Nothing to Declare

By the time you remember yesterday’s orange tucked inside your laptop bag, you’ve been waiting in the U.S. Customs line for so long you’re almost desperate enough to eat it for breakfast.

That’s what Alireza would do, you’re sure, even though the signs all say NO food, NO cameras, NO cell phones.

Government warnings don’t faze your kid brother. Not on signs, not on cigarette boxes. In fact, until three weeks ago, when your parents began demanding he break off his whirlwind courtship with his sun-bleached, Instagram-famous fiancée, nothing seemed to faze him. Not base-jumping off Utah rock formations. Not the years of payday loans and instant-ramen dinners after he dropped out of college to build Android apps. Not even your parents’ threat, back in high school, to ship him to your aunt’s place in Tehran if he didn’t bring up his Calculus grades and stop sneaking shots from the swim coach’s secret gin stash.

You, on the other hand, have always been the responsible daughter, the one who quietly got perfect attendance awards and a PhD in biophysics and then moved home to Glendale so you’d be close enough to help out whenever your parents needed. You spend your days in a lab, engineering ever more reliable pacemakers – that’s why you’re in Toronto, for an international cardiology conference. And your M.O. is to play things extra safe, no matter how much Alireza needles you for it now that he’s made it big with his crypto-currency app.

But this morning you can’t stop thinking about pulling out the orange and eating it, right in the middle of Customs Preclearance. Yesterday, a twinge of first-world guilt had saved it from the conference luncheon trash – and now, after more than two hours in line, it sounds just appetizing enough. You slip a hand beneath your plane sweater and confirm that the orange is still there, next to your Macbook. It’s not quite as tough as you remember. You trace your fingernail along its dimpled skin and imagine peeling it, one-handed. You can almost taste it – almost feel its juice stickying up your fingers as you sneak it, section-by-section, to your mouth.

Not that you’d really eat it in the Customs line. It’s a stupid risk.

Your cousin, Pooya, was just minding his own business when he got pulled aside at SFO, on his way back from his Bali honeymoon, and his airline wouldn’t even comp the change fee for his missed connection.

And, besides, you’re so close now, or at least you’re pretty sure you are – just a roped-off turn or two away from the Customs booths that divide Canada from the duty-free zone, where all the U.S.-bound flights board. You’ve already scanned your passport and touchscreened your way through questions about where you traveled and why. Now you just need an actual Customs officer to check that your real face matches the picture on your passport and the kiosk printout.

Then – you hope – they’ll wave you on through.

If not, you’ll miss your flight – and Katya’s bridal shower. And if it comes to that, you don’t know what Alireza will do.

Ever since your parents’ big blow up about how Alireza should be marrying an accomplished professional, ideally a doctor like your mom would’ve been if she’d stayed put in Iran, and definitely not some woman who gets her picture taken for money, you’ve been getting panicked calls from your kid brother almost every night. What will Katya think if Baba declines to give a toast at the rehearsal dinner? he’ll ask. What if Mom refuses to prepare the sofreh aghd? What if no one calls Katya Katya-joon, or invites her for tea, or asks how soon the two of them will start having beautiful, genius, computer-programmer babies?

And underneath those questions is another, so huge that your brother won’t ask it out loud, though it pulses in his irritable silences: Do your parents really mean it when they say that if he goes through with this ridiculous marriage, they’ll cut him off for good? No more family dinners? No Nowruz? No bailing him out if his crypto app goes belly up?

Alireza doesn’t want answers. What he wants is your reassurance that you’ll keep lying for him. That you’ll tell Katya Mom really had wanted to go veil shopping. Or choose wedding flowers. Or weigh in on DJ options. It was just that she’d had to take Baba to his eye appointment, or be home to let the plumber in. Or – this was the story your brother had concocted in case Mom didn’t show at the nail salon today – she’d had to drive out to Encino, where a made-up cousin was bedridden with a gallbladder attack.

“It’ll all blow over,” Alireza insists each time he begs you to help sell his new lies. “Just give it a few more days. I promise.”

Press him and he gets testy.

