Chapter One ONE /
TONIGHT, FIVE YEARS TO the day since I lost you, forty-eight white-throated sparrows fall from the sky. Tomorrow, the papers will count and photograph them, arrange them on black garbage bags and speculate on the causes of the blight. But for now, here on the roof of Teta’s apartment building, the sheen of evening rain on the tar paper slicks the soles of my sneakers, and velvet arrows drop one by one from the autumn migration sweeping over Boerum Hill.
The sparrows thud onto the houses around me, old three- and four-story brownstones, generation homes with sculpted stoops, a handful recently bought from the families who have owned them for decades and gutted for resale. Nothing has stayed the way it was since you died, not even the way we grieve you. Downstairs in Teta’s apartment, I’ve drawn the curtains, tucked Teta’s glasses back into their drawer so that even if she wakes, she won’t look down on this street dashed with dying birds. Five years ago, when your absence stitched her mouth shut for weeks, I hid your collection of feathers, hid the preserved shells of robin’s eggs, hid the specimens of bone. Each egg was its own shade of blue; I slipped them into a shoebox under my bed. When you were alive, the warmth of each shell held the thrill of possibility. I first learned to mix paint by matching the smooth turquoise of a heron’s egg: first aqua, then celadon, then cooling the warmth of cadmium yellow with phthalo blue. When you died, Teta quoted Attar: The self has passed away in the beloved. Tonight, the sparrows’ feathers are brushstrokes on the dark. This evening is its own witness, the birds’ throats stars on the canvas of the night. They clap into cars and crash through skylights, thunk into steel trash cans with the lids off, slice through the branches of boxed-in gingkoes. Gravity snaps shut their wings. The evening’s fog smears the city to blinding. Migrating birds, you used to say, the city’s light can kill.
A sparrow’s beak strikes my hand and gashes my palm. I clutch the wound, the meat of my thumb dark with my own blood. You taught me a long time ago to identify the species by the yellow patches around their eyes, their black whiskers, their white throats, and their ivory crowns. You were the one who taught me to imitate their calls—Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. In your career as an ornithologist, you taught me two dozen East Coast birdcalls, things I thought you’d always be here to teach me. I reach down to scoop the sparrow from the rooftop with my bloodied hands. He weighs almost nothing. There is so much of you—and, therefore, of myself—that I will never know.
Tomorrow, when the ghost of you enters my window with the smell of rain, I will tell you how, since you died, the birds have never left me. The sparrows are the most recent of a long chain of moments into which the birds, like you, have intruded: the red-tailed hawks perched on the fire escape above Sahadi’s awning, or the female barred owl that alights on Borough Hall when I emerge from the subway. For all my prayers the night you died, the divine was nowhere to be found. The forty-eight white-throated sparrows that plummet from the sky are my only companions in grief tonight, the omen that keeps me from leaning out into the air.
My gynecologist is using purple gloves again. They are the only color in this all-white examination room. I set my feet in the stirrups with my knees together, only separating my thighs when he taps my foot. The paper gown crinkles. The white noise of my blood thrums in my ears. There is no rainbow-colored ceiling tile with dolphins here like the one at Teta’s dentist. Last spring, I got my teeth cleaned while she had a root canal just so I could hold her hand.
I clench and unclench my sweaty fingers. The speculum is a rude column of ice. I focus on a pinprick of iodine staining the ceiling tile and force myself to imagine how it got there. I will myself out of my body the way I used to do when I was bleeding. The summer after you died, my periods were the heaviest they’d ever been. I spent the rainless evenings standing in fields at sunset, waiting to be raptured into the green flash of twilight, wishing there were another way to exist in the world than to be bodied. It had been less than a year since I’d closed my hand around those eggs in the nest, and still I wanted nothing more than to disappear into the weightless womb waiting inside each round, perfect eggshell, that place of possibility where a soul could hum unburdened and unbound. The man between my legs checks for the string of my IUD, and I am flooded with the urge to return my body and slip myself into a different softness: the stems of orchids, maybe; the line of sap running up the trunk of a maple; the fist of a fox’s heart.
Instead I am jolted back to my body by the shiver of lube running down the crack of my ass. He pulls off his gloves and tells me to get dressed. There are never enough tissues, so I use the paper gown and ball it up in the trash. My gyno returns just as I tug my T-shirt over the shapewear compressing my chest.
“Everything looks good,” he says, sitting down at the computer. He adjusts the pens in the pocket of his lab coat, though none of the doctors in this place write on paper anymore. “I can’t find any reason for your pain.”
“But I’ve been spotting and cramping ever since I got this thing.”
