Fiction from NER 42.2 (2021)
fter Sarah’s third miscarriage, the therapist suggests we take a break. It has been four years: five rounds of IVF, countless arguments about adoption, no vacations, no purchases except the necessities. Doctors’ appointments, marriage counseling, groceries, every so often a dinner out. “Take a trip somewhere,” the therapist says, looking at Sarah more than me. “Put this out of your minds. A few weeks won’t make a difference.” Sarah touches my hand, wipes the tears off her face. It is March; the streets are choked with slush, and the tips of her suede boots are still dark from the sidewalk. The therapist’s office is muted and comfortless: beige walls, fluorescent lighting, a watercolor of a stone well in a thick brown frame, which touches some deep, hopeless place in me each time I see it.
Sarah went on antidepressants after the second miscarriage, but her sadness remains even as she sleeps better, eats more. I have stopped bringing up adoption; for three years I tried to coax her, suggesting as gently as I could that perhaps we shouldn’t be spending all this money to have our own child, that perhaps it was selfish, and she only cried and said that straight people have it so easy. When we decided to start our family, I was already thirty-six. Sarah always wanted to be pregnant, and because she is five years younger than me, it made sense that she would carry the baby. There is also the matter of her bloodlines; her sister has sworn off both marriage and children, and if Sarah does not have a biological child, her mother’s side of the family will end with her.
The idea of a vacation exhausts me: digging through the basement storage unit for our summer clothes, searching tropical places for the cheap resorts Sarah and I have always hated. We are mostly quiet through our lunch at the deli downstairs, and then, when we reach the subway station where Sarah will catch the train uptown to go back to work, she turns to me. “Margaret,” she says, “what about Armenia?”
She has been talking about going ever since our first date, when I told her about my childhood in Yerevan, how we lived through the dark years before moving to New Jersey when I was fifteen. Each time she brings it up, I make some excuse. It’s terrible for gay couples there, I tell her. It is impossible to eat vegetarian. It is depressing, dull, there are so many other places I would rather go. Although these are mostly true, I have held back the real reason: that I could not go to Armenia without seeing Arev.
Sarah has caught on to my secrecy over the years, frustrated by my reluctance to talk about Yerevan but eventually accepting it. Each year, on April twenty-fourth, she cooks a full Armenian meal in honor of the genocide. She listens to my father talk about how his father survived the death march into the Syrian Desert, goes to Armenian church with my mother, teaches herself Armenian phrases: bari gisher, shnorhakalutyun, yes kez sirum em. Good night, thank you, I love you. Sarah is Jewish; her grandmother survived Auschwitz, and in this way she understands my family more deeply than any of the other women I’ve been with. It is the reason my mother finally stopped trying to set me up with her friends’ sons, why she calls Sarah just as often as she does me. Sarah’s parents live on the Upper East Side; she grew up going to the Met, to the opera, to Italy, but she embraces the dull New Jersey suburb where my parents live without a trace of condescension. Occasionally she looks at flights to Yerevan, and now, standing at the entrance to the subway in the gray afternoon, I give in. I don’t have the capacity to resist her, and it occurs to me that if I am going to see Arev again, it should be now, before I start my own family, before she can lay claim to any more of my life than she already has. That night, we book our trip. We leave in two weeks.
After Sarah goes to bed, I take my laptop to the kitchen, open a private browsing window, and log in to the e-mail account I have kept in secret for the past fourteen years. I spend a long time reading the messages, first the more recent ones, then the ones from over a decade ago. When my family and I moved to New Jersey to live with my mother’s sister, Arev and I lost contact for almost ten years. I was fifteen at the time, Arev sixteen. For years I tried to reach her, sent letters to wrong addresses, spent hours listening to busy signals on wrong phone numbers. Eventually I gave up, allowing her to blend into the darkness of all my other memories of Armenia. Then, when I was twenty-five, living with roommates in Harlem and dating my first girlfriend, Meghan, I signed up for Facebook.
Within days, Arev found me. She had stayed in Yerevan; she was married to an Armenian man, and they had a daughter. They had named her Lilit: my middle name, taken from my great-grandmother, who died in the genocide. I always loved it, Arev said.
