When I think of my uncle, I always think about the utter decimation of his body. The way his remains must have looked after he drenched himself in gasoline and set flesh on fire. His skin, muscles, and inner organs shriveling up like burning paper, his soul shedding a blackened and charred corpse. I imagined the awful smell, bitter fumes swaying in the cold wind, biting at the nose yet not so different from the stench of cookfires my mother’s family had grown accustomed to.
Chary had killed himself in the front of the ancestral home, so when all of his brothers and sisters spilled out from the wide doors to begin the day, they would be forced to see the aftermath of his decision. I don’t know what compelled him to do it on that stretch of land, whether he believed the convenience of location outweighed potentially traumatizing his loved ones. My uncle died before I was born. I never held a conversation with him, never even exchanged a passing glance, so I used to speculate that he wanted the promise of witnesses. I know why he chose suicide. We all do. He was addicted to drugs, very likely depressed, and raised on the idea that only Allah could heal the most insidious of diseases.
I had, at the time, no quarrel with how Chary chose to exit life. If anything, I begrudgingly respected it, just a tad. There was something to be said about a man who refused to participate in the bullshit of circumstance any longer. I pictured him standing on the hard-packed dirt as the early morning light bled across the sky, his mouth a thin line as he poured the canister over his head. He shook it, even though he was soaked wet with gasoline, fat drops of fluid dotting the ground. Once, twice, and then he reached for the lighter. There was no dramatic pause, no unpunctuated period of silence. Fire consumed him until he was nothing more than an angry circle of scorched earth, a reminder for his eleven siblings, his aging parents, his new wife: Look what I did. Look what I will continue to do.
My mother tried limiting discussions centering her brother. It was not that she was ashamed of Chary or repulsed by his supposed sin, but that any mention of him saddened her. You didn’t even have to say his name to provoke an emotional response, just hinting at the man would do. The first time I dug into the matter of my uncle’s passing was on the anniversary of his death. I watched my mother tuck herself into the corner of the living room and silently count prayer beads, the low buzz of CNN working as her background noise. A tactless eleven-year-old, I plopped down beside her and asked, “How did your brother die? And I don’t mean the one who got hit by a car crossing the street.”
She answered, with her eyes rapidly blinking, “He set himself on fire.”
He couldn’t have used a gun? “Why would he do that?”
“Because he was a drug addict.”
Her voice had softened to a whisper, which usually meant she was on the verge of crying. That should have been my cue to walk away, leave things be, but as I said, I was a tactless eleven-year-old. So I forged ahead.
“But he couldn’t have tried something less…painful? Like a rope or something.” At this age, I had only been superficially aware of why people might want to go away. Crippling financial debts, slow-acting illnesses, homelessness, those were all justifications I had gleaned from newspapers and could easily list if someone asked me to. But I did not understand, until much later, why anyone would intentionally harm themselves to the point of death. It was a sense of finality you could not come back from, a constant state of torture you had condemned yourself to in order to escape the problems of the mortal world.
“I don’t know why he did it that way.” My mother released a slow stream of air from her mouth. The beads clicked against one another a little more loudly now. “He was a good person, but very sick. He was young. You weren’t even born yet.”
“You said only God can take someone’s life away.”
Minutes passed by, before: “Yes.”
“Then, doesn’t that mean Chary is in hell?” I mumbled my way through the sentence, out of fear the last word would cause her to burst into tears or fly into a rage. This was new territory for both of us. My mother was invested in me and my sisters’ educational activities and our school friendships, so those were topics she frequently approached in the home. She did not talk about suicide except to warn us it was haram. My father did not talk at all. When he was physically present and sober enough to follow these conversations, he would shake his head eagerly, as if her threat of eternal damnation needed his approval.
“Well, yes, that’s true, but—” A deep breath. “That’s what the Quran says, but it’s my hope that if I count enough prayers for him, Allah will forgive Chary and allow him to go to paradise.”
She switched over to quietly voicing the prayers, quickly yet thoroughly enunciating them with each moving bead. I watched her eyes dim to nothingness as she returned to her task, her back bent with defeat, and I knew then that was the end of our conversation. I should have helped her. I should have offered to count prayers too, but it felt like I had intruded on her space, and sticking around would do nothing but further her discomfort. This little carpeted corner of the room, the droning reporters’ voices, they were elements of her sanctuary and I had invaded it with my nosy questions.
