Layla-tul-Qadr—that’s what the Qur’an calls it. The Night of Power. On the twenty-seventh of Ramadan each year, Muslims mark its beginning with a vigil. After breaking their fasts at sunset, they retreat into deep and solemn worship until sunrise the next morning, imploring Allah to forgive all their past and future sins. It is the only night when those who pray five times a day, or three times, or no times, all congregate. On this night, Allah revealed the first verse of the Qur’an—the injunction “Read!”—to the Prophet Muhammed. On this night, He writes in His Book of Decrees every event to occur in the next twelve months, from natural disasters to the falling of a leaf. On this night, the gates of heaven swing open and the gates of hell swing shut. Angels descend.
On this particular Night of Power, when the ceiling fans inside Makki Masjid have stopped working and the smell of sweat has become overwhelming, everyone on Coney Island Avenue raises their hands in prayer. The beautician prays that her daughter stop fooling around with gora boys; the cab driver that his ex-wife return from Pakistan; the pharmacist that his only son remarry. Gora or sand-colored, another wife of any kind will do.
Some people pray like this, choosing to fixate on one request, while others recite from long wish lists they’ve prepared specifically for the occasion. They pray quietly, under their breath, in a mix of Arabic and Urdu and English. Though each prayer is a private affair, a conversation between the supplicant and Allah, neighbors know enough about one another’s lives that they can guess at what is being asked. Tomorrow, as he always does, the imam will insist that Allah leaves no prayer unanswered despite what it sometimes seems. If not in this world, He will deliver in the next.Still, as they always do, neighbors will look among themselves in the coming year for signs of His blessings and favor: a college acceptance, a childbirth, a pay raise.
Many claim to dissociate from their bodies during the vigil, and tonight the congregation is so engrossed that nobody notices the two teenage girls walking out of the mosque and down its cement stoop arm-in-arm, their khameezes clinging to their skin because the June air is humid and flat. Their brisk walk soon turns into a jog and then, just as quickly, a sprint. Both bite on their tongues to keep from laughing out loud.
Leyla, the taller and more bashful of the pair, the one who proposed the exit plan as a joke but is growing nervous now that the joke has become real, keeps looking over her shoulder as if they are being followed or watched, although she knows this is impossible given the night. She cannot shake the feeling that they are fucking up, and that this fuck-up will later have grand and cosmic consequences.
“If my dad finds out,” she says to Maryam, the other girl, stopping to catch her breath in front of the Gyro King, their destination for the night. She hates how she sounds—so small and unsure. “I’ll be skewered like a literal kabob.”
“The only kabobs being skewered tonight are the ones we’re going to make,” Maryam says, rolling her eyes. “Now let’s get inside.”
Leyla reaches inside the pocket of her shalwar, hesitating a moment before dropping the key to her father’s restaurant into Maryam’s outstretched palm. It is just past midnight, two hours after the Gyro King’s regular closing time and four hours after its holiday closing time, which is tonight’s closing time because it is The Night of Power, the most holy night in the Islamic calendar.
Illegal is the word that pops into Leyla’s head. What they are doing, she thinks, is illegal. She tries to grab the key back, but Maryam is already bending down. With a quick turn of her wrist, Maryam opens the door so effortlessly you’d think that this was her millionth time.
“The lights—” Leyla says. Because of course Maryam has found the switch in the lobby and turned on the lights. Because of course Maryam has completely ignored the fact that Leyla said they should use the flashlights on their phones instead. Because of course Maryam either does not care or realize that the last thing they need is someone from the mosque looking out the window, seeing the lit-up Gyro King storefront, and walking over to investigate—or, even worse, calling the police.
“Doesn’t it feel surreal?” Maryam says, walking over to the beverage cooler. She gets herself a can of Dr. Pepper—her favorite—and pops the tab. Bubbles spray forth, soaking the sleeves of Maryam’s khameez. “Like, everything is a little off.”
She is not incorrect. Without customers, the Gyro King looks foreign to Leyla—bigger and brighter—as if the girls have shrunk in size and been dropped into a dollhouse version of the restaurant. The green booths spacious enough for only four people, at most five, now appear in their empty state capable of fitting ten. Maryam walks towards one of these booths and sits atop the table, lounging like she’s on a mattress and not a hard metal surface.
“The place is ours tonight. No one’s watching.” She inches her body close to the table’s edge and starts swinging her legs. “Unless you count Allah, but He’s always watching, so it really doesn’t count.”
It always stuns Leyla—how at ease Maryam is. With herself; with her body; with this space, currently, that is not hers. Leyla thinks, Did her ass really just sit down there, where they put food? And then: She’d better wipe the table afterwards. Which of course will not happen. Leyla will be the one, later, who grabs a dishcloth and a spray bottle of sanitizer and laboriously scrubs while Maryam looks on. It is just the way that things are. Leyla has long ago accepted this.
Though they are both fifteen, Leyla is younger by three months, and sometimes she thinks these months make all the difference. Sometimes she thinks Maryam is more like an older sister than an on-and-off-again best friend, which is what she has been to Leyla for the past year, since she moved to Brooklyn from the Jersey Shore. The minute Maryam arrived, all the Pakistani girls at Midwood High tried to get close to her, and for obvious reasons: She lives in one of the nicer apartments, with air-conditioning and a balcony and a basement, on the border of Coney Island Avenue and Foster Avenue. At her old school, she had one boyfriend and several almost-boyfriends. Dyed auburn streaks run through her hair. In the right lighting, her eyes appear hazel rather than brown. Her parents are doctors at the new clinic next to Kabir’s Bakery, and they immigrated from Pakistan as teenagers, so though they still go to the mosque and wear shalwar khameez, they speak English so effortlessly that a blind person might mistake them for goras. Maryam herself is fluent in Urdu and has memorized half the Qur’an in Arabic, and because of this—and despite everything else—other parents approve of her.
Unlike the other girls, Leyla avoided Maryam like she was a jinni incarnate. Leyla didn’t loiter by her locker, didn’t ask for her phone number, didn’t invite her to the movies. She didn’t because she didn’t think that there was any point. She didn’t think that a girl like Maryam would ever bother with a girl like her. But—and Allah only knows why—one day Maryam sat down next to Leyla at lunch and just never stopped coming back. From buying mangos at Punjab Grocery to riding Deno’s Wonder Wheel, they soon started doing every last thing together. Now, Leyla cannot remember a time when her schedule has not revolved around Maryam.
Leyla for her part has pretended not to hear the other girls talking loudly about her and Maryam’s unexpected friendship. She has pretended that the amount of time they spend together is nothing special; though privately, on some days, she becomes overwhelmingly and uncontrollably giddy thinking that there must be something inside of her worthy enough for Maryam’s attention. On other days, she wonders if Maryam chose her by mistake or, even worse, as part of some cruel, elaborate joke. It is this mix of gratitude and fear and doubt that causes Leyla to overlook those moments (and there are many) when Maryam makes some offhand comment—about Leyla’s unkempt brows, say, or her severely juvenile taste in music—that in turn makes Leyla feel lonely and lacking.
As consolation, Leyla tells herself that Maryam has helped make her life fuller. It is because of Maryam that Leyla tasted her first drops of alcohol—cheap vodka poured from a Poland Springs bottle and diluted with water; and because of Maryam that she went to her first party—in a closet-sized dorm room in Brooklyn College, with lots of gora kids in barely any clothing, all showing off their gora skin; and because of Maryam that she had her first kiss—with Maryam herself of all people, who took her hand at another dorm party, their third or fourth, and leaned close to her mouth and said, “All the gora girls do it—don’t worry.”
Now, tonight, it is because of Maryam that Leyla is finally using her father’s spare key to the Gyro King, which he gave her many years ago and which, until now, she has never had the occasion—or audacity—to use. Maryam is the one who is hungry, the one who believes the Gyro King to be haunted, the one who has always wanted to sneak in after-hours.
“I can’t believe this was once an actual ass crime scene. Is this from the caution tape?” Maryam asks, running her fingers over a long, discolored mark that stretches across the wall, where white paint has peeled.
Leyla has never noticed it before. Above the mark hangs a portrait of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and framed postcards of landmarks in Karachi—close-ups of Clifton Beach and Zamzama Mall—that Leyla’s father brought from the Mohsin Brothers’ 99-cent shop next door. In a couple of months, to commemorate Pakistan’s Independence Day, Leyla will hang green and white streamers from the restaurant’s ceiling and tape crescent-shaped stickers onto the wall. All the businesses on Coney Island Avenue will do the same. It is a tradition that occurs every year and one that Maryam has been asking about non-stop because she has yet to witness it.
“I don’t know.” Leyla sighs. Maryam never tires of discussing the Gyro King’s infamous history. “I wasn’t alive.”
Leyla had not yet been born at the time of the scandal: the summer of 2002, when the Gyro King—then known as Kabob King—was in every headline. She has never heard the story of what happened, not in its entirety, because all the aunties and uncles in the neighborhood pretend to be deaf if the subject is broached. Even Raheela Aunty, who is a walking history book and who doesn’t believe in secrets, furrows her brows each time Leyla and Maryam probe for information during their parlor visits.
“It’s like he’s Voldemort,” Maryam said during her first week in the neighborhood, after she made the mistake of asking everyone she met about him.
All the girls know is this: His name was Ibby Sheikh, and the summer that the Kabob King’s owner hired him to work at the restaurant is the summer that the owner and his family were deported from Coney Island Avenue. Betrayal, Leyla’s father told her. It was a matter of betrayal.
“Tonight’s the night,” Maryam says, tossing her can of Dr. Pepper into a wastebasket by the cash register. The clink of the metal echoes in Leyla’s ear like a ringing telephone. “The night we find out more about what happened.I can feel it. Maybe we’ll find a newspaper clipping from 2001, or something. I mean, there’s gotta be something here.”
Leyla laughs. It is what draws her to Maryam. Her resolve. Her ability to make a story out of anything, even an empty restaurant. “There’s nothing here but frozen kabobs.”
The Open sign outside Raheela’s Beauty Parlor flickers on and off, though through the front window he can see that it is pitch black inside. She must have forgotten to turn it off before leaving, he thinks, pausing outside the parlor and peering in. Almost two decades later and still Raheela Aunty’s habit endures. In high school and even in college, despite knowing her absent-mindedness was the cause, he and his friends invented alternative—and often outlandish—reasons to explain why the parlor refused to fully close. Maybe it was possessed, they said to one another, and after-hours a group of jinn entered the building, partying until the morning. Whenever they walked by the parlor during a night out, often drunk or high themselves, they would stop in front of its blinking sign and yell, “Got any gin, jinn?” pleased with themselves for the pun. He wonders now whether he would even recognize Raheela Aunty or she him: thirty-four and bearded; slightly, if not unappealingly, overweight. He almost wishes he would run into her or someone else familiar—what would such a reunion look like? —but continues walking along Coney Island Avenue before the thought can persist. He reminds himself that he is not supposed to be here. He is only passing by.
Ibby Sheikh did not intend to get off at Newkirk Plaza, but when the conductor announced that everyone must exit the train and board another due to technical difficulties, he found his feet moving away from the other passengers and towards the stairwell. He walked straight out of the station and into the streets of his former neighborhood for the first time in fifteen years.He blamed it on muscle memory, but of course it was just the right combination of opportunity and time’s passage, buzzwords that his therapist had imprinted onto his brain and that sometimes slipped from his own mouth unbidden. When enough time has passed and you get the opportunity, you’ll go back home. Also emptiness, he thinks of telling his therapist when he shares the events of tonight at his next appointment. Opportunity and time’s passage and emptiness. It is the emptiness, the lack of any activity, that causes Ibby to stay.He would have promptly retraced his steps back to the station had he sensed the risk of identification, but Coney Island Avenue was conveniently devoid of people and cars alike.
A vigil was his first thought. Everyone was likely inside Makki Masjid praying for some reason or another. While vigils weren’t everyday occurrences here, they also weren’t unusual. The imam often called them when a community member or their relative was ill or in danger. Ibby remembers the few vigils he attended as a teenager: one for an uncle who was diagnosed with lung cancer, another for an aunty who’d gone missing.
He wonders what misfortune has brought Coney Island together tonight, and though he feels guilty, he is grateful that it has coincided with his return. While there are four more subway stops to his actual destination, he views the chance to roam unnoticed a sign that it is alright, even necessary, to prolong his journey.