Meghan happened to see the messages after a few weeks, and although there was nothing incriminating, I felt that something deeply private had been violated. Arev and I decided to switch to e-mailing. We both opened new accounts under fake names, promising to share them with no one, and have continued our correspondence ever since. Over the years, the nature of the messages has evolved. At first we were giddy with the miracle of finding each other; later, the tone turned darker as our yearning resurfaced, as we grieved the lost time. Arev was happy enough with Toros, she said, and I feigned happiness with Meghan. Still, Arev and I e-mailed late at night, both of us the last in our houses to go to sleep, and we both confessed to a certain emptiness that had opened up in us after we were separated. Back then it was a fraught exchange; each new e-mail from her thrilled me, then filled me with longing as I read her words again and again, obsessing over my reply. But eventually, our correspondence morphed into something like friendship. Now we talk about our families, our jobs, books, music, theater. When we talk about Yerevan it is only to reminisce about the lighter times, before Armenia declared independence from the Soviet Union and our country went dark for four years.
Still, I have never found a way to tell Sarah. It is too complicated, too layered; to tell her would take me back to the beginning of Arev and me, and I am afraid to go there. I am afraid, too, that all these years, this correspondence has amounted to an emotional affair.
I open a new e-mail, write and delete a few drafts, then pare it down to the bare minimum, as though that could redeem my years of dishonesty. Sarah and I are coming to Yerevan. Arriving two weeks from today.
We depart at night. After we take off, I talk Sarah through our itinerary. My mother has set up a full schedule of visits to various family members in the countryside and in Gyumri. After a few days in Yerevan, we will rent a car and drive north. “You’ll have to pose as my best friend for some of the family visits,” I tell Sarah. I feel guilty, remembering the fight we once had when she asked me to do the same for a dinner with her conservative uncle. After our layover in Paris we will have to stop touching, but now she kisses me and smiles. “I am your best friend,” she says. Then she returns to her dog-eared guidebook, searching the maps for the places we will visit. “Oh,” I say, “we’re also having dinner with my old friend, Arev. Tomorrow night.” I fear my casual tone is laughably false, that the interrogation I deserve will begin now, but she just smiles. “Okay, honey,” she says. Within an hour, she is asleep on my shoulder.
The Kaprelians lived in the apartment directly across the courtyard from ours. My brother Aram and Arev’s brother Narek were best friends, as were our fathers; our mothers did not naturally get along but pretended to as they cooked side by side. The relationship was mutually beneficial: shared rations, more eyes on the children, added warmth during the cold months, when candles were our only source of heat and light. Shortly after the power cuts began, we spent every night with the Kaprelians, alternating between our two apartments. After dinner Mrs. Kaprelian helped us with our homework, first from school and then, after the schools closed, from homeschooling notebooks passed around between the mothers at church. While we worked, my mother played the piano, mournful Brahms intermezzos she had learned after her brother and his whole family died in the earthquake in Spitak four years earlier. When our fathers were there they sipped Ararat and shared stories about work, my father talking about operating on patients by candlelight, without anesthesia, and Mr. Kaprelian about cutting down the trees, chopping the wood for kindling. The city was turning into a labyrinth of stumps, and sometimes Aram and Narek leapt between them while Arev and I chose one to sit on side by side, our backs and hips touching just slightly as we watched our brothers play.
Back then, the extra year Arev had on me seemed to contain endless mystery. She was quiet and distant, often absorbed in books, and for months we coexisted without ever speaking more than a few words to each other. Then, when the worst of the winter cold began to ease, she asked me to come down to the courtyard with her one night after dinner. We sat side by side on a bench in the far corner of the dirt lot, out of sight of both our apartments. Arev said that a few weeks earlier, drunk on brandy, her father had told her about what had happened to his mother in the genocide. Arev had not been able to get it out of her mind, not even to read; she had to tell someone, she said, and although we hardly knew each other, I was the only person she thought she could trust.
Arev looked straight down at her lap the whole time she was speaking. At the beginning of the genocide, she said, when her grandmother Mary was only seven years old, a pair of Turkish soldiers showed up at her house and took her father and two brothers away with no explanation. Three days later, the same soldiers returned and took Mary, her younger sister, and their mother Arpi to the center of the village, where there was a large group of women surrounded by soldiers. The Turks forced Arpi into the group of women, then had them all link hands to form a circle.