So I walked to my bedroom, shut the door, and rewound the conversation, wondering how a power so forgiving could keep a sick man in hell.
I said later I understood, and I did. I had never been more enamored with the idea of suicide as when I had been in high school. I was fifteen, and the descent into puberty had turned me into something I didn’t recognize, a creature of loathing. Hateful, jealous, it was as if the blossoming of my womanhood marshalled cruel conditions of the world and presented them to me. I grew breasts, my father took that as an invitation to watch me urinate in the bathroom. I masturbated, my mother saw it a sign of some unseemly mental illness. I was no longer their firstborn, golden child, baby we prayed for so much, but a pestilence, a weed that festered in their home but they didn’t want to be rid of. Because they needed someone. They needed me, both of them, to pin on their frustrations, hang up their dashed expectations. Personal failures and professional disappointments were needles in their skin that they jabbed into mine.
God didn’t grant me a reprieve, so I sought it out on my own. Everyone in the family had some form of escape. In my father’s room, where he hunkered away from us, there was alcoholism that had begun life as a sip of Soviet beer and ended as a collection of emptied Smirnoff bottles. My mother made the release of her trauma more obvious. She alternated between loud fits of yelling and hours on the phone, constantly calling her friends, her relatives, her co-workers, Russian, Turkmen, and English all blending into one long unintelligible complaint about her life. I really didn’t know what my sisters did, other than flitting in and out of the house to hang out at after-school anime clubs or their friends’ place.
At that point in life, I was still committed to organized religion, so I wasn’t going to acquire a sudden drug habit or alcohol addiction. And I certainly wasn’t the type of girl that frequented my high school, artsy, talented things who made themselves smaller so boys whose haircuts rivaled Keith Buckley’s would deign to date them. Thus, being fucked into oblivion wasn’t a likely solution for me, and fucking someone else even less likely. So I settled on the safe, the socially acceptable—musical theatre. My high school was well-known for its theatre program, a program which I had auditioned for and been accepted into, but hadn’t actually participated in yet. There were four shows each year, a musical and play in the spring and then two more in the fall. I couldn’t act my way out of a paper bag, but I could blend into the background well enough, so I showed up for Camelot auditions, danced a bit of dance, sang a snippet of song, and waited for the cast list to go up. The waiting period was merely a pretense. The director was my dance teacher and she routinely cast her students in shows she was in charge of. So I made the ensemble.
My mother showed the most excitement. “It will be good for you,” she’d said. “You won’t sit in your room, all alone. Maybe you’ll make friends.” And it had been good for me, in the beginning. I had been happy to stay past seven for rehearsals, to practice the same parts over and over, late nights biting into my bedtime. Lost sleep was nothing compared to the joy croaking “Guenevere” on stage brought me. I wasn’t going to be like my uncle, a man so preoccupied with his own folly that he’d lived life absently, never present even though he was there. The show was fun, so it made sense when I arrived for rehearsal a day after Hurricane Sandy flooded my house and left my family derelict, drifting. It’s not escape if you can’t use it for any and all scenarios. And it was okay. I was okay. Until the second act.
I think a lot of people would ask, “Why did you just stand there? Why did you allow him to touch you?” Not out loud, of course, not in this day and age, where so many people rush to play the part of the progressive, their electronic devices alight with nauseatingly condescending hashtags and social media posts. But the question would be there, not lurking at the back of the brain, but front and center, because no one can possibly fathom allowing anyone to make them a victim. So they think, “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Maybe because I didn’t know what he was capable of. Maybe because I, so naive and sheltered and pious, didn’t understand in that moment what he was doing when he pressed up against me in the blackness of backstage. He snaked one hand inside my jeans, the same ones I’d been wearing since yesterday, the only pair I owned since the hurricane stole all my possessions. His fingers rubbed over the thin cotton of underwear covering my crotch, his touch gentle enough that I never dared wonder if he’d lance them inside me. He did that for the entirety of scene one, however long it took for the leads to execute the corrections Ms. Raymond had given. Sometimes his friend would laugh softly from the shadows, a witness to this perversion, but other than that, it was simply the two of us in that pocket of time unmoving.