“Train’s delayed,” Ibby now texts his mother. He types and erases and re-types the message five times before pressing send and hurrying along. He tells himself that he is only going to walk through the neighborhood once, quickly and quietly, before returning to the station. He is tempted to take pictures of the places he passes, places he and his parents used to frequent, but knows that this is impossible: Jaffar’s Jewelers, Punjab Pharmacy, and the Gyro King—his former employer, the reason for his departure from the neighborhood and the reason, tonight, that he wants to linger. As a teenager, he would buy several packs of Camels throughout the day from the pharmacy, during breaks from his restaurant shift, in order to flirt with the cashier, a petite girl with dimples high on her cheeks and a mess of dyed auburn curls that she loosely covered with a thin shawl. The memory first brings him pleasure—he misses this brazen version of himself—and then embarrassment because he cannot remember the girl’s name. “Will be at the hospital ASAP. Let me know when Dad’s out of the operating room.”
Ibby was alone in a bar when his mother phoned earlier that evening. “Ma, I’m with friends right now—can I call you later?” He had just started his second gin and tonic and did not want to leave it unfinished. No, she said. Not this time. As she began speaking, he thought, I’ll remember this call for the rest of my life, and he is right, though he’ll remember not so much the news his mother delivered as much as the sensation he felt after hearing it: relief followed, in quick succession, by guilt.
His father has had a heart attack. Four arteries clogged and then some. Quadruple bypass surgery is a hazardous endeavor but even more so given his father’s preexisting heart murmurs. “Seventeen percent,” his mother wept on the phone. “That’s what the doctor said. A seventeen percent chance of survival.” There was no need for his mother to ask; he knew what needed to be done. Ibby packed his best black suit and got on an Amtrak express train from Philadelphia, his home for the past fifteen years, to New York.
He called his boss at Vanguard and said that his father had died, that he would need five days off from sorting through 501k plans and taxes. (Five days: that’s how long he figured it would take for the funeral—Islamic tradition mandated that the body be buried within twenty-four hours—and for his mother to begin adjusting to life as a widow.) Would that be alright? Ibby asked. Of course, his boss said. He offered his condolences, asked Ibby if he was doing alright, all things considered. I’m holding up, Ibby said, privately allowing the thought—My father is dead—to settle as if it were reality. Best to accept and deliver the news now, he told himself, when it had not yet happened, rather than later. Best to prepare.
In many ways, of course, Ibby has long been prepared. Though he calls his parents, he does so infrequently. He communicates with his mother one-on-one, and with his father only when his mother is near enough to take the phone and mediate a conversation that inevitably evokes his youth and, as a result, inevitably sours. This has been their tacit deal, the way the three of them have managed to exist without terminating all contact. His parents never ask when they will get grandchildren (answer: no time soon, since he cannot manage to stay in a relationship for longer than two years), and Ibby never asks about his parents’ neighbors. When they speak, it is usually for five minutes at most and only to exchange pleasantries, mild and innocuous remarks about the changing weather or recently eaten meals. The one time Ibby broke his own rule was this past November, after the election, when he spoke to them—or, more accurately, at them—for half an hour.
“Stop wearing a scarf,” he told his mother. “Shave off your beard,” he told his father. “Do you want to have a target on your back?” He was frightened by how impassioned he felt and then frightened in turn by how quickly that passion subsided. The next time he’d called—which was the last time he’d called—was for the New Year and neither he nor his parents spoke of the advice he’d offered but returned to their neutral mode of speech.
In this way, for the past fifteen years, Ibby has managed to avoid physically seeing both his mother and father. Occasionally, he texts them photos of himself so they know that he is alive and well, and they send him photos of themselves in response, blurry selfies in which they are smiling hesitantly. It baffles him each time—their increasing frailty and wrinkles—and he promptly deletes the photos to prevent himself from obsessively analyzing them or becoming overwhelmed by shame. Initially, he created excuses for his reluctance to see them, saying that he hadn’t settled on an address or that he was too busy with work, and eventually his parents stopped proposing that they visit him or he visit them. “Self-protection turns a person into an extremist,” his therapist said of this behavior. “Pardon the word choice.”
The last time Ibby was with his parents they were all in a police station and he was nineteen. This was August of 2002—just before he ran away to Philadelphia with his then-girlfriend, a Puerto-Rican folk singer who got herself a job singing in some church and him a job sweeping the church’s floors; and just before his parents took their belongings south of Midwood, to a cockroach-infested apartment in Brighton Beach. Both moves were necessary. There was no way that he or his parents could remain living on Coney Island Avenue after Kabob King Gate, which is how the local newspapers described what happened. At Brooklyn College, where he was enrolled at the time, the other students nicknamed him “The KKG.”
“KKG almost got wifed up, can you believe it?” they said to one another. They were not exaggerating.
The summer that Ibby began working at Kabob King, his father arranged his engagement to the owner’s daughter, a girl four years his junior; a girl whom he eventually came to befriend and confide in about his romantic troubles; a girl with a sweet tooth and a shy smile who, like him, had no clue of the arrangement until much later. The owner and his family were in the States illegally; Ibby and his family legally. The owner wanted Mira to get a green card; Ibby’s father wanted Ibby to part with his gora ways—sex, booze, and drugs—for good. A hasty wedding seemed the obvious solution. They might have married, they might have divorced, Mira and her family might have been able to stay legally, had she not turned herself into ICE. Both families thought that Ibby had put her up to it, that she had sacrificed herself for his sake, but this wasn’t the case at all. He found out the way everyone else did, through a note explaining her decision. By the time Ibby and his parents were called into the police station for questioning, Mira and her family were already being deported. He didn’t get to say goodbye.
“Betrayed,” Ibby’s therapist said, once Ibby finally told the story after months of silent sessions. “You felt betrayed. You still do.” And maybe that was it, if betrayed meant exhausted and fatigued, tired beyond belief. Because those were the emotions Ibby experienced when he learned his father had been scheming behind his back all that time. Sure, his mother was complicit, as was Mira’s dad. But his mother couldn’t possibly disagree with his father—he had a bad temper and a mean fist when threatened, of which she was often on the receiving end—and the owner was simply going to the extreme length any parent would to protect his child. What excuse did Ibby’s father have?
“What did you expect, leaving there and coming here?” Ibby asked whenever he and his father got into heated arguments—about the rap music he listened to or the condoms he kept in his wallet, the bottles of Smirnoff that clanked in his backpack. “You wanted America? Well here it is,” Ibby would say, pointing his finger at his own chest. He used to have the stamina to stand his ground, the willpower to raise a hand in response to a slap. But after the aborted engagement, Ibby became silent and withdrawn, treating his father as though he didn’t exist because that is what Ibby wished were true.
The Kabob King was converted into a Gyro King shortly afterwards. Ibby’s mother had informed him of this on the phone nearly a decade ago, back when they spoke more regularly, once a month instead of once every six. She apologized for relaying the fact—she was no fool, she realized he might still be grieving that episode of their lives—but there was no one else around her who would appreciate it. “You understand?”
He did in some ways and he didn’t in others. He understood the overwhelming desire to share important details from one’s life with another—what human with a beating heart didn’t? —but what he didn’t understand was why his mother thought any information about the Kabob King still important enough to share at all. Over the years, he has come to view his parents’ fixation on the past with a combination of pity and frustration and, increasingly, resentment. “Then why did you leave?” he thought each time his father slipped into stories about riding a motorcycle along Clifton Beach and eating fresh mango ice cream made from the cream of his family’s cows. “If it was so good, why did you leave?” After the Kabob King scandal, when their neighbors began to view them with disdain and suspicion, Ibby recommended that his parents move out of Brooklyn entirely—to Jackson Heights in Queens or Edison in New Jersey, both communities with sizable South Asian populations—so that they might experience the same familiarity that they’d had for so long in Little Pakistan. But they wouldn’t even entertain the idea. It was as if they used up all their ambition on the first migration, as if they had been sapped of their energy and resolve, turned into shadows of the selves they left behind in Karachi’s airport.They settled on Brighton Beach, only twenty minutes from Coney Island Avenue by subway. Just far enough.
Ten years ago, when she mentioned to him the restaurant’s new name, Ibby’s mother had added that the new owner had changed the outside of the storefront as well. “As if there never was a Kabob King.” He had removed the green and white mounted menu display, exchanged the neon sign for a regular printed one, painted over the crown logo on the door.
“How do you know?” Ibby asked. “Did you go back?”
“I overheard at the meat shop in Brighton,” she said. “People talk.”
But Ibby can see now, standing in front of the empty and pitch black Gyro King, that the storefront is exactly as it once was. The menus and neon sign and crown logo have all remained, along with the dull brick façade. There is still the same ‘B’ Sanitary Inspection Grade poster plastered to the window, which the new owner apparently has not tried very hard to improve.
Ibby examines the restaurant’s menu board display, reading the familiar descriptions of meals and ingredients: mango lassi, doodh soda, gannay ka juice. He thinks that he could use one of these drinks right now, to offset the taste of gin still lingering in his mouth. Hethinks of the summer he spent here, when he was still a boy wearing a loose apron and a tight hairnet, preparing buttered naan and chicken biryani for seven, sometimes ten, hours a day. He thinks of smoking behind the restaurant while Mira, her hands trembling, held his lighter. He thinks that he will not tell his mother about the unchanged storefront, that he will let her believe the neighborhood has moved on in the hopes that she might do so herself as well. He thinks that he himself should move on from Coney Island Avenue and onwards to Brighton Beach. He thinks that he is ready, finally, to face his mother and bury his father. He thinks all this until he sees a sudden flash of fluorescence through the restaurant’s window and the two faces staring back at him—one frightened, the other wary; both undeniably young.
“Illness in the family, my ass” Maryam says to Leyla. Her voice is higher-pitched, like it gets when she’s excited or confused or, as she is now, both. “He’s an ICE agent, Leyla, I know it. And he’s gonna start interrogating us soon and we won’t even know it’s happening. Next thing you know he’ll go to the mosque and start rounding up aunties and uncles, flying them back to Pakistan. Tomorrow’s headline? ‘Delinquents Cause Mass Deportation.’
She grabs Leyla by the shoulders and slightly shakes her. “I’m sure Allah’s gonna be real happy with that. Real happy. Let me tell you.”
The girls are in the kitchen, preparing one medium-sized iced chai—fat-free milk and Splenda in place of whole milk and sugar—for the customer in the lobby. He is from out of town, passing through the neighborhood, on his way to the Victory Memorial Hospital in Brighton Beach because his father is ill. Or so he says. They were in the restaurant for hardly ten minutes when he appeared outside the front window, a silhouette peering in. Leyla is the one who heard the knock, the one who went to welcome him. Behind her, as she walked towards the door, Maryam was repeating like a refrain, “Are you pagal? Are you crazy?”
“We have to,” Leyla said. “You know the verse.” And they both do. On the Night of Power, the Qur’an decrees, hospitality is required. Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers. “We’ve already pissed off Allah more than enough.” she said. “We can’t just ignore him.”
Usually Leyla is the more cautious of the two—more hesitant and observant of rules—but tonight, she realizes in the kitchen, her deference to a higher authority has inverted their usual roles, and this thought unsettles her.
“Why do you have to look for ulterior motivations in everything?,” Leyla now says. The lack of sleep must be getting to her. She feels dizzy, possessed. “He’s thirsty, Maryam! Thirsty. Nothing more, nothing less.”
She opens the fridge and finds a carton of two-percent milk—close enough to skim—but notices that the expiration date has passed a couple of days before. She sniffs the inside and, satisfied, pours some into a mug. “He’s practically a literal refugee. And practically speaking, Allah would not be happy if we closed the door on a refugee.”
Leyla’s own speech exhausts her. She worries that the man has heard her yelling through the kitchen doors. Chastened by the shock on Maryam’s face and frightened by her own outburst, she hesitates and, lowering her voice, gives a soft laugh. “I mean, come on, Maryam. He’s brown—he can’t be an ICE agent. That’s like, betraying your own kind.”
“Well obviously he’s brown,” Maryam says, shaking her head. “It’s called being undercover. If he were gora, it would be too obvious. The whole point is that he looks like one of us so he can blend in.”
Leyla considers the possibility. It’s true that ICE agents have been knocking on their neighbors’ doors lately, and men have been disappearing. Already, Farah’s Fabrics has been shut down because her husband, a cab driver, was taken in the middle of the night. The same happened to Khalid Uncle, one of the grocers at Punjab Pharmacy. Gone just like that. Left a pregnant wife and a toddler behind. But Leyla doesn’t think the man outside capable of breaking apart families in this way.
“I mean, just look at him,” she says to Maryam, rising on her tip toes to examine him through the window in the kitchen’s door, sitting at one of the booths.