Arev paused here; her breath had gone shallow, and I watched her inhale with effort, her chest swelling up and down. Her hands were red from the cold, closed into tight fists. One by one, she said, the soldiers poured gasoline over the women’s heads and clothes and lit them on fire. While Mary and her sister watched from outside the circle, their mother burned to death. The soldiers laughed and cheered while the women burned, and then they rounded up the rest of the villagers, sent them home to retrieve whatever they could carry on their backs, and marched them into the Syrian desert.
The wind lifted Arev’s hair against my shoulder, into her eyes. She blinked hard and brushed it away from her face. Her cheeks had gone red now, and her eyelashes trembled. Mary, she said, had been the only one in her family to survive. She endured weeks of starvation, watched as her neighbors’ bodies crumpled into the sand, as the Turks made a game of shooting at those who fell out of step, as they held scraps of bread just out of the children’s reach. One night, Mary’s sister was kicked to death by a Turkish soldier.
The cold from the stone bench was seeping through my skirt; my body was tensing and loosening, quite violently, against my will. Arev’s father had said that his mother never spoke about the days and years that followed; all her stories stopped at her sister’s death. Somehow she escaped, and eventually she returned to Armenia, got married, had a family. By the time Arev was born, she had moved north to live with one of her other sons. Arev only got to see her three times before she died.
Arev said that ever since her father had told her the story, the images had been locked in her mind: the men pulled from the house, Mary young and confused, her sister’s body shattered. But it was Arpi’s story that truly consumed her. Much as she tried, Arev could not imagine the feeling of burning alive.
“Sometimes I hold a candle to my skin,” she said. “But I always get scared and pull it away before it can do any damage.”
This was the first of many times I was rendered speechless in her presence, my silence just as humiliating as any foolish words I might have come up with. My parents hardly ever spoke of the genocide. I knew my father’s grandmother had died in the death march, but I had never heard details like this.
Arev said that the name Arpi meant “sun,” and that her own name meant “like the sun.” Then she looked up at me, meeting my eyes for the first time since we’d been outside. “Don’t you think that means something?” she said. “Don’t you think I should do something about it?”
At the time, I said yes without hesitation. Now I wonder still if another answer might have made a difference. Sometimes I think it is preposterous to believe my opinion mattered; other times, I blame myself for everything.
While Sarah sleeps beside me, I watch as the overhead lights and the television screens turn off one by one. For hours, it seems I am the only one still awake.
I am delirious by the time we reach Charles de Gaulle, and the layover is short enough that I cannot hope to fall asleep while we wait. Sarah reads while I wander from one end of the terminal to the other, and then we are in the air again, greeted by the flight attendants in Armenian, Russian, and English.
As the plane descends sometime after sunset, I am stunned by the aerial view of Yerevan. It looks, from here, like any other city at night: a glittering geometric sprawl. I remember now that when we left in 1992, my father the only one of the four of us who had flown before, the city was so dark that we lost sight of it even before breaking through the thick layer of clouds.
When we land, Sarah takes my arm and pulls close to me. “We’re here,” she whispers. Although she has flown countless times, she is still thrilled by the takeoffs and landings, by the grandeur of descending from the sky into a foreign place. I am on alert as we wait for customs and baggage claim, certain that people will know we’re a couple, but no one pays us much attention. With her black hair and thick eyebrows, Sarah looks more Armenian than I do.
As we drive into the city, I feel disoriented and somewhat nauseated; the dark mostly obscures what little there is to see along the M5, and the taller and brighter the buildings become, the less familiar the city feels. We are far from the neighborhood where I grew up, but still this foreignness is jarring; scanning the bare trees and low hills on either side of the highway, I cannot shake the feeling that I have never been here before. I search the horizon for the mountains, whose blue shapes are hardly visible through low-hanging clouds.
Sarah presses her face against the window for glimpses of the city, of the Armenian lettering adorning the buildings and highway signs. Every few minutes, the taxi driver looks back at us in the rearview mirror. “K’uyrer,” he says at last. Sisters. It is not a question but a declaration, as though he has made it so, and he beams with pride as we approach the city center.
I have booked us two twin beds at each of the hotels, and after we check into our room and push the beds together, Sarah edges over the crack between the mattresses and drapes her arm around my back. “So,” she says. “Who is this Arev?”
