Excerpt

A Good Country

Laleh Khadivi

May 22, 2017 
The following is from Laleh Khadivi’s novel, A Good Country. A Good Country meditates on modern life, religious radicalization, & a boy caught among vastly different worlds. Laleh Khadivi was born in Esfahan, Iran, in 1977. Khadivi received her MFA from Mills College and was a Creative Writing Fellow in Fiction at Emory University. In 2008 she received The Whiting Writers' Award.

It was Matthews’s idea to wear skirts, blue and green sarongs with block patterns on them. Why not? They will be so much more comfortable on the plane. Finally Rez agreed and they dressed for the airport as if for some sort of costume show–and–tell of their summer vacation. The beaches and good food and days of waves had made Rez silly and happy and he and Matthews spent their last night walking around Jakarta buying gifts and acting like they owned the place. They stood in front of a stall selling fabrics and the owner tried to get them to try on the sarongs and they looked around on the streets and saw men wearing thin cotton skirts like it was nothing. Rez and Matthews tried them on over their shorts and the fabric guy shook his head no and laughed. They took off their shorts but kept their boxers on and walked around the city with warm humid air between their legs and did not hide from each other how great it felt.

Women must have felt like this when they put on pants. Totally.

They went to a bar and then to dinner and then drinking and then to the club where they met two girl backpackers from New Zealand. Matthews bought them all drinks and they drank way too much and went to a noisy outdoor rave and the girls used the open folds of the sarongs to give the boys hand jobs while they danced close.

Now Rez waited in the passport line in America, waiting to be let into the country that was his but he felt too happy and silly and calm for. All around him the travelers from places that were not Indonesia wore bad–fitting gray or black or blue and seemed pushed down by sleepiness and their dark bland lives. He looked at Matthews beside him tinkering on his phone and laughed at his bleached–out hair, colorful skirt, and neon shirt that said COCA–COLA in Indonesian. Matthews stuck up his middle finger and kept tinkering and Rez knew it would be some time before their souls returned back to their American–born bodies.

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Rez whispered to Matthews, Keep it going as long as it lasts. Totally, dude. There has got to be an Indonesian restaurant somewhere in the OC.

We’ll hit it up on the way home. Right–o.

The line inched forward and Rez opened up his passport out of boredom. The few stamps were mostly European, with one for the family vacation to Canada, but Indo was the wildest place he’d been. He stared at the photo of himself. Ten years old. Pale skin, light brown hair, bangs cut straight across his face. A serious expression. Maybe even scared. Rez knew that kid, knew he wasn’t a happy kid, because of his mean dad and his quiet mom. He had a few friends and soccer and his textbooks and video games and those were fun, but the rest was tense. That was the word that came to him as he looked at the picture of the boy. Tense. Rez closed the passport, he couldn’t be more different, that kid had no relation to him now and he tried to clear his mind of the ten–year–old’s stare and then the passport official gestured to him come.

Her nameplate said FENG and she wore exactly no expression on her face. She opened the blue book, ran the first page under the scanner, and stared at her computer. A small beep came from the machine and she pressed a button and looked again at the screen. Then she looked at him. She closed the passport.

Reason for travel?

Leisure.

Length of stay?

Eight days.

How many cities did you travel to? Umm. Two, I think. Yeah. Two.

Did you travel alone?

No.

Rez gestured over to Matthews, next in line, his sarong and neon–green tank top and dark tan skin and Rez could not help it and laughed.

I traveled with that clown.

Feng did not smile. She did nothing to change her posture or her face. Rez tried to steady himself, to get himself serious, though he could find no good reason for her seriousness.

Sir, I am sorry but I will have to ask you a few more questions. I’d like you to answer as clearly as you can and keep your eyes on me.

As she spoke, a man entered the glass cubicle where she sat. He stood behind her, in the same green outfit the border patrol wore in San Diego, and leaned down toward her computer screen. The two of them had the most stressed faces Rez had seen in days, their whole selves taut and forced and behind all that a little scared.

Ok.

What cities did you visit? Jakarta. Cimaja.

While you were there, did you visit any schools, religious organizations, nongovernmental organizations? Please list them by name and location.

No. We  just surfed.

He did not think of it, the afternoon trip to the mosque, the room of men and woman at prayer. He thought of the waves and the beaches and the soupy rice fields he had to walk through to get there. There were clubs and restaurants and that nice hostel they stayed at in Jakarta. Feng stared at him and then stared at the computer screen. The border patrol guard did the same and then they briefly looked at each other. The guard walked out of the room and came to stand beside Rez. Feng spoke, her face soft now, lenient, even a little kind.

Mr. Courdee, we need to ask a few additional questions.