Like last week – you asked whether Katya might understand if he just told her your parents had reservations about her, and Alireza snapped at you to cut it with your pie-in-the-sky, if-everyone-tells-the-truth-and-speaks-from-the-heart bullshit.

“I mean, jesus, Naz,” he said. “Katya’s family survived communism. She makes good money. You want me to tell her that that’s a problem and have our whole family sound fucking nuts?”

We are fucking nuts, you’d wanted to yell back. Wasn’t that the one thing the two of you had always agreed on?

You stayed quiet, though. Your brother’s voice had a familiar edge to it – the same one you’d honed an ear for back in grad school, when he’d call you desperate for rent money and overflowing with promises that his fantasy soccer app or luxury car app or VIP clubbing app was about to get big.

You can feel how badly he wants you to believe him. And you want to, really. You’d give up lattes for a month to be as sure as he says he is that, come the wedding, Mom and Baba will be front and center, glad-handing cousins.

But you’re also hungry and exhausted, and another part of you is ready to throw up your hands.

You’d never have booked a pre-dawn flight if Alireza hadn’t begged you to get back to LA for manicures with Katya and her bridesmaids. And you’re sick to death of your family’s grandstanding. Every time your mom calls, you get harangued about how selfies distract young people from their studies. Plus now Alireza’s got your UCLA cousins texting the family about how Katya’s bikini pics and gel manicures and self-care videos are all feminist.

And then there’s Baba.

You can’t make sense of why your father’s outrage over your little brother’s engagement to a tall, blonde Instagrammer is coming out in the form of dramatic speeches about civic duty and the eighteen-hour days he worked at the furniture store before he redid his engineering credentials, but he’s the most impassioned of them all. Last week he actually got teary-eyed telling you to be more grateful you were born a citizen of a country where you can order Thai food and Phở and Korean BBQ tacos, all from an iPhone app.

By the final day of the heart conference, you were so fed up with all of them you started threatening to stay in Canada.

And you still could, it occurs to you as the family in front of you slogs forward, and then you slog forward. You could change your flight, book a hotel room, and finally meet the cousins your mom swears are out in the Toronto suburbs.

Or, hell, you think as you run your thumb across the divot where your orange’s stem meets its skin – you could say ‘screw it all,’ pull the orange out, and go to town right in front of the NO FOOD sign.

But you’re almost through, you tell yourself as your stomach growls – there are only a few dozen travelers between you and a real breakfast now. Mostly business suits with roller bags, plus a few tourists in maple leaf hats. And, of course, the family ahead of you. Two kids. Their exhausted parents. The littlest one, a boy, keeps tugging his sister’s long, black ponytail. She glares, but he ignores her. She pinches his ear, but he starts up again. Watching them makes you feel how tired you are, and you get even more annoyed at Alireza for how early it is.

You check the clock on the wall and see your flight boards in less than an hour. You’re cutting it closer than you like. On the luggage cart in front of you, you count eight – no, nine – mismatched suitcases. Will all the bags hold the line up? you wonder, as the little boy again yanks at his sister’s hair. And where is that family coming from with all that stuff? Here in Toronto? Indonesia? Thailand?

That’s when the realization hits:

You didn’t declare the stupid orange.

“Fuck,” you say – too loud.

You feel the line shuffle around you. You hear it, too – the rustle of nylon on nylon, denim on neoprene, rubber on concrete, as the other travelers look huffily up.

You avoid their eyes as you replay the lie you inadvertently told the Customs kiosk. It had asked whether you’d visited farms or worked in agriculture or were carrying any fresh produce, and you, forgetting the orange wedged beside your car keys and iPhone, had answered, falsely, no, no, of course not, no.

Which means – what, exactly?

You pull out your receipt and scan it for clues, but nothing in its barcodes and confusing symbols explains whether your lie is actually a problem or, if so, how much trouble you’d be in if you got caught.

Does this sad, rubbery piece of fruit even count as produce? you wonder.