His head is bent down towards his lap—likely because he is scrolling through his phone—and Leyla can see the beginnings of a bald patch forming. His hair is thinning in the front. There’s some silver in his beard and the button-down he’s wearing is a size too small, tight near his waist. He is not unattractive, Leyla thinks, just a decade past his prime. He looks to be no younger than thirty and no older than forty. At first Leyla assumed he wasa cousin, a nephew, a relative of someone from Coney Island. She could have sworn that Raheela Aunty mentioned her sister’s son-in-law would soon be visiting when Leyla went to her parlor for a trim last week.
“He looks entirely ordinary,” Maryam says. She rips three packets of a generic artificial sweetener and pours them into the mug, one after another. Tiny white grains spill onto the counter. “And ordinary is suspicious.”
“We’re both nineteen,” one of the girls—Leyla—says to Ibby.
“Except I’m three months older,” says her friend, who speaks in the same vocal fry as all the girls he ever dated as a teenager. Maryam is her name, and Ibby can tell from the way she is twirling a curl around her finger and leaning over the booth table that, of the two, she is the one used to getting attention, the one used to being seen. He can also tell that the girls are lying. Not about the three months—that much Ibby figures is true because of how Leyla grimaced at Maryam’s interjection—but about their age. They look to be about the fourteen, fifteen at most. That they are not telling the truth, or at least the full truth, relieves him. It makes him feel less guilty about his own dishonesty. It is like they have all mutually agreed to deceive.
They have told him that they are about to begin their second year at Brooklyn College, where they study psychology with a focus, for Laila, in child development and a focus, for Maryam, in addiction.He has told them that his name is Moe—short for Muhammed, a generic enough name for a Pakistani-American man and thus a safe alias—and that he is passing through Coney Island Avenue on his way to a hospital in Brighton. He used to have a cousin who lived in the neighborhood, he explained, and because of this has been to the Gyro King once or twice before; it is why he thought to stop here tonight, for a refreshment, before resuming his journey.
“You’ve probably met my dad then,” Laila says.
“He’s the owner.”
Ibby puts down his chai. He looks closely at Leyla, considering her blunt bangs and long, thoughtful face. She does not resemble Mira in the slightest, not physically, but there is something in the way her shoulders slope forward that reminds Ibby of the former owner’s daughter, his former fiancé. He wants to tell Leyla this—he wants her to sense the relation because it is not insignificant, he thinks—but he instead shrugs.
“Maybe,” he says. “It’s been a long time.” And then, because he cannot help himself, because he is paranoid, suddenly, that this new owner will appear and reveal him for who he is, he asks, “Where’s your dad now?”
“At the mosque,” Maryam answers.
“With everyone else,” Leyla adds. “Because of the night.”
Maryam shoots Leyla a look of pure malice, and Ibby understands that Leyla has said too much and that later, in the private ways of girls, Maryam will punish her for this mistake. It was like that for Mira, too, Ibby thinks. She would often complain to Ibby about a friend she had, a cocksure girl who said mean things one day and nice things the next, the kind of girl a teenage boy wants to date until, one day, he doesn’t.
“The night—?” Ibby asks.
“The Night of Power.”
Of course, Ibby thinks after a moment, shaking his head because it is now obvious to him. That’s why no one is in the streets. Not because of just any vigil but because of the vigil.
Ibby hasn’t fasted or observed the Night of Power in fifteen years now—even more if you count the fact that those vigils he did attend as a teenager he spent praying for a girlfriend or, after he got a girlfriend, daydreaming about her. He knows that it is Ramadan only because a Muslim co-worker inexplicably stopped eating earlier in the month. He remembers memorizing verses from the Qur’an about the night during Islamic Sunday School as a boy: “What will explain to you the Night of Power? It is the night better than a thousand months.” He remembers calculating that a thousand months was the equivalent of 30, 439 nights and, in awe and disbelief, repeating this fact to his parents.He remembers the night as a giant sleepover, when the whole community crammed into the mosque for up to ten hours. No one left the building—they didn’t want to and they didn’t need to. Some people like Ibby’s father literally brought sleeping bags to rest in during the brief breaks between prayer services. Other people like Ibby’s mother brought folding chairs to sit on when their legs grew tired from standing and bending. Mohsin Uncle brought cases of water bottles from his dollar store for everyone to drink. Kabir Uncle brought bags full of pastries from his bakery for everyone to eat.
What Ibby found curious was how kind neighbors were to one another during this period. You wouldn’t hear a bad word from a single mouth. Anyone would have cut off their arm in charity if asked. But then, as if on Allah’s command, as soon as the sun rose the next morning, his father would say, “Did you see Rafeeq wearing a stained khameez?” And his mother would nod. “His wife, too.” And when Ibby walked along Coney Island Avenue the next day, buying cigarettes from the pharmacy or mangos from the grocery shop, he would overhear similar sentiments. “Sarah fell asleep halfway through prayers. Allah have mercy. What a waste.” It was as if a spell had been cast on the neighborhood and then, just as quickly, lifted.
“And you’re spending the night here?” he asks the girls. He means the question as a joke, but again Maryam gives Leyla that look. He feels guilty. “I’m glad that you’re here. I mean—” He blushes. “For the chai.”
“We’re here to pick up sweets to bring back to the mosque,” Leyla says. “You came just in time.”
After he first moved to Philadelphia, Ibby’s mother used to call and tell him that “the big night” had arrived and that he should conduct himself accordingly. “Pray for yourself, and me, and your baba.” He didn’t know when exactly she stopped calling, but she had, likely realizing that he persisted in whatever he was doing at the time of her call: watching television, drinking gin, playing pool. Though they now pray in the privacy of their living room rather than in the mosque, his parents have steadfastly continued to observe the holiday. And tonight, he thinks, is likely no exception. He can picture perfectly what is happening inside the hospital: his mother pulling a prayer rug out of her tote bag, laying it down beside her father’s empty bed, prostrating and pressing her forehead on the cloth in worship, until he returns. She has always carried multiple rugs, should she or those around her feel compelled at any moment to commune with Allah. When Ibby moved to Philadelphia, he brought with him a gold and crimson-colored one—intricately woven by a Pakistani tailor and decorated with the imprint of a minaret—which he then affixed to the wall. “A man with style,” women often said, raising their brows in mild amusement whenever he invited them back to his apartment, barren of any décor save for the rug. He learned early on to find the aesthetic use in his religion. The prayer beads his mother gifted him one Eid he wore as a chain during his clubbing phase; the fez hat as part of an Aladdin costume during Halloween season.
The gin and tonics from earlier in the evening have fully settled in his body. How is it that just four hours ago he was watching a Manchester United game in a bar? His head is beginning to throb—the sensation is a dull and not unpleasant one—and his stomach is beginning to grumble. He realizes that he hasn’t eaten since lunchtime. The girls have moved on from talking about The Night of Power to some psychology course they’re taking, but Ibby has stopped listening, getting by with a nod every so often and a “huh, you don’t say.” When he does register their words—bits about an adulterous professor and Freudian slips—he experiences a shock like an electric jolt that pulses through his brain, reminding him that he has a body and it is here and it will soon be at a hospital and then, eventually, a cemetery. He wonders where his father would want to be buried—close by Brighton Beach, or Coney Island? Perhaps Karachi? He thinks of the cost of caskets, of casket sizes, of casket material—mahogany? steel?—and makes a mental note to google all this information later, on his phone, in the subway, after he leaves the restaurant.
“Listen,” he says. Ibby only realizes that he’s spoken aloud once Maryam pauses in her speech and Laila looks at him expectantly. His own voice seems to him distant and unrecognizable. He feels stoned though the last time he smoked weed was more than a decade ago, as a twenty-something-year-old on a frat rooftop celebrating Obama’s first election. For a moment, he pictures himself as that young man with these girls—passing a bong, blowing rings in each other’s eyes, chanting Yes We Can!, secure with their place in the world. But the image quickly fades and he becomes embarrassed by the pleasure—however fleeting—that he derived from it. “Can I have some food?”
“The key is to dip the kabobs in lemon juice beforehand,” Moe says. “Doesn’t matter what the directions on the box say.” He wipes his hands on the apron he’s put on, the one that Leyla’s father usually wears. “It makes them extra savory.”
The three of them are in the kitchen, in front of the long center counter. Moe is chopping onions, Leyla is mixing a salad, and Maryam is observing from afar since the onions are making her cry. Seeing the tears shocks Leyla and then pleases her. Even if they are technically fake, it is the only thing she has that Maryam doesn’t, this resistance.
“Good dressing choice,” Moe tells Leyla, reaching over to pick out a cucumber from the bowl in front of her. There are tufts of black hair on his knuckles and Leyla can feel that they are stiff and prickly when his hand grazes her arm.
They are here because Moe wanted kabobs. When Leyla admitted to him that she and Maryam didn’t actually know how to cook, he shrugged. “I can make them myself.”
He seems to know where everything is—the cutting board, the blender, the special chef’s knife. “I used to work at a restaurant,” he explains. “In Philly.”
Leyla has never been inside the Gyro King’s kitchen, has never stood this close to a man, has never told this many lies. The lies thrill her. She did not think herself capable. It frightens her, how easily she can blend fiction and fact, and she wonders if others find it as easy too. She and Maryam have been creating whole personalities for themselves all night, alter-egos that are clever and college-aged. Her head is dizzy with possibility. Is there a difference, she thinks, between seeming and being? Does there have to be?
“Are these for the Pakistan Day Parade?” Moe asks, nodding his chin towards a plastic container—filled with green and white utensils, cloth napkins, and dishes—that is in front of one of the cabinet doors. He directs the question towards Maryam, who blushes.
“I think so,” she says, looking down at her sandals and then sideways at Leyla.
Leyla has seen how Maryam acts in front of boys, both gora and brown. She tosses her hair, thrusts her hips, modulates her voice between high and low. These tricks work—very well, in fact—and Leyla is usually left wondering how best to emulate them. But tonight, they seem to her clumsy and awkward, inelegant.
“They are,” Leyla says. “My dad’s gonna start using them next week, when it’s closer to the day.” The parade takes place every August 14th, on Pakistani’s Independence Day.
“Does Bashir Uncle still spray-paint his cab green for a week?”
Leyla laughs. The temporarily green cab is a sight on Coney Island Avenue. “The color lasts for longer, sometimes two weeks.”
Moe shakes his head and smiles. “I remember. I’ve been to a few parades because of my cousin. And Raheela Aunty, does she still give people tattoos of the Pakistani flag at the stand?”
“Raheela Aunty gives tattoos?” Maryam asks. “That sounds fake.”
“Not actual ones,” Leyla says, not even irritated that Maryam has interrupted her conversation with Moe. When she was little, she would ask Raheela Aunty to tattoo the flag all up and down her arms and legs. “Just with a special henna cone.”
Moe smiles. “I remember.”
Leyla wants to ask him what else he remembers, but his phone vibrates and, after he looks down at the screen, his face turns blank.
“I have to go,” he says.
He feels the emptiness in his pocket only after he has left the Gyro King and passed Raheela’s parlor. Did he even remove the wallet from his pocket at all in the restaurant? For a second, he wonders if the girls might have stolen it, but then becomes ashamed at the thought. He knows this isn’t possible, but he is desperate for the night to unfold differently, and a trip to the police to file a theft would provide a welcome divergence from what awaits him. When he does return to the Gyro King, after Leyla has given him his wallet, he considers ordering another chai, re-reading then deleting the text message from his mother, pretending that the night will not end or that it never began. But Leyla does not give him this option and for that he is grateful.
“We’ll be off soon ourselves,” she says. “Enjoy the rest of the night—or what’s left of it.”
“Definitely an agent,” Maryam says. “No doubt about it. That dramatic ass exit? And then his dramatic ass return? I could have written the script myself.”
Half an hour has passed since he left for a second time but the girls are still sitting in the booth, as if awaiting his arrival once more. The sky is changing color like a healing bruise, from black to purple to light blue. Soon, the sun and the angels will rise, and the vigil will end. Before then, Leyla and Maryam will have to clean the dishes, replace the dirty napkins, rearrange the tables, return to the mosque. But, Leyla thinks, staring out the window, there is still time. There always is. Outside, the moon hangs like a smirk in the sky and she has the sense that Allah has placed it there just for her.
“Definitely,” she tells Maryam, nodding. “No doubt.”
