The Cities in Me

Novelist Sorayya Khan maps her path from Islamabad to Solvay.

Sorayya Khan | The Aleph Review | February 2018 | 8 minutes (2,085 words)

 

Our latest Exclusive is a new essay by Sorayya Khan, published with the permission of The Aleph Review, which has the piece in print.

Naeem was 16 and I was 11, but the real difference in 1973 was that I knew his name and he didn’t know mine. Neither of us knew then that our shared life began on a yellow school bus in Islamabad, he in the back, me in the front. His single recollection is that I was the younger sister of a soccer teammate. I have two memories of him. My first is of his wide-open grin while he sits with friends in the last row of bus seats. Curly hair falls in waves around his face and he carries himself with a sixteen-year-old’s swagger that is electrifying to those of us whose feet barely reach the floor. To be grown like that one day! My second is of a photograph. He is on the front page of the school newspaper at a sports banquet where he has won an award. The paper is unnaturally white, the black and white photo too dark. He is dressed in a suit, holding a microphone, smiling shyly at his lucky girlfriend. Buried in a box, the folded newspaper accompanied him to all his cities, and then ours, before it surfaced in Ithaca with a bundle of a girlfriend’s drawings. My memory was accurate, except there’s nothing shy about his smile.

***

In those days, the city was young, like us. Our time in Islamabad overlapped only a year, but even so, we agree that you could almost see C.A. Doxiadis, the city’s Greek architect, slowly unfold the city on land the way he might have done with drawings on a desk: roads rolled out, house foundations dug, markets erected, trees planted. As we looked down from the Margalla Hills, where Naeem and his friends rode on motorcycles and I stood at Viewpoint, we didn’t imagine Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan riding their armies on the Potohar Plateau, on the edge of which the city was emerging. But, always, on a clear day and in the space of a few minutes on an airplane lifting away from the city, it was possible to see how small the sliver of ground beneath our feet was — in a miracle of nature, the Margalla Hills become the Murree Hills become the Himalayan mountain range, and the Potohar Plateau, hundreds of miles wide, trickled down to nothing, like us.

I knew his name and he didn’t know mine. Neither of us knew then that our shared life began on a yellow school bus in Islamabad, he in the back, me in the front.

We met again almost a dozen years later, in Denver, another young city, this one on almost exactly the other side of the world, along a different mountain range. I spotted his smile from across our graduate school lounge. In the space of a few minutes, we figured out what was true: he’d played soccer with my brother, I’d sat next to his brother in sixth grade, and our parents’ homes were a few miles apart along Margalla Road. Not long after, we pedaled side by side on bicycles in the Rockies, sometimes with his hand on my lower back to help me up the steepest climbs. My sister Ayesha visited us during the holidays and we took her cross-country skiing, and when she got so cold she couldn’t move, he put her feet in his armpits to warm them. He packed his wok and knives and spices into an oversize backpack with an aluminum frame and rode his red bicycle to my place to cook elaborate meals for my roommates and me. Eventually, we packed our laundry into his mountain climbing backpack and walked ten minutes across a small park to a laundromat on Evans to do it together.

***

The first story I wrote in Syracuse was called The Yellow School Bus. Texans chewed tobacco and coughed up brown phlegm. Boys with oily hair spit out of windows that let in hot dry air. There might as well have been assigned seats. A young girl tried to make sense of it all. Some of it was true, but much of it wasn’t, and plenty of what I thought was true had been transformed by memory over time and was not. I think of blond boys in the back of our bus spitting on bicyclists and pedestrians the same way I think of faded green bus seats, dirty grooves in rubber flooring, and the broken swing of the manual door opening and closing — they were always there. Naeem suggests this wasn’t true the year we shared a bus and, in any case, if it were true, the boys would not have all been blond. I remember differently, but perhaps the boys were on hiatus then.

Lahore moved into me while I sat at my desk in Solvay and Naeem taught a few miles away at Syracuse University. I ate on my grandparents’ latticed verandah and sat on the ground next to my grandmother in the outdoor kitchen, listening to the pop of mustard seeds and the sizzle of onions in a black cast iron pan. One of my characters died as I sat on the landing at the top of the stairs of our school-turned-apartment building, below a huge window beyond which lay the poisoned lake. I remember the stab of sun on my right cheek, the sharpened No. 2 pencil in my hand, the old clipboard against my knees, an acrid breeze when the door to the outside opened and Naeem came home. I dreamed of Lahore that night, Onondaga Lake the backdrop to the buckled stone patio of my grandparents’ home where my character died all over again and smelled of burnt lamb when his funeral pyre was lit.

***

We didn’t arrive at having children until after Naeem had a heart attack. That winter, when Naeem’s resting heartbeat was 30, only a few beats less than his age, we flew home to be with our parents. There, in Islamabad, Naeem had a thallium stress test to assess the damage. After being injected with a radioisotope and riding a stationary bike, the young doctor was gentle in the face of discouraging films and old news. Half Naeem’s heart was dead. He recommended we concentrate on what was fully alive — Naeem. We were not alone in the large examining room and in a flurry of commotion, an older patient stumbled from another examining table and the doctor led him away in a wheelchair. On his return, he asked about Denver and in an aside, instructed Naeem not to run in airports (which I recall each time we’re in one). Eventually, he asked, “Do you have children?” “Not yet,” I answered, to which he looked at both of us and softly replied, “Have a child. It’s the best thing for you.” I might have been embarrassed at the doctor’s intrusion, but there was nothing more intimate than watching Naeem’s flabby heart pump slowly on the screen and hearing the doctor describe it as dead.

