About the Feature
In the four months since his fiancée’s death, it’s the small details, the tiny ironies that have remained the most vivid for Connor. The larger decisions he’s had to make—releasing or keeping her apartment, selling her things or shipping them back to her parents in Mashhad—haven’t been nearly as calamitous as the minor things he keeps remembering about Afshan’s accident. In fact, it’s the things that made it an accident that he remembers every day. How easily her jacket slipped off. He still feels the swift, terrible vacancy of the jacket, too big on her, as her arms slipped out of it. As he grabbed the back of it to keep her from falling. And even then, she didn’t fall right away. He remembers that too, how she hit the ground on all fours, a small grunt coming out of her. Afshan’s weight, which hadn’t ever been enough to fill a twin bed, a desk chair, an airplane seat, was somehow enough to dissolve the earth underneath her at the Eastern Fells overlook. She fell then, headfirst. But for a split second, holding that jacket, he really thought he’d saved her. He thought, Oh, nothing’s changed at all. It was just a scare.
His friends and family have all said, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” or “This isn’t going to bring her back.” And in the most literal sense, that’s true. No amount of digging back into the cogs of the accident is going to reinflate her organs, repair her bones, make her spring back up out of the gorge. Literally rewinding the events is a positive feedback loop of reversals, each if only begetting another if only. He knows they’re right, that every step he takes prompts one if only bigger and worse than the last, and it just makes the silent, unacknowledged coast back into routine—keeping appointments, answering the phone, making small talk—harder and more shameful. But remembering isn’t hurting him. For now at least, he seeks shelter in imagining her, even imagining her accident. When he thinks about her, visualizes the days when she was still alive, even the really bad ones, those are the times during which she’s still here, refracting into splinters that cut into him unexpectedly, each thought giving way to another, and another. It’s as if she’s coming back within him. He can almost hear her. He can almost feel her still here. She’s just somewhere that he can’t see. In another room. Downstairs. Just outside the door, and any second now, the knob will turn and she’ll walk in.
. . .
The rent for Afshan’s apartment is due today. This will be the third time he’s paid it since her death. As he leaves his apartment, his roommates—three Tufts graduate students who advertised the fourth bedroom on Craigslist—fall silent when he passes through the living room on the way to the front door. It’s gotten worse since she died, but even before that they all felt obligated to fall silent around one another, as if the reminder that none could afford to live alone, while they all wished to, was a disappointment too great to be mentioned. Afshan never stopped trying, greeting each housemate by name, asking about their days while looking them straight in the face. It had more to do with her thinking it was ridiculous not to be involved with the people with whom you lived, than with actual interest. Her courtesy always put Connor to shame. He told her she was just wasting her time. “You’re right. What you do is so much easier,” she said, leveling her gaze at him for exactly long enough before looking away.
He’s never met her landlord, a distant friend of Afshan’s family. He can’t remember the name exactly; Amirapour something, maybe. Afshan liked him. She loved having someone with whom to speak Farsi and being able to pop downstairs for a new recipe for khoresht or tah-chin. Sometimes, if Connor was upstairs when she did, he’d hear them laughing. She’d return smelling of the clove cigarettes for which the landlord always managed to convince her to join him. But he had rules that made Connor nervous. Like paying rent only in cash. So he takes a stack of twenties, forty bills high, each month in an envelope. He likes the feeling of the money in his hand. He likes the density, the smell. Once he gets there, he stuffs it in the mailbox or under the door, no note, before darting away like a burglar. He doesn’t want to see him. He doesn’t want to listen to him mutter things in Farsi about Afshan. He doesn’t want to behold him accepting the money in the name of death. It’s why he goes so early. Today he’s running a little late. It’s already 7:15 AM. He has to hurry.
