It was 7 a.m. and my flight didn’t leave for another two hours, but I’d arrived at the airport early, and the only place with open seating was the bar across from my gate. The terminal was a semicircular space not nearly big enough given the number of flights it was servicing, and as a result there were people everywhere, most sprawled across the black chairs, some standing in groups with their luggage at their feet, others waiting in a long line at the Starbucks, where there was only one employee working, everyone glancing anxiously from their phones to the screens where their boarding groups would be listed, as if they couldn’t wait to be locked in metal tubes careening across the skies, a simple technical malfunction or pilot error the only thing separating them from certain death. Maybe Freud was right, I thought, and we all just wanted to race to our graves.
I plopped down on a stool by the bar and ordered a pale ale from a local Los Angeles brewery, one of the three beers on tap. It was too cold, but I drank it quickly and then ordered a second and looked at the menu for food.
Conceptually, I always liked airports, the idea of transition, of movement, a place where time loses meaning and the world feels more interconnected than ever—but in reality, American airports were always too small, and whatever architectural beauty there might have been in the curved glass, the long hallways, the windows looking out over the majestic sweep of concrete, it was always overshadowed by the sheer number of people everywhere, people in ugly sweatpants, people smelling of farts and sweat, people whose lack of basic decorum made me skeptical that there was anything worthwhile about humanity. Once, in London, I’d arrived at the international terminal in the early hours of the morning, and I’d had almost the whole place to myself. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my life. I purchased a copy of the Financial Times, sat down at a table in an empty cafe, and drank an espresso slowly, feeling a rare sense of clarity as I looked across the open hall, at the way the morning light poured down through the big windows like the purest and rarest stream of mountain water. Since then, I’ve sought to recreate that airport experience everywhere I’ve traveled—but I’ve never been able to. Maybe it was because I’d been twenty-two then and was thirty-three now, and the world had lost its glamor in the intervening years.
“Any food for you, sir?” the bartender asked.
“How’s the avocado omelet?”
“It’s fine. It is what it is.”
I appreciated the bartender’s honesty, so I ordered one. The guy next to me laughed.
“You’re a braver man than I am,” he said. “I’m sticking with the beer.”
He was a fat man in his mid-forties with the puffy face of an alcoholic. There were three empty glasses in front of him, and he was more than halfway through his fourth, his cheeks red and strained as he took another long sip. I tried hard not to judge him, however—at the rate I drank these days, I knew that in a few years I would probably look like that too.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
“Australia,” he said. “Back home.”
I didn’t detect an accent, but I saw an Australian flag sewn onto the backpack at his feet.
“Were you here for a vacation?” I asked.
“No, I live here. Ten years. But uh, well, my mother died, and I have to go back for the funeral.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s fine. She was a cunt.”
The word was shocking enough that some of the people sitting at nearby tables turned and stared. I took a sip of my beer and hoped they didn’t think we were traveling together.
“Sorry,” the man said. “Shouldn’t have said that. We didn’t have a great relationship.”
“It’s okay. Mothers can be quite demanding.”
“You’re telling me.”
We talked for a while more, and he told me he worked in reality television and then named a few shows, none of which I recognized. I told him I taught history at a private school outside of New York and that I’d been visiting a friend in LA. Eventually, he circled back to his mother.
“She thinks working as a television writer’s a big waste of time—spending your life writing things that never get made or get changed completely by the time they’re filmed. She always told me she wished I’d worked in finance like my brother. At least then I’d be rich.”
He finished his beer and then patted me on the shoulder.
“Anyway, good talking to you, man. Gotta catch my flight.”
As he left, the bartender returned with my avocado omelet, which was runny and bland. I ate it quickly and then ordered another beer and then thought about my own mother, whom I hadn’t spoken to in almost three years. This was her choice, not mine—when I’d finally told her that I wasn’t religious, and that I hadn’t been for a long time, she’d decided she no longer wanted anything to do with me. “My son is dead,” was the last thing she said, in tears over the phone. “I have no son. My son is dead.”
My dad told me she was still living in the house in Fremont, but that she was thinking of selling it and moving into something smaller.
“You should call her, Abdullah. Before… you know. Before it’s too late.”
“I’ve tried, Dad. You know she never picks up.”
“Well, just… keep trying, okay? She still loves you, even if she doesn’t know how to show it.”
After a few minutes, they announced that my flight was boarding, and I saw a rush of people massing by one of the gates. I stayed at the bar, though, and finished my beer and waited until the crowds had dissipated.
That summer, I received a Facebook message from my cousin Masood asking if I wanted to get lunch. My first instinct was to leave it unanswered. Masood lived in Manhattan and worked as a computer programmer, but we’d met only a few times as children during big family gatherings, and my dad had told me that he was still quite religious. He’d gone to school at Cornell, but he’d lived most of his life in Pakistan, and I had the feeling that we would have very little in common. I thought it would be rude to say no, however, and so I suggested a cafe in the West Village near where he lived.
