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People of Color

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

We touched palms and fingertips, her skin was soft, her hand was warm. She told me she was scared, worried, tears dropped down her soft round face; the wet peach fuzz reflected the sunlight. 

We played as kids, running around the streets; chasing each other up and down the hills. We played until we got too old.

She trusted me. Her hands had symmetrical contours, red nail polish. She always had a purple dress on, repaired and worn out in some parts. 

We often went to the masjed to play by the blue hexagonal howz. Villagers were praying in unison, like the dancing of sugar cane saplings in the wind. We placed leaves on the water and let them flow. Sometimes a poor ant on a leaf took a journey on the imaginary lake. Water reflected the sun, ripples turning into golden glitters. 

I made paper windmills with coloured papers, pins, and sticks. I made her a purple one. We ran around the village holding the spinning paper windmills. We passed the Old Willow tree. We ran up the Azadi alley, went past the Kodaki bridge and under the brick arch. We passed women doing laundry by the river bank. We passed old men playing backgammon, arguing. The paper windmills spun, and spun, became circular, round. Purple, red, and white. 

When we were eight, she used to put makeup on me. Red lipsticks that tasted like oil. Eyeliner and rouge. I liked to get my nails painted green. Somehow, playing with makeup made me feel warm inside. It was fun to play like girls as a boy. 

One day, in front of their old wooden door, she told me she was scared of her father. She hated his shoes, always placed together after he came home from work. Morose, ugly, bent. 

Her father killed her. One night he opened his own daughter's throat with a sickle. She was sixteen. 

***

I see the faint reflection of my face in my black coffee. I lean in, breathe, ripples form from the centre, quick and then slow, reaching the sides of the mug. Small brown bubbles rest against the mug and burst, joining the rest. 

I’m thinking of buying a gift. Sometimes, thoughts come, creeping, nagging behind other thoughts, seeping through the cracks of my psyche, asking for attention. Sometimes I push them away, sometimes they linger longer than they should.

Why don’t you just do it?

Do what?

It’s not that hard, you know, it’s like—

Like what? 

Like a cool glass of water on a hot Sunday evening after watching the sunset. 

Sun rays merge with the shadows on the floor of the apartment. The room is dark and the walls move by themselves. I see myself from above, a bald spot on the back of my head. 

 From my window, I can see the Toronto skyline. Uneven skyscrapers. Bay street buildings, reflecting the morning sun, glaring. 

I sit behind the desk, sharpening my pencils, opening my journal to a blank page. A constant mechanical humming sound assaults the silence. I can’t think. It’s annoying. It fades out and then fades back into my mind, and my thoughts are scattered, the good ones scared away, leaving only the strange nagging thoughts. I must buy the gift, there is no choice. I can smell rose-water in the room. 

***

She was only sixteen. The smell of rose-water rose from the street where we played hopscotch sometimes. She once gave me a heart-shaped wooden piece; she had hand carved it. When she told me she was worried for her life, I didn’t know what to say. I knew they would arrange for her to marry someone, someone from the village. She had a sweetheart, a boy her age. 

The night of her murder, all the women in my family were cooking a traditional pottage, Aush Goshware. They didn’t let me help since only women were allowed. Everyone had a role. My aunts kneaded dough on the kitchen counter top. Grandma’s older sister cut it into small rectangular portions, laughing and dancing. The new bride of the family made small bellies in the portions with her thumb, keeping quiet, filling them with meat and vegetables, a symbol of her future pregnancy. My cousins mixed lamb with chopped vegetables, gossiping about a girl in their school, a girl who ran away with her lover. My mother made the tomato soup base on the stove. 

Grandma had the most important role. She stood over a big brass pot, stirred the pottage with a long wooden spoon. Each stir was important, a Nazr, a prayer over the pot, asking for good fortune and health for the family. Everyone was talking, sometimes singing old songs, songs of immigration, of the old country.  

Grandma? Do you miss her? 

She used to say, death is a gift, a right.

***

Loud persistent knocking on the door. I open it and find David in his usual clothes, long brown hair kept together with a red hairband, round eyeglasses. He has a black T-shirt with “Stop Bullying” written in pink across it. He moves with an air of energy, bouncing around the room. It has been a long time since I last saw David. He wore the same shirt that day. We embrace and I notice he has gotten strong, muscular.

— It’s been so long, I missed you lots, he says

That’s odd. He never wrote to me after highschool, never called or texted or left a note. 

— What? He says.

— I didn’t say anything. 

— I think you said something about a note?

— No… I don’t think so. 

I’m thinking of buying a gift, but it’s snowing outside. The annoying thoughts come and stay. I cannot stop them, I can only wait them out, they never leave. They give me options, plans. We are having a white Christmas after all. 

— Tell me, what are you working on? He pulls out a chair, sits down, legs spread wide. His face reflects the yellow afternoon light. 

— Working?