It’s freezing outside, the kind of cold that stings so badly it feels punitive. Afshan always talked about that, about how Boston was the most climatically inhospitable place she had ever lived. “It is oppressively cold for so long, and then, bang! It is oppressively hot. You live dreading the next extreme.” Connor loved that about her, all those stubborn expectations of a foreigner, bottom-lining it in a way that no native would. No one here would expect winter to last less than six months, or spring more than six weeks. Living with Boston weather—heat or frost, no matter—made you feel as if the best days of your life were coming right up, if you could just get through today.
The weather in Mashhad was ideal, she said. He can still hear her describing it in her schooled English, with her careful pronunciations and endearing formalities. It ranges from semiarid to subtropical, she would say. Never more than eighty-five in the summer, rarely falling below freezing in the winter, the weather in northwestern Iran was outrageously perfect. Each season bowed out and let the next take over. No one there ever walked around angry at the ruthless seasons, just as no one there had to acquiesce, grimly, that it was only a matter of time until the nice weather was gone.
When he turns left on Broadway and heads south, Connor zips up his jacket, using the hood to cover his ears, and crams the envelope of cash in one of the pockets. The coat’s not quite warm enough for today, but it’s the one he lent her. It’s the only one he reaches for anymore. He’s gotten so used to the cold, it almost doesn’t even register anyway. He’s never known anything else. The furthest he’s moved since growing up in Savin Hill has been up to Boston. From downtown across the Charles River to Somerville, where he is now, it’s only about five miles. His family’s still down in Dorchester. He doesn’t see them much.
It’s a forty-five-minute walk from where he lives in Teele Square to Afshan’s apartment in the Prospect Hill neighborhood of Union Square. The most direct route is down Holland Street, through Davis Square, but often he takes one of the side streets, to avoid walking by the bookstore from which he was fired last summer. When he passes it, he almost reflexively sees the faces of the owners, a husband and wife, shocked and furious at being cheated. It didn’t matter that his were honest mistakes, born from laziness, mostly, but also from their confusing paper system (who still keeps books by hand?). It wasn’t even that much money. They didn’t care about that. It was about them. How would they get through this? He hasn’t found another job yet, though he briefly considered going back to the store when Afshan died. She’d written the majority of her dissertation there, at the countertop of the shop’s coffee corner; they’d liked her. How could they refuse him his job when he presented them with her death? But then a lawyer had called him. Afshan had left a will. His first thought was, Of course she did. There wasn’t much to it. She wanted to be returned to Mashhad for a traditional Shia Islamic burial. She’d asked for some of her grandmother’s valuable jewelry to be returned to her sisters. She’d also inherited, from the same grandmother, a chunk of cash about which Connor had never known. This was his. The sentence in the will declaring the money was the only time his name was mentioned. Eighteen and a half thousand dollars. Fuck the bookstore, he thought. This money bought him all the time in the world.
In Davis Square, he passes the statues outside of the small movie theater: a couple strolling together, a pair of boys, one chasing after the other. In the warm weather, when the square is filled with people, he’s more often than not fooled, for a second, into thinking the statues are real. Now, when it’s cold out and no one lingers, the statues remind him eerily of Narnians, their mouths frozen open. The rest of the flock is scattered, scared away by the witch’s threat. The statues wait for the warm weather to come. Which it surely will. Someday.
Just before he reaches Holland Avenue, he veers left, to walk down Highland instead. He can see the bookstore, just barely, before the street diverges enough to take him away. Afshan had been there first. When he’d landed his job there, after floundering around in and finally skidding out of his MA in English at Northeastern, ten credits shy of graduation (he still hasn’t told his father; maybe one day he’ll go back), she’d been a patron for months. She would perch at the countertop for hours, coffee cooling at her elbow, enormous books split open in front of her, pencils and highlighters scattered around like toys. She could focus interminably on her dissertation, researching the economic effects of natural gas, oil, and hydroelectric power on Iran’s energy infrastructure. She never caved, defeated, or felt desperate for distraction from the vastness of the task in front of her. He’d watch her trace down the pages with her tiny fingertips, utterly engrossed in the equations she was reading. He could see the civil disinclination in her eyes when he brought her some of his favorite books, mostly poetry. It was the politeness that both drove him away and brought him back. Her blatant good manners were infuriating. It was somehow worse than if she’d just rejected him. He was on fire, beguiled, in that state that someone’s indifference to you seems to obligate. She made no attempt to flirt back. It wasn’t coyness. Appraise first, act later. Afshan was nothing if not properly schooled. She would gaze at him steadily, as if he were the only one in the world who thought poetry was worth reading, and she the only one willing to indulge him, the only one nice enough to keep glancing at the titles. He reads his own poems at a couple of open-mic nights, a regular one at MIT, occasionally one hosted across the river by a Brighton poetry series. Before they were a couple, he invited Afshan to come sometimes. Some of those times, she would. He’d look up to find her staring at him, a creature who had found herself on foreign ground. She was nonplussed, content to watch him with an anthropologist’s eyes, as if her primary interest were in understanding just what the hell he was doing.