By the look on his face, he doesn’t take this seriously. He hands me a pharmaceutical pamphlet on the IUD, the kind with women laughing on the glossy front, shopping or hiking or holding their boyfriends’ hands. He urges me to wait a few more months until things stabilize, then asks me if I’m using backup protection. I say yes, though I haven’t had sex in years. For some reason, my first crush pops into my mind, the white girl in my high school biology class who loved acoustic guitar music and coconut rum. It’s been so long since I’ve allowed myself to want anyone or anything.
“I thought this thing was supposed to stop my period.” I pick at a hole that’s starting on the knee of my jeans. “And my chest is sore. Didn’t know that was a side effect.”
“Sure, breast tenderness can happen in the beginning.” The gyno looks at me like I am a puzzle he’s lost a piece to. “It might make your periods heavier, too, but that should settle down after a few cycles.” He asks me about my moods, but I can tell bleeding, cramping, and sore breasts aren’t going to be enough to convince him to take the thing out. In his mind, a woman should be used to these things. There is no way to explain the eggshell or the fox’s heart. My insufficient, unnameable suffering is my own problem.
I hop off the table. I say, “It’s probably just that time of year again.”
He softens. You went to him before I did, and you still hang between us in the waiting room when I come for my appointments. He asks me if I’m back to painting, trying to make small talk, but I don’t know how to answer.
“You need to get inspired. Get your mind off things.” He suggests an exhibit at the Met on Impressionist painters. I try not to roll my eyes. He pats me on the shoulder as I leave. On my way out, the receptionist calls me miss.
The sun is low when I step outside. It will be angling red through the window when I arrive home, and Teta will be dozing in her armchair. I can’t stand the thought of another summer sunset in that silent apartment, so I take the 6 uptown to the Met. Now that I’m taking care of Teta, their pay-what-you-wish policy for New York residents makes it one of the few museums I can still afford. Maybe a change of scenery would be good, I tell myself.
The grandness of the Great Hall, with its columns and its vaulted ceilings, makes me hate the undignified way my sneakers squeak on the polished stone. I wander into the Impressionist exhibit, which turns out to be more than just Impressionists. Representations of the Body: From Impressionism to the Avant Garde is essentially a study of nudes, a departure from the plein air landscapes typically associated with the Impressionists. I pause in front of Degas’s toilettes, Cézanne’s bathers, Renoir’s nudes. The women’s bodies are not overly posed or idealized; at the time, this was a provocation. I look for Mary Cassatt, for Eva Gonzalès, for Berthe Morisot, but I don’t find them. Gauguin is here, though, and the plaques beside his paintings of brown-skinned Tahitian women make no mention of his dehumanizing gaze, nor of the pubescent girls he had sex with in Tahiti. Matisse, too, is here, with his 1927 Orientalist fantasy, Odalisque with Gray Trousers: “I paint odalisques in order to paint the nude. Otherwise, how is the nude to be painted without being artificial?” In that moment, my body and the bodies of all the women I know are on the wall as sexualized ciphers for the desires of white men. I don’t know why I am here in this place where I should feel belonging but am, instead, an outsider. I’m grateful that the Met has little contemporary art. I know all the names, know who will be at the Venice Biennale this year and who was featured in the contemporary art magazines, but I can’t imagine my name listed among them. I’m not the only one, of course. The last time I saw one of my male classmates from art school, he consoled me about my artist’s block by telling me how few of the girls we studied with were painting anymore. It is one thing to have a body; it is another thing to struggle under the menacing weight of its meaning.
I stop to wash my hands on the way out. The museum’s bathroom is decorated with a print of a white woman posed over a clawfoot tub, her belly and breasts perfect pink globes. This is not Impressionism. She turns to regard the viewer at such a severe angle that it’s as though the artist has painted, instead of a woman, a porcelain bowl for holding pears.
By the time I get off the subway in Boerum Hill, it’s the golden hour. There are no signs of last night’s sparrows, just hot pavement and sweating brick. I make the left onto Hoyt from Atlantic and pass the Hoyt Street Garden and the peach stucco of the Iglesia del Cristo Vivo with its yellow sign. At the intersection with Pacific, I nod to the crossing guard in front of the Hopkins Center. I’m one building down from Teta’s apartment when I spot the owl feather, white against the green ivy that snakes over the brick posts on either side of Teta’s stoop. The tangled down at the base of its hollow shaft and its brown striping give the owl away. The feather is a fat, weightless thing, the tip oiled with soot, the down still warm from the leaves.
