, and somewhere between the two of those, he could find a place to live. The late afternoon sun shone bright through the window on his face, painting the backs of his eyelids red as he let himself be carried on to whatever came next.
Author’s Notes and Artists’ Credits
This is still so fucking good. You need to make a post about this story, PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT IT. The art and the writing and ughhhhh
So I just thought you should know that I read this years ago and it fucked me up, then I went on with my life and forgot about it and then found it again about a month ago and read it again and it fucked me up again. For the second time in my life this story has taken a good two-three days out of my life and rendered me basically incapable of doing anything besides thinking about this story. It has honestly taken me a month to be able to comment on this. A more concise statement would be to just say “fuck you” but I don’t think the nature of semi-anonymous comments really lends itself to that kind of response if you want the author to understand just how much their story fucked you up.