Leyla can hear the falseness heavy in her words, but she knows that she needs to say them. She knows that her affirmation is required for tonight’s events to turn into a story—which, she knows as well, is what it will soon become. She knows that in the coming days and weeks she and Maryam will go over the details of their night in the Gyro King and will together form a version of what happened, though the details will vary, ever so slightly, each time they relay it: how tall he is, the color of his eyes, where his wrinkles imprint themselves on his face. Once the school year begins, they will whisper this story to their friends in the locker room in hushed voices, warning that it best not be repeated, though they fully expect—and hope—that it is. Enough time will have passed that, should the story reach their ears, their parents will be too preoccupied with other anxieties, more urgent and present ones, to reprimand them as they might have formerly done. The girls will laugh at their good fortune, and then, eventually, they will stop repeating the memory in favor of other ones because there will be many more fleeting encounters with older men, many more nights spent praying, or neglecting to. The story of tonight—the one spread far and wide—will become, in Laila’s mind, indistinguishable from these. She knows this. She knows, also, that there is an alternate story of the evening, separate from the one articulated aloud, that she will privately form in the coming days and weeks, and that she will remember with astonishing clarity.
“Imagine if you had opened his wallet,” Maryam says. “Maybe you’d have seen a badge or something.”
“Maybe,” Leyla says.
He had left his wallet on a counter in the kitchen, which Laila realized while cleaning, and which he realized too, shortly after leaving. When he returned, it was sheepishly; and when he departed a second time, it was as abruptly as the first. (Later, when Leyla revisits this night, which she periodically will from time to time—long after she and Maryam have stopped speaking because of a minor disagreement that turned into a major one—she will locate in these double exits a timeline of the entire night: prolonged and stretched out, reluctant to end.)
Imagine if you had opened his wallet.
She felt her fingers tingle as she picked out the card—small and rectangular-shaped—and the tingling did not stop even after she closed the wallet’s tattered folds.
“Ibrahim Sheikh,” it read. “Vanguard Investment Analyst.”
His name was Ibby Sheikh.
When she returned the wallet to Ibby, the business card resting in the pocket of her khameez, she expected him to feel that it had become lighter and to accuse her of making it so; and when this didn’t happen, when instead he simply put it in his pocket and left, she expected him to enter the Gyro King for a third time, to retrieve yet another one of his misplaced items. But this didn’t happen either.
Since Ibby’s final departure, Leyla has been searching for a way to explain to Maryam the truth—that the stranger they encountered was no stranger at all. But she doesn’t know that the words exist, and this thought exhausts her. She feels weary and irritated, alone with the knowledge of Ibby’s identity, and even more weary and irritated that Maryam does not recognize what has happened, gradually, over the course of the night: that she has become the sort of girl who opens wallets and possesses secrets. She thinks, We’re strangers, the two of us, and Maryam doesn’t know it yet but I do.
“ICE agents probably don’t have badges anyway.” Through the window Leyla can see that the smirking moon has disappeared. “Hurry,” she says to Maryam, rising from the booth. “The night’s ending.”
Although he has never once stepped foot in it, the hospital room appears familiar because of how frequently, throughout the night, he has been imagining the scene: his mother kneeling on the prayer rug placed by his father’s bed; the nurses looking on, sharing a sad smile between themselves. He feels the way he used to after returning home late from a party, passing by Raheela’s parlor. Groggy but conscious, his body aching from whatever toxins he ingested. He tries to recall the faces of the girls he left behind at the Gyro but they are already beginning to blur.
“Baba,” he says, but his father cannot hear him. Not yet, because it will take another four hours until he awakes from the anesthesia.
“Seventeen percent,” his mother cries from the prayer rug. She has gained weight in the middle and her hair is more gray than chestnut, which is how he has been remembering it. When Ibby entered the room, she rose at once from the rug to embrace him but returned to prostrating just as quickly. “Seventeen percent, they said, but Allah make it one-hundred.”
Ibby stands at the edge of the bed. Tears form in his eyes but don’t fall. They will come later—the tears, along with the words. There is much that he has said and much that he has left unsaid; and now, watching his father’s chest rise and fall in sync with the lines on the heart monitor, he knows there is much that he will have to say. But there is still time, he thinks, until then. There always is. For the moment, he goes to kneel beside his mother on the rug, praying into the silence before the night comes to pass.
My mother can only fall asleep with a hitachi wand tucked between her legs. It is big and white—the thick handle alone is the size of an adult humerus bone, and atop it rests a large bulb the size of an adult’s fist. The bulb is made of a material that is probably plastic but feels like leather, and has myriads of small indentations that collect dirt, fluid—i.e. color, yellow-brown dots that, when the hitachi is turned on to the low setting, make the whole head appear yellow, like a crude pointillism; but on the high setting the opposite effect occurs, somehow the vigorous high speed vibrations, which are so rapid as to be insensible, like strobe lights which give you the impression that a rotating object is actually perfectly still, cause the discolorations to vanish completely, and the bulb is all white, pure white all over, the same color as the handle. My mother, I know, prefers the low setting—but even so I worry that overuse will make her completely numb, which would be a disaster, since it is the only way that she can fall asleep.
Usually when I come home from school, I can hear the rumbles of the hitachi from the corridor outside our apartment door, and I know my mother has fallen asleep. She does not like to use the hitachi at night, I am not entirely sure why, but as a result she sleeps only fitfully, restlessly, for an hour or so at a time, and it is good for her to take a nap in the early afternoon while I am at school. I suspect that she feels safer using it then in the belief that, given the context of the time of day, early afternoon when nothing exciting happens, our neighbors will assume that the electric growl that vibrates the walls adjacent to our apartment is just the sound of vacuuming. When I unlock the door, for a brief moment the whine of the hitachi trapped between my mother’s legs gains voice, as if imbued with newfound hope of escaping out the door, fleeing in echo down the corridor outside, but as soon as I shut the door behind me again, closing off the avenue of the sound’s reverberant escape, it becomes choked and flat again, though still petulantly loud. I lock the door behind me and twist the handle once to check. The kitchen is right next to the door; first I go there and check that the stove is off and no faucets have been left running; then I walk back to the door and take my shoes off and hang up my keys; then I walk past the kitchen again to the dining table and set down my backpack and jacket on my chair, the one closest to the kitchen; then I go the bathroom and wash my hands; then I go to the bedroom where my mother is lying on her side, legs tangled up in a blanket that is half on the floor, and I carefully reach over her body to unplug the hitachi from the socket in the wall next to the bed.
After that I close the bedroom door softly and go to the kitchen to make some food—my favorites are udon noodles with beef and chicken stock, or waffles. If I make udon noodles, I make twice as much as I want to eat, and leave one clean bowl with two clean spoons and two clean sets of chopsticks in it next to the stove; if I make waffles, I plug in the toaster, make two waffles, which is exactly as much as I want to eat, and unplug the toaster. Then I sit down with my food at the dining table and either read, or start my homework. Usually I have time to finish all my homework and get through at least a few chapters before my mother wakes up.
Sometimes the doorbell rings, which is okay. Usually it is either the mailman coming to deliver a check or a package for my mother from her agent, or it is the Watchtower pamphlet man who comes around on Tuesdays for Bible study. But today is not a Tuesday and my mother did not shower this morning; usually my mother is happy and lively on the days she is expecting something from the mailman, on those mornings she wakes up even earlier than me and I hear her showering as I get ready for school, and when I come to the dining table she is dressed in a lovely flowery gown that is so loose and formless that it insistently suggests the nakedness of her thin frame underneath, the places where bone makes its shape known and the places where it does not, and she shows me a painting or a print from a book of art she has written, and chatters on about the people she was with when she saw the piece of art first, and what thoughts it made her think, and which bits of those thoughts she shared with the people she was with and which bits she decided not to share with those people at that time but which she ended up sharing with the whole world by including it in her writing, and which bits she had not shared with anyone for all this time and which I must be absolutely careful not to divulge to anyone because they were such naughty, important secrets. But this morning, as usual, I did not hear the sound of the shower when I got out of bed, and so I knew she would never get out of bed for the rest of the day except to go to the kitchen and eat udon noodles standing up and naked, her bones so starkly visible in their unlovely angles that they obscure the general form of her body, and she appears all over merely a quaint collection of kindling, naked because she refuses to put on clothes when she feels she is dirty, the clothes are too clean and thus too good for her sweaty, bed-sticky body.
So today the doorbell rings, and it is not necessarily okay, because today is not a Tuesday, I am sure, and today, my mother did not shower, and she is asleep. Today is not as usual, there is something wrong with today.
Today when the doorbell rang I sat very still and straight in my chair for a minute. It was five pm and the light that came through the window was very yellow and made striations in my eye, in which dust particles slid like so many Irises down the rainbow lines. Instead of answering, I watched a squirrel outside the window nibble insistently on the trunk of an oak tree, as if it would find a treasure trove at the center. The doorbell rang again, and only a second later, again. I stood up and walked through the kitchen on the way to the door and picked up a small knife in my right hand.
I walked carefully, but not too carefully; I don’t have to walk too carefully, because I know how to place my feet so they never make any sound against the floor; once I arrived at the door, I saw and subsequently remembered that the peephole was about a foot and a half above my head, and required a small lever to be pressed down on the side to open it up, so that even if I stood back to compensate for my lack of height, which I would not have been able to do anyways due to the wall of shoes and shoeboxes stacked up behind me as barrier between threshold and home, I would not be able to see anything through the small oval hole at all, not even a bit of light. Realizing this, I put down the knife on the floor next to the door and walked back to the dining table, and carefully carried my chair back through the kitchen to the door, taking extra effort this time, since the chair gave me extra weight, to ensure my heavier steps made no sound against the floor, and I carefully set down the chair between the door and the wall of shoeboxes behind it, and climbed up onto the seat of the chair on my knees, then my feet so that I could face the door, press down the lever with my right hand and steady myself against the door with my left hand as I looked through. To my disappointment, there was nothing there to be seen, only darkness that straining did not alter in the slightest, as if my eyes were closed. I could not tell if this was my error, if there was another latch somewhere which I was meant to depress, or if the peephole had been covered up from the outside. Or perhaps the peephole never worked at all; although I had seen my mother use it and she had always seemed satisfied, so perhaps it was the kind of thing that only worked when you knew what you were expecting to see.
There was nothing to be done. I had to open the door now, there was no way to delay it.
Once when I was much younger my mother gave me a book of Japanese prints by an artist named Hokusai, and she told me, “This is Hokusai, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, he was one of those people who lived in two centuries, and not just a few years in one and mostly the other, either, but nearly half in each, like me.” Then she added, kneeling down to see my face better, since I was very short on account of being so young, though even then I looked exactly like her, and even more so by now, as I have grown to nearly her height, and especially so today, on account of the flowery gown I am wearing, “You will never live in two centuries, you’ll be lucky to see the second half of this one,” which just sounded like gloating. There were many interesting prints in the book, and many pictures of naked women who looked very different from my mother, and sometimes both pleasing categories overlapped in a single, extremely pleasing, print. My favorite print was one called “Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife,” in which two octopi, one big and one small, with dark sideways-lidded eyes and bulbous heads like my mother’s hitachi, wrapped their tentacles around a reclining woman as if to make a soft bed for her with their own strong limbs so that she might have sweet dreams. It was my favorite print from the book because my mother said it was her favorite print, and she often closed her eyes and shuddered a little all over when staring at it, as if shaking off a dream or memory. Because she stared at it deeply, as if there was much meaning to be gleaned, I often stared at it too, and started to notice small details I hadn’t noticed before—for example, it took me a while before I even noticed the second, smaller octopus, which was at the reclining woman’s head and wrapped its tentacles around her neck as if to hold it up, but did so ineffectually, since the woman’s head was nonetheless tilted far back at an angle that must have been uncomfortable, and even after I noticed that detail it was a while before I realized that what the octopus was doing with the tentacle between its eyes was meant to be kissing her, and then it took me even longer after that to notice that the little octopus had the tiny end of one tentacle curled around an erect nipple. When I noticed that final detail, I became suddenly disgusted with the print, and tore out the page so I would not have to look at it again, because there was something about the insidiousness of that single thin talon curled possessively around the woman’s nipple that made me want to tear off the entire limb with my bare hands and eat it, chew it to string, as it wriggled against my teeth. As a result, it had been several years since I had looked at or even thought of the print, but I suddenly recalled it in exact detail as I stood at the door which I had just now opened and compared my perfect memory of the print to the figure I saw before me, in shocked amazement that the comparison did not fail or outshine the reality, as at the door now stood the exact embodiment of the smaller octopus from the print, in a suit, which nonetheless did not disguise his long, beaked nose and circular eyes wide open with shock, in which his pupils stood out like dark crescents, and his enormous, mushroom-shaped head, where wrinkly folds stood out on a glassy, nearly gelatinous forehead.