When I arrived, I found him sitting at a corner table with a cappuccino, looking out of place in his tucked-in button down shirt and formal slacks, like a missionary come to spread the word of God to the natives. He stood up when he saw me and shook my hand vigorously.
“Abdullah! It’s wonderful to see you again.”
At first I thought he’d recognized me after all these years, something in my expression that had remained unchanged since childhood—but then I noticed that we were the only two brown people in the cafe, and I assumed he must have guessed when I walked in. He had a short, cropped beard and an intensity of expression that made me think of the imam of the mosque I used to go to when I was young. I ordered coffee and some food and then joined him at the table.
“So how have you been?” he asked. “My dad was telling me you teach history.”
“Yeah. At a private school about an hour north of here.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s fine. It’s a way to make money.”
I’d been hired at the school only because I’d known one of the other teachers from my Masters program at Cambridge. It wasn’t what I’d wanted to do, but after spending ten years working in restaurants and trying to become a fiction writer, I’d decided enough was enough. Now I barely wrote anymore, but I had a steady income, and I could afford an apartment with air conditioning, a dishwasher, and a rooftop with a view of Brooklyn, where I could sit late at night and drink a few glasses of wine while listening to an audiobook. My younger self would have been disappointed that I’d given up on my ambitions, but I’d reached the age when I’d accepted that certain dreams were no longer possible and maybe had never been. If life in the twenty-first century was just a steady descent down a gently sloping hill that culminated in one’s grave, then I’d decided it was best to slide down that hill in whatever moderate comfort my privileged position in life could afford me.
“What about you?” I asked. “My dad told me you work in computer programming?”
“Yeah, for this company called Pluto. They do data analytics, mostly for corporate clients.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s great. But you know, in tech most people don’t stay at a place for that long, and I’ve already been there three years. I’m kind of ready to move on.”
Our dishes arrived, and we were quiet for a few minutes while we ate. The food was not as good as I remembered, and I wondered what Masood thought. I’d considered suggesting a Pakistani restaurant, but I realized I didn’t actually know any.
“Anyway, sorry I never contacted you earlier,” Masood said. “I had no idea you lived in New York.”
“Yeah for about five years now.”
“I try my best to keep in touch with the family, you know.”
How admirable, I thought. I couldn’t even be bothered to text my brother on a regular basis. The only person I talked to with any frequency was my dad.
“How are your parents?” Masood asked.
“They’re good. I mean, they’re divorced now, but I think they’re still happy.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s hard when there’s so much cultural permissibility around divorce—even the most devout end up getting influenced to do it.”
“Well my parents were never very devout.”
Masood frowned, and I saw that I’d touched on something sensitive.
“My dad told me your mom was very religious,” he said. “That she never misses a prayer, reads the Quran every day.”
“Oh she does all that. But that doesn’t make her very devout. Her spirituality is… very dogmatic. She knows how to go through the motions but not what it all means.”
Masood must have detected the bitterness in my tone, because he didn’t pursue the subject and turned back to his food.
“Which mosque do you go to?” he asked after a moment.
I stared at him and tried not to laugh.
He looked up in surprise.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean?”
“But what about jummah?”
“I don’t go to jummah.”
Masood leaned back in his chair and set his fork down, as if he’d suddenly lost his appetite. He looked around the cafe, frowning.
“Sorry,” I said. “I just stopped believing in all that when I was very young.”
We finished our meal in silence and then stepped outside. It was autumn now, and there was a chill in the air. Masood held his blazer in his hand, though, as if he were unperturbed by the weather. There was a new distance in his expression, and the openness with which he’d greeted me was gone, retreated behind a coolness that I felt like he reserved for all nonbelievers. What must it be like, I thought, going through the world with such moral certainty. It felt utterly alien to me, and yet in that moment, to my surprise, I found myself envious of Masood’s conviction.
“Well it was nice seeing you,” I said, reaching out and shaking Masood’s hand.
“Yeah. Nice seeing you too.”
He turned and walked up the street, looking left and right at the crosswalk, and then darted forward and disappeared into a subway station. I stood and watched him go before turning the other way, pulling my jacket around me as a cold wind whipped down the narrow street.
Towards the end of the year, I received an email informing me that my friend Sarah Kim had died in a car accident and that her memorial service was going to be held in the Bay Area in a week. It was a shock to read the email and see the small image of her face, cropped from a larger photo that had been her Facebook profile, her ordinary smile suddenly haunting given the circumstances.
I’d known Sarah for a long time, but we’d never really been close—she was my roommate’s girlfriend, and after they broke up we stayed acquainted through our mutual friend Paul, who always threw big parties at his apartment during college. Once, at one of those parties, I remember speaking with Sarah on the balcony for a long time, one of those rare intimate conversations that happen during college but are no longer really possible when one becomes an adult. The sky was cloudy that night, and in the darkness Berkeley’s rooftops were silhouetted in a way that made me think of shrouds draped over furniture in a long abandoned room. Sarah was speaking to me about why she was studying ecology, how she loved the idea of understanding the natural world, how her favorite lesson in high school biology had been when they’d had to memorize the biomes. I still remember the passion underlying her voice, the clarity of purpose despite how late it was and how many drinks we’d had. Today, I often think back to that conversation as a rare moment in my life when I was confronted by a spirited optimism that I didn’t react to cynically.