There are homeless people, a crowd of regulars, who take up winter residency in the small public park at the corner of Holland and Highland. It’s not much of a park, really: a small paved area furnished with a collection of stone benches set at right angles to one another, in front of some walled-off flower beds. A few sad little trees poke their way through the concrete. The city landscapers haven’t been around since the cold set in, and the flower beds are piled high with scavenged belongings, cans, rolls of old clothes belted together, a shopping cart. The homeless like it here because there are vents cut into the pavement; the subway trains run underneath the park on their way to the Davis Square station, and gusts of hot air travel up from the tunnels. Central heating. The only place in all of Somerville that has it.
As Connor comes closer, they’re arguing. Their gleeful, livid faces are lit up by their fury with one another, both mock and genuine. Their voices are loud and drunken. It’s funny, but also sad, because sandwiched in between the bawdy jokes is hysteria, misery, hopelessness.
“I don’t have it, Karl,” one young woman shouts, clamping her gloved hands over her ears. Connor recognizes her; he sees her here almost every time he comes through the square. This must be one of her daily stops. The dark puffiness of her eye sockets is so severe, at first it looks like abuse. But her hair and teeth also show signs of street living: dirty, broken, and malnourished. A sparkly blue feather boa is wrapped around her neck as a paltry, makeshift scarf. Every rush of wind sends silver tinsel through the air.
Karl, standing in front of her, grabs her hands and pulls them away. “You better have it, bitch,” he says. “You better have it now.” He puts his open palm on her face and pushes her head back. He is the capo di famiglia, the shot-caller.
“I don’t have it now, but”—she wails as Karl turns away in disgust—“I’ll have it soon, I swear.”
Connor looks away and picks up his pace. His feelings—sadness, fear, anger—must echo hers, but he also can’t wait to get away. Afshan disapproved of his self-implicating unease in this kind of situation. She didn’t understand his instinct to remain uninvolved. It was an American thing, she said. To do nothing is to side with the powerful. God, he can almost hear her say that. How she knew that kind of thing, why it came to her so easily, he never figured out.
“Mister, can you spare any change? A buck maybe?” One man, ensconced in a sleeping bag up to the waist, has noticed his approach and slithers over to the edge of the sidewalk. “It’s fucking cold out here. We’re all cold. C’mon,” he pleads. Connor does what he does every single time he passes a homeless person and pretends he doesn’t see him. He used to drop a couple of coins into someone’s cup occasionally. He’s gotten stingier since Afshan died. He just can’t use the money for anything like this. It’s like giving away pieces of her. Distributing Afshan, dollar by dollar.
She’d call that sentimental. She was sensible and practical where he was not, and he’d never wished to be those things until he met her. But for the enviable steadiness she had somehow come into, she also possessed a blithe, childish misunderstanding of American culture. She cheerfully suffered humiliation without being humiliated, enthusiastically throwing herself into a conversation about American urban legends or chatting up the teenagers crowded around the science fiction at the bookstore. He was embarrassed for her. No matter what, he was always a little embarrassed for her. She never remembered song lyrics, though she sang heartily along with the radio. Her terrible sense of pitch was charming. She loved country music ballads, but she often misunderstood the sentiments. Once as they drove into Boston for dinner, she leaned close to the radio. It only hurts when I’m breathing, the singer drawled. My heart only breaks when it’s beating. Afshan snorted. “Doesn’t she know that’s all the time?”
