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Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran in 1978 and raised in the Greater Los Angeles area (South Pasadena, to be exact). Her first language was Farsi, her second (and luckily[…]

Almost exactly eight months after his father left him in New York, Xerxes Adam was awakened to the hottest summer day of the year by the invasion of a rather unwelcome mental slide show – visions of that distant prime creator, his mother.

Khakpour:    Well this is somewhere in the middle of the novel shortly after, you know, Xerxes and his father have gotten into a huge fight when the father has visited him in New York.  And some months have gone by and he’s become essentially estranged from his family.  And it’s not until the morning of 9/11 that he sort of realizes that he should pick up the phone and call them.  He’s in New York in the East Village, and they are in Los Angeles.  And so 9/11 becomes the occasion on which he has to somewhat reconnect.  So let me just read.

“Almost exactly eight months after his father left him in New York, Xerxes Adam was awakened to the hottest summer day of the year by the invasion of a rather unwelcome mental slide show – visions of that distant prime creator, his mother.  Maybe he dreamed of her all night, every night even.  Who knew?  He hoped not.  He hoped it was just his conscious in calculation mode sending the alarm that it was time.  “Xerxes, time.  Your mother is waiting.”

His mother had now left what he estimated must be 100 and something messages in 30 something weeks.  The first third had been desperate, and urgent, and worried.  “Please Xerxes,” she would say, adding, “My son” in a shaky voice in way that made him feel as if his entrails were melting.

The second third angry, annoyed, acerbic, trickling eventually to a just pissed snippiness.  “And who are you mad at exactly?” she would snap.

The third third cheery, oblivious, delusional, often delivered in the form of five-minute plus, often diary entry-like recordings that chronicled her day – just disjointed spewing of whatever was on her mind at the moment; only at the end perhaps tagging on, “Maybe you will call.”  Or, “This is your mother wondering how you are, but not wondering too hard.  Bye-bye.”  Or like the last one, “Here’s to you being all okay or whatever.  __________.”  It was the type of good night you’d leave a stranger.  She would slam the phone down and turn off the lights.  At some point she decided that calling at her bedtime would be best.  They were three hours deeper into the night, and so he’d certainly be in at 1:00 in the morning; maybe 2:00; hell 3:00, at midnight her time. And she’d give up and force herself to sleep.  But not without giving the possibly pretend sleeping mass of husband next to her a sharp nudge and lecture.  “This is getting crazy Darius,” she would hiss into the darkness.  “What the hell did you do to him?  He’s our son.  This is something you did.  Now you get him back, you hear me?  He’s your son too.  I don’t care what you say.  Just bring him back to life.”  He’d mumble incoherently and toss and turn as if to signify some grand struggle.  “I’m telling you,” she would continue.  “Some other parents would call the police.  How do we know he isn’t, you know . . .”

Xerxes wondered how she would possibly know if he was dead.  She wouldn’t.  This was one thing about New York he realized immediately – that to die in this city was to die.  The end.  Click.  Exit human. No one would notice.  No one would fight it or even interfere.  No one would even notice.  No one was looking.  And if someone find you, well fine.  You were just another of the many who died in the city daily – mysterious, natural, unsolved, homicidal, suicidal, whatever.  You were a number, and if you didn’t like that you could leave.  He did not want to leave.  There were sacrifices worth making for the city, he had decided long ago.  But it did alarm him that perhaps she had resigned herself to thinking the worst in this third stage of messages.  Perhaps she did assume he was dead.  And perhaps she noticed any clues to the contrary – a changed message greeting at best – as simple surprises; grains of evidence for an alternate universe she had once fought for but eventually tired of.  Maybe his mother had done what no other mother in the history of the domestic matriarchy had done in regard to her offspring.  Maybe she had abandoned hope.