The little octopus cleared his throat nervously. “Excuse me, you’re not… you wouldn’t happen to be,” he whispered, so softly I could barely hear. “Not… Tamako?”
“No, of course not,” I informed the octopus. “That’s my mother.”
The octopus sighed deeply and drew his hand over his shiny, wet forehead, then held it out to me at the end of an improbably long arm. “Little girl,” he said, and hesitated when I made no motion to shake his slimy, insidious hand. “What a nice little girl,” he started again, and he lifted his long tentacle to my cheek, and licked me with it from temple to collarbone before retracting it, leaving a sweat-trail down the right side of my face. I shuddered in anger and wanted to slap the tentacle away but it was gone already, and the octopus was much taller than me and stood far enough away that to reach out and strike him, I would have had to let go of the door I was holding open and step through it, which was unacceptable.
The octopus seemed to be emboldened by my inaction and became suddenly businesslike, straightening himself up and crossing his long arms across his chest with many tortuous twists. He began to speak again, without hesitation, and, in a slow drawl that managed to convey that there could be no more surprises for him, that every word he spoke was coupled to all those preceding and succeeding by gluey strands of salivary jelly, he explained to me that he was here to see my mother, to investigate complaints lodged by the neighbors that I was too often seen unsupervised, and that if I did not want the wrath of the august governing body of the Child Protective Services to fall down upon our household, I must absolutely allow him to enter into our home and look around wherever he liked and wait for my mother to come home, so that he might inspect her to his discretion.
I told the octopus, in the same supercilious tone with which he had spoken, that he must go away immediately, that my mother was home and only asleep in bed, and that he should be more concerned for his own wellbeing as my mother and I liked to eat seafood very much and very well might eat him if he wasn’t careful.
The octopus did not take this remark very well; the color in his massive face darkened and his iris-less pupils seemed to grow larger in his wide, lidless eyes. In a sudden, violent show of strength, he shoved open the door, tearing it completely out of my hand, and it knocked over the chair that I had placed behind the door, which in turn toppled the stack of shoes and shoeboxes behind it.
For a moment we both looked inwards, past the overturned heels and half-open boxes strewn across the floor, waiting in anxious anticipation to see if the commotion had awakened my mother. When, after a moment, the door to her bedroom did not open, we turned our attention back to each other with renewed intensity. The fear that had momentarily struck me, when the octopus drove the door open with far greater strength than I contained in my entire body, disappeared in the next moment as I contemplated what disaster he might wreak on my mother if I allowed him to pass through the threshold. That was the octopus’ mistake—he might have handled me alone, a weak young girl without illusions of invincibility, if he had not reminded me what was at stake. But in the moment after his transgression I knew instantly, and the knowledge thrummed through my whole body, that at no cost could I allow the octopus to wriggle his way into our home and our lives, for my mother’s sake. I pulled the door in sharply, so that it was only open a small crack wide enough to be completely blocked by my body, and braced it with my foot, prepared to have it broken rather than give way. “You must leave,” I hissed at the octopus fiercely, letting all my anger show in my face. “Leave now, before you get hurt.”
The octopus uncrossed his arms, and the hard superciliousness vanished from his body. He became fluid, boneless, seemed to expand to twice his original girth, so that the suit nearly burst off of his body, as if he no longer cared to uphold the disguise. I gathered that he had decided to treat me as a worthy adversary, rather than a lowly gatekeeper. In a persuasive, almost sycophantic tone, he conceded that I was clearly capable of taking care of myself, and had an admirable fierceness of spirit that would serve me well in the world, but that “a woman like your mother has needs, you know, needs that a young girl cannot possibly understand yet… A woman has dreams, which she can never share with an innocent young girl, and all the same she cannot help having such desires… Would you hold her back from that? Would you be so selfish as to prevent her from ecstasies you could never be a part of? I know you care for her more than that…”
“Let her go,” he whispered, his tentacles caressing my ears. “Let her go, let her go, you are not enough, let her go…”
I was afraid to move my arms from the door in case he took the opportunity to burst it open again, but his tentacles were moving over my whole face now, blocking up my nose and eyes and lips, and I shook my head madly to free myself, to breathe, but it was relentless.
“She doesn’t need you!” I gasped out, as a tentacle wormed its way next to my tongue. I could taste the salty sweat that covered it, and gagged. “I help her with everything, anything she needs,” I told him, still gagging.
“You don’t know everything,” he hissed, and swaddled my entire head as if to wrench it off of my spine in the next second. I pulled back, but he was much stronger than me, and had so many more limbs, while I had none free as long as I maintained my hold on the door. I began to see darkness, as if my eyes were closed even though I was straining to open them, and was suddenly afraid that I would die like this, a swollen head without a body, stuffed up and tossed around like a toy, and a sudden strength surged through me, borne not of my will but my body’s simple desire to remain attached to itself, to remain one whole inviolable object even if it no longer carried my life. With the sudden, nerveless strength that pulsed through me, I pulled the door open and slammed it as hard as I could against my own head, which loosened the tentacle hold on me just enough so that I could wrench my head free and slam the door closed.
But a few tentacles were still wedged in the crack, wriggling around the door to lash my hand and lick the door handle. And a voice from a head I could not see intoned, “I have owned her long before you were even born,” but it was so loud that I could not tell if it came from within, from behind the bedroom door where my mother surely lay asleep, or if it echoed through the crack in the door. I knew it must be a trick, the octopus meant to distract me, make me look behind myself rather than focus on the danger in front of me, so I did not respond, only inched the door closer and closer shut. The tentacles retreated one by one, until there was only one tiny finger left, curled in on itself as if trying to withdraw, and I realized the only reason it could not withdraw was because there was no room to. With no tentacles left for leverage, the octopus could only rely on my mercy, on my decision to open the door again and potentially sacrifice my victory.
There was nothing left to do. I braced the door with my whole body, picked up the knife that I had left on the floor next to the door, and in one swift move sliced the writhing talon off. The door clicked shut, and I swiftly locked it, twisting the handle to check. The bloody member spasmed on the floor, wriggling as if it could be reunited with its genitor if it was only brave enough to struggle a little longer.
I left it—it was a mess I would prefer to clean up later, when all the struggle was gone.
I went to the bathroom to wash my hands; then I went to the bedroom, where my mother lay still sleeping on her side facing the wall, her black hair splayed out all over the pillow, a few sticky strands glued to her pale cheek. I stood by the door watching her for a moment, a possessive urge to do something rising in my gorge, but I did not know exactly what it was I was supposed to do, so I breathed deeply to release the emotion from my chest.
I approached the bed where my mother lay and carefully set my body down next to my mother, arranging my limbs so that I was embracing her from the back. As soon as I touched her, she startled for a moment, a panicked look in her eyes, but then she realized her hitachi was still tucked between her legs and hidden away out of sight within the tangled blankets, and she relaxed. As usual, she lies to herself that she must have managed to turn the hitachi off on her own before falling completely asleep, rather than allow herself to consider the possibility that I might be willing to help her with her needs. It’s a silly instinct, but a tender one.
My mother snuggled into me with a sigh of pleasure. “My, you’ve gotten strong,” she purred, her voice husky with sleep. “Your body is so hard, like a man’s—you should not play so much with the boys, it’s not becoming for a girl.”
My mother says things like this often, but she does not mean it, not really. After all, she is bony herself, not all soft curves like the naked women in the book of Hokusai prints. And we both know she is very pretty.
I moved her hair gently off of her cheek and behind her ear.
“I think my father came to the door, today,” I whispered.
“Did he really? Did you slay him as I taught you to do?” she murmured back, half-asleep.
“I did… I did,” I told her.
“Good girl, that’s my girl,” she said, not even knowing what she was saying, and rolled over into me to sleep some more.
One day in June, Dad found a foot in a men’s size 11 Adidas shoe lying out near the salt flats. My first thought was that there must be an ocean around, even though I knew that was impossible, that the salt flats had been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. I’d never even seen the ocean outside of a magazine or sometimes a TV show, and even then I had the feeling that I wasn’t really seeing the ocean, that it wasn’t the same as actually being there. But the foot seemed like the kind of thing that could only wash up on shore from a faraway land, like a message in a glass bottle with a cork as a cap.
Rosemary and I bent our knees slightly to look at it, pinching our noses. I stayed slightly behind. I couldn’t help but think about who the foot would belong to, what a man in the Mojave would look like hopping around with a foot missing. Maybe he’d post a sign – Missing: Size 11 foot in a size 11 shoe. White. Hefty reward if found and returned to rightful owner in original condition. Dad bent down to look closer. He reached out and touched the shoe softly, rubbing the untied white laces between his thumb and forefinger. After a second, he looked up at us, squinting in the bright sun. “It’s a left,” he announced.
That summer, I was always on the lookout. I couldn’t help it. Mothers with daughters, mothers with sons, mothers with twins, mothers with their mothers, mothers with fathers, mothers with pets, mothers in swimsuits, mothers pushing strollers, mothers expecting, mothers eating hamburgers, mothers with broken bones, mothers with spit-up on their sweaters, mothers wearing white dresses, mothers wearing lipstick, mothers with slicked back ponytails, mothers drinking coffee, mothers with tennis rackets, mothers with damp hair, mothers driving vans, mothers singing, mothers with pearl earrings, mothers crying quietly, mothers wearing aprons, mothers with their hair pinned up, mothers alone that were inexplicably still, above all else, mothers. I couldn’t help but stare.
On the last Thursday of May, right after Rosemary and I finished school for the summer, we all drove north from St. George to Bonneville for the summer. Dad had a job helping prepare the salt flats for Speed Week at the end of August, when people descended from all over for the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials. It was rumored that one contender, Guy Martin, was hoping to break all records with a 1,000 horsepower motorcycle. I was mostly excited to spend the summer on the salt flats. Dad said that in the early morning on really hot days, the heat waves rose up and shimmered until it looked like a shallow lake again.
The drive was almost six hours long, and the whole way up we listened to Bob Dylan on the radio, our toes pressed against the windshield. To our left, the highway curved steeply and grasses in shades of green, yellow, and purple seemed to stretch on forever. As we drove, the canyons ahead of us seemed to ripple, faster as we drove closer.
This summer, Dad announced, our project was going to be learning Spanish. We were going to do a word each day, and then by the end of the summer we would be able to say a few sentences each. I loved watching Dad speak Spanish more than I loved hearing it, the way his mouth moved differently when he said words like amor or vidorra, how it changed his whole face. Spanish words never sounded right when I said them, like I was trying to talk with my mouth full. Rosemary barely even tried.
Sometimes, Dad would take us out to see the strange things he found in the desert. Mostly me, because after Rosemary turned seventeen she started staying in our room more, sometimes reading or watching TV even though I could tell part of her secretly still wanted to come with us. Sometimes I find her lying in bed, one cheek resting on her bent palm and her legs crossed behind her, thumping one heel after another on the dark wooden headboard of the bed.
“What’re you looking at?” I’d ask her, standing next to her and gazing out the window, wondering if there was something she was seeing out there that I wasn’t, but never more than the occasional lizard or spiny mouse scuttled across the salt flats as far as I could tell.
“I’m just thinking,” she’d say. “That’s all.”
The salt flats were in the center of Bonneville, the only thing left over from the Pleistocene lake that once covered half of Utah, spilling over into Idaho and Nevada. No one knew exactly when it was first discovered but Dad told me it was sometime in the 1830s. A U.S. Army officer exploring the mountains stumbled across the white and dried up land, stretching on for miles of nothing to the South. He must have thought for a second that he was on the surface of the moon. In the summer, the light reflected so brightly off of the flats we could barely keep our eyes open.
One Sunday, around the first week of June, we made our first trip into Salt Lake City, driving across the cracked flat surface of the flats before turning onto the highway. The truck moved up and down slightly as we drove over each crack, and Bob Dylan’s voice warbled in time with the motion. Dad told us about a restaurant he loved called The Blue Plate Diner. It served breakfast all day and stayed open past midnight for truckers driving home late. He and Mom had gone there once, before we were born, which made even Rosemary smile. We piled into the truck – first Dad, wearing an old grey baseball cap, then Rosemary, her long blond hair swinging in a ponytail, and then me. As he pulled onto the main road, I looked over at Rosemary and realized how different from me she looked. She was wearing a yellow sundress with a blue ribbon belt tied around her waist, and her lips looked too red for chapstick. I wrapped a loose string on my short hem around my index finger and pulled, but it only crinkled the fabric more. Today’s Spanish word was el cuervo. Crow.