“Hey,” the sleeping bag man whines again. He scoots forward again, forcing Connor to step around him.
“Sorry, man,” he says. He doesn’t slow down.
“Fuck you,” Sleeping Bag Man says, louder this time, sulking. “You fuckin’ racist.” His reaction draws the attention of the rest of the park gang, and that makes Connor walk even faster.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he hears Karl shout from behind him.
He checks the traffic to cross the street. He doesn’t look back.
“Hey! I’m talking to you! Where you going?”
. . .
Afshan had grown up in an enormous family, the youngest of four sisters. The three eldest married while practically still children; the house teemed with infants by Afshan’s fifteenth birthday. She was inundated by the minutiae of caregiving. That had something to do with her self-assurance, but it didn’t account for everything. She could progress without fail, even in situations in which normal people would throw back their heads and announce that they couldn’t bear it any longer—as a teenager, through her family’s near poverty during the war with Iraq; for the past several years, through her doctorate. She could disarm anyone without effort; leave a hushed, ineffaceable impression; stand in a crowd and let the noise and panic and confusion pass through her. People wanted to be close to her, to absorb that quietude, that stability. Hers was the kind of remarkableness that seemed so unfair that, while everything she was made Connor love her more, it also made some narrow, sharp, secret part of him hate her in equal measure. She was the only one who had a say in who she was. He doesn’t know how she did it.
It wasn’t just the foreignness. The times when he felt the most different from her, he hated her, and the times when she seemed nationless, just another person in the world who knew better than him, he loved her. When she wanted to get married in Iran, because of her family, he knew that it made sense. Her family was widespread and complicated; he had only his father and an aunt. Her parents were religiously vigilant and traditional, insisting on a formal Persian wedding; he and his family would’ve been content at the city hall in Somerville. It didn’t matter that her case was sound. He resisted its cloying good-natured reasonability and Afshan’s logical explanations. She told him he was being foolish, and it only made him defy the whole thing more.
But he gave in, eventually. He always gave in. He agreed to get married in Iran, and then to live there, at least for the duration of her fellowship. It amazed and reassured him that he was making decisions about how he would live his life based on what was best for them. He’d found someone who could give him rest. She was able to still even the deepest moments of turmoil. He really loved her, he thought; he must have. Though it didn’t hurt that she was beautiful. Tiny and elegant on long thin limbs and joints that pivoted too easily, her movements reminded him of a hummingbird, a series of flits so fast she looked motionless, floating, surrounded by a low, warm hum. Every once in a while she would pause in midair to gaze at him with her massive dark eyes, solemn and seemingly guileless. In these moments she seemed so in possession of herself, seemed so thoroughly to know her own mind, that he felt he was losing himself, the boundaries of his body blurring. It didn’t matter that he knew not a word of Farsi. That he’d be leaving his family. His arguments no longer made all that much sense to him. His desires were easier to give up. Yes, he would end up saying, in one form or another. Yes, you may have whatever it is you want, whenever it is you want it.
. . .
Once he reaches Porter Square, he can see the gray-domed tip of Afshan’s building. Today, it’s just a shade darker than the sky behind it. He looks at it without blinking until the cold makes his eyes water, and he has to stop to press his fingertips against them. Afshan’s apartment is in an old converted church and she had the top floor, inside the dome. She loved Prospect Hill, with its strange, appealing amalgamation of cultures; her building is flanked by a Chinese video rental and a Brazilian comércio. Across the street is a dry cleaner, owned by a Nicaraguan couple. Neon signs shaped like coat hangers advertise the services. The sign with shirts written across it has serendipitously been placed between two windows, so the “r” is blocked. As they passed it, one of them would always wonder aloud, thoughtfully, “Shits?” and the other would laugh to sobs.