Brooklyn simmers in September, when the urine-and-soot stink of the subways sifts up through the sidewalk vents and Atlantic is noisy with restaurant-goers who don’t know that hummus is Arabic for chickpeas. While I fumble with my key chain, a white family pushes a stroller down the sidewalk, and the toddler inside reaches for the Swedish ivy bursting from Mrs. King’s window boxes. Lately I’ve been wondering how long Teta will be able to stay in this building. It’s the same story in every borough these days: the weekends bring the expensive strollers and the tiny dogs, the couples who comment on how much safer the neighborhood has gotten. Rent goes up and up and up. The family-owned bodegas keep on closing, replaced by artisanal cupcake shops and overpriced organic grocery stores whose customers hurry past the homeless and the flowers laid on street corners for Black boys shot by the cops. Some people go their whole lives in New York shutting their eyes to the fact that this city was built for the people who took this land from the Lenape. Sometimes I wonder why you never spoke of this—maybe you thought I was too young to understand, or you were just desperate to eke out an existence here. Now I am old enough to understand that we live on land that remembers. I hear the voices when I touch the brick or pavement, catch fragments of words exchanged hundreds of years before the island of Mannahatta was paved. I sometimes think about the Arabs and other immigrants who came here a century before my own family, hoping they wouldn’t be devoured by the bottomless hunger of the very forces that drove them from their homelands, hoping they could survive in this place that was not built for them.
Teta’s been baking: the stairwell is perfumed with walnuts and rose water. Inside the apartment, a fresh pan of bitlawah steams on the counter. If I’m honest, no matter how much I long for the apartment I had in Jackson Heights before Teta’s back pain got worse and she needed someone to take care of her, I’d miss the smell of her house if I left it. It’s just the two of us now, fielding the occasional call from Reem up in Boston. I can’t blame my sister for not wanting to be reminded of what we’ve lost; the gears of memory lock their teeth every time I remember.
I slip off my shoes by the door, allowing the purls of Teta’s Persian carpet to separate my bare toes. Asmahan gets up from the living room couch and stretches, then shakes the sleep from the ruff of fur around her neck. It wasn’t long before that horrible day that Asmahan came to us, but Teta and I never stopped calling her your cat.
“Better let the bitlawah sit, habibti,” Teta calls to me from her favorite armchair without looking up, “it’s hot. Get us a cup of coffee, eh?” The afternoon light catches on the white brow feathers of the scarred old barred owl that sits on the sill watching Teta every evening. Teta meets its gaze, but I pretend not to see.
Asmahan follows me into the kitchen. On my way, I pick up the half-empty plastic cups on the coffee table. Asmahan loves to drink from unattended water glasses, so Teta indulges her by leaving cups of water around the house. Asmahan knocks one over now and then—thus the plastic. The way Teta spoils that cat.
In the kitchen, I retrieve the electric bill and the unpaid rent notice I tucked in the top drawer, fold them, and stuff them in my pocket before Teta sees. I get out the tiny cups you brought with you from Syria when you and Teta came over to the States years ago. The painted blossoms look almost new. I don’t know how Teta keeps them so pristine, how she makes sure they don’t get dropped or chipped in the cabinet by the plates or the forty mismatched jars of spices we’ve got knocking around in there. We always make our own spice mixtures, just like the women in our family have been doing for generations. Teta’s got everything labeled neatly in Arabic, so those were the first few words I learned how to read. She has her own chai mixes, her own baharat, her own fresh za’atar. She makes them from memory, never measuring anything out, just estimating by the handful or the scoop or the pinch. The mothers and grandmothers of the other Arab kids I knew in school never wrote a recipe down, either; it was something you learned by heart. I’m sure Teta thought you would be around to teach me when I got older. Instead she had to teach me herself.
I fill the long-handled coffeepot with water and add the ground coffee, sugar, fresh-crushed cardamom. Out the window, impending rain hangs like dusk. Asmahan trots over to the kitchen table and hops up. Someone’s staring at me from one of the chairs. I don’t have to turn to know who it is.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I say without turning my head. “You don’t have to get up.”
But you do, and I know you’re coming over to me even though I can’t hear your footsteps. When I turn, you are gazing out the window with your hands on the countertop. You’re always smiling, smiling at everything like there’s still too much world to be experienced. I let the ring of electric coolness that surrounds you raise the black hairs on my arms, wishing, as I do every time, for some sign that you are real: a touch, a sound, a shadow. Instead the scent of fresh thyme fills my mouth as though you’re holding a clipping under my nose, and I want to cry. You turn your head and smile at me. I smile back in the tired way the living have of appeasing the dead. How are you supposed to smile at a ghost without feeling lonely?
The coffee froths up, and you wait while I pour off the froth into our cups. You reach down and offer your hand for Asmahan to sniff. I almost put out three cups instead of two.
“You’ve been around more often,” I say, turning my face as though I expect the scent of thyme to weaken. It doesn’t. “Summer must be getting on.”