I have had hours to consider my answer, but still the question catches me off guard. “Oh, she’s just an old family friend,” I say. “We haven’t talked in years.”
“I’ve never heard you mention her.”
I take a long breath and turn onto my back, looking up at the gaudy plastic chandelier over the bed, its loud colors visible even in the darkness of the room. “Actually,” I say. “She wasn’t really a friend.”
I tell her how Arev and I were forced together by the other friendships between our families, that we finally warmed to each other, that a few times, in the dark, we kissed. I tell Sarah it wasn’t a big deal, that it only lasted a couple of weeks, that we never talked about it. That after that, our families simply drifted apart.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Sarah says. Her voice is soft; she pulls away from me.
“She belongs to a different lifetime,” I say. “I never even think about it.” I regret it as soon as I say it, another lie, but it seems kinder than telling her that Arev enters my mind at least once a day, sometimes lingering there for whole nights while I lie awake next to Sarah in bed, sometimes reentering my body while we have sex, while I imagine, momentarily, that her long black hair grazing across my chest is Arev’s. I cannot deny that her resemblance to Arev was one of the qualities that first drew me to Sarah. I wonder if she will notice, how it will make her feel.
I expected Yerevan to be quieter than New York, but now, after midnight, there are still car horns, brief swells of pop music, voices in the street. Somewhere, a nightclub emits a low, rhythmic thud. I wonder if Arev can hear it from where she lives, only a ten-minute drive from where we are now.
I am in the same city as Arev. It is difficult to believe.
After she told me about Arpi, I came to understand that Arev was inviting me, rather abruptly, into her most exclusive confidence. I wonder even now if she is capable of engaging with people between the two extremes, if there is anyone in her life but strangers and intimate confidantes. We spent the following summer side by side, and that winter, a year into the energy crisis, was even bleaker than the last. Much as our families had tried to prepare, our food supply was thinning by the day, and for weeks at a time we had only bread and trout. The power came on for one or two hours each night, and in that time we scrambled to do the cooking and washing and bathing. On the coldest nights, when we all slept in the same room for warmth, Arev slipped her hand into mine after the candles had burned out, grazing her fingers up and down my open palm until she fell asleep.
Every few nights one of our mothers heated water on the stove for shared baths, first Arev and me, then the boys. At first Arev and I took turns in the bath, and then, one night, she pulled me into the tub with her. She washed my hair, stroked her fingers down my arms and legs, kissed my shoulder and then my neck and then my mouth. It lasted only a moment before our brothers started pounding on the door. The power went out a few minutes later, and I thanked God for the darkness, certain my mother would have seen it on my face had she had a proper look at me.
Arev kissed me again a few nights later, and again and again for weeks on end. Only ever in the bathtub, only ever for a minute or two before we were interrupted. One night, when we had lingered longer than usual, unable to leave each other, it was my mother who knocked. She must have suspected something, must have known how to trip the lock, and before we had a chance to pull apart from one another, she was there in the room.
Without explanation, my mother demanded that the Kaprelians leave our apartment immediately. She locked me in my room for the next two weeks, leaving food outside my door and letting me out only to use the bathroom. I still don’t know what she told my father and brother. At night I heard my parents talking in low voices about my mother’s sister, who lived in a place called New Jersey. A month later, they told us we were moving to America.
Arev’s building, to my surprise, is part of a modern luxury complex near the center of the city. While Sarah and I wait for the elevator in the glossy red lobby, I meet her eyes in the mirrored wall across from us. She smiles at me, and the sight of her, poised in a tan pea coat and holding a bottle of red wine, instills a sense of security in me. Regardless of how tonight goes, I have a wife, a relationship built over years of life lived together, and at the end of the night I will go home with her.
It is Toros who answers the door; I recognize him immediately from Arev’s Facebook photos. He is so large that he engulfs both of us in a one-armed hug. I am shocked by his forwardness, and before we have fully untangled ourselves from him, Arev is there beside him.
Her hair, still thick and dark as it was when we were teenagers, falls almost to her waist. Her eyes are lined in black, her lipstick a shade darker than the maroon of her fitted turtleneck. Although I can see the age on her face, the young Arev is also there, her eyes simultaneously timid and mischievous. When our gazes meet, she tilts her head and smiles, and her eyes fill with tears. She pulls me toward her, immersing me in her fragrant hair, and abruptly, tears arrive in my own eyes. We hold each other for a long time, until I become aware of Sarah and Toros standing beside us, waiting for our greeting to end. Sarah watches me with concern and I reach for her hand. “It’s just been a really long time,” I say. Toros laughs while Arev and I wipe our eyes. Sarah smiles uncertainly and goes ahead of me inside the apartment, Toros holding the door for us.