In a reasonable world, no. In a reasonable world, that sort of question would apply only to millionaire importers or tourists lugging home bushels riddled with strange pests. But your orange is as boring and sterile as they come. The duty-free terminal is probably filled with dozens just like it – tasteless and tough, ready to be plopped onto trays next to pasta salads and chicken wraps and then tossed out.

So can it possibly nevertheless be a crime to carry your undeclared orange past the Customs booths?

Of course not, you tell yourself, slipping your hand back in your bag and worrying your fingernail along its peel. Or, if it somehow is, then you’re positive there has to be an easy fix.

After all, you haven’t crossed the border yet – if that’s even what you call the line between Canada proper and the airport terminal for U.S.-bound passengers. You could hand it off to an officer, maybe. Or just throw the stupid thing out.

That’s what you’d have ended up doing anyway whenever you finally discovered it, shrunken and flattened, at the bottom of your bag.

But when you scan the Customs hall once, twice, a third time, you don’t spot a single trash can. Not by the booths, not near the entryway. Not even next to the unmarked door that sometimes flumps open so a uniformed man can stride past.


Your next impulse is to go back and redo the form. That way, you could ensure you weren’t committing accidental international fruit crime.

But one glance at the line behind you makes clear that starting over is not an option – at least not a good one. It’s taken you almost two and a half hours to get this far, and since you got here the line has only grown. You push your fingernail into the orange’s skin and pick once, twice, a third time. The last thing you want is to have to call your brother to say you missed your flight.

“Will BE THERE,” you’d assured Alireza when he texted late last night, frantic that you were serious about the whole staying in Canada thing. “Wdnt leave you hanging like that.”

But if you go back and redo your form now, you’ll never make it through.

Besides, that’s assuming redoing the form is even legal.

Maybe it’s not, it hits you. Maybe the instant you rescan your passport one of those officers will come whisk you to some windowless back room, just like they did with Pooya. Then you’ll end up across a table from a border agent who’ll listen, stone-faced, as you try to explain your heart conference and the orange mistake and all the life choices that led up to it.

If you’re lucky, when you finish he’ll index-finger something into his computer and tell you you’re free to go beg your way onto a later flight.

And if not?

Your stomach drops as you remember what Sharon, Pooya’s wife, told you last Nowruz, about how she’d called the airline and the news and her parents and their tax attorney and her congressman, all fruitlessly. Meanwhile, Pooya was held for hours without a word. And Pooya didn’t even have any contraband on him. All he had in his luggage were clothes and swim trunks and a few cheap wooden souvenirs. You, on the other hand–

You thumb the spot where you’ve picked the orange clean. You want to call someone. Pooya maybe, or Baba. Or your freshman roommate, the one who married a tech VP and moved to San Mateo. Didn’t she go into international law?

Except you can’t call, you realize as the unmarked door yawns open and another officer stalks out. Not without pulling out your cellphone, which the signs say is also banned.

You feel your stomach turn cold as you imagine worst-case scenarios. Will Alireza know to start looking for you when you don’t text to say you made your flight? Will he go bang on government doors and rush money to well-connected lawyers, like you did when he went on his Cabo bender? Or will he waste time fuming while you languish in some holding cell, convinced by your silence that your parents have finally pulled you into their Katya boycott?

That’s exactly what he’s afraid of, you’re pretty sure. You can hear the mistrust in his voice whenever he calls. Are you still with him? he always finds some roundabout way of asking. Or have you decided to toe your parents’ line in the family sand?

Each time, you want to reach through the phone line and shake him – make him admit you’ve never been their good little lackey, not in the way he likes to pretend you have. You’ve always made your own choices – about your PhD, your job, all of it. So how is it your fault that your parents want to brag about you from Glendale to Isfahan, while his choices leave them moaning, head-in-hands, about how reckless their American son is?

But you don’t say any of it. You can’t.

Not when you know what kind of a bind he’s in.

Once, back in grad school, you’d let slip that you’d gone on a nice first date with a guy who hand-carved artisan coffee tables, and the outpouring of family concern had lasted a year. Aunts talked up their friends’ doctor sons. Cousins called out of the blue, just to check in. Your mother even pulled you aside at Pooya’s wedding to ask why you hadn’t gotten married yet and never liked the nice Persian men she set you up with.