You look at me—that stricken look. This is our agreement: we don’t talk about the night of the fire, not even as its anniversary hurtles toward us like a planet and you continue your wordless visitations. Every year, the end of summer is the same. You’ll come in the morning and sit in your favorite kitchen chair, the one you always used to sit in when Teta had us over for dinner. Teta can’t cook like she used to, so I’ll be in the kitchen, bringing her spices or making sure the onions don’t burn. It’s been four—damn, five years ago now—since we lost you, and nothing has tasted the same since. You’ll watch me cook, watch me clean or read or make coffee for everyone but you. Sometimes you’ll lean in close to my ear, and the earthen smell of thyme will offer up the names of things in Arabic to me, calling the coffee ahweh and the oil zeit, and in this strange and silent way we’ll talk until it gets dark and you disappear.
The coffee froths up the second time. I shut off the gas range and pour it out into your tiny cups, gentle so as not to slosh them and disturb the grounds. I leave the coffeepot on the burner, avoiding our reflections in the window above the sink. You consider the long handle and the dark liquid in the pot like you want to join us.
“Yalla,” I say, beckoning with my eyebrows toward the living room. It’s no use: outside, dark has fallen. Teta coughs, and Asmahan trots toward her between my legs. When I look up, you’re gone. In your place is that scent of fresh thyme, the kind you used to grow on the fire escape to make za’atar from memory.
I bring the coffee and a diamond of bitlawah to Teta in the living room, setting it on the table beside her armchair. She’s fallen asleep with her favorite blanket folded on her lap, a lavender underscarf wrapped around her head like she always wears in the house, even though we don’t get visitors anymore. She winces and opens her eyes, and I help her sit upright in her chair, arranging the pillows behind the small of her back and her shawl around her shoulders. It’s been a few years since her multiple myeloma went into remission, but she never regained the bone density she lost, and her back is a knot of constant pain.
“Keef halik, Teta?”
“Alhamdulillah.” She squeezes my hand. “Sit, sit. I never see you sleep anymore. Where you go all night?”
I kiss her papery forehead. “Let me get the heating pad.”
When I come back, Teta’s nodded off again with the coffee in her hand. I set it on the table, but my hand slips trying not to wake her, and it spills on my jeans. The cup clatters back onto its dish.
“Storm of the storms!” Teta exclaims while I curse under my breath and wipe myself with a napkin. She’s been calling me that ever since I broke one of her teacups as a kid. She must have heard it on the news at some point, storm of storms, maybe. Somehow it journeyed through Arabic and was resurrected as storm of the storms, and now my clumsiness has its own nickname. Teta means it lovingly, but my face burns. I inspect the cup for chips.
When I slide the heating pad behind her, Teta furrows her brow at me. I bend forward, a force of habit, and hope my loose tee hides the fact that I’m using the shapewear she gave me to flatten my chest, rather than smooth the belly and hips Teta thinks I’m self-conscious of. I take a breath, and the cloth pulls across my ribs. This, too, is a border I am transgressing. Last week, I slashed the polyester at the rib cage to flatten the passengers on my chest that hide the surface of me. I have not told Teta this. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
“Hope I didn’t wake you banging around in the kitchen,” I say before she can question me again. I sit down across from her on the sofa, a gorgeous old Damascene thing with a wooden frame and rolled arm pillows whose damask patterns have long since faded into gold and burgundy splotches, an heirloom from the bilad.
Teta holds my eyes for half a second before glancing away out the window. She laughs, shifting her back against the heating pad. “I sleep heavy these days.”
There’s no way she didn’t hear me talking to you, but this is the response I expect. Though we both see you, we never admit it. You are first on the list of things we don’t talk about, questions we don’t ask, ghosts we don’t count. I’ve never told her about the others, but I know she’s seen you.
The envelopes in my pocket crinkle when I cross my ankle over my knee. This is the second thing we do not speak of: money. I’m Teta’s only caretaker now, the one who pays the bills and the rent, and though Teta often tries to write out checks for birthdays or for food shopping, both our savings are dwindling. It’s an ugly thing, but your social security only goes so far for two people in the city. Teta and I have reversed roles now; when you and my father were still together, she changed my diapers and babysat me until you both came home from work. She cooked meals for us, took me to the playground, quit her odd jobs when the family needed her. Now, long after your divorce, after your death, after my father has stopped even feigning promises of help, I’ve done the same. Though we both thank God for the Medicare that covers the bulk of Teta’s medical bills, we are still paying off the cost of chemo and radiation a year later. I scold myself for it, but I’ve begun to hope Reem will start helping out now that she’s finally taken a corporate job, though I know Teta’s pride would never allow her to accept Reem’s money. Here in this city whose lifeblood is the dollar, our solution to its weight is silence. It’s not that Teta doesn’t think about money—that’s a privilege our family will never know—but to discuss her anxieties with me would be ‘ayb. It would be a mark of shame; she’d feel like she’d failed me. The children and grandchildren of “real Americans,” the ones who made it, shouldn’t need to fear poverty. But Teta has found walls in this country that she never could have imagined.