“What can I get you two to drink?” Toros says, his voice too loud, echoing through the apartment, which is modern and adorned with sleek, hard surfaces and unsettling artwork: three panels of horizontal lines in varying shades of gray, a black abstract sculpture like stone tentacles sitting on a glass end table. When I imagined this visit, I pictured Arev still living in the old-world clutter of our childhood homes: overlapping Armenian carpets covering the walls and floors, pots and candles and figurines lining every surface. I feel naïve now, looking around at this new existence she has built. I feel as though she has surpassed me in maturity, even having stayed in the same place all her life.
The scent of cooking is thick in the air. In the kitchen, we are greeted by Lilit, who looks so much like Arev did at that age that my breath catches as I shake her hand. She is standing over three large pots on the stove, and I can see a few pans in the lit oven behind her: leg of lamb, stuffed eggplant, pakhlava.
“Margaret and I were friends when we were your age,” Arev tells Lilit, coming up behind me and slipping her arm around my waist. “You’re named after her, you know. ‘Margaret Lilit.’”
Lilit nods and studies my face with a shy smile, but says nothing; instead she turns back to the stove.
“I didn’t know that,” says Sarah, glancing at me.
“Oh, yes,” Arev says, still holding me close. “I always thought the name was so pretty. The younger ones are upstairs. Elena! Garo!” she calls, and within moments their feet sound on the steps and they come running into the room, red faced and breathing hard.
“Hi!” says Elena in a cartoonish voice, and Garo giggles and hides behind her.
“These are my little monkeys,” Arev says. “Six and eight, if you can believe it.” All the children share the same dark hair, thick eyebrows, olive skin. Beside Arev, they all look like different iterations of her. The sight of their faces together overwhelms me, and I turn to Sarah.
“We brought some wine,” I say, and Sarah hands the bottle to Toros, who accepts it with exaggerated thanks and begins searching the drawers for a corkscrew.
Arev touches Sarah’s shoulder. I’ve heard so much about you,” she says. “Margaret said you’re a teacher?”
Toros pours the wine and Arev leads us to the living room, where we sit in a row on the pristine red couch. For a while, the two of them interview Sarah: they want to know about her school, her family, her childhood in New York. Then Toros tells us about his plans for the children. Although they go to a good school, he doesn’t feel they are being challenged enough. At home, he drills them on Russian, Armenian, and English, insisting they must be fluent in all three. After dinner he teaches them chess, essential for their minds, he says. All three of them play soccer, and of course, Garo is learning to wrestle.
While he speaks, I glance from time to time at Arev, who smiles and sips her wine. I can see Sarah assessing her, too. With the two of them side by side I cannot deny how similar they look, and a sense of shame comes over me, as though I have been caught.
Elena and Garo dominate most of the conversation at the dinner table. Like most children, they zero in on Sarah, who pays them special attention and entertains them with an ease I have always admired. They show off their Armenian and Russian, teaching her the words for each item on the table. Arev and I exchange stories about our brothers; Narek lives in Paris now, working as a chef and married to a French woman. I tell her about Aram’s latest plan to take over our father’s medical practice in New Jersey, just down the street from our parents’ house. Lilit is mostly silent; I can see her observing Sarah and me in the same distant way that Arev once assessed people, hardly interacting with us and yet seeming to glean so much from her gaze.
When we have finished eating, the children run up the stairs to their playroom. Lilit asks to be excused from the table, and Toros opens another bottle of wine.
“Your kids are great,” Sarah says to Arev. “Lilit looks just like you.”
Arev leans toward her. “She is much prettier, I think,” she says. “She is very secretive at this age. The same age Margaret and I were, when we were very close.” She looks at me. “Do you think we were that secretive, Margaret?”
It is a coded question, of course, and I feel the three of them watching me. “I hardly remember,” I say. “It was so long ago.”
“Not so long,” says Arev. “And you two want to have children of your own, yes?”