Then the cue for the ensemble came on, and he whisked the offending hand away. He disappeared among the flow of students that poured out from the sides and onto the expanse of the stage. I joined them, a beat behind. We pushed through scenes of Mordred’s scheming and Guenevere’s departure until it was time for a break. Five minutes! I went down the steps, lead in my legs, and found one of the assistants, a fellow student. I wept in between words. Wide-eyed, she tracked down Ms. Raymond and in turn, Ms. Raymond brought the boy to the front of the auditorium, where the first row of seats were, and had him sit down. And it would be well and good to say that was the end of it, that justice was served, that my self-proclaimed feminist teacher would do what any woman would do and ensure this molestation would not go unpunished. But then she waved me over.
She had me stand in front of this boy, me the defendant and he the juror. He leaned back, head lolling to the side, arms crossed tightly over his chest. His eyes were trained on a spot past my head.
She said, “You can’t do these things. Some people—she’s sensitive. You just can’t act like that. Okay?”
He arose in one swift, sudden movement and without a single glance in either of our directions, left. I turned to my teacher, wondering if I just watched an adult get dismissed by a teenager, but she was leaving too.
I caught the Q train after we wrapped up rehearsal. A beggar swayed at the end of the car, talking to no one.
I dug my lunch out of my schoolbag and ate it on the floor of the foreclosed apartment that was our shelter for the time being. My father’s stare bore holes into my skull. Angered over the fact he could not spend money on vodka and ale like he wanted, he unburdened himself on me. I was disrespectful, I was rude, I was responsible for sins real and imagined. The bread turned to dust in my mouth. I fled for the bathroom.
A knock on the door. “You’re crying.” It was my mother. Silent by the kitchen sink during my father’s tantrum, she was here to comfort me. Or confront me. It was usually the latter.
“You’re crying. What happened?” She manhandled the knob. “Open the door.”
In a rare burst of energy, I yanked back the door so hard it banged against the tiled wall. It swung back to meet my mother, but she caught the side of the door and pushed it back, so now we were staring at each other head-on. She took in the wetness of my face, the redness of my eyes.
“Something’s wrong.” Panic seized her. “Something’s wrong, what happened?”
“Don’t lie to me. Something happened. Either I have to go to the police or—”
“Somebody touched me.” I rubbed the heel of my hand into my eye. “That’s it.”
“I knew something was off with you, you felt different, where was this?” The words flew out of her mouth. “Where did this happen?”
“At school.” Go away.
“Were you naked?” she asked in a hushed voice.
Why the fuck would I be naked at rehearsal? “No. Our clothes were on.”
With a whirl of her skirt, she went hunting for her cell phone. She called this person, that person, while I took a scalding shower. I let the water render my skin raw.
When I was done, my mother told me we were going to the school tomorrow, early in the morning. There would be people we could talk to, before the building was officially open to the students.
“It’s good,” she said. “That you told me. Instead of hiding it.”
I want to go away. I want to go away. “Okay.” Let me go away.
They brought us to their office, two white ladies in their forties. One was blonde, the other a brunette. The blonde was shorter than the other, but their faces were visible with concern. Or maybe they just had large eyes.
A man in a fuzzy sweater typed away at his desk. The blonde looked at him and said, “Can you step out for a second, please?”
We were women alone. For the third time in less than a week, I was forced to repeat what happened to me.
My mother broke down at the end of my tale. “We don’t need this right now,” she choked out. “We have nowhere to live. Our house is gone. We didn’t need this.”
We? I don’t recall anyone trying to finger your vagina. But I held my tongue. People are gentle with victims of sexual assault only until they start saying things they don’t want to hear. Then you’re just a bitch some male had the misfortune of fondling.
“We have resources for people affected by Sandy,” the women were saying. “We have a whole room of donations from the students and the staff.”
I don’t want donations. I want you to cut off his hand.
They gave me a folder, two notebooks. Some pens. I think there was looseleaf.
“If you need anything else, just let us know. We’re here for you.”
“Thank you.” I thought about the Golden Gate Bridge, how many people had flung themselves off the railing. How fast their necks broke upon impact with the water. If I could find that in Brooklyn. “I appreciate it so much.”
Later in the day, I got pulled out of class to go to a different office. I was given two pieces of paper. “To make your statement,” the curly-haired dean explained.
I recounted the incident with great detail, to my surprise. If this was the last time I would tell this story, I wanted everything to be accurate, precise. I wanted a stranger to read my testimony and find not an ounce of hysteria, and be satisfied that I was not mistaking the brush of a hand for something more sinister. An hour passed. I finished the last sentence, skimmed the pages to make sure there were no misspellings, then straightened them out so they were lined up with one another. I’d used both pages, front and back.