And with Katya it’s even worse, because she never went to college – never even considered it in fact, unlike Alireza who tried three times to get through Engineering Fundamentals before he finally quit. Instead, she hustled her way from immigrant anonymity to millions of Instagram followers, hundreds of celebrity shout outs, and dozens of product placement deals – none of which sound to your parents like measures of a sensible aspiration, much less a real career.

You look from the row of Customs booths to the line thickening behind you and clasp your orange tighter – so tight the skin fissures and moisture wicks up your cuticle. You want to ask someone what you should do, but they’re all sealed off behind headphones and maple leaf hats and vacant stares. All except the little boy in front of you. He kicks the floor, then his family’s luggage cart, then his sister’s shoes, and his parents watch like they’re underwater – like they haven’t slept in days.

They definitely can’t help you, you think.

At this point, could anyone?

You want to pause and consider your situation. You want a chance to wash your sticky hand.

But the line just keeps moving.

You take a step. Then another, then another.

Should you be considering radical options? you wonder as you round the final turn. Things like running for a bathroom and flushing the orange? Or like eating it? Stuffing it in your mouth, peel, seeds, and all?

What would the Customs officers do, you want to know, if you choked it down right out in the open? If you licked the pulp from your fingertips and smiled as you presented your American passport? Would they let you go with a warning? Swab your chin? Make you throw it up in front of them?

You try to remember what Sharon told you about borders and rights and body searches, but the little boy’s foot keeps tap tap tapping at your peripheral vision and the loudspeaker won’t shut up about unattended luggage. You need a plan, you know. In a couple minutes, you’ll be at the front of the line. But every time you get close to a decision, you end up tangled in some imaginary argument.

With Baba, for instance. About long hours and bootstraps and all the times he insisted that everything would be fine if you just kept your head down and worked hard. What good is any of that to you right now? you want to say to him. Will your all-nighters and degrees fix your orange mistake? Will your customs officer care that every weekend you drive over to help Mom do errands?

Or with Katya – about her ridiculous diet theories.

Take your orange.

She’d object not because it’s tasteless or slathered in pesticide but because she legitimately believes people absorb their food’s auras. That’s why she cooks Alireza Swiss chard and buffalo steak, she told you when, at your brother’s request, you took her veil shopping. Dynamic men in charge of new companies need to eat wild meat and leaves.

She was so blunt, so straight-faced when she said it that at first you thought it was a deadpan joke, but no – she had ideas about what you should eat, too. You, she said, need a purifying cleanse. Then yogurt daily to integrate your energy field.

“You have divided pulse lines,” she explained as she fussed with a swirl of Oscar de la Renta gauze. “Too much takeout, too many food conflicts.”

That, apparently, was why none of your Tinder dates were working out.

“Men,” Katya proclaimed, “want energy that is – how do you say? – not so complicated.”

You’re not complicated, you’d wanted to yell – at her and anyone stupid enough to follow her. “And it’s not you and your food that’s the problem.”

And now you want to yell it at the Customs officers, too. Every kind of food makes the exact same kind of energy, you want to shout. So, what you eat for your airport breakfast isn’t anyone’s business. Buffalo Chicken, Pad Thai to-go, even the stupid orange. No matter where you are, who you are, what you’re eating, it’s all just calories in, calories out.

You run a fingertip along the break in the orange’s peel and picture how that line would go over. “It’ll be part of me by takeoff, I swear,” you joke to your officer, your voice artificially airy, your head tipped to the side as your eyelashes bat too fast.

But when you try to imagine what comes next, all you see is more kick kick kicking from the boy in front of you.

He’s kicking the wheels of his family’s luggage cart in sixes, you notice. Right right right, left left left. The whole luggage pile shudders with each impact. A wide trunk shimmies. A cardboard box chafes against its knotted twine.

And in this moment you want, more than anything, to start kicking alongside him. You want to kick the cart’s rickety wheels. You want to kick its plastic “Welcome to Toronto!” sign in half. Then you want to kick over all the line ropes. You want to kick until the Customs booths are smithereens.