I studied our feet against the windshield. Rosemary’s feet were softer and her toes were longer than my own, her toenails carefully painted a shade of pink so light it was almost white in the sun. Mine were chipped and mostly red and slightly different sizes, I realized, pressing them and releasing them against the windshield so they left little white marks on the glass. I crossed my ankles before Rosemary noticed.
Dad grew up in Cuba before and during the revolution. He was only in elementary school, a few years younger than me, when Fidel took over. Nothing much changed until one day, his father, a tailor who owned a small shop on the side streets of Havana arrived at work to find the doors and windows bolted shut, a sign taped to the glass: Property of the Government.
Fidel’s soldiers would march into his school, the kids sitting upright in pressed white and blue uniforms with matching vests and knee-high socks. The soldiers would burst in the classroom without warning, sometimes when the teacher was in the middle of a lesson, and then he’d have to stop whatever he was saying and stand to the side while the soldiers filed into the front of the room. Sometimes, kids would cry out, and the soldiers would laugh and laugh until finally someone, maybe the Captain, would say that there was nothing to be afraid of.
“Close your eyes and ask God for a piece of candy,” they would command, and Dad and the rest of the boys in his class would press their eyes closed and knees together under the desk while the soldiers walked up and down the aisles of desks as if they were preparing an army for battle. Upon the soldiers command, they would open their eyes and look down, and find nothing on their desk but papers and their pencil boxes. “Now close your eyes and ask Fidel for a piece of candy,” they would say, and once again command them to look and they would look and sure enough there would be a piece of candy on their desk, a fat toffee wrapped in translucent white paper twisted closed on both ends or a round red gumdrop in black paper dotted with tiny gold flecks.
Dad came here when he was only thirteen along with more than 13,000 other Cuban kids. They came alone. It was called Operation Peter Pan. He was sent to a Catholic orphanage in Wyoming. Their parents were all supposed to come join them just a few months later, but some took years to come and some, like Dad’s parents, never came at all. “The nuns who ran the orphanage taught me two rules,” Dad said. “Don’t lie, and don’t steal. Of course, they never said don’t fight and so the older kids used to pick on us all the time, especially when we first got there and only knew Spanish. But I’ve never forgotten those two rules, and you girls should live by them, too. Everyone needs something to live by,” he said.
“Says who,” Rosemary said, crossing one ankle on top of the other and pressing all ten toes against the windshield.
“God,” Dad said.
Dad was always finding things out in the desert. Mysterious things—like a concrete arrow seventy feet wide and crumbling a little around the edges, so massive we thought was a mistake if the greasewood hadn’t grown so patchy around it so we knew it was there for a reason. I thought it was made by aliens, a pathway that could lead across the entire Mojave to some kind of buried treasure, like an underground city.
Rosemary always said that was stupid, but she was five years older than me and was always telling me what I didn’t know even though I didn’t really think she knew much more than me. But that never stopped her from always reminding me that she had spent five years and two months and twenty-seven days longer on this planet than I did, and didn’t I know how much more she had seen than me? To which I always thought, with some kind of vicious joy that scared me a little bit, that it was only fair that Rosemary would die before me.
Rosemary and I sat on the couch side of the booth with red pleather seats and Dad sat in a chair across from her, his arm resting across the empty seat next to him. The menus were as thick as phonebooks, with carefully laminated double-sided pages divided into neat sections with little tabs on one side.
At the front of the diner, there was a young mother with short red hair tucked behind both ears sitting with a young girl and boy at one of the booths, dishes of applesauce in front of them. The boy said something and she laughed and laughed. She reached over and tucked her daughter’s hair, red like her own, behind her left ear. I didn’t blink; I didn’t want to miss a moment of it.
The waitress came, and smiled wide so you could see all of her teeth, even the bottom ones. Her nametag said Molly in capital letters. I ordered a double cheeseburger with a side of half French fries and half onion rings, and a chocolate milkshake. Rosemary ordered next.
“I’ll have a diet Coke,” she said, “and a side Caesar salad.”
Dad picked a chicken-fried steak and a piece of banana cream pie and the waitress smiled at us again, her red lipstick seeping into the cracks in her teeth as she gathered the menus. Women like Molly always smiled at my dad when they saw him with us. Like they felt sorry for him a little.
Dad disappeared sometimes, usually for a few days and never more than a week, unhitching his red truck from the front of our trailer and waving to us until he pulled away. It was kind of fun when he was gone—like we were two orphans, like the Boxcar children or Dad when he first came to Wyoming. No one told us when to go to bed or to close the windows so bugs wouldn’t get in or not to eat ice cream sundaes for breakfast. When he did have to leave without telling us, he would leave a note on the kitchen table and some extra groceries on the counter or in the freezer—12 or 13 clementines with tiny, sharp seeds wrapped in bright pink netting, cans of Pepsi for Rosemary and Coke for me, five or six boiled eggs on the counter with a plate over top to keep them warm, tubs of mint chocolate ice cream in the freezer.
And he always came back. He brought back souvenirs from his trips—creosote bush, honey in little glass jars with a piece of blue and white checked cloth over top, black t-shirts that read Peppermill Casino in red and yellow curly letters. My favorite gift was a tall white, blooming flower with glossy leaves that came in a glass jar with a little soil sprinkled at the bottom. It was a ghost flower, he explained. Instead of chlorophyll, it got energy and life from tree fungi. It looked like a strange plant that could grow only on the moon or miles underwater.
Above all, Dad loved adventures. Sometimes, Dad would come into our room all excited, his cheeks red, and ask us to go on an adventure with him, like we were part of a secret plan. Even Rosemary couldn’t say no. Dad was like a child sometimes, the way he asked for things so you couldn’t refuse. Sometimes Rosemary seemed older than Dad, or at least more serious than him. But Dad was serious, too. Sometimes, when he thought I wasn’t looking I would catch him. His mouth turned down in a little upside-down U as he drove or sat with his feet up on the kitchen counter, and he would run his fingers through his hair five or six times in a row. But eventually he would notice me looking and as if waking up from a dream he would grin wide, a smile that seemed to change his face entirely, change him back into our father again.
“Girls,” Dad said, stretching back in his chair and lifting his arms like he wanted to touch the ceiling. For a second, I thought he would tip over but then gravity pulled him back to the table again. “I have some news.”
I picked up my water straw so it was just above the surface of the water and blew, watching the air ripple through the water and splash against the far side of the cup. I wondered if that was what it felt like to feel waves on your feet. Dad shifted in his seat. He kept staring behind our heads, at the door. When neither of us said anything, he continued.
“I—well, girls, there’s no easy way to say this. I wanted to tell you that I’ve met someone.”
Rosemary put down her glass of water. “What’s her name?” she asked. I stared at her.
“Stefanie,” my Dad said. He took out his wallet and unfolded it. He looked through the main compartment for a second and then pulled out a picture from between two tens, flattening it against the table with his thumbs and sliding it over to us. A woman with brown bangs held a tiny baby wrapped in white blankets, laughing at something behind the camera.
“What is this,” Rosemary asked, picking the picture up. There was something written in curly blue pen on the back.
“That,” Dad said, “is your sister.”
I picked up the picture and looked at it again. I looked up at my father and back down at the photograph. I put the photograph flat on the speckled, shiny surface of the table and smoothed out the rolled up corner with my thumb. I slid it back across the table to him. Molly the waitress arrived and set down plates, first Rosemary’s and then mine. I dipped an onion ring into the milkshake and popped the entire thing in my mouth. The onion was hot and oily on the inside, the milkshake icy and sweet on my tongue. I wanted to throw up. Rosemary stabbed a crouton with her fork and then dropped the whole thing back into the bowl with a clang.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “A sister?”
Dad smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Luciana. Luciana Mariana. You’ll love her. She just turned one. And Stefanie – she’s so wonderful. She wants to meet you girls so bad.”
“But I don’t want a sister,” I said. Dad’s mouth turned into an upside-down U, and he looked at me strangely. It shocked me how much I could hurt him. It delighted me.
The steak arrived, bathing in gravy. “It looks like an intestine,” Rosemary said quietly.
“Girls,” Dad said, “Chiquitas. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I didn’t want to keep this from you, I was just waiting to – figure out a plan.”
“I knew you were having an affair,” Rosemary said. “But we don’t need a sister.” I looked sideways at Rosemary and then across at Dad. I didn’t know who I hated more.
“I don’t want to hear about this,” I said. Suddenly, I realized I was yelling. “I just want to go home.”
I watched the family next to us stare, forks frozen in mid-air like they were watching a riveting TV special. It felt good to yell. It was like taking off tight pants.
Dad sighed. “Let’s have lunch first,” he said. “And then we can talk when you’re calmer. Okay?”
I said nothing.
“Rosemary,” he said, “please. Say something.”
Rosemary looked up at him. “You can fuck whoever you want,” she said. “You’re the adult.”
I had never heard Rosemary swear before, and Dad turned pink. I could tell she had done something that she could never take back.
“Don’t speak to me like that,” he said, and now he was yelling, too, even though his voice was barely a whisper. “I’m still your father.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Molly the waitress approach, stop, and turn on her heel, disappearing behind the counter.
“Yeah,” Rosemary said coolly, “whatever.”
She picked up my milkshake and drained the glass, her red lips a perfect circle around the thick white straw. She was looking at Dad like he wasn’t our father anymore, like he was a man she didn’t even know at all.
I started to cry. Rosemary jabbed my side under the table.
“Girls, I have to take another trip after this. It’ll be longer than usual, maybe two weeks, but maybe more. There are some things I have to help them with. You girls should come, if you want—but I figured you might have more fun here.” He looked at me. “I know you love the salt flats.”
“But why do you have to help them?” I said. I knew I was being selfish, but I didn’t care.
Dad suddenly looked very tired. “Because,” he said. “Stefanie might get deported. She doesn’t have the right kind of papers.”
“So she’s illegal,” Rosemary said. She crossed her arms over her chest. She was looking at Dad like she had never seen him before in her life.
“She’s not illegal,” Dad said. “People can’t be illegal. She came here illegally, when she was very young.” I knew only one illegal immigrant, a girl in my class named Maria. Her dad was a gardener and she wore her hair in two braids tied with pink ribbons at the ends. I was jealous that she had a mother to do her hair, even if she was illegal.
“I care about her very much,” Dad said. “And about Luciana. Kids need their fathers.”
“It’s not our fault we don’t speak Spanish,” Rosemary said.
“Of course it’s not,” Dad said. He used his fork and sharp knife to cut a bite from the steak, put it in his mouth, and chewed.
“I need to help my family,” he said finally.
“But we’re your family,” I said.
Dad reached across the table. Rosemary and I put our hands down in our lap.
“Of course you are,” he said.
Once, when we were really little, Dad spotted an old Chevrolet on the side of Highway 374, white paint peeling silver and the driver’s door flung open like someone was going to come back for it any second. He took Rosemary and I out to see it, waiting until dark because he said a fire is always more beautiful at night. The moon was huge above us, and Dad held the match while Rosemary and I doused the windshield and all four doors in lighter fluid from an old paint can. I climbed on top of the hood to coat the roof.
And after Dad finally dropped the match through the passenger window, the heat chased us away faster than we had ever run from anything before, like it was already under our skin. We heard it blow before we stumbled around to see, dizzy, and saw the whipping flames now twice as tall as us. And after all his talk, Dad didn’t even turn around to watch the show. He just crossed himself, lit a cigarette, and started walking home.
First, Rosemary and I wandered through the produce section, pulling fat red grapes off their dusty stems before popping them into our mouths. She didn’t speak to me and I didn’t say anything to her. Then we walked back and forth through the freezer aisles, past boxes of yellow and blue frozen food: chicken fingers, chicken strips, chicken tenders, chicken drumsticks, popcorn chicken, popcorn shrimp, mac and cheese in big zipped bags, black rectangular cartons of strawberry ice cream, cherry pie, apple pie, banana cream pie, chocolate lava cake, cheesecake, green beans, mashed potatoes, cubes of corn and carrots and peas, cylinders of pink lemonade, ice cream sandwiches, strawberry shortcake bars, red white and blue push-up pops, pepperoni pizza, corn dogs, chicken pot pie, enchiladas, Chef Boyardee lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs. The cold air felt good on my arms. I wanted to climb inside a freezer case until it was so cold I wouldn’t be able to feel anything.
In the center of the Food Lion was a display of chocolates, towering high in a pyramid as tall as a Christmas tree. They were individually wrapped in gold and silver paper, no bigger than a pair of dice each. “Rosemary,” I said. I didn’t know what I was going to say next. She turned to look at me and something in her face changed; it got soft for a second. “Wait here,” she said.