I drain my demitasse and roll the warm ceramic between my hands. I’m sitting in that way you used to correct me for, legs spread like a boy, elbows on my knees, leaning forward so my hair drops in my eyes. I clear my throat and try to draw myself up, mussing my hair out of my face, but the movements are wrong. They are always wrong: my elephant feet, my way of closing cabinets with a bang, my bad posture. Do you see? I’ve memorized even your comments that used to drive me crazy.
“Mom would’ve been fifty-five this year.” I glance up to meet Teta’s eyes. “Wouldn’t she?”
Teta sets the half-empty cup of coffee on the side table and folds her thick arms over the blanket in her lap. She shifts her weight forward and then back, rivulets of pain cabling her face until she settles into the heating pad. “It was beautiful, the day, until the rain.”
The cup in my hands yields its heat to my palms. “Beautiful.”
“When I was young,” Teta says, and a smile sneaks onto her face, “we used to stay inside and play tawleh when came the rain. My father, Allah yarhamu, when he was alive, all the men in our town used to come to our family café to smoke arghile and talk politics. Immi kept the coffee hot all day. When it rained the men start to come, until we had the place full.”
I want to ask her how my great-grandfather died, but it is one of the stories Teta has never told me, one of the many she keeps in her locked trunk of memories. His death, too, is on the list of things we don’t discuss. “How old were you when he passed away?”
“Seventeen,” she says, and then she drains her coffee and falls silent.
It’s no use. The television drones from the corner, too low to be heard. “Tell me again about the bicycle woman.” I look up from the sludge of coffee grounds at the bottom of my cup. “The one who flew.”
Teta perks up in her chair. She’s always preferred to tell fantastical stories rather than recount the past, and this is one of her favorites, a fail-safe. The first time she told it to me was after Jiddo died. In that first version, Teta spoke of a woman in her village in Syria who built a flying machine out of a bicycle and two sets of linen wings. She peddled hard to gain speed, then hit a ridge and became airborne for a quarter mile before crashing in a field outside the village. The story didn’t bring me any comfort then, but it felt real, and I never quite believed the version she told after that, the one where the woman on the bicycle escaped gravity, never to be seen again. As a kid, it was more comforting to imagine this woman ending up somewhere warm and colorful, like San Francisco or Miami, but it was too easy an ending. Teta never said where the story came from. I knew better than to ask.
“It was my friend saw her go up into the air,” Teta says when she’s finished recounting the story. She’s told it so many times I could probably relate it by heart. “No one else in the village thought she could do it. Immi kept me home that day, but I heard every detail. We were all of us amazed.” She ends with the same bewildered shake of her head and a reminder to believe in the unbelievable.
“They called her Majnouna,” she says, wagging her finger.
“I know, Teta. The crazy woman.” I take our cups and pat her hand. She is cold, has always been that way, and her circulation has gotten worse these past few months. This, too, the myeloma took from her. We don’t get much sun in this western-facing apartment, and the nights are starting to turn cool. I’ve told Teta a thousand times to turn the heat on at night to keep her blood flowing, but she knows how much it costs. In the winter, it will be worse.
I smile to keep Teta from reading all this on my face. “If Asmahan starts drinking our coffee, Majnouna will be the least of our worries.”
After I get up, Teta clears her throat and calls out to my back, “Fifty-four.” When I turn to her, she directs her eyes to her hands. “November,” she says, “she would be fifty-four.”
I retreat to my room. Your presence is still here, everywhere, your hand on everything. The photo albums I saved, stuffed with pictures, my first days of ninth grade and high school graduation, shots of you braiding my wet hair before bedtime and making goofy faces at the camera. An old, half-empty bag of henna powder in a ziplock bag, the last one you used to make my hair soft and shiny. Your prayer rug that I keep in a place of honor, draped over the bench that sat in front of your worktable where you kept your bird-watching supplies and journals. You always said you’d replace the scarred worktable someday, but here it is, covered in your stray pen marks and smears of acrylic paint. It’s cluttered with the books that were in your study when you died—bird-watching manuals, Audubon’s Birds of America, a few Arabic ornithology texts I can only read the short sentences of. Everything I know of birds, I learned from you. When you were gone, I learned from these pages turned by your hands. These books taught me the names of birds in Arabic, things you must have thought you’d have time to explain. Your last sketchbook sits in the corner, a couple of your colored pencils still lodged inside as a bookmark, deforming the binding. I remove a pencil, and a photograph slips out onto the floor. It’s the two of us posing in front of my elementary school door: me in patent-leather Mary Janes and a polka-dotted dress you’d picked out for me, you with that unguarded grin that showed your gums, your arm pressing me to you as though you could fuse us forever.