You want to kick the Preclearance Hall into rubble – kick and kick until you’re finally free. Of your orange, and your squabbling family. Of this whole stupid place.

It’s only when you’re picturing yourself outside, shivering on the wind-whipped tarmac, your tongue chalky with concrete dust and your shoes scuffing against half-buried rebar, that you finally see the obvious:

Your best option – your only option, really – is to keep going like nothing’s wrong.

If you weren’t so hungry, that’s exactly what you’d’ve done without realizing it. You might’ve made it back to LA without ever knowing you’d smuggled anything.

And you wouldn’t be the first.

It happens all the time, you suddenly remember your UCLA cousins telling you, after their grandmother had again hidden saffron packets in their suitcases when they flew home from Tehran. Each summer, they beg her to stop, they said. They plead with her that one day one of them will finally get caught. But no matter how much they insist, no matter how carefully they turn their shirts and socks and sweatpants inside out before they go to the airport, at the end of every trip more saffron surprises them in their Los Angeles bedrooms.

And that’s on top of what people smuggle intentionally.

People like your brother. Didn’t he just sneak wine back home from Tuscany?

If he could see you right now, you’d never hear the end of it, you’re sure. “For god’s sake just go,” he’d tell you, shaking his head, not even trying to hide his laughter.

And so you do.

You push the orange below your sweater and carefully tuck a sleeve over it.

You pull your hand from your bag, open your passport, and force a smile as your officer waves you over.

It’ll all go fine, you try to reassure yourself, your mouth dry and your knees unsteady beneath you. They’ll probably just wave you through. And if not? Maybe they’ll see it was an innocent mistake. Maybe you’re overreacting. Maybe nothing is actually wrong.

And a part of you really believes this – or maybe just really wants to. So by the time your plane is landing in LAX, your head thick from the movie you slept through, your tongue sour from the dry bagel you ate before takeoff, you’re ready, eager even, to convince yourself that the danger you’d felt was imaginary. That the orange was never the risk you’d feared. And that you definitely didn’t see what you thought you saw –

a woman detained right in front of you

– the mother of that little boy and his quiet sister – the unmarked door closing behind.

At your brother’s wedding reception, for example. Sharon will insist that if they’d really detained the woman it would all have looked different – that they’d have used some other kind of officer, and more than one of them. That you’d have seen their guns. And when she says it, she’ll be so confident, and it’ll all sound so reasonable, that immediately you’ll apologize. Of course you could’ve misunderstood, you’ll shout over the thudding bass. You’ll even tell her all about the little girl’s Mickey Mouse sweatshirt – how you’re no longer sure it was actually Mickey. How it could’ve been Goofy, or Hello Kitty – that’s how little you trust your own eyes.

As for your parents, they’ll flat-out tell you you’re overreacting.

“Maybe she had to go to the bathroom?” Baba will shrug when you drop off his blood pressure meds after Katya’s bridal shower.

And your Mom will add, “They take people, and then they let them go. All the time, Nazanin-joon. Like your cousin Pooya.”

When she says this, you’ll want to scream. You’ll want to rage at her until she believes you – or until your throat is raw, whichever comes first. But what you actually do is choke everything so far down its acid eats at your stomach.

Then you say, as quietly as you can, “Katya missed you at the salon.”

Alireza, too, only ever half-hears your orange story. It starts tumbling out when you call him from the duty-free zone – the woman, the lie to the kiosk, all of it.

But he interrupts you partway in. “So you’re through?” he says. “You’re getting on your plane?”

You want to answer by telling him all about what the little boy wasn’t kicking when they took his mother. Not the floor, not the suitcases, not the Customs booth, not his sister. You want Alireza to understand just how motionless the whole thing was – how easily you could’ve missed it. The officer was gentle, friendly even. When he’d put his hand on the woman’s shoulder, you’d actually wondered for a beat how he knew her. And the woman had stayed so silent. She just kept nodding and nodding as the officer shuffled her out of line. It was almost like she’d wanted to assure him.