I didn’t see the dean around the office, so I followed a trail of men’s voices to a tiny breakroom.
“My wife didn’t want to cook, so I thought, okay, let’s go to a restaurant,” one of the men was saying. They were older, older than the ladies, all suspenders and black ties. “We went to this nice place nearby—”
“Can we help you?” One of the men finally caught sight of me by the doorway.
“I need to give this in, but I don’t know to who,” I said. He held out his hand, a demand, not an offer, for the worst day of my life. He read through the pages for one, two, three minutes. Then he looked up at me.
“You know this is not your fault, right?”
Why would I think it was my fault? “I know.” Everyone was being insufferable, even when they weren’t.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said, holding up the papers.
“Okay. Thank you.”
I went back to the chair and the table and sat there until a classmate named Nick brought down my belongings. “Thanks,” I said. I felt I said thank you too much. Too much for that day, anyway.
Rehearsals. During a ten minute interlude, the boy appeared, stopping me in the lobby on my way back to the auditorium.
“I’m letting you know I’m sorry,” he said. A pause. “If you think I did anything wrong, I’m sorry.” His voice was what a shrug sounded like.
“Did they tell you to say that?” Speaking out loud surprised me. I was never one to challenge others.
“No. I’m apologizing.”
He was taller than me, lean and cocksure in a way men always are, even when they don’t have a reason to be. But I wasn’t afraid of the boy. I was afraid of the venomous victim blaming known to most predators.
“If that’s it…”
We returned to the auditorium. I did my homework for the remainder of the break and he spun around a girl, her gaggle of friends swarming him, giggling, whispering. Waiting for their turn.
I realized then. No suspension. No police report, no black mark on his transcript. It’d be holiday parties and snow days and hot chocolate by the fire for him. Some stupid teenager warming his lap, kissing his jaw, letting his hands roam freely. Me, lying listless on the mattress, clawing at my wrists beneath the bed covers. Mama mocking me. You let him do this to you. Dada ignoring me. Allah unseen. This was everyone else’s world. I was just living in it. That was fine. My uncle burned himself to ash with nothing more than gasoline and a lighter. I could do more with less.
My final resting place would be the bathtub, because I liked how pathetic it was. I didn’t fill it with water. No need. I’d already taken every pill in the apartment. The bottles were nothing compared to our old stockpile, but that was pre-Sandy, so I took what I had. My insides stung with resentment, new and expired medication. I lowered myself into the tub, still clothed because I couldn’t bear the thought of the paramedics seeing me naked. They’d think I was ugly.
I couldn’t sleep, so I thought about the life I might have had. The man who might have loved me, tied his future with mine. The books I could have published. The places I would have visited. I said goodbye to all of them, each and every possibility, the husband I’d never hold, the stories I’d never see, the countries I’d never cultivate. Bright spots reduced to errant shadows, I loved them. Then I let them go in my heart.
The paramedics didn’t think I was ugly. They thought I was alive.
Still breathing. Yeah, I see that. Attempted suicide.
It was half an hour in the uncomfortably small ambulance, the ride made longer by the paramedic who insisted on belittling her son upon hearing why I wanted to kill myself. Apparently her child cut himself, ritualized the scarring of skin, because he liked to mimic people on television. Listen, she boomed. He’s stupid, you’re not. You’re pretty (I’m not). So you have no reason to want to die.
I crossed the threshold from sort-of-alive to stable once I was admitted to the hospital whose name I could not pronounce. The air did not suffocate with the reek of decay as I had expected, but a cleanliness that disgusted me in its own right. A cloying, sweet smell would have been deceptive but fitting, given how many people supposedly perished on the premises. But the faint, artificial scent of fresh laundry seeped throughout the room instead, and it bothered me. A place that foreign had no right to ape the habits of the home.
I understood time through the warmth of the bed. If the sheet beneath me was too hot, it meant I’d been lying there too long, the hours passing in quick succession. I vomited once. The identification bracelet chafed my wrist. My mother came and went at strange intervals, a ghost in the making. My father arrived. Go away, I told him. I don’t want you here. I sounded unwell, unhinged, but he left all the same.
My doctor was Dr. Logan Hegg. He was thirty-one, and better suited for staring at people rather than helping them.