Her apartment is a studio, a hideaway. She was so happy there. All the ceilings slope skyward. Enormous dark cherry beams protrude from the walls and come together at the point, lining the apartment like the membranes of an orange. For anyone else it would have been a closet, but Afshan was small enough that the space seemed reasonable. Connor called it her birdcage. He’s nearly a foot taller than she was. No matter how much time he spent there, he never stopped banging his head on doorframes or striking his shoulders against the beams as he passed by.
But it was heaven inside. No roommates coming in unannounced, commandeering the bathroom, or turning on the television too loud. She piled plums and apricots and pomegranates in bowls—still lifes on every surface. They could stay inside for days, the air perfumed with sex and the quince and saffron Afshan used to make the food she’d grown up eating. She was the one who would eventually insist on leaving, to write or to meet with her advisor. Sometimes, though, he could convince her to stay. Sometimes, if it wasn’t too important that she leave on time, she’d crawl back into bed with him, let him hold her for a few more minutes. He’d wrap his arms around her, as if he were collecting her, curl her into a ball, and hold her against his chest. Often she would draw her knees up in her sleep and roll against him, asking to be held. “It is like I’m inside a big machine,” she would murmur, her normal fast hum decelerating to a low-frequency vibration. He remembers feeling her heart rate slow as she relaxed, its birdlike velocity dropping. Her heart, the muscle of it, seemed close, almost pressing against the thin layers of her skin. He pictured it inside her, the size of a peach. He remembers her mouth on his clavicle as he looped his arms around her. Her sleepy voice stirred in him some instantaneous and painful tenderness, some unbearable volatility. He would put his lips on hers and hold her almost too tightly.
One morning the week before she died, he’d woken up before dawn, as he often did. Her bed was too short for him. His feet never could make it through the night without hanging off the edge. He pulled his laptop into bed with him and tried to type quietly. Blue light fluoresced her face, which was smooth and relaxed with the certainty of sleep. She woke a few minutes later.
“Hey,” she whispered. “What are you doing?”
He turned. Her eyes were enormous and soft in the shadows of her hair. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I’m looking at the Earth, see?”
She sat up and squinted as he turned the screen toward her. He was using a virtual globe, map, and geographic information program to look at satellite images of the planet. He watched her eyes move across the screen.
“Can you find Mashhad?” she asked, resting her head back on the pillow. “I can look at my old neighborhood up close.” He found the image and enlarged it for her. She smiled. “Where I grew up.”
“And look,” he said, zooming out on the window. “Here’s Somerville.” He spanned the distance with his hand, pinky on one place, thumb on the other. “Now I’m in both places at once.”
“Yes,” she said. She yawned and rubbed her temples. They’d been out late the night before.
“Hey, look, babe, it’s Davis Square. It’s amazing how close you can get, right up to cars and people. Look what I found.” He pointed at a spot on the screen.
She massaged her eyelids before looking. The computer light was bright. “It’s a person,” she said.
“With a red baseball cap. Like mine. It’s me. It must be me, don’t you think?”
“Well, maybe,” she said. “A lot of people have that Red Sox hat.” She yawned again, wider. “Aren’t you tired?”
He didn’t answer. He glanced back at the screen.
“Yes, you might be right,” she said after a few beats. “It’s you.”
It is only when Connor reaches Somerville Avenue, on the southeast side of Porter Square, that he realizes the envelope of money is gone, and he doesn’t know where he lost it. He doesn’t even stop to think about it. He takes off, heading north. His feet barely skim the asphalt.
. . .