My heart quickens; I should have reminded her, I realize, not to mention anything from the e-mails. Though I assumed we had an understanding about them, that they are private, even sacred, perhaps this was not the case for Arev.
But Sarah takes it as a simple question. “We’ve been thinking through the options,” she says. “It’s kind of complicated.”
“You’ll have beautiful children,” says Arev. “You’re both gorgeous. They’ll have good genes.”
Toros leans forward, his beastly elbows propped on the table. “I have a gay cousin in Fresno,” he says. “He and his boyfriend want to adopt but they’ve been waiting forever. It’s hard for gay people, I guess.”
“Not as hard as here,” says Arev. She turns to me. “You heard about the protestors in Shurnukh, only last year? Innocent people, punched and kicked. Blood on their faces.”
“Yeah,” says Toros. “It’s sad. I’m not homophobic. I mean, the idea of being with a guy makes me sick, but that’s just me.”
“Right,” says Arev, a sudden sharpness in her voice. She gestures toward me. “And it is attitudes like that that destroyed our teenage years.”
I am shocked, bracing myself for Toros’s confusion, but he only shrugs and takes another sip of wine.
So Arev has told him. I am hungry for more information: when? How much does he know? Has she been with other women? In all our correspondence she has never mentioned it, and I have never found a way to ask.
There is a beat of silence, and then Sarah excuses herself and goes to the bathroom. Arev glances up at her wide-eyed, as though she has forgotten Sarah was there. “Did I say too much?” she says. And there is that flicker of mischief again; she is not truly sorry. Though Arev has certainly matured, I see that she has not lost her defiance, her need to make her suffering known even at the expense of social graces.
“No,” I say, looking down at my plate, where the sticky remains of pakhlava have collapsed onto each other. “She knows.”
After Sarah returns to the table, Elena comes running down the stairs and climbs into Arev’s lap. “We need someone to play with us,” she says. “We are playing goats and porcupine and we need someone to be the porcupine.”
Arev laughs and kisses her head. “No porcupine tonight, love. We’re having grown-up time.”
Elena, it seems, is used to this response from her mother; she looks across the table at Sarah. Her cheeks are red, and she is still breathing hard from running. “Will you come?” she says. “We really need a porcupine.”
“Leave her alone, Lena,” says Toros.
But Sarah sets her wine on the table and smiles. “No, it’s okay,” she says. “I’m happy to do it.”
Elena jumps from Arev’s lap, takes Sarah’s hand, and pulls her up the stairs. I try to catch Sarah’s eye but she only looks down at her feet, quickening her pace to keep up with Elena.
When they have gone, Arev turns to Toros. “Why don’t you start the dishes?” she says. “Margaret and I need time to catch up.”
Toros stands, unfazed by Arev’s request, and he makes several clumsy attempts to carry all the plates at once, finally giving up and dividing them into smaller stacks.
“Sarah’s a good sport, to play with them,” Arev says, her mouth reddened from the wine.
“She loves kids,” I say. “We’ve actually been through a few rounds of IVF already. It’s been hard.”
As Toros crashes through the kitchen, I start to tell her about the years of failed attempts, the fertility doctors, the miscarriages. While I am talking she gestures toward the couch, and we sit down together. We are nearly finished with the third bottle of wine. Her eyes have softened, lingering longer on my face. She moves closer to me, grazes her finger up my arm. I glance at the staircase, alert for Sarah, though I can hear her voice blending with the children’s, steady beneath their gleeful shrieks. In the kitchen, the faucet pounds.
“So,” says Arev, “you found my Jewish twin.” Her tone is almost accusatory, but when I look at her she is smiling.
“And you found the Armenian Hulk,” I say.
She laughs. “I know. He’s not what I ever imagined for myself. But he’s a good father.”
Her finger reaches my wrist, traces light circles on the top of my hand. I touch her hair, wrapping a strand around my own finger. “What really happened to you, after I left?” I say, lowering my voice. The wine is taking over; I am losing control, but the importance of this moment is clear in my mind. I realize that after tonight, I may never see Arev again.
“You know,” she says, almost whispering. She looks down at her lap, hiding something, I am certain. “I told you. We moved north. They imprisoned me in the house. Until I married Toros and came back here.”
“No,” I say. “I mean right after I left.”