— I mean stories, novels, anything. Just curious to know what you’ve been up to.

—I’m writing a short story this week. I say this while pouring tea into teacups. My back faces him. 

— What’s it about? He says, looking at his fingernails. They are chewed up. 

— Are you still biting your nails?

— No, tell me your story. He crosses his arms, hiding his nails.

— I haven’t decided yet. I want to experiment with reality and its limits, something with unreal elements, blurring the line between reality and—

—the unreal. We say it together. 

—David, I’m thinking of buying—

— Wow…what’s that?

—What? 

He stands, picks the wooden heart from the kitchen counter. He looks at the heart and touches its rough corners. A dirty orange colour shines on his face, lighting it up, and splatters on the white wall. The sun has started to pass on. 

—What’s this? He asks. 

— I don’t know. I guess it’s a heart?

— No kidding… where did you find it?

— I don’t remember. Why?

He goes back to his chair, holding the heart.

— I haven't heard from you since highschool, why didn’t you write to me? Or text? Or even leave a note? I say.

He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t look at me, his gaze hooked by an object over my head. He shakes his legs. We bonded over bullying, David and me. We were both bullied in middle school. Red light from the sun fills the room, painting David’s face a bright red colour. His light brown eyes shine in the light. 

I am alone. Lonely. The empty chair in front of me bugs me, annoys me, every sound in the room mutes. Dull. I envy the chair. I want to stand, pick it up and smash it on the floor, bounce on it, stamp it to pieces. I’m sitting on a chair in an empty, lonely red room playing house with myself. I don’t care. I feel time passes by me and I am motionless, drifting, dancing in space. 

— Have you stopped taking your meds? he asks, his eyebrows wrinkled. 

— Stops me from writing. We say it together, he laughs.

— I too stopped taking my meds, couldn’t handle the side effects, David says. 

— Was that why you—

He breaks into a strong laugh, shakes and trembles on the chair, drops the wooden heart on the floor. Snorts. He stops, sits straight. I notice tears dripping down his face. He whimpers.

***

In my father’s car, when I was seven or eight, I looked into people’s homes, apartments, houses at night, when the light showed everything. I was curious to know their stories, their lives. Each house was decorated differently, each carried a different story, a different feeling. I never got to know her story, the feel of her house; it was hidden behind orange and tangerine trees. I could hear the sounds though, we were neighbours. The voice of her older sister studying out loud, a rhythmless continuous annoying sound. Like a mechanical humming. When her father came home from the factory, the sound of things breaking, screams, fights, muffled by the distance between our houses. 

The day she killed herself, she was only fourteen going on fifteen. That day, Grandma and I were dying duck eggshells with caramelized onions. The shells took a beautiful deep brown colour. We placed them next to the garlic on the Haft Sin table in preparation for New Year’s Eve. Grandma told me about a custom back in her home country. After the New Year started, children would take the dyed eggs and run towards each other, then smash their eggs together, and whoever broke the other egg was the winner; the loser had to eat the egg, it tasted awful. 

The day the girl in the purple dress killed herself, I told Grandma I loved someone even though she loved someone else. 

***

The glass buildings reflect the sun, turning salmon pink. The buildings look like a fish, each window like a pink scale. 

 —Don’t you feel sometimes time just passes by you and you can’t do anything about it, you’re motionless drifting around, David asks me. He hasn’t touched his tea. 

—I think time is arbitrary, what we have invented to feel good about our poor understanding of the universe… David, I’m thinking of buying—

— I hate old age. They say we have to accept death and old age, that it’s part of life, a process we cannot escape. There is nothing honorable about old age, I think it’s a disease we can cure, it’s all in our DNA. I hate seeing my parents get old, frail, slowly decaying over time, he says. 

— Shut up, just shut up.

— I’m sorry. 

— Do you want milk with your tea?

— I don’t drink milk, don’t think it’s fair to cows, we keep them in barns, forcing them—

— Life isn’t fair.

— Cows want to live too.

— Everything wants to live.

— Not everything. 

Some thoughts stay for a long time. Maybe for days, maybe for weeks. I can’t control them so I have learned to live with them. Their peculiarities. Some of them give me options. I’m thinking of buying a—

— I feel I’m under the scorching heat of the sun, with nowhere to go, no shadows, no roofs. Constant sunshine over my head, he says. 

I stand up and open the dumpling packet and place them on a frying pan, pour in olive oil and turn on the stove. 

— Do you know how to make it? He asks. 

— No. 

— What are your thoughts on the ethics of medically assisted euthanasia? For incurable depression? He cleans his round eyeglasses with his black shirt. The glass leaves a white mark on the shirt. 

— What do I think about it? 

— Yes, I want to hear your thoughts. He makes a fluttering sound with his lips, like a horse. 

— I respect the autonomy of the person, they get to decide what happens to their bodies.

— Yes, I agree. 

