By Deonna Kelli Sayed
Quyen wants a wife. He comes in twice a month for his antipsychotic shot, the one he feels will make it impossible for a woman to love him, the shot that makes him better but confirms that he is sick.
He is one of many who stand on the other side of my window, battling illnesses like schizoaffective or bipolar disorder. Sometimes, there is substance abuse and, almost always, PTSD.
Quyen waves and I open the partition so he can shake my hand. He sniffs it, normally three times, before he presents his offerings. Sometimes, he gives me fruit, tic tacks, or he buys a bottle of soda from the vending machine. He has tried to give me money.
“Hi,” he says, his vowels bending under this Vietnamese tongue. “You have boy? I have no girl. You have boy?” I do not have a boy, but I tell him that I do. It is easier that way. Loneliness and poverty stand on the other side of my window every day, and I make up stories about myself so it can’t touch me.
I want to believe that I can’t become sick, destitute, and destructively lonely. There was a time right after the divorce when uncertainty tainted the air around me, a time when I was so afraid I’d have a nervous breakdown and lose everything. There is a time, like right now, that I am still so close to such things.
These days, suffering roars with great might. It travels through the glass and is all I hear.
A psychic once provided an unsolicited prediction: He said I’d find a work at a hospital making more money than I thought I would. Indeed, I was hired at an outpatient facility. Now, two years later, a cadence underlines my life: I work forty hours a week at a job with benefits, and I can justbarelypaymybills.
People tell me they missed their appointment because they didn’t have bus fare to get here. I know what you mean, I want to say. I don’t have enough gas to get across town. They come to my window because they can’t afford the medicine. I budget to get my over-the-counter allergy medicine.
The evening brings news of ISIS, Syria, dead children in Peshawar, unarmed black men shot in America’s streets. I feel hopeless. There are days I feel words engorged in my throat, unable to find their way out.There is no escape from the constant barrage of sadness.
Two years I’ve sat here in this window. Each January, I postulate: “This year, I will find a new job. This will be the year someone picks me to love.” I develop vision boards and light candles and make supplications.
Nothing changes. People in the world keep being sad. No one calls me for interviews. I start paying back student loans, and my tiny paycheck shrinks even more.
Quyen wants a wife. I still have no boy. The year 2014 closes as an endless ode to heartache.
I cover my head. I pray. I feel like God has forgotten us all.
A long time ago, a scholar leaned towards me to say this: Personal stories are endowments, just like land and wealth. I listened to her because she is someone who should know– a daughter of a famous sheik whose departure from Iraq made national news during the Saddam years, mostly because Saddam wanted him dead. If anyone knows about why stories matter, it is she. “Perhaps such things are the most important type of endowments,” she said years before my marriage and divorce and being able to justbarelypaymybills. She squinted her eyes and whispered: “Our stories are our legacy, because wealth and land isn’t always the sweetest of breath.”
Poverty is mouth stench. It is the smell that comes from never having the luxury of consistent dental treatment. Poverty is rotting teeth and untreated sinus infections and processed food diets. The smell of decay hovers in the air and management now wants me to keep a tally of how many people appear in front of my window every day, how long I spend with them, and document every moment of my time so they can quantify my value.
This is a metaphor for the world.
I hate what I am becoming here, on this side of the glass. I hate what the world looks like these days, a landscape of blood sticky atrocities. I do not want to be part of dysfunction, of the brokenness. There are those who turn local poverty and mental illness, Iraq and Syria and Peshawar and dead black boys into academic exercises rather than events hurt the heart, that begs for the excavation of kindness.
I feel trapped words in my throat wanting to rebel against the world’s rage.
Yet, maybe there is no need for me to speak. Perhaps I’ll just observe and let someone else’s stories touch my skin.
I discover one patient used to be a nuclear radiologist. I knew a bit about her story: the insurance benefits expired after her breakdown and she found herself on disability. “I understood the signs,” she told the nurse, “but I didn’t want to believe that it could happen to me.”
Except, one day, it did.
She arrives for an appointment wearing a uniform, the kind you might see on a parking attendant, with a badge and a belt that could accommodate weaponry. She is a dead ringer for Carol from The Walking Dead: same age, same haircut, perhaps a slightly different apocalypse. I want to know more about her story, but I can’t between the tally marks and the time study and turning her into a billable service.
But, I subvert. Oh, I do.
She stands on the other side of my window with a shroud of her pre-apocalypse life peeping in through her cracks.
“This must be so hard, going from that to this,” I say to her. She is still and very silent, so silent that I worry I’ve offended.
“Yes, yes it is,” she utters, at last.
I’ve pointed out the very thing that I am afraid to face in myself: your worst fears can come true, just like that.
“It is a brave you know, to do this. Your story is so brave,” I offer, because that is also the truth and perhaps the only version that matters.
She cocks her head a bit. Her bottom lip trembles. A hand reaches for the empty gun holster, just because she needs hold something solid. I’ve shaken her core by uttering: You’ve got this. You are going to do alright.
The year ends in sheets of rain and fog, the close of another 365 days looking out from this side of the window.
Quyen arrives for his shot. “I love you!” he says. He takes my hands, sniffs three times, and then plants a kiss before handing me a lush mango. His brother speaks better English and says Quyen picked it out just for me. Later, as the pulp slips down my mouth, I taste a little bit of thawed earth and springtime.
The same day, Carol returns in her parking attendant uniform. He face seems relentlessly sad. She looks down at her feet before she makes eye contact.
“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you for being kind, for seeing me.” She smiles, her face flush and vulnerable, before she turns away.
Hope can walk in, just like that, unannounced and gritty and marvelous. It can arrive in shades of a champagne colored Asian mango that drips sunshine.
Sometimes, compassion is asking someone to talk; mercy is pausing to listen. This small act feels delicious and rebellious — almost subversive — because we are given little space to practice such things. We underestimate the power of letting other stories into our lives; the kind of stories that closes the distance between those around us.
Sometimes, hope comes in those moments you give full attention to someone who is the embodiment of your worst fears, and saying, “Go ahead, I’m listening….”
—and knowing that life is always, always arriving.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is an American-Muslim author, global citizen, and cultural commentator. Her first book, Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks & Spirits, is a cultural studies discussion regarding the influence of paranormal reality TV in a post 9/11 American society. She is an editor and blogger on the Love, InshAllah blog on Patheos Muslim.