She takes a long, drawn out sip of wine, finishing her glass. “You want me to show you?” She reaches for my hand and stands, gesturing toward the bathroom.
“She’s with the kids,” she says. “She won’t come down anytime soon.”
When she closes the bathroom door, I wonder if we will kiss. I am ashamed of the thought, but if she initiates it, I can’t be sure I would resist.
Instead, she lifts her shirt.
In the soft light of the bulb above our heads, I see that her skin is ravaged with burn marks that cover her whole stomach and pelvis, continuing below her waistline, beneath her bra, all the way up her chest. The scars form deep, reptilian ridges of pink and white, so vicious it seems they would cause her constant agony.
“I was in the hospital for a month or so,” she says. “And then they put me in the psych ward for a year. My parents only visited me three times.”
“Oh, Arev,” I whisper, taking her in my arms. We hold each other for a long time, our hands in each other’s hair.
“I haven’t told anyone,” she says. “Even Toros doesn’t know the real story. It was the worst time of my life.”
She pulls back from me, her eyes damp again with tears, and reaches for the bottom of my right sleeve. “Do you still have yours?”
I let her push the sleeve up to my elbow, turn my forearm toward the light. My scar is minuscule compared to hers, only a few purplish streaks and a small circle of hardened skin no bigger than a quarter. Sarah thinks it is from a kitchen accident. Arev pulls her own sleeve back and holds her arm next to mine. Hers is far worse, longer and more visible, but it is nothing beside the wreckage on her torso.
She lifts my arm to her mouth, kisses along the scar. I close my eyes; I can hardly breathe, and then I hear footsteps on the stairs.
When I emerge from the bathroom, Sarah is there in the corridor, coming toward me. The bathroom door is still open; I can see that she has spotted Arev behind me.
“Hey,” I say, my heart thundering, my voice loud and false. “Are you ready to go?”
Our departure is abrupt; Arev takes our coats from the closet and shouts up the stairs to Elena and Garo. “Come and say goodbye!” she calls, and Sarah does not conceal the irritation on her face. There is a heavy parade of footsteps on the stairs, and the children run toward us. Toros emerges from the kitchen still holding his sponge, the bottom of his shirt soaked. Lilit does not come, and no one mentions her.
Elena and Garo wrap their arms around Sarah, their small bodies encircling her waist as she rests a hand on each of their heads.
“Bye, guys,” Sarah says, her voice strained. “Thank you for having us.”
“Will you come back?” says Garo. He is standing on tiptoe, his eyes wide and hungry for her answer.
“Maybe someday,” she says. I wonder if Garo detects the lie, even subconsciously. I wonder if he will remember her when he is grown up, if he will remember me.
Arev’s eyes are still wet, her gaze reaching for me, but our hug is brief and formal. Toros hugs me too hard, and I resent that he is the last of them to touch me, that he has covered Arev’s hug with his own. Sarah hugs neither of them. In a moment we are alone again, waiting in the silent hallway for the elevator, which glides up instantly to meet us.
Sarah’s expressions of anger always begin with long silences, and rather than push her to begin the argument, I have learned to use the time to consider my approach. Much as I deserve her outrage tonight, much as I will bear it for as long as it lasts, I know she will forgive me. Sarah, like all the other women I have been with, has a complicated relationship with the friend who became her first love. All of us have her, the first girl to define us, to show us the truth about ourselves. Rebecca still lives in Manhattan and Sarah only sees her once in a while, but my jealousy continues to resurface each time.
I decide that I will tell Sarah almost the whole story. I will tell her about the bathtub, the night my mother caught us, the weeks and then years of imprisonment that followed: how in New Jersey, my mother let me out of the house only for school and church, how I sank into a depression so deep, I can barely remember those three years before I left for college.
I will omit only the last night with Arev, the night that was supposed to be our last in Armenia. Two days before we were set to leave, I slipped out of the house while my mother napped. I found Arev reading in the courtyard, and when I told her the news, she threw her book to the ground and grabbed my arm. “No,” she said. She stepped hard on the book, grinding it into the dirt. “No. I’ll die without you.” I had known she would be upset, had thought we would cry together, but there was a new fury in her eyes that scared me.