When you came with me to first-grade parent-teacher night, I was so excited to have you meet my teacher that I’d begged a friend’s dad to take this picture beforehand. You’d somehow gotten the money together for a private school. You wore your best silk blouse that evening and dressed me in a new outfit, hoping we’d both make a good impression. I had the sense, without being able to name it, that we didn’t quite belong. We arranged ourselves in front of the school’s wooden door, me tugging down my hideous dress while you laughed and hugged me to you, my shoulder curving into the space above your hip. We held the pose while my friend’s dad fumbled with the camera. We pressed into each other with the rise and fall of your breath. Then came the flash, blinding.
I tugged you inside, the warm stripe of your touch still painted on my shoulder. Mrs. Wilson greeted us at the classroom door, the blackboard free of chalk and her can of pencils still full, a pristine leather handbag perched on her desk. Then Mrs. Wilson’s face twisted into shock, and when you started to speak, my teacher frowned and leaned in as though she couldn’t understand your accent. She forced a smile, looking from me to you and back again.
“It’s lovely to meet you,” Mrs. Wilson said. “But I was expecting—well. It’s only that she looks so—”
My fingers twitched in yours, our knuckles interlocked. You pursed your lips and knit your brows. Mrs. Wilson pushed her chin forward above my head and raised her voice, taking your unease for a lack of understanding.
“She must look more like her father,” Mrs. Wilson said, slowing and separating her syllables. “You understand?”
I dropped my eyes to the floor. You tensed and shifted your thumb against my hand, the nail scraping my skin like nicked leather.
Then you smiled without parting your lips. “A colleague told me that once,” you said in smooth English, “when she saw the picture of us in my office, next to my master’s diploma.” Then you squeezed my hand and steered us away.
You said nothing more of Mrs. Wilson that day. You shut the door that night when you ran the water for your bath, and I laid my head on the wood. I listened for the squeak of the faucet turning off and wished I never had to leave this little studio apartment again, tried to imagine a home where other people’s words couldn’t separate us as cleanly as any wall.
I run my fingers over the burnished pine. I vowed I’d paint at this table after that day half a decade ago now, to honor your memory. But the sight of it made Teta cry, and I couldn’t paint at all when I sat down at it. Our sadness had seeped into the wood. Soon I couldn’t paint anywhere else, either. I’d just graduated art school when you died, but your death rendered all those years of planning useless. Art school had kept me away from home in what turned out to be the last years of your life, and though people told me not to blame myself, a dark thought took root: that painting itself had separated us. Every time I lifted a brush, the undertow of my guilt tugged me down. The following year, Teta fractured a vertebra pulling thistles from around your grave, and we discovered multiple myeloma had made her bones weak. Still, I nearly had to confine her to the apartment to keep her from returning to her gardening: she was adamant that the thistles were choking the roots of her roses. It turns out that even when you plant roses, sometimes thistles come up instead.
Asmahan tangles herself between my ankles, the walls tighten with grief, and your memory threatens like rain. That burning stench begins to rise from the nails, from the carpets, from the floorboards, summoning the one moment I refuse to remember. I drag my fingers over the worktable, and the black scars of fire spring up across the burls in the wood, as though even the lightest touch of the living is enough to scorch the dead.
I throw on my canvas jacket and my Converse. “Yalla bye, cutie.” I rub Asmahan’s chin, trying to make my voice upbeat. “Back in a few.”
On the way out, Teta’s gentle snoring follows me from her bedroom. As I shut the front door, I turn the knob so it doesn’t click.
It’s because of your textbooks that I know so many birds by their Arabic names. Sometimes it takes a minute for the English to come, and other times it doesn’t come at all. There is no nightingale among my index of birds, only the bulbul; in Farid ad-Din Attar’s Sufi poems, Solomon’s confidante is called not the hoopoe but the hudhud, crowned by the other birds to lead them to the legendary Simorgh. Many of these birds I grew up naming without seeing. The cinnamon-colored hudhud with its crown of feathers, for example, isn’t typically found in North America, but the books you left behind taught me that the European and north Asian subspecies migrate across the Mediterranean to breed, and once, after reading about the hudhud’s migratory flights over the Himalayas, I dreamed of a flock of thirty birds emerging from a cloud bank, the gold of them as real as any photograph.