He’s sweating by the time he gets back to Davis Square, having scoured the pavement on the return trip, head down, like a diver moving along the ocean floor. He jogs slower, panting. He rips down the zipper of his jacket, which now feels like a bearskin. He can’t have dropped the money more than twenty minutes ago. Where the fuck is it? He casts about for someone to ask. The park gang has disbanded, the detritus of their assembly gone with them. It’s early—before eight—and the streets are still mostly empty. Because it’s a Saturday, most stores aren’t open yet. It’s got to be here somewhere. He cuts across the street to look by the statues. He sees a flash of blue and silver as someone rises from the bench outside of the movie theater. Trailing tinsel, the young homeless woman starts walking away from the square, her gait uneven and shuffling. She’s got a huge bag draped over one shoulder. She slows briefly and glances over her shoulder. Her pace picks up just the tiniest bit. He could be imagining it, he’s so desperate. Their eyes meet for an instant and he’s fixed where he stands. He knows that she has the money, or at least knows where it is. He’s sure of it. He trots after her, speeding up as she turns and disappears down an alley behind the recently closed pharmacy. Heart hammering, he follows her. He peeks, feeling stupid, down the alleyway first. She’s there, rummaging through her bag as it wobbles on top of a trashcan, its strap dangling to the ground. He watches her carefully balance a compact on the brick ledge that runs along the side of the building. He watches her lean so close her face almost touches the mirror. Her hair, long and dirty, falls over her shoulder and blocks his view. She remains still, the stillness of someone looking for a lost contact. As if moving suddenly will ruin everything. He feels swiftly murderous. What does she think she’s doing, he thinks. Who the fuck puts makeup on outside in the winter?
“Hey,” he calls. He starts to walk toward her. “Hey!”
At the first sound of his voice she jerks around, and he sees the needle pointed at her neck. He halts, instinctively not wanting to scare her. He’s closer to her than he’s ever been and sees for the first time how young she is. Eighteen? Nineteen? She glances at the compact quickly, once, grabs it and snaps it shut. She’s not holding any makeup. She needs the mirror to see the veins in her neck. He eases out his hand, palm toward her.
“I’m not here to cause trouble,” he says. “I just need to know if you have my money.”
“Fuck you,” she snarls, swaying. “I ain’t got shit of yours. The fuck you think you are?” The needle is still in her hand. Its end gently brushes the tip of her hair.
“Listen.” He stops a few feet away from her. “I really need that money. It’s important.”
“I told you, motherfucker.” Her voice is louder now. “I ain’t steal nothin’ from you. You don’t know me.” She lurches at him quickly, like she’s shooing a squirrel or a stray cat. She’s breathing hard and her eyes are glassy. She stumbles, drops the needle, curses.
He’s done being nice. “That’s my money,” he says. He steps closer to her. “That’s my money. I dropped it and you took it.”
“Go away, asshole.” She glares at him and bends over, reaching for the syringe.
The second she drops her head, he lunges and grabs the bag by its strap, yanking it up to his chest. She howls and comes after him like a cornered dog. Her stench hits him in waves. The first is one of rotting food and sweat. The inimitable bacterial stink of an unwashed crotch is slower to reach him, but even more powerful. And something else he recognizes too, some smell entirely human in its organic indignity. Blood, unheeded, unperfumed. He gags as he spins away from her and sticks his hand inside the bag, half-afraid of what he might find. But he doesn’t care. The frenzy tunnels in his bloodstream, in his skin, vaporous and alcoholic. Her fists pummel his back, but he barely feels the blows. She can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. It takes only a few seconds to find the envelope. He wrenches it out and drops the bag on the ground. He steps away and turns to face her. It’s as if he’s shouted out stage directions, commanding her to change roles. Her face breaks as she begins to cry, her lips curling up to expose her ruined teeth.
“You don’t understand,” she says. “He’s gonna kill me. I’m gonna die.”
Connor stands there, clutching the money. There’s something sticky smeared on the envelope. “I can’t help you,” he says. “I’m sorry. I can’t give you this. I need it.”
She’s tangled her hands up in her filthy oversized sweatshirt and sunk to the ground, crying. The boa has slipped and hangs ragged and uneven around her shoulders. A loose feather has floated to rest in her hair just above her left ear, like a flower. She thrashes her arms, holding handfuls of the sweatshirt, and rambles.