I lingered by the frozen section and watched Rosemary walk up to the chocolate pyramid, turn her head a little to the left and then to the right, and then slip a small gold piece into the pocket of her dress before turning sharply to the left and walking away. I sped around the display and found her reading the ingredients on the back of a carton of yogurt.
“Rosemary,” I said, and grabbed her arm.
“Try it,” she said, and for a second I saw her eyes light up again the way they did when we used to play out in the desert as kids, chasing lizards or creosote bush, making up stories about our mother in a big house by the ocean. “Go on,” she hissed, pushing me forward a little bit. Around us, tired-looking mothers pushed carts full of boring groceries: broccoli, milk, white bread, square packets of green and red jello. I sidled up to the pyramid, looking for a perfect spot. Slowly, I picked up a piece, weighing it in my palm and pretending to study the gold letters printed on the packaging. When the man in the red Food Lion apron in front of Aisle 3 turned around to rearrange the shelves, I quickly stuffed it into the back pocket of my shorts and raced back to Rosemary. She seemed proud.
We linked arms and continued walking through the store, a few steps faster than our first round. Past the towering pyramid of chocolates again to the deli, which reeked of brine and hot dogs. Pallid halves of turkey lay in a glass mausoleum, wrapped in plastic netting and nestled in fake leaves.
“You girls need anything?” We looked up. A man smiled at us from under a red Food Lion baseball cap. He stopped right in front of us, so close I could see every detail of his face. He had birthmarks like mine, but more raised.
“We’re fine sir,” Rosemary said with a wide smile, a copy of Dad’s.
The man took another step towards us. His shirt, short-sleeved and plaid like the kind my teachers wore, strained slightly around his biceps as he leaned his elbows against the glass casing. His hands trembled a little above the block of provolone, something wet collecting in the holes.
“We don’t need any cheese,” I said. He moved away from the meat and around the glass casing. He wore clear plastic gloves that were too big for him.
“I’ve seen you girls here,” he said.
Rosemary grabbed my elbow and we took a few steps back. I looked around but the aisle was suddenly clear of people, the whole store seemed empty. “You like chocolate, don’t you,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“We really should be going,” Rosemary said. He put out his hand – he didn’t touch us, but I stopped as if he had hit me across the face.
“Listen,” he said, “I won’t tell.” His face split wide into a grin, but it looked nothing like our dad’s. “But you’ll have to do something for me back. Pretty girl like you.” He was looking at Rosemary. She wasn’t moving.
“Rosemary,” I said, tugging her arm. “Let’s go.” I grabbed her hand and began pulling her towards the front of the store. As we turned the corner, I could hear him laughing and the sound of the meat slicer whirring on again.
Outside on the concrete, Rosemary was trembling. It felt good to feel the sun on my arms again. “Where’s Dad?” he asked, and I scanned the parking lot for him while Rosemary watched the sliding doors of the Food Lion open and close behind us. I spotted the red truck parked at the other end of the plaza and Rosemary and I ran towards it, weaving among cars and trucks and shopping carts. He looked up as we were running towards him, and he broke into one of those giant smiles that changed his whole face, and I had never been happier to see it.
“Daddy,” Rosemary said. “I have something for you.” She put her hand in her dress pocket and pulled out the goldwrapped chocolate, holding it in her open palm. I did the same. Rosemary opened her other hand and inside was the twenty-dollar bill, crumpled like an old receipt. Dad looked at us and then down at our outstretched palms, and for a second I thought he might hit us. In one motion, he grabbed both pieces of chocolate and held them in his fist. For a moment, his eyes filled with something like tears, but when I looked again they were gone.
Most people know about Houdini. He was the illusionist who locked himself up in a milk can, filled it with water, and advertised that failure meant a drowning death. Few people know about his brother, Theodore Hardeen, who continued to perform the act long after Houdini died of appendicitis, a protracted, unnecessary illness that could have been cured had Houdini not been too proud to seek treatment. I used to wonder if it was an act of love or hate that impelled Hardeen to replace his brother. Now, I know why he did it. He did it because he could not do otherwise. He had lost an un-loseable person.
When my brother was ten years old, he convinced me to tie him up with fishing line and dump him into the pool. He fought so hard to get free, the wire cut into his skin. Blood blossomed in the water like ink. My mom jumped in with her clothes—hat and all—to drag him out. As she untied him with careful fingers, she shouted in French, looking lunatic with mascara streaking down her face. Merde, Luke! Tu vas te faire tué! Rage had a way of hijacking the part of her brain that knew English. Years later, he did the same trick with chains and emerged dry. Chilling stuff. He never was old enough to get famous, but he was gifted—a genius, too. He ate magic mushrooms before the SATs and fell just short of a perfect score. Later, he said he would have gotten a 2400 if his writing hand hadn’t turned into a Mackerel right at the end.
My brother was certifiably obsessed with Houdini, knew every single one of his escape acts. Once, when we were smoking in the basement—him, a joint, me, a cigarette—he told me, in that condescending way of his, that the brilliance of the act was in the wait. I can still see him on that ugly corduroy sofa, lanky body sprawled out, smoke rising up in the half-light, video game music in the background. His dark, almost grayish hair had grown so long that he peered through bangs. “You know he could instantly break free of those handcuffs—specially commissioned by the Daily Mirror, no less. He’s Houdini. But the audience waited for a whole hour while he struggled behind a curtain. That’s how you make them love you. You make them agonize, make them hate you, before you emerge, victorious.” In retrospect, I think Luke had a fanboy crush on him.
My parents probably knew that he was gay—it was in his voice and mannerisms—but no one ever talked about it. They were aristocratic French Catholics whose immigration to Massachusetts had done nothing to water down their conservatism. If this bothered my brother, he rarely let it show. The closest we came to broaching the subject was the night after prom when I brought my girlfriend home. She spent the night in my bedroom and left early the next morning, dressed in my sweats and clutching her silk dress in a turquoise ball. The moment she left, my father burst out laughing. My mother pursed her small mouth. “C’est pas un peut tot pour tout ca, George?” My brother sat at the marble kitchen counter, hunched over in his hoodie, likely hung over from some expensive drug, courtesy of my parents’ inexhaustible inheritance. “Du calme,” my father said, “he’s a healthy boy. It’s about time he started experimenting with” — I held up a hand. “Ok thank you.” My parents simultaneously glanced at Luke, who stood up and walked toward me, red eyed. “You are a lucky man, George Maillot.” Then he continued on past me, through the door, up the stairs and—slam—into his bedroom. That was the only moment in my life when I felt myself superior to Luke, something that shames me deeply now.
It would be wrong to say that my parents faulted my brother for his sexuality. To them, it did not exist at all. He never confronted them with it and was, as far as I know, completely celibate. I may have been the only one to notice the occasional crushes he had on his friends, which he expressed in sullenness and, often times, the sudden abandonment of the friend in question. He had no time for relationships, anyway. There were escapes to be conceived of, to be mastered. No teacher would have allowed him to perform such dangerous acts at school but he had a cult following who gathered in unexpected places—a lake, a rooftop, a shopping mall—to watch him perform feats of evasion that were slightly amateurish but always successful. Meanwhile, he nonchalantly aced every class.
In a way, my family worshipped him. We loved him in the only way you can love an imbalanced person: with crippling anxiety. There was something wrong with him, but he wouldn’t let us take him to a therapist. During his low points, he would spend hours sitting by the pool, stirring the water with his foot. “I don’t believe in therapy,” he’d say. We’d carefully tip toe around him, talk in low voices, offer him sandwiches, foie gras, cigarettes, pot, hard liquor, anything to make him happy again. We loved him so hard it felt like a hand squeezing our hearts. He would stop going to school, start failing tests. He would scream at my parents if they came into his bedroom—a cavern of mysterious objects: chains, cloaks, a saw, a large red box, a glowing fish-less fish tank. I was the only one granted admission and, when I cautiously entered, there was a moaning, whimpering lump under the blue comforter. “When will it be over, George? What if it never ends this time?” He was sixteen, then. I was fourteen, a child. I didn’t know when it would end. “Just escape it,” I whispered. “Faut l’évader completement.”
Then, for no reason at all, he would be himself again. He’d come downstairs, showered, eyes bright with Adderall. “I’ve got it! I’ll have the audience hold their breath with me while I’m submerged under water.” Dad would sigh and say that he should really discourage this obsession. But I could tell by the way he glanced at Mom that he was happy. They believed that Luke was perpetually planning an act he would never carry out. They had no idea that he had already risked his life many times. I’m not even sure they would have discouraged it. They were always cautious to protect anything that made Luke happy. There was something magic about his highs, those sharp, fragile bouts of ecstasy. Our house filled with the shouts and laughter of many friends who adored Luke and tolerated me. But his joy had the intensity and the lifespan of a flame. Remembering that time pains me now. It flares up in my memory, unbidden, a fire that burns.
It was during one of his highs that he mastered the swimming pool escape. He didn’t let me watch him practice but he let me be his assistant during the final rehearsals when his performance day drew closer. My role was to hand the long chain and the three padlocks to the audience so they could verify their durability. Then I would wrap the chain six times around his tall, thin frame, and lock the ends three times. The key I’d used would be tossed into the audience. I knew how he broke free of the chains—a second key under his tongue—but he never told me how he emerged from the swimming pool dry. Back then, I whole-heartedly believed it was magic. I realized later how he did it, very shortly after he died, but that’s between him and me.
The first and final swimming pool performance was on a weekend, a bright, hot Saturday, just a few weeks to summer vacation. That morning, when I went into Luke’s chaotic bedroom, I found him sobbing. It was so foreign to me that it took me a minute to understand the animal sounds coming out of his throat. I was instinctively disgusted, as anyone would be to see something unnatural: a missing limb, an open wound. I sat down beside him and waited for him to stop. When he quieted down, I reminded him that we were supposed to be rehearsing. We only had a few hours to the main event. Was he ready to go? We were so maddeningly ineffective at saying anything real to each other. As I recount the event, I find I have an irrepressible desire to put the right words in our mouths. Why are you so sad? Why are you so sad for no reason? His dark eyes reminded me of a panic stricken animal—wide and shining.
“I don’t think I can do this,” he said.
It occurred to me later that he wasn’t referring to the swimming pool escape. He turned his head and wiped his face with an old tee shirt that lay crumpled on his bed. A silence dragged out between us, a widening chasm across which no words could travel. I’ll always wish I had been different in that moment, had touched his shoulder, had said the embarrassing thing: I love you. Instead, I was sullen and quiet, angry that Luke could take no pleasure in being extraordinary.
The sun screamed off the surface of the pool, a noonday brightness that attacked the eyes. Our friends, all boys, drooped over lawn furniture and talked about girls with a world-weary knowingness that none of them had earned. Luke, who had never mastered the dramatic entrance, stood at the head of the pool in a faded orange bathing suit, waiting for everyone to quiet down. When they did, he gave me a nod.
“Ladies and gentleman,” I announced to a heckling crowd, “prepare yourselves for the premier of the great swimming pool escape, where failure means a drowning death! Hold your breath along with him and see how long you last.” I, on the other hand, had a real flair for drama, something that would serve me later in life. After a deep bow, I went to retrieve the chains from Luke’s red box.
There were a few hitches in the beginning. Nervousness got the best of me and I performed my role a bit too quickly, snatching back the chain and locks before anyone really had time to inspect them. My fingers were swollen from the heat and had lost all their dexterity. I wrapped the binding too loosely and Luke, usually obsessively precise, did not tell me to do it again. I chalked it up to nerves and went to join my friends. “Nice work,” one said sarcastically.
Luke stood a moment at the head of the pool, a lanky silhouette against the glare. I desperately wanted to be him in that moment, to stand before an adoring audience, backlit by sunlight, courageously trapped in shining chains. The drama of it was intoxicating. For a single, cutting instant, I hoped he would trip, fumble, do something that would make him ridiculous. If only for a moment, I wouldn’t have to feel the ache of my own comparative ineptitude. Then he dropped into the water with an anticlimactic plunk.