This barely conscious reflection on his two-thirds of a year’s worth of inhumanity, combined with the sickly stickiness of a peculiarly oppressive 9:00 a.m. heat jolted him fully awake as if from a falling dream.  Of all people, why had he shed his mother from his life?  He remembered being a child and being mad at her – her so much more often than him.  Because it was she who was constantly stepping into his world, combing and gelling his hair when all the boys wore it messy; wiping his face, fiddling with his shirt, tying his shoes for him; always hollering annoying reminders as he was on his way out; always checking on him at his friends’ houses; always tucking him in with embarrassing, often untrue admonitions or reminders, “You are growing up!  You need to think about smelling good now that you’re growing up.  Showering regularly to begin with, because I am about to vomit and I am your mother.”  Or the most dreaded.  “Imagine yourself in the future and think, ‘Would my silly behavior today get me there?  What would a future wife think now?’”   Once in a while in a rage what would become constant repeat loop in his head would want to leak out.  And his head answered everything.  Everyone annoying and adult was the sinister kiddy staple, “I wish you would die.”

Once to Xerxes’ own adult embarrassment, he remembered being pushed – pushed to say it out loud, though it best in a weak whisper.

“What did you say?” she’d snap furiously.

“I wish you . . .”  He had paused, sure he could see a glimmer of tears in her eyes.  Although in retrospect he thought that any human’s eyes, naturally slimy and liquidy, could look tearful if guilt steered you in that direction.  And he had rephrased, “I wish you guys would die.”  Psychologically it was better for him, but its true genius was in being better for her as well.  “You guys” became the great equalizer.  It was something more like, “I wish the whole institution of you – parenthood – would die, not you personally.”  All she had done was shake her head.  She still tucked him in.  And so he wondered now too many years later how at 6:00 a.m. their time and their other heat; their dry, dull warmth of West Coast, versus his merciless, wet, dirty big city tropical wave – how we could reach her and soften his blow.  He had basically in his silence and his refusal to reach out said, “I wish I was dead to you,” and he had gotten what he wanted.  He might as well be.  So when he finally did it that morning – did the dreaded dialing of a number he grew up with, which still seemed so natural – the automatic sequencing of otherwise illogical numbers that he had worked so hard to render unnatural – he didn’t even consider that she might not be the one to pick up.  As life goes it had to be him.  His father with his usual gruff, reluctant, “Hello,” but put the emphasis on “hell”, which he was probably conscious of, or probably found funny, or else unapt.  “There is no God,” Xerxes sighed.  Xerxes slammed the phone down, shoving it deep into a draw as if to pretend it never happened.  He closed his eyes and buried the day back into his pillow.

Three weeks later, a day after the first one third of September 2001, he finally called when life finally gave him a push to put whatever pettiness between him and that number aside, if only for a day when he knew risking him could no longer be an issue.  That he had to – had to more than ever announce himself as living; as one of the many who that day felt like a few; who had lived through it, so far at least.  And through the few dial tones he said to himself over and over, “There is a God.  There is a God.  Oh please let there be a God.”  And suddenly there she was answering without even a “hello”; just that mystical, all-knowing mother’s “Xerxes?”  And the first thing he could think to say was the only thing that he knew true in that surreal hell of a day.

“Mother,” he declared breathlessly.  “I am alive.”

Darius was, of course, at her side just barely making out the sound of the receiver at his wife’s ear.  His son’s voice was that usually __________ high, chipmunk garble that phones render voices.  “It could be anyone’s voice,” he thought.  “It all sounds the same, except that is my son.”  His son calling from the heart of a danger he could not comprehend at the moment.  He drowned him out and drowned out his wife’s overcompensating, awkward coos and exclamations and turned the news louder until they both disappeared into the unrelenting dissonance of disaster.  On the television they crumbled over and over – two tall, perhaps too proud totems of the city; two towers erected to be each other’s image indistinguishable, somber doubles; each dying the same death; neither intolerable when it came to supposedly inevitable.  Over and over it replayed.  One went down.  The other stood solo.  Fast forward to a new clip.  The other goes down just as the first, and then nothing.  Where his son was it was sunny.  It was also sunny where he was.  He squinted out the window and imagined the entire sky over America smiling heartlessly.  He imagined his homeland that was almost dark.  He thought that there was, at best, only a moon over Iran, and he thought how nice that was.  He closed his eyes, and gone were the repeating images on the television.  And gone was that blinding brightness, and he let the just so dark wall of his eyelid melt into the image of the twilight Tehran sky.  It was time to go home.”