“I needed it from him, needed the money, I told him I’d pay him back, it’s just hard, fuckin’ hard.” She moans on and on.
He looks around hastily to see if there are any people close by. “I can’t let you have this,” he repeats. She stops bawling and looks up at him, her eyes gigantic, too globular, in her shriveled face, her teeth still showing through her open mouth. He hears her breath whistle in and out. Her lips are swollen a bluish purple. Other than the sweatshirt, she wears only a pair of pajama bottoms and some old sneakers without laces. He can see she isn’t wearing socks. She must be freezing.
She’s quieter now, crying the way a child would, in soft hiccups and hitched breaths. Her nose is running; her face is slick and gray. He can see sores at her temples and scalp line, glowing candy-red lesions.
“Some people got all the money in the world,” she says calmly, almost to herself. “Some people got everything.”
He stands beside her still. The envelope is steely with cold in his hands. It’s now past eight.
“He locked me in the basement,” she says. “He left me there, for days. You can’t believe how cold it was down there.” She stretches out the vowels in “believe,” finger-combs her hair with shaking hands. She scowls. “Prick hit me on the head.” She touches a spot near the crown. He sees the thickish brown bed of a scab. “Guess it could be from blacking out.” Then, truly exasperated: “How am I supposed to get it if I’m locked up?”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I said I’d get it. I can’t do it now. But soon, I can. Really fuckin’ soon.” She looks at him without seeing him. Her pupils dilate and contract, spinning like tops. “I ain’t even got a place to go. Not a room, nothin’.”
He doesn’t want to hear her story, doesn’t want to hear about how much she has endured, the catalog of unthinkable atrocities. She will most likely die, at the mercy of the man or the drugs or the winter. Still he feels cast to the cement, made too alive by the cold and the adrenaline. He is imprinted by the shape and smell of her, her smallness. How long she must have waited for someone to bear witness.
He shrugs off his jacket and lets it drop in front of her. “Here,” he says. “You look cold.” He feels a little better. He can give her this, at least. He can make up for it. He can make up for it all.
She looks at it, dumbly, then at her bag beside her, where he’s dropped it. The drugs. The drugs keep her from feeling the cold.
She barks once, to clear her throat. “What the fuck am I going to do with this?” She grabs the jacket in both hands and holds it up. As she staggers splay-legged to her feet, he sees a bloodstain webbing the seam of her pants.
He backs down the alley, eyeing her until he reaches the street. “I need this,” he tells her again. “I have to pay someone, too. I’m sorry.” He turns away, gripping the money.
“What the fuck am I going to do with this?” he hears her wail, full of panic and anticipation, as he begins to run.
. . .
Afshan didn’t have a waterproof coat, and it had been raining all week long. They’d laughed, when she first put his on, at how it dwarfed her, at how ridiculous it looked, gaping and billowing out around her. It probably wouldn’t have kept any rain out anyway.
She was furious with him that day. He hadn’t even meant to say anything. They’d been hiking for an hour, maybe; she’d been chattering on about the wedding, and he was just letting her talk. She asked him something, he doesn’t remember exactly what it was. It may have had to do with a job she thought she’d found for him in Tehran. He didn’t answer right away, and she turned around and looked at him. Just stopped in the middle of the trail and looked at him. He could’ve saved himself, come up with something, but he was right on the ridgepole of telling her he wasn’t ready and he waited a moment too long. But she knew. He could tell she already knew. He didn’t have to say anything at all.
She strode up the hill, tented in the jacket, tearing down the zipper when she began to sweat. It flapped behind her like two flags. She gave no sign that she was even listening to him. He wasn’t saying he didn’t want to go; he just needed more time. He wasn’t supposed to want to stay—he knew that. He was supposed to embrace the adventure. Surge forward into his new life. But the Iran he imagined wasn’t the subtropical paradise he was supposed to think it was. It was wilderness. It was on the other side of the earth. But he’d traveled farther before. He’d been to Bali on spring break. He just needed more time. There wasn’t anything he could say that she believed or understood. She accused him of staging the hike, to take her to a place from which she couldn’t get away, to force her to hear him out. That may have been true; he doesn’t know. He can’t remember whose idea it was anymore. She loved fall in Boston. It was the one season when the weather delighted her, the only time she really liked being outside.