We made a plan: she would sneak to my apartment after my parents were asleep. She would steal her father’s bottle of Ararat and we would drink it and use the rest to light ourselves on fire. Not our whole bodies, Arev said. Only our arms. We would sit in the bathtub, ready to extinguish the flames when it became too painful. It was a way to honor our ancestors, she said. It was a way to show my parents how serious this was.
By the time she showed up the next night, I could tell she had already been drinking the brandy. When I eased the door open she kissed me, and I pulled her shoes off and clamped a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet on the way to the bathroom. We climbed into the tub and she kissed me again, reaching her hand under my nightgown, every so often feeding me sips of the liquor. We drank and kissed until we went numb, until I grew drowsy and passed out on her shoulder. I don’t know if it was her scream or the heat on my skin that woke me; when I opened my eyes she was holding the candle to my wrist, and I snatched my arm away and leapt out of the tub. The fire had already climbed up her shoulder and was now spreading across her chest, her nightgown nearly consumed with flames. I screamed for my father, grabbed for the faucet. My father broke down the door, and by the time he had put out the fire and lifted Arev from the tub, she was unconscious. He took us both to the hospital, where we were kept in separate rooms for some delirious span of days while nurses cared for our burns. I could hear Arev’s cries of pain through the walls; I could hear her calling my name.
The day my father told me it was time to leave, I asked if I could say goodbye to Arev. We were leaving for the airport straight from the hospital; my mother had already packed all my things. He said no, that Arev was sleeping, but if I wanted to, I could look in on her before we left.
She was mostly covered with sheets and bandages, and her face was puffy and distorted, her hair damp and clinging to her head. The edges of the bandages were curled and yellow, her skin oozing beneath them. Although her eyes were closed, her face looked more alert than I had ever seen it: her mouth and eyebrows tightened, her eyelids twitching at an alarming speed.
My father allowed me a moment with her, but when I reached out to touch her, he cleared his throat. They would take good care of her, he said. But it was time for us to go.
I will tell Sarah everything, I decide as the taxi slows in front of our hotel. Everything except that.
The next day, Sarah and I go to the Cascade: a massive five-level limestone stairway that overlooks the city. It is chilly, but the sun is out, and as we quietly climb the stairs side by side I cannot make out Sarah’s expression beneath her sunglasses. Our fight was long and unproductive, circling through the decades, never quite resolving. Rather than understanding, the longer version of my history with Arev only provoked more anger in Sarah. I should have told her, she said again and again. Why hadn’t I told her? I had no answer, and, watching her eventually fall asleep in her own bed, still separated from mine, I felt sick with shame. When my family left Armenia, my life became two lives. I’d had no business trying to merge them back into one.
The stairs are crowded, mostly with tourists, and every so often someone walks between us. When we reach the top, Sarah spends some time taking photos of the view. It is a clear day, and the sight of Mount Ararat towering over the city brings tears to my eyes. Eventually Sarah points the camera toward me; I summon a smile, leaning back against a plain gray wall.
“I’m sorry,” I say when she has taken the picture.
She looks down at the camera, examining its small screen. Behind her, a young woman chases three little boys up the stairs toward us. The boys shriek, pushing past each other, and the woman is breathing hard but smiling. “I hope they’re not bothering you,” she says.
“Not at all,” says Sarah. She watches them for a minute, then pushes her sunglasses on top of her head and looks at me. “I guess we should start thinking about adoption.” She says it quickly, the way she does when she has prepared a line, waiting for her moment to deliver it.
I am stunned. “Really?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I don’t want to go through all that again.”
I smile at her, swallowing my irritation that she has chosen this moment to tell me, when we cannot touch, when I am still dizzy with Arev. “That’s great, honey,” I say.
She nods, and behind the stoicism on her face I can see the sadness that has been there for years now, that will perhaps linger there forever. I try to imagine the child we might have, but foolishly I can only picture Arev’s children.
We stand at the edge of the platform for a long time, watching groups of people come and go. Eventually Sarah asks if I am ready to go down; she is getting hungry, it is almost lunchtime.
“You go ahead,” I tell her. “I’m going to stay a little longer.”
I watch her turn around and begin the descent. She takes her time, pausing to examine the art installations positioned along the stairways, though we have already seen them on the way up. Every so often she turns and waves to me, then keeps going. I watch her descend all five levels, blending in with the groups of tourists, her black ponytail mixing with all the others. I watch her until I can no longer make her out in the crowd. ■