From there, though, our conversation shifted to our parents, and Sarah told me that her mother didn’t want her to study ecology but to switch to pre-med and apply to med school.
“Asian parents,” Sarah said, with a bitter laugh. “I’m sure you know.”
“It honestly makes me hate her sometimes. She’s so critical of me, like I’ve failed somehow, just because I want to be an ecologist instead of a doctor.”
To me, there was always something comical about what Sarah had said, given that ecology and medicine didn’t seem all that different—but as I knew from my own mother, parents could often be uncompromising with their expectations.
Sarah’s funeral was held in a nondescript Protestant church in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a suburb not that far from the one where I’d grown up. I decided to visit my dad so I could have a reason to also attend her service, but the truth was I would have flown out even if I had no family in the Bay Area—even though I didn’t know Sarah that well, the randomness of her death shook me profoundly, even more so than when my grandmother had died as a child and I had watched my mother screaming and weeping in despair on the stairs, wrenching at her hair and pounding the wall.
The church was big and had wooden rafters across the ceiling that gleamed in the lights, and I found myself a little blinded by the brightness of the room, which was at odds with what I was feeling in the pit of my stomach. There were photos of Sarah pinned to a board at the front of the room, and a projector playing a slideshow of additional images. In all of them, Sarah was smiling in almost the same way, and I felt disappointed. I’d wanted to see something of that passion I associated with her, evidence that that depth of feeling hadn’t just been my own recollection. But what I remembered was far too complex to be captured in a still photo, and in the end, I had to accept that the Sarah in these photographs wasn’t going to be the same as the dynamic person from my memory.
I sat in the back of the church so that I didn’t have to interact with Sarah’s parents, who I assumed were the older Asian couple sitting in the front pews. Her mother was dabbing her eyes with a tissue smeared with mascara. In the end, Sarah had become a doctor, just like her mother had wanted. I didn’t know her well enough to understand the motivations for that decision, but I’d seen a Facebook post a few years ago in which she’d announced that she’d graduated from Stanford Medical School. In the photo she’d been smiling and holding up her degree with what looked like genuine pride.
After the service was over, I left without saying hello to anyone, not even Paul or some of the other friends I recognized from college. In the car, driving out from the church, I wondered why I had even come. Ahead of me the sun was setting behind a row of hills, and the sky was streaked with spears of red and purple—and suddenly I felt like I wanted to cry.
Before driving back to my dad’s place, I decided to get a drink at a bar not far from the church, in a strip mall next to a Safeway and across from a Starbucks. It was surprisingly lively for a Thursday night in a small suburb, and I had to jostle my way through a crowd to get to the bar. There was a 49ers football game on, and periodically everyone would burst into cheers. I ordered a double whiskey and a beer and went outside to a table on the patio. It was quiet out here, and I watched the cars circling the parking lot and stared out at the lights of houses in the distant hills.
Something about the atmosphere here made me think of the suburb where I’d grown up, the gentle sound of traffic, the smell of trees even in this artificial landscape. I sipped my whiskey and thought of the Islamic center where I’d used to go, the walk I’d take from my house down the hill and then across the grid of streets that looked just like this one, to the small office building which served as the community mosque. In our Sunday classes, we’d learned about Paradise, or Jannah as it was called in Arabic, the Islamic heaven. “Gardens of perpetual bliss” was how the Quran described it. Gardens of perpetual bliss. It amazed me that after all these years, I still remembered that line. Fragments of old lessons littering my memory like shards of ancient pottery.
When my mother died, she would have an Islamic funeral, I thought. The community would gather at that same office space to pray the janazah prayer before venturing out to the cemetery where her shrouded body would be lowered into a simple grave. The rituals would have meaning because my mother had been a believer.
But what about me? What kind of funeral would I have? What kind of rituals do you say for someone with no beliefs, someone living at what felt like the end of time, in a final decadence before the collapse of the world? I was not going to have any children, and my inability to form close relationships meant I probably wouldn’t have a wife or even any close friends. And so, it would be just a bureaucratic end—another American citizen to be dealt with by the state. My body would lie in a morgue for the requisite number of days before county officials would designate me to be cremated. Then, in a laboratory somewhere, a technician in a mask and gloves would slide me into a furnace, where the flames would eat through the cells and atoms that had once contained all I’d ever thought and felt. Eventually, they’d shovel my ashes into a pile and bury me with the others whom no one had come to claim.
Aatif Rashid is the author of the novel Portrait of Sebastian Khan (2019, 7.13 Books). His short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. He wrote regularly for The Kenyon Review Blog from 2018 to 2021, and he currently teaches fiction writing with the UCLA Extension Writers Program and Catapult.