We met again almost a dozen years later, in Denver, another young city, this one on almost exactly the other side of the world, along a different mountain range. I spotted his smile from across our graduate school lounge.

We brought both our children home to the same Solvay apartment. Natalie Cole sang with her father as we drove to the hospital when I was in labor with Kamal, the sound of her voice on Erie Boulevard as we passed the Art Deco building that dominates that side of the city with its stainless steel figure perched high like a New Age helmeted angel overlooking us all. I don’t know what played on the way back, but I remember that Naeem stopped at a southwest corner where Syracuse becomes Solvay to show off our baby to our car mechanic. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Must Must and the Gypsy Kings’ Allegria were two sides of the cassette in my Walkman the morning after Shahid was born and the doctor walked into my hospital room and joked at the baby in my arms, “Haven’t we seen this one before?” Naeem never had much patience for comparisons. “They are themselves,” he would say. But he had even less when he was the source of comparisons, which he often was. He has the shape of your head! Your lips! Your eyes! His response was always the same. “Who cares who they look like, as long as they have your heart.”

***

Everything is more pressing when you have children, including grasping exactly where you’re standing — which Naeem, at least, almost always knows. After Kamal was born, we used the money from the publication of my first story to take PIA’s two-hour airplane safari to see for ourselves. The plane flew over Pakistan’s northern areas, famed places one or both of us had visited with our parents, always by road: Hunza, Gilgit, Chitral, Swat, Naran. We flew along the Karakoram to the Hindu Kush range while the pilot recited what lay below: some of the highest glaciers outside of the Arctic circle and Baltora, one of the longest; the world’s great mountains, like K-2, Nanga Parbat, and also Rakoposhi which became one of Naeem’s most amusing nicknames for the boys. Soon, PIA’s air safaris were discontinued and the city we knew had leaked out of its squares across multiple lanes of Margalla Road into sectors I couldn’t identify and in areas marked as nature preserves on Doxiadis’ blueprints. But by then, I’d begun preserving our Islamabad on the page, replete with white and blue rectangular concrete street signs that sat on every corner, flaking red paint of metal monkey bars in empty parks, and stairs that led nowhere in half constructed houses abandoned by fleeing Bengalis during the ’71 war. The Islamabad of our childhood was the map of my stories. My husband had almost died by then and imprinting onto the page what was slipping away became urgent work.


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All at once one summer, dog day cicadas emerged from their slumber in the wooded hill across our Solvay street. True to their name, it happened in the dog days of July or August when Sirius in the Canis Major constellation is bright in the sky. After spending up to five years in the earth, the cicadas burrowed their way out as skinny versions of Pakistani cockroaches before, on top of trees, they cast off their skin in favor of flying selves. Their mating song was a buzz saw gone wrong, an earsplitting version of crickets at the wrong pitch and time of day. Inside, behind locked windows that failed to keep out the racket and transformed our apartment into a baking oven, rivulets of perspiration dripped down my back. I was transported to my first summer in Islamabad, when my parents satisfied my childhood longing for a tent and erected one in our bare back lawn, complete with an irrigation ditch that did nothing to prevent the monsoon rain from turning the ground into mud. The canvas tent swarmed with mosquitos, despite being sprayed with DDT almost every day, and after that season, it was never seen again. In our apartment, I gathered more books from the shelves and when I added them to a tomato box salvaged for our move from a grocery store, I smelled the earthworms and cockroaches of that summer’s Islamabad mud.

We didn’t arrive at having children until after Naeem had a heart attack. That winter, when Naeem’s resting heartbeat was 30, only a few beats less than his age, we flew home to be with our parents.

Our second baby cried and cried and cried. Shahid never slept, not at night and not during the day and not after his pediatrician berated me for the expectation. Exhausted, I’d put him in his crib while I packed. Several boxes later, my resolve broke. I sprinted the few steps to our wall of windows and threw open every single one, standing in the path of the cicada noise on which, I swear, a gentle breeze rode in. The cacophony of Shahid’s cries and the cicada drone almost felled me. I opened the bedroom door where our round baby, wearing only a diaper in his crib, had pulled himself up and stopped crying. I reached for him, his soft brown skin red with heat and slippery with sweat and tears, his baby heart pounding hard against me as I buried kisses in his triple chin. When his father came home, the apartment smelled of dusk and life, and he and Kamal lay on the floor and blew raspberries on Shahid’s stomach, their smiles one. A bus strained up Woods Road. It passed Prospect fire station next door, the red house on the hill and Solvay’s historic Carnegie library, and further up it passed below the ghost of Solvay’s aerial cable line, but stopped drowning out the cicadas before it got to St. Cecilia’s church. The boys, deaf to all the noise but theirs, laughed in unison, each at his own pitch.

We take our cities with us, I thought. And I wondered what our children’s would be.

* * *

Sorayya Khan is the author of three novels. The U.S. edition of her most recent book, City of Spies, was released in the fall of 2017. Her essay, Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America, was published on Longreads in September, 2017.