We gathered near the edge. The chains were much too loose and the boys started to complain, simultaneously forgetting that they’d been instructed to hold their breath. This was such bullshit! He could just wriggle free! But he didn’t wriggle free. He didn’t wriggle at all, just sank to the bottom and stayed there. Light patterned across his body, distorted by turbulence, giving the illusion that he was swelling and shrinking before our eyes. I tried to make out his expression, as if that would help explain his stillness. There had always been something powerful, almost wolfish, about his face. The dark skin, the long nose, the expressive mouth all spoke of a brutish, dynamic brilliance, a kind of primal knowing that seemed at once enlightening and dangerous. Now, his wide, thin, mouth was grinning in a way that could mean joy or pain or concentration. I felt a chill prickle the hairs on my neck. It seemed a long, long time that he lay there like that—a stretch of waiting that certainly hadn’t been necessary during rehearsal.
Then he began to struggle, moving his shoulders back and forth as I’d seen him do many times before. I realized that I had been holding my breath and took a long gasp of air. But then he hesitated. His head drifted as if listening for something, and he was still again. It’s strange, the things you’re capable of when overtaken by terror’s adrenaline. I leapt into the water before I’d ever decided to. A jolt of cold shocked through me and there was the splash of someone, Martin, following suit. We each grabbed an arm and kicked our legs furiously, exasperatingly slowly. As Luke struggled away from us, the chains dropped easily off his body. We broke the surface and he gasped, then jerked away, climbing out of the pool himself.
The boys scattered after that, escaping from something dark and frightening, something too terrible to look at squarely in the face, especially on a Saturday. We lay panting a while on the impossibly hot pavement. The beat of my heart was so furious, I could hear each surge of blood pumped out of my pulmonary artery—boom, boom, boom. Or so I imagined. Unnamable emotions hemorrhaged out of me, gushing out of invisible wounds. Something that had been coiled tightly in my chest, some heavy knot of fear, had come unraveled. Trembling, moaning, crying, I was so overcome that the bright sky, the blistering pavement, the cold, cold water, all seemed a fevered outward expression of my own agony. There was the sound of movement and then the feeling of Luke’s wet arms around me, squeezing me as if to save me from something.
His mouth was so close that his whisper vibrated painfully against my eardrum. “Don’t cry. I’m so sorry. Je t’en supplis, George. Don’t cry. I love you. I love you. I love you.” That was the last time Luke ever planned or performed an escape act. I think giving it up was the only way he really knew how to apologize.
Long before Luke began to suffer for no reason, our parents took us to New Orleans on spring break. We went on one of those ghost tours that, at the time, frightened and thrilled me. The guide told us that, in Louisiana, it was commonly believed that people had the capacity to leave an emotional imprint on a place. We stood in a wet park at night and it was true. It was as though some ghost’s suffering had forced a new frequency on the landscape. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion but we all shuddered with an alien sadness, one that passed through us but did not come from us. I think something similar happened at the pool that day. Except instead of sadness, the pavement we lay on was branded with love. Whenever I go home to visit my parents, who still rattle around that vaulted, haunted house, I always go and sit by the pool. If the weather’s okay, I’ll stir my foot in the water, and let it melt away the hardness that’s inside me.
Yes, I know why Hardeen attempted to replace his brother. The only way to bear losing someone you love is to become them. That is why, years after I found Luke in the garage, after I had gained some distance from the dark and reeling sickness, from the nightmares and the feeling of hard shelled insects scuttling inside my skull, I could think of no way to endurably live a single moment that wasn’t spent in homage to my brother. If Luke was a wild fire, I was the small flame he collaterally ignited. I ever burned for him because I owed him my light.
I have performed the swimming pool escape in New York, Las Vegas, Paris, and, when unavoidable, Boston. Whenever I jump off the diving board into the clear, glass tank of water—lit up in blue, red, purple lights—there is always a moment, once I’ve sunk to the bottom, that I decide I won’t come up. My fans have come to believe that this is a part of the act, equivalent to Houdini waiting behind the curtain. I lay still until the pressures of suffocation squeeze against my temples. And then, every time, I think of my brother squeezing his arms around me on the burning hot pavement and I begin to struggle free.
While my mother dozed I sat there thinking about Wamblan, which I’d also been thinking about on the commuter train that morning, a jungle river town near the Nicaraguan border with Honduras, and about Jacinto, who thought this mole in the middle of my left hand was a stigmata. Jacinto commanded the small FSLN base in Wamblan, a sort of special forces unit that would head out into the tropical forests and mountains hunting the Contra for weeks at a time. I’d ridden up from the Wiwilí base to Wamblan with a convoy of supply and IFA trucks, and almost as soon as I got there, Jacinto had agreed to let me accompany the troops headed out in pursuit of Contras who’d ambushed another Sandinista patrol in the area, the one true experience of jungle warfare I ever had. Over one night and two days, we chased them, marching in a long single column of troops through often dense jungle, crossing rivers where the currents came up to our chests, so close on the enemy’s trail that we were constantly in danger of falling into an ambush ourselves, and sometimes, when the German shepherd tracking dog leading the column had picked up a scent, or when the scouts up ahead had sent back an alert, we’d slow to a crawl, barely inching forward for hours though the soft green leaves and steamy buggy air. Once we came across a still smoking campfire, a lean-to of freshly hacked branches, we even found a piece of rolling paper tremblingly clinging to a spindly blade of grass, glowing in the sunlight like a tiny snow princess, I remember how Jacinto and some of the other soldiers stood around the piece of rolling paper staring at it as if it might blow us to smithereens, until Jacinto brought his boot down on it and everybody laughed. I saw an emerald toucanet, and imagined myself on a sixth grade morning telling Mrs. Tollander about it and earning my silver star. The Contra escaped into Honduras, deeper into that country than Jacinto wanted to follow, we’d already crossed the border anyway. The night after we got back to Wamblan, I lay in my bunk in the cramped little barracks, covered in insects bites and scratches, feet blistered, my bad knee stiff and swollen, listening to the pulsing electronic-sounding pandemonium of the tree frogs out in that jungle pitch darkness and stillness. Was that really me, lying in that bunk, having made it on my own to a Sandinista special forces base? Yes, that was you Frankie Gee, only a bit more than twenty years ago. And so what. What proof is there that a remembered event is any more meaningful than a fantasy that resembles it? Prove it. Prove the lasting value of experience. How is it better than reading about it? In the predawn dark, I was woken by a stirring in the barracks, someone had abruptly come inside, a light was turned on and I saw them, three soldiers, they wore the long beards often sported by Contra fighters and fatigues with the grey-beige-green tiger stripe pattern and pale green floppy hats of Contra uniforms, and I glimpsed haggard faces, one much paler than the other two, with long orange beard. They spoke in low voices to some of the other soldiers, by then the lights had been switched off again, and I heard a low voice say, The bodies are up on the hill, and another voice mumbled, though I was less sure of this, Son nueve, maybe he’d said, No mueven or No les mueven. The intruders slept in the barracks with the rest of us, quietly sliding into empty bunks, maybe with their boots and uniforms on. I was exhausted and slept deeply, and when I woke the trio of bearded soldiers dressed as Contras were gone and nobody in that barracks of mostly teenaged draftees said anything about them. Later in the morning a mist lay over the river, and Jacinto, his torso muscular and slender as a male ballet dancer’s, stood in the gleaming green water up to his waist, holding a tiny round mirror up to his face and shaving, while the Cindy Lauper cassette with “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” I’d donated to the base was blasting from the base’s loudspeaker, I’d given them my DEVO cassette too, the soldiers were happy to have rock music to listen to. I undressed on the riverbank, and, carrying my own bar of soap in a little sandwich bag and a razor, waded into the cool, slow moving river water, so green and rich with jungle minerals. Finally I asked: So those are dead Contra up on that hill? I heard them say there are nine. Jacinto held my gaze for a moment, then barely shook his head no in a way that somehow suggested he really meant yes, maybe it was the way his eyes slightly widened. Do you remember what Jacinto did next, Frankie Gee? How could you ever forget. He held up his left hand, and with his razor touched the back of that hand in the same place where my mole is and held it there, and speaking emphatically if softly, he said: Nuestro Señor watches over you, and I responded: I wish, but it’s not true, Jacinto. That lunatic Sandinista—but a lot of them were religious like that, crazy Catholic Marxists—responded in that same calm tone: No Goliberg, God doesn’t do that by accident, put a mole like a nail head in the same place where the Roman’s nailed the Son to the cross. I was thinking, But didn’t those nails actually go in closer to the wrists? But I also knew that it’s popularly believed that people with stigmata bleed from the middle of their palms. Does this have anything to do with what happened last night? I asked. Sometimes what we call an enigmatic smile in reality is a loud shout, that’s how Jacinto smiled, and he pointed his index finger at me and went: Ahhhhhh, voice rising as if he was saying, You’re not going to trick me into talking. Jacinto thought my stigmata and the dead men on the hill were connected. Oh come on, vos, I pleaded, tell me what happened. Jacinto said: We came close to being ambushed the other day, chavalo, they were all around us. We had another column out on patrol on the other side, but I didn’t think they could reach the area in time, but joven Goliberg, they did, so it was the Contra that had to retreat, but not all of them, some followed us back to Wamblan, do you understand? We shouldn’t be here right now, Goliberg, in the river having our bath, and Jacinto gave a little shrug, as if it was obvious. I said: And this has something to do with the soldiers with the beards? They looked like Contras. Jacinto didn’t answer. But obviously they weren’t Contra, I went on, because they came into our barracks. Jacinto visibly laughed, or chuckled, but no sound came out. I said: So there were nine Contra up there on the hill. Plus three more who were ours, said Jacinto, his voice slightly louder than a whisper. Twelve Contra up on the hill, I repeated, and I posed the dumb question: Doing what? Jacinto said: They’d set up their mortars, they had RPGs, and they were about to fuck us, Goliberg. Jacinto held up his left hand again, and again tapped the middle of the back of his hand with his razor. I thought, He thinks Jesus intervened to save us, but then who were those three infiltrators, were they the Divine Swords of Our Lord or something like that? Jacinto had already turned and was wading out of the river and up onto the bank. So there are nine contra lying dead up there, I said to his back. Jacinto held up a hand and tick-tocked his index finger side to side. I looked over the rooftops of the little base, over the whitewashed headquarters built on sturdy stilts, “Uncontrollable Urge” blasting now from the loudspeaker nested beneath the bent eaves of the metal roofing, and up at the steep forested ridge or hill overlooking the town and the river, and up higher into the morning sky that was still a pale gray, where I don't recall seeing vultures still circling over the blood soaked ground where the bodies of the dead Contra had been left by their killers, ground I imagined swarming with ants and maggots and other insects, which made me wince. Probably they’d already been dragged off and buried by soldiers sent up at the crack at dawn, Jacinto must have supervised that operation, then come back down to have his contemplative bath in the river, following whatever trail of thoughts had led him to the conviction that the mole in the back of my hand had some relation to those Three Divine Swords of Our Lord, as if beaming them strength and blessing in their swift deadly work, saving us from a mortar and rocket barrage; three bearded Sandinista soldiers, infiltrators who’d been living at the side of those Contras, marching and fighting with them in the mountains and jungles on both sides of the Nicaraguan and Honduran border for who knows how long; in the Contra camps they would have undergone training by CIA masters in killing and infiltration long after they’d undergone similar training in Cuba, or East Germany, even Lebanon or Angola, their destiny being to finally arrive one night at their moment of ultimate testing on a hilltop overlooking Wamblan. Had they turned into whirling dervishes who slit the throats of their brothers-in-arms in a matter of seconds, snapped their necks with lethal karate blows, or was there was gunfire and we didn’t hear it? Later that afternoon I found out from some of the soldiers that the bearded men had left Wamblan by jeep just before sunrise, headed down to the military base at Wiwilí and back to Managua. To be debriefed by Sandinista intelligence, one impressed young officer told me, he said that probably there’d be secret ceremonies too, honoring their heroism and the success of their mission. “Now they’re going to pull in the net,” he said. He meant that the three bearded infiltrators would have collected information on Contra collaborators throughout that sweep of northern Nicaragua, and when that net was hauled in it was going to full of spies and informers drawn from the rural, mountain and jungle population, and I thought about what that was going to mean for many of them, and for those they left behind. A jungle Cold War spy novel set entirely among peasant farmers, I thought, imagine it written by Juan Rulfo, how cool would that be. I’ll always remember standing in that cool green water up to my waist after Jacinto got out, while Devo blasted out over the river, and looking up at the ridge and thinking about those nine who’d been killed up there, and about the children that at least some of them would have gone on to have if they hadn’t been killed that morning, and about the children those children would have had and so on, an infinitely-branching tree of non-existence climbing into the sky, war’s cosmic orchard. I wondered what the tree of my descendants was destined to be like, how high it was going to rise into the sky, or if this was as high as it was going to get, just me and my shimmery reflection in the river water.