I walk down to the Barclays Center and take the R toward Manhattan to Rector Street, then walk down to the tenement building at 109 Washington, where I’ve been working on a mural of a hudhud of my own. I avoid the gauntlet of catcallers near the subway exit, crossing the street to avoid a man who shouts repeatedly for my name, then my tits. The main thing, I have learned after more than a quarter century in this body and this city, is to keep moving.
The lower West Side, especially near the 9/11 Memorial Museum and One World Trade Center, is crowded with souvenir shops, cafés, and bars these days. A couple blocks down from the new bone-white Oculus transportation hub, the new hotels stop and old brick buildings begin. The transition feels stark and surreal. What used to be a neighborhood of tenements inhabited mostly by Syrian immigrants is now nearly obliterated, much of it lost to eminent domain and the demolition that cleared the way for the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel in the forties. The rest was brought down for the construction of the World Trade Center two decades later. Most of the inhabitants were forced out to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, others to New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, and beyond. The only exceptions are this five-story tenement, still occupied and sporting a new restaurant on the ground level, and the community house connected to it, empty for years and recently condemned. The local historical society has been trying to get them declared landmark sites or a historic district for years, but with the exception of St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church, the white terra-cotta chapel next to the community house, they haven’t been successful, and the inside of the church is now home to an Irish pub. Eventually, these buildings, too, will probably be swallowed by the pace of development in Lower Manhattan. Despite all the work you did to try to save them, the history they represent has never been deemed worthy of protecting.
The bars around the corner are filling with twentysomething finance-sector employees beginning loud rounds of beer pong. I leave the sidewalk and stalk through the empty lot next to the tenement and around to the back of the building. Back in the thirties and forties, this empty lot held a front and back tenement separated by a sliver of courtyard that functioned as an airshaft, providing ventilation and light to the two cramped buildings. The back building had already been demolished for years by the time you tried to save the front one, the older and more beautiful of the two tenements on the block; what a waste it seems now. That second tenement, too, was pulled down just a year after you died. The scarred brick of the building next door and a weed-infested lot are all that’s left of your fight, a flattened piece of earth awaiting the construction of another high-rise hotel.
You’d laugh at the way I look everywhere for reminders of you—even in the old community house, I still check the locks and try to get up the courage to slip inside. I haven’t succeeded yet. Maybe it’s for the best; though I’ve scoured newspapers and art history books about the painter you loved who used to live here, Laila Z has always remained obscure, reduced to a line I once found in an article about how she lived for a while on the fifth floor of the community house doing social work and providing “cultural activities” for recent immigrants, one of the few decent jobs a woman could get in those days.
I’ve never dared to break in and look for signs of Laila Z’s presence. Tonight, like all the other nights I’ve come down here, I settle for the satisfaction of paint on brick. I pull out my chalk and sketch the next area of the mural I want to get done, the hudhud’s black-and-orange crown. I wind my bird around old spray-painted tags and crumbling, gouged wall. I know the risks, but it’s the only way I can paint anymore, the only time I’m not blocked. It’s my way of reminding this neighborhood of its past.
I miss the city I knew as a child: the subway cars graffitied down to the last inch of wall or door, the rank phone booths, cigarette butts at the sidewalk edges, kids running through the fountains in Central Park in the summertime or dancing in the rainbows of busted fire hydrants. That Manhattan is invisible now, a city that lives only in the memories of those of us who were there.
Time slows down when I’m painting. I read that article you gave me back when I still said I wanted to go to MIT and major in physics—trying to be a good first-generation child—on the state of flow, how a person is supposed to know what they love to do by how time blurs when they’re doing it. The problem, I guess, is that time has always been blurry for me. Maybe that’s why I made such a lousy physics student. I learned a long time ago that things that happened years ago never really go away. They live in the body, secreted away inside liver and fingernail and bone, alive on street corners and in wallpaper glue and the yellowed water in Brooklyn basements.
I stroke my brush against the brick, and its memories rise to meet me: years of car exhaust, and beneath the soot, decades of chicken fat and frying onions, the clang of a cracked cast-iron pan being flung out a window, a girl’s happy shriek, the purple-black curl of a scab being tugged off a knee.
