COMING DOWN AGAIN
In a dream, I am standing at the edge of a river. I know this river from the black and white photograph in my grandmother's drawer. In it, the child of my mother and my dead uncle are swimming, unbeknownst to them who they will become. Then a face, not a face, but a phantom covered in cloth, echoes to me, deaf as if I've forgot what language, what country, what blood, oh what blood. I think she tells me to run.
Imagine she tells me to run.
When I wake, I know we have not spoken the longest we have not spoken. This is the first thing I know when I open my eyes. I do not check my phone, do not call, do not think of calling. It's better, I think. I do not cry. I do not cry this way to work until my phone rings.
I pick up and you say nevermind.
I am fine but then phone rings and it is you and I am working and this is not a good time but I pick up to yell, to rail, to have reason to, to have reason to hear your voice, even distant, to record its cadence to my mind.
Nevermind, you say when I pick up, then a dead line.
The woman in my dream who is more cloth than skin, black sash for face, tells me to run in silent mouth agape. Weaves all afraid. Everyone else dissolves into riverbed, a man with a papakh stops mid run to warn me of some silent threat, before he, too becomes a green mud pulp. It's just us, me and the black sash, cross, it seems but in no way unique amongst the ghosts I've known until one day, a child, I point to her in the red-rimmed album in my grandmother's drawer.
Oh my, says my grandmother, not her, please, not her. Any face will do. Why not this one? she asks pointing to another monochrome face she knew, why not this one, she says wetting my brow with a kiss, adjusting my pillow case, more afraid than she admits.
The ghost is my great-great grandmother, Noubar. She is not kind. She is the heroine of my dreams as a child though she is staunched, is still stingy in the conversations even now that we have as at family dinner in honor of the dead. Her husband, a revolutionary, died for a price on his head and his wife, Noubar, had her own cousin killed while her children slept in their beds. She was nineteen and they were barely aware that their father was a slab of concrete sticking out of the riverbed, a name etched into it, the water flowing through its cracks, then the blood, oh the blood, when their village was attacked.
Adam's dead, you say when I call back.
And then we are crying, we are crying and we are no longer mad, but we are furious and we are feeling each of us our own kind of guilt. And you say, I can't believe it, and I say I can, and you say:
Don't you dare do this to me, and if you do, go to hell.
Adam was young. Is younger than us, is your family, my childhood friend. Neither of us know him as an adult, don't know who he became, only know he joined the army, started a family of his own, was deployed and was not killed, or was killed when he got home. We don't know how he drowned himself in bottles, how he quieted his pain. But he must have, we know, because that's what the autopsy says.
Pills and vodka, you say, it's good he didn't kill himself.
I don't know why that makes a difference but both of us agree that at the very least he went without knowing, at the very least.
When Noubar found her husband dead what must she have said? She must have told them to run—she must have told them to run, to hold his skin together where it had peeled back to let in the metal sphere, the quite stop, the chest the chest, becoming a silent knot.
When I was a little girl I pointed to her picture and said she'd told me to run and my grandmother bit down on her thumb, said, no, not this one.
Not this one, but I'd seen her and now I'd know her anywhere;
even staring back at me through my own eyes while I comb my hair.
I will always remember Adam in this way. He and I are at the pool of your childhood home, and the sun is setting summer long, and the sky is as big and wide as we are young and we are fighting because I won't get in. Then without warning, I am falling, half laughing, squealing against his grip, and he lifts me up higher, me, screaming, put me down, my hair, my face, holding on to his shoulders as he tosses me into the air, the blue water crashing at my hips. Just for a moment: only bubbles, some blurred orange sun, and Adam's arms, Adam's heartbeat, still beating strong:
his heartbeat still beating inside his wide-open chest.
You were flying, Adam laughs.
Why would you want to come down, again?