“My parents fight. I hate school, I hate going. I believe in God, but he won’t help me.”
His face contorted in disgust. “Why do you think that?”
“Because the boy touched me. I’m not pure enough. I’m—”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “You understand that, right? I’m not trying to be a jerk. But you can’t work yourself up over what’s not there. You can’t see God, hear him, so there’s no point in worrying about him. There’s no…” He adjusted his glasses. “Why did you swallow those pills?”
“Because I wanted to go away.”
“I know, but why pills? What led you to choose that specifically?”
“Because…Because I was afraid of the pain.”
“Yes, but also from not dying. I thought about hanging myself, but the rope—it could loosen and I could—still be alive, you know? Paralyzed or something. And cutting myself wouldn’t work. That’d take too long, hurt too much. Right?” I looked to him for approval now, for confirmation that my thought process wasn’t insane.
“So pills. All right. You said a boy touched you?”
“At school. During rehearsal.”
“You told a teacher? A guidance counselor?”
“I told my director. Well, she’s the director and my dance teacher…”
“They alerted the authorities?”
He cocked his head. “Well. At least you told someone. That’s good. I hope you understand that.”
Finally: “It sounds like you’re under a lot of stress. Look, there are healthier ways to cope with stress. I know it’s bad now, but it’s not always going to be like this. Light at the end of the tunnel. Okay?”
I waited for him to elaborate on those methods, but he didn’t. He waited with fingers laced for me to free him from the conversation.
“Okay. I understand. Thank you.”
My sorrow lingered long after I was released from the hospital, even after I returned to school and a false sense of normalcy presented itself. I kept up a string of good grades and a record of perfect attendance. The show went on. Ms. Raymond gave the boy another part on top of his role as a knight, a small spot that needed fulfilling: the priest. It was almost funny.
I nursed my resentment like an open wound. I resented almost everyone. I resented my parents. I resented my harasser. And I resented Chary Kurbanmuradov, my poor, deceased, defenseless uncle, the only person who absolutely did not deserve my contempt. I hated him, or at least, the idea of him, because he had done almost exactly as I had done and come out better for it. This man defied the god we worshipped, left his family unmoored, and abandoned the woman who adored him. He broke sacred rules and vows and in return, he received prayers and support and understanding. My own mother had the gall to say it was my fault the boy violated me. How? How did that work? I didn’t choose to be humiliated by my father, by a student, by a teacher, by a doctor, but Chary chose to use drugs. He chose to remove himself from this earth in the most disturbing way. Why did he get sympathy and love when I didn’t? Was it because he was a man and I was a girl? Was it because he self-immolated? What was I doing wrong?
It hurt to think this way. Deep down I knew my scorn and doubt were misdirected. My uncle had a disease. He lived in a country that did not have a good grasp on mental health or how to treat addictions. If me and Chary were following the same line of thought, then he probably believed life wasn’t worth living anymore. He might have assumed he was doing his wife and kin a favor by dying. Perhaps Chary favored fire over guns and ropes because he felt guilty for what he was about to do and wanted to suffer. For all I knew, my mother’s prayers didn’t mean anything because God is truly merciful as his flock say he is and he realizes people take drastic action when they’ve been dealt a pitiful hand. For all I knew, atheists were right and there was nothing but darkness after death.
But I didn’t know. I understood that I wasn’t getting the support I needed from my parents and perhaps Chary didn’t either and that was terrible for us, but it didn’t have to be that way. I didn’t want it to be that way. I had hurt myself, and I didn’t want to continue. And it was there that the tiniest seed of expectation was planted. I joined another theatre program, one whose meetings took place far away from the school. There I made two friends, with whom dates sustained me. I visited museums, smiled at my neighbors. I ate ice cream and didn’t care how caloric it was. I read more books. I owed that to myself.
Over the summer, I dug out a photo of Chary stashed among Kurbanmuradov clan albums. It was a faded picture of him and a row of my aunts and other uncles. He looked every bit the young Turkmen man I expected him to be. He had the same thick, black hair, light skin, and almond-shaped eyes. I didn’t see pain or confusion in this snapshot. Chary was content, just as every other relative in the photo was. I like to think his smile was sincere. Even in the briefest of moments, it was there. I’m going to keep thinking of him this way. He made me better. He made me whole. Look at what you did. Look at what you are doing, even now.