You were the one who first brought me down here as a child and told me there was a whole community here years ago, a Syrian enclave that doesn’t exist anymore, scattered across the country from Brooklyn to LA when Little Syria was demolished to build the entrance ramps for the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel. I used to think there was some secret here, something that drew you to these buildings, some collective memory I could include myself in. That’s why I chose Washington Street to paint on, even though you and Teta came to the States twenty years after it had been leveled. I’m addicted to the memories that live on in the mind of New York, the flood that comes when I place my hand on a wall or a window or a stoop, the knowledge that death and time are both illusions because we and every stone are made of the same ever-shifting particles. If we live, it’s only because some distant galaxy lent us its dust for a while. Ghosts are more honest than the rest of us: they can’t help but be what they are. You taught me that revelation has its price in a world that prefers the comfort of closed eyes. Maybe that’s why I’m still convinced that the painter you loved left an echo of herself behind here, waiting to be heard.
A soundless shape glides by over my head. Pricks of cold air rise on my skin. You were the one who first showed me, when we found that disembodied snowy owl wing hiking upstate one winter, how owls’ feathers make no sound when they cut the air.
I pack my paints and follow the bird back around the building and out to the street. A whisper of feathers, and the owl lands on the lintel above the community house door, its arrival ruffling scraps of posted paper. There’s no mistaking: it’s the scarred owl that visits Teta’s windowsill each day—there are the shorn feathers on the left wing, the white brow. The owl gives a slow blink to the streetlight and peers down at the door, the dull green of a neon bar sign reflected on its talons. There are new notices posted on the front door today. I finger the corner of one stapled page, the illegible signature of some inspector at the bottom, and for a second, the presence of the owl gives me a strange sort of courage. Up the stairs to the fifth floor—what harm could it do to have a look? I touch the door.
It swings inward when I press on it, revealing nothing but dark. There is a chaos of wings at my cheek, and I duck to cover my face as the owl dives inside.
I fumble in my pocket for my phone and use it as a light. Scraps of old paper and crumbs of ceiling tiles litter the floor inside the foyer, and my feet scuff stained tile. This community house has been empty for years, but at one time it was a rich resource with a health center, space for musical productions and plays, classrooms, a food pantry. Now, it’s hard to imagine the life these rooms once held. I sweep the light of my phone toward the back and discover a narrow staircase leading up into the belly of the second floor.
The owl has disappeared into the darkness. I tiptoe toward the stairs. The floorboards groan and sag under my feet, but they hold. The stairwell stinks of ancient wallpaper paste and lead paint. The rooms on the second, third, and fourth floors hold overturned desks and rusted bedframes, wallpaper slashed from corner to corner, old filing cabinets with their drawers pulled out by looters or squatters. On the fifth floor, the empty socket of a light bulb greets me in what was once a living room, the plaster now flaked down to bare brick.
The old bedroom walls are covered with peeling wallpaper that probably used to be orange, now a rusted, water-stained goldenrod. A lace doily that must have once covered the upended desk lies wrinkled on the floor, decorated by the red carapace of a dead cockroach. The matching curtains have all but disintegrated, as though they’d turn to dust if I touched them. The desk’s single drawer has been jammed shut by years of Manhattan humidity, and a candle burned down to a stump has slid off the surface of the desk onto the floor, leaving a ring of wax on the wood. The wallpaper bulges and sags on one wall of the room, near the carcass of a twin bedframe. I peer closer—the peeling corner of the wallpaper is trembling. A puff of air escapes a slot in the wall formed by two missing bricks that must have been papered over at one time, revealing a rectangular cavity, a hidden shelf.
I brush my fingers along the inside of the opening, and they come away filmy with cobwebs. I squeeze my eyes shut and reach in. My fingers brush something firm and soft, and when I open my eyes, I’ve slid a leather-bound notebook out of the hidden compartment.
The spine creaks as I open it to a sketch of a little yellow bird, a woman’s shaky handwriting on the facing page. It must be some artist’s old nature journal, each illustration accompanied by a diary entry. A black-and-white photo slips out of a young woman, her black hair in braids. Behind the photo is a watercolor painting of a bird with a frill of white feathers at his chin—a white-throated sparrow.
I slip the notebook into my backpack and shut the papered door on my way out. On my subway ride back to Teta’s, I study the photograph inside the front cover of the notebook. In the light of the subway car, the subject looks a bit like Teta when she was a girl. The young painter has her black hair over each shoulder, her strong chin raised, her eyes dark and hooded, her eyebrows thick with a soft unibrow. She and Teta could be sisters.
I turn back to that first sketch. It’s signed in Arabic, bold and rising to the left: Laila. The ink is blotched on the final curve of the last letter, the alif maqsurah, leaving a smudged black mark. Later on, the signatures switch to English, and the handwriting gets smoother and smaller. When I was young, I, too, used to hoard my Arabic name like a treasure, trying to convince myself that this name, too, existed.
On the page that faces the watercolor sparrow, Laila Z’s notebook begins: The day I began to bleed was the day I met the woman who built the flying machine—