When Noubar found my great-grandfather dead, she told them to run to the village, to clothe themselves in black, to tell the men to come, because she could not bend over his dead body without the stray hairs crumbling down from under her scarf. She was nineteen and her ankles were bare and the sun had never seen them, nor another man her hair, and here she was unraveling, her skirts pulled up around her hips as if she was trying to bring him back:
birth him, birth him so he lives.
Or Adam and I, early at the hotel, when the rest of you are sleeping, a thing we never did particularly well, so we walk around touching all the statues and eating at the breakfast buffet and when I stop to adjust my makeup, he teases me, scrunches his face, says:
Why do you wear that stuff if your lips are already red?
Adam thought I was beautiful, he told me once when we were alone, and I laughed, said much older men thought so, too. And a much older man did, liked my lipstick, thought it made me look adult. And makeup had other practical uses, things I did not explain: how it covered bruises, for one, how it covered shame.
The man Noubar killed was her own kin. Just thirty, her husband's age and her father before that, died in the firing brigade, and his father, thirty, too, died in the jart—like all the men she knew, became slates in the riverbed where the flowers bloom in March. And though she did not see it, her grandson died in vain, in vain, in a one-room apartment where he lay on his back for three days.
He drank himself to death, you say. Do you know how much alcohol that takes?
On average fifteen drinks in less than two hours, give or take, tolerance, weight, if you ate, if you vomited between the shots, say, if you slept it off, slept on your side, put a pillow behind you just to be safe. If you ingested cocaine then you could go longer, still, and then who knows maybe sixteen or seventeen drinks, which is how many there are in a bottle of scotch. Not Wild Turkey, which has more alcohol, but the regular ones. Or at a dive bar, say, if you order a double and you're kind and you small talk with the tender and you don't ask them for water or limes, they'll be a generous pour and then you can't really tell until your heartbeat becomes a metronome, set to beat against its will.
I do not tell you this; I don't think you'd want to know that I know. And besides, we haven't discussed our fight, that morning when I called and I said I'd woken up drenched in sweat, and some blood and how I was scared for the first time in a long time that it had finally caught up.
And you said, well, you've finally done it; you've finally killed yourself.
Don't you dare do this to me, you said, and if you do, go to hell.
Instead, you ask me what happens when I drink. I say my eyelids relax, I no longer have to squint, the stone becomes buoyant, my shoulders become wings, I'm unanchored, I am flying, I am my own ghost for a change. And then I think of Adam, not a stone but a grenade, the sound of explosions that followed him to his grave, and how he was flying, he was flying and his chest was wide-open plane, and that his heart did not want, did not want to come down again.
In a dream, I wake up in my room to a black tornado bound in cloth, it's pieces flailing about me, caught, and I know that I'm going to be swallowed up by the sound it makes, like a laugh and cry looped over itself. She pulls me in by my arms, she writhes me in threads before I begin sucking, pulling her into my lungs through her hair. I do not tell you this either, though I tell you of the dream: the sound of her cracking under the weight of my breath, her eyes growing large and her face growing scared, and my own fear, my god, my fear that I am no longer afraid.
I've seen her and now I know her anywhere:
even looking back at me through my own eyes when I comb my hair.
They buried the man Noubar killed by the river that she killed him. They buried the man she killed with a procession in the town. All of her family wore black and carried him, shadowed obelisks moving like a river themselves. And then, just beside them, Noubar, not a woman, but a child with children in her stead, hand in hand they came walking, her children dressed in white, and she in her vengeance dressed head to toe in red.
Oh no, my grandmother said, not her, please not her, any face will do. How bout this one, she said, pointing at a young woman she knew. How bout this one, she said, trying to break the curse, not wanting to see that strength inside me, that strength that comes from her.
But I wear red lipstick because I want my lips bloody, dagger sharp.
I want to stand in the procession; I want it to hurt.
Imagine I wear red because it's the color of my blood:
blood flowing through, I suppose, the face of anyone.
We understand dreaming as a keepsake for sleep or as a way for the brain to relearn trauma as memory. All of my writing is a response to the traumas that I can't make disappear into dreams.