Fear was a survivor’s luxury—the reward of living through the worst things.
Until I was ten, I did not understand people died of natural causes. Apparently in the flurry of immigrant assimilation, some important facts of life had been glossed over—nevermind the birds and the bees, but what about the vultures and maggots? It had never occurred to me that living things all had to in fact die. Finally, one day while driving by an epic graveyard near Pasadena, California—where we were living at the time—I asked my mother about “the statue park’s” purpose. She replied simply,
“People’s hearts are buried there.”
This sounds even worse in Farsi. Plus, I was still at a point where a heart looked like a construction paper Valentine. Sure I did not hear it right, I asked her to repeat it.
“When people get old, they, you know, stop existing.”
I gulped and thought about it. After a moment, I asked the only question one could ask, “How long do I have?”
“Seventy, eighty maybe. . . let’s talk about something else!”
An unhealthy obsession with time and accomplishment thus began. It was no coincidence that at that young age I began not just reading furiously but setting out to really write. Soon enough I was tackling the novel, two of which were completed by age twelve. I grew increasingly indoorsy, devolving into a scrawny pale kid with a love of black clothing and a matching morbid imagination, working hard to become all brain in spite of a screwy scholastic society where class time was devoted to teaching us jazz-hands-heavy routines to “Kokomo!”
Life is a bitch and then you die, read the bumper-sticker on our neighbor’s Pinto. That was suddenly a noble truth. Our entire existence was of some bad design. The world started feeling horribly experimental and unsafe to me. On cue with that, from the time I was in fourth grade all the way to high school, almost yearly we had a significant earthquake. Fires, serial killers, riots—how did one beat the odds? I began to become the me I most identify with around that age: a person run by fear. This would be the most distinguishing characteristic. Afraid of living, afraid of dying, afraid of everything in between. But I didn’t entirely mind: fear was a survivor’s luxury—the reward of living through the worst things. With every new fear which was really just the old fear multiplied as if in a hall of mirrors, I felt more and more a part of the adult living.
And so I have never exited that moment, the one with my mother by the graveyard. I have at times of deepest happiness and love, turned to my baffled loved one and bawled, I love you so much that I can’t believe you must die. I cannot believe it, plain and simple. I am still the same little girl who later that very night turned to my father—since I developed an almost instant magical phobia of my mother, whose bearing of that bad news had rendered her witch-like to me—and asked, Any chance you could work on or invent some, maybe, shot to make us live forever? My father had blinked several times, held me in the awkward way fathers hold daughters moving into double-digits, and said, I know what you mean. It took me years to understand that was the most any of us could say about the condition our living so devastatingly, so both matter-of-factly and mystically, hinges on.