The ground was waterlogged. Their shoes were drenched by the time they reached the summit. “When?” she asked. “When, then?” She didn’t answer when he said, “Soon. Really soon.”
The clearing was small and nicely mulched. A bench from which to enjoy the view was several yards from the edge. A single glance was enough to know that the rain had soaked it. Afshan strode instead to a log that had been dragged, as a stopgap seat, closer to the rim of the overlook. She sat rigid, decidedly away from him. He remembers her hair had gone to frizz, standing up in a comic nimbus around her face. Beads of sweat texturized her skin. The sign at the trailhead was right; the rain made the colors resplendent, redensified swathes of green and orange. The mountains in the distance rose up, fainter than their cousins in the foreground.
He sat beside her. Another if only. Why hadn’t he just kept standing? He wanted to touch her, to comfort her. He felt her disappearing, felt the situation turning into a big complicated knot he would try uselessly to untangle. He had to get hold of her before she withdrew into the fray. Whatever the log was—too wet or too small or too rotten—it couldn’t bear his weight for long. He shifted, to get closer to her, and felt the quick snap and release of the log breaking in half. She lost her balance and fell forward, the half of the log she’d been sitting on rolling down and pushing against her. The jacket. He grabbed the back of that stupid fucking jacket. It came off, as if he were ridding her of it. A tablecloth slipping off its table: smooth, seamless, quiet. She landed with a soft cry, her knees on firm ground, but her hands too close to the edge. The ground gave underneath them. He was so surprised when she kept falling that he didn’t even watch, didn’t see her land.
It was some thirty feet. He slid down to the gorge floor, skinned his hands, tore off part of a thumbnail. Images of what her insides must have looked like flashed through his head in pieces: organs torn and leaking, bones crushed and puncturing through layers of pink muscle and red nerves. The back of her head was almost gone. He doesn’t know what happened to it. Shorn off by something. That’s all he had, what it looked like. The blood ran between her teeth like water into sidewalk cracks. It coated her tongue. Her eyes were still open and bright. He told her he loved her as they continued to shine.
. . .
A man is on the porch when Connor pounds up the sidewalk. He knows it’s the landlord, from how he’s standing, how he’s waiting. Connor is sure he looks like hell. A bleeding hand from tripping a few blocks back. Wheezing, pouring sweat, face probably such a brilliant red he seems on the verge of heart failure. Coatless.
Connor stands in front of the man, huffing, and thumbs through the cash. The money is still all there, though now the envelope is ripped and wrinkled and stained with something clear and greasy. Blood is on the flap. He tosses it onto the bottom step. He bends over, coughing, bracing his hands on his knees. He can’t raise his head right away. He hears the tiny snap of a lighter. Sweat falls from his forehead to the cement. His breath clouds the air in front of him. The scent of cloves springs a lock inside him, contracts, for a moment, the aperture of his vision. He expels it from his lungs. He smells it in the wind. It’s in the heaviness of the anaerobic winter sky that ceaselessly presses closer.
The man says nothing. He stands on the porch and studies first the street, the traffic, then Connor. The man checks his watch. He is dressed for the weather, in a long coat and a gray and orange wool ski cap. The smoke from his cigarette curls up around his face. He taps the ash over the porch railing. The coat is open enough to expose his neck and throat, across which wrinkles cut like whiplashes. They’re the kind of wrinkles sun damage causes, Connor thinks, wrinkles begotten by scorching days outside, working and playing both. They’re active when he twists his neck, skin moving and bending, accommodating the way skin is supposed to. But when he aligns straight, the wrinkles’ paths are clear, marking where they’ll appear just as soon as he turns his head once more.
“So,” he says, exhaling smoke, when Connor stands upright to face him. “You’ve come again.”