— In this case, the question is really about the nonmaleficence of the procedure; medical professionals take an oath to above all do no harm, but then we ask them to take the life of a patient. What effects does that have on the medical professional, on their own mental health? Some even argue that taking a life lowers the value of life for everyone else, a slippery slope kind of argument, they say we should suffer for everyone, that we are telling people with disabilities their lives don’t matter, they too should die. I need to add the tomato sauce now. Others say we should increase the happiness level in the world; How do we measure happiness? The level of pain someone has? A pinch of salt, maybe more? Some chili for the heat? I don’t remember, what did Grandma add to it? There is no measurement when it comes to psychological pain; why should we treat two kinds of pain differently? Why do we see someone who suffers from chronic physical pain differently than someone with an incurable psychological pain? It baffles me that society is so ignorant towards mental illness when depression is as rampant as the common cold. It’s everywhere you know, I don’t understand the double standard when it comes to mental illness. Will these dumplings be the same as my Grandmas? Would they have the same taste? Afterall it is society that plays some part in these mental illnesses. Genetics, yes sure, but what about bullying, sexual and physical abuse? The limits we put on the roles of each sex? The binary we’ve invented to feel at ease and to reject people that are different from us, people we deem abnormal? We are all suffering in this hollow porous wasteland, an oozing wound that is life. Want to taste the soup? 

— Yes please… but I don’t agree.

— Which part?

—All of it. 

We don’t say much after that. The sun has set, it’s pitch dark, except for the silent fire that surrounds David. He burns slowly, tantalizingly, on the chair in front of me, his skin charring and losing its shape, his eyes bulging out, his round eyeglasses dropping down on his lap. 

The pain never leaves. Sometimes it comes with the thoughts, sometimes the thoughts bring it on. It’s like someone with a club hitting you on the head, one thump after the other. Bang, bang, bang. The pain never really goes away, it’s just there, heightens with the thoughts, subsides with the thoughts, comes back stronger. 

You’re a loser, a nobody. 

The room is empty, it always was. I’m hunched over the table, playing house with myself.

***

The day the girl in the blue dress disappeared, she was six years old. They never found her or her body; they said she was abducted. I remember I told Grandma I no longer needed to drink milk; I was old. Every time we visited, she warmed milk and forced me to drink it. It will make you strong, give you bones. I don’t know why she warmed it. I hated how it tasted, the smell, the metallic sour and then bitter aftertaste. I told Grandma I missed playing with the neighbour’s daughter. I missed eating green tangerines with her; her scrunched-up face, squinty eyes when she ate the sour fruit. Grandma told me not to worry, they would find her and we would eat unripe tangerines again, but they never found her. 

***

I can smell expired milk from the kitchen sink. David left after our discussion. He didn’t touch his tea. I can smell burnt toast, dust, sometimes. Maybe it comes from the ventilator, maybe I imagine it. I’m scared, worried for my life. I have to buy the Christmas gift, but it’s dangerous going outside. 

When I was leaving for Canada, I visited Grandma for the last time. I always hated when our visits were over. I loved her stories about her home country, of how she escaped through the window leaving her abusive husband. I felt empty, like the feeling of watching a sunset on a Sunday evening. She hugged me, she cried. I had never seen her cry before. She asked me, when will I see you again? When will you visit me? I didn’t say anything, then I said “soon.” 

Everything is terribly lonely, a hound-shaped loneliness follows my shadow everywhere I go. Clings to me with its paws, brings me down, licks my face.

Buy the gift. Buy the gift. Buy the gift.

The more you say it, the less serious it sounds.

My cat smiles at me with a full set of human teeth. I don’t remember having a cat. She has been doing that for a while now, smiling. It’s creepy, sometimes funny. She shakes her head nonstop, scratches her ears. Last night I made her a paper toy, hanging by a thread from the desk. It floats in the air now, silent, dancing. I’m that paper toy, alone, floating in air, hanging by a thread. It’s getting late. The thoughts are still here. Most stores are closing now and I need to leave soon for the gift. I’m scared. 

I put on red lipstick; it tastes like oil. I never wore makeup before. I use eyeliner to draw in and make my eyebrows fuller. Pink powder, I put it on my face. I can see my reflection in the glass window. It’s late at night and the buildings are all decorated with small lights, like fireflies on a tree. My face looks like it’s embalmed.


November 19, 2022 23:03

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2 comments

Wendy Kaminski
15:51 Nov 29, 2022

This was an amazing read, Arvin. I'm only a fledgling writer, but you have something very special, here, and thank you for sharing it. Your depictions of mental illness and the stigma surrounding it, as well as other social stigmas, were so thoroughly well-developed and thought-provoking. Thank you for this story.

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Arvin Tavakkoli
05:42 Nov 30, 2022

Thank you so much, Wendy! I'm happy you read and enjoyed my story and thank you for your comment.

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