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A New Yorker, and a Sick Person

Porochista Khakpour | Longreads | June 7, 2018 | 2,300 words
Posted inBooks, Essays & Criticism, First Chapters, Nonfiction, Story

A New Yorker, and a Sick Person

In an excerpt from her memoir, Porochista Khakpour recalls fashioning herself after her artist aunt’s example.
David Malan/Getty

Porochista Khakpour | Sick: A Memoir | June 2018 | 9 minutes (2,300 words)

Ever since I can remember, I dreamed of escaping. Escaping what was always the question, but my life had been one of escape since I was born — revolution and war sent us through Asia and Europe and eventually to America. We were in exile, my parents always reminded me, we had escaped. It was temporary. But escape was also something I longed for in eighties Southern California, which constantly felt foreign to me, a place of temporary settling but no home. Everything was tan in a way my brown skin could not compete with. Everything was blond in a way my bottle-blond mother could not recreate, gilt upon gold upon gilt. Everything was carefree and smiles, gloss and glitter, and money to no end. We, meanwhile, were poor and anxious and alone. When my brother was born in our neighboring city Arcadia, California, in 1983, I watched his pink squirming body stowed into a giant felt red heart — it was Valentine’s Day — and even stuffed in all that makeshift American affection I thought he didn’t have a chance. None of us did.

As the tremors continued, as my body somehow grew smaller rather than larger — my mother always quick to slap my hand when I reached for the leftover cake batter the way sitcom kids did, her ritual baking more American obligation than motherly delight — I also began feeling a need to escape the body. All my few friends got their periods before they were teenagers, but mine waited deep into my first teenage year, on the brink of fourteen, like an afterthought. Everything about my body felt wrong to me, especially as California went from the eighties to the nineties, and I knew escape would have to be a real revolution of presence.

My mind always went to literal distance, eyes on the globe landing without fail on New York. It’s hard to know if all the movies of the era did it, Fame and its many knockoffs, Annie and all the stories of rags-to-riches miracles in Manhattan, told me New York was the motherland for misfit creatives to thrive, for foreigners with big dreams, for girl authors. But I think where it really came from was my aunt Simin, who was the only living role model I ever had. My mother’s world, as it sought to merge with the average American woman’s more and more, spoke to me less and less — I found myself cooling from her endless mall outings, Estée Lauder free gifts, diet everything, soap operas, and department store catalogues. Instead my eyes went to my father’s sister.

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