You don’t manage to say any of this, though. Instead, you hear yourself reconfirming the lies that you’re responsible for.

“So I’m telling Katya that Mom can’t come to the shower because of some cousin in Tarzana?” you double-check as you wander past a luggage shop. “That it’s a gallbladder thing? And Mom has to drive out there?”

Encino. It’s Encino, Naz,” your brother snaps. “We’ve been over this.”

And he only gets more tense as the wedding draws closer and Katya starts asking uncomfortable questions. Once Katya declares she’s going to start visiting your parents on her own, your brother is nothing but sharp, brittle edges.

“GET HOME!!! ASAP” he texts the day Katya heads to your Mom’s with a basket of organic pore cleansers.

“You’re going to leave them ALONE?!?! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU,” he demands the next Sunday, when he tells you she’s dropping by to teach Baba how to follow friends in Iran on Instagram and you don’t immediately volunteer to rush there.

Even when your parents finally relent, just like he always said they would, and welcome Katya as their daughter-in-law, Alireza can’t relax – not even once the wedding goes off without a hitch.

You do your best to assure him that Katya doesn’t actually need a babysitter. Baba loves her for teaching him emojis, you tell your little brother. And Mom’s Katya’s biggest fan now. They’d never repeat any of the stuff they used to say about Katya’s makeup or outfits or sponsors, you insist. Not when Katya’s keeping Mom supplied with specialty eye creams and loofahs.

But Alireza is unpersuaded.

“Come on, Naz,” he pleads, unable to say what he’s so afraid might still go wrong.

He promises you it’s just until Nowruz. Then just until his IPO. Then just until he and Katya are ready to start having children.

“You’d understand if you ever brought boyfriends around,” he insists whenever you try to explain that you have your own problems and can’t spend every weekend doing yogurt cleanses with your mother and sister-in-law. “Are you going to help me out or not?”

Meanwhile, your orange slowly dries into a tight, hard sphere on your nightstand, and you mention it to no one. Not your colleagues. Not your new sister-in-law. Not Baba. And definitely not your Mom – not even when she notices how pale you are and says, “Katya is an expert in these things, joonam. Please go talk to her about what you are eating.”

But no matter how long the orange sits at your bedside, you can’t bring yourself to throw it away, either. Instead, you grow more and more irritable with your Tinder dates and their prying questions.

“It’s nothing,” you lie when they ask if the orange is some kind of Christmas decoration or maybe an occult thing. “Just a stupid Iranian tradition.”

And night after night, you dream that you’re back in Customs Preclearance. Except you’re alone this time. There’s no one else in line. And you’ve eaten the orange. You can feel it inside you, sloshing, pulpy and half-chewed.

“Anything to declare?” your officer always asks.

Every night your answer is the same:

“I think I’ve made a mistake,” you whisper. “A terrible one. Please. Can you help me?”

But the officer just laughs. “That’s what you all say.”

Each time he hands you back your passport, you’re sure you’re going to vomit. You track the orange, or what’s left of it, as it rises up from your stomach through your throat and onto your tongue.

But you always swallow hard when you see that what’s beyond the Customs booths is just you.

Dozens and dozens of you.

All with your hair, your nose, your half-smile.

You avoid their eyes as you look around and around for some sign of the woman – as you scan the empty hall for her husband, for her daughter, for the insistent drum of her little boy’s kick, kick, kicking.

All you find, though, is more of yourself.

There you are,” one of you always says, reaching out a hand as you cross into the duty-free zone. “I couldn’t find you anywhere – I wasn’t sure what happened.”

Excerpt from Days of Distraction

They gave me a card with a cat meowing Goodbye on its cover. Inside, names and short notes. We’ll miss you terribly! Good luck! Safe travels! Keep in touch! Take pictures!

Beauty for Butterflies

Content Warning: Sexual Abuse
How can they be so beautiful and don’t even know it? They can’t see they self. They must be so sad.

We Know How It Ends

Leonie and I were twelve years old when the first girl in our grade had her Adventure.