Rez looked at the guard beside him and the woman behind the glass and felt no panic. His nerves lay somewhere deep below his skin, deep and out of reach. He had done nothing wrong, he was full of the warm sea, and it gave him a luxurious patience from which he could mine no fear. The country he’d left ten days ago was the same as the country he returned to now, but he, Mr. Reza Courdee, was different.

My pleasure.

He and the guard turned their backs to the line and began to walk away.

Behind him Matthews yelled, Hey! Wait! Rez!

And Rez turned around and called back, Chill. Chill. It’s all good. Just some questions. Meet me at baggage claim. And don’t ding my board!

The guard took him to an elevator, pressed a button without a number next to it, and then inserted a key beside the button, and the big box moved up and then what felt like down and then what Rez was sure was sideways. He looked at the guard and smiled as if to say, This is cool, but the guard stared straight ahead with his hands behind his back.

They walked down a long bright hallway where men and a few women sat with clunky large plastic bracelets on their wrists that flashed every few seconds. They looked at him and he looked at them, every last one of their faces a shade of brown all the way from dark tan to near black. There were a few women in hijabs and a few women in tracksuits and a group of men in Mexican soccer jerseys. Santos Laguna. Club León. Cruz Azul. They seemed tired and bored and Rez tried not to look at them too much and kept his mind on the waves and the clouds of Cimaja, the place most opposite this.

They put him in a room with a single chair and a low table. The guard said nothing and left. Rez looked around and eventually sat down in the chair and closed his eyes and when he heard the noise of the door, he opened them again and took a look at the two men who came in. Both tall. Both thin. The asked him if he was who he was and he nodded again, surprised at their formality, their suits, and that there was nowhere for them to sit.

They took turns asking questions from memory and Rez said what he felt to be true. Yes, he was an American citizen. On a surf trip. A graduation present. Berkeley. No political leanings. Not devout. Not his mother or his father. Yes, he knew of the terrorist threat. Yes, he felt it was a threat. Yes, he was worried for the country. No, he had no other plans to leave the United States in the near future. Chemistry.

Then he paused.

Minor in religion if I can find the time.

He didn’t know why he said it. The thought had not once crossed his mind, a minor, religion. But something inside of him was roiling, some defiance, some anger that life was going to be hard again, hard and ugly and tense. He thought of the boy in the passport picture, serious from the pressures of the outside world, and wanted to be other than that, wanted to embody the bright spirit of these last eight days. The men stared at him.

Religion?

Yeah. With everything going on now, it would be good to see what it’s all about. Don’t you think? Figure out why people are killing each other for it.

The one who did all the talking said nothing and the other left the room and returned seconds later with a small black box.

Retina scanner. Please look into the lens.

A tiny red speck stared back at him and Rez blinked and the machine beeped and the man who held it left the room and the man who stayed walked toward Rez and crouched until his face was at the level of Rez’s knees beneath the sarong.

We have no reason to keep you. Great.

We saw your name, your travel destination, your smart–ass attitude, and thought we’d take a minute to tell you what is at stake. Every day someone with malicious intent for the innocent people of this country walks or flies or drives across our borders.

Ok.

The people you come from, your mother, your father, their families, the people you know at your fancy school, the rich Indian and Lebanese and Syrians just like you, are not the pride of this country.

Ok.

The man stared straight at Rez.

We let you in because we couldn’t keep you out and you know that, your parents know it. You feel it every time someone wins the prize instead of you, gets the part in the play, gets into the better college. Gets the promotion. All of this adds up. And your people, who think they are worth a great deal, know that even after making all that money, they are worthless. Their children are worthless, and if this violence continues, their children’s children will be worthless too. The American dream will never play all the way out for you. Do you understand?

The man was not wrong. And his speech repeated inside Rez, his voice, his clean–shaven face, his long torso, and his narrow head stamped themselves onto Rez’s mind. He sat up in his chair and focused his thoughts on the mosque, the kind glances, and the jolly  imam.

Yeah. I am just trying to do my part. Be a good guy. Go to school.

Make my parents proud.

The man stared at Rez and between them not a single vibration of belief pulsed. The man stood up and walked out.

By the time Rez got outside, it was dark. He found Matthews sitting on his suitcase smoking bummed cigarettes playing Candy Crush on his phone.

Dude. What the fuck?

Exactly.

You ok?

Fine. They had me confused with one point three billion other people.

Matthews  didn’t laugh.

Your folks texted me. I told them we were getting dinner in L.A. Cool. I’m beat. Let’s hit it.

They found a shuttle that would take them to Laguna and loaded their gear and Matthews tried to talk to him on the drive, but Rez finally put a hand up and leaned his head on the window.

Dude. I gotta take a snooze. Long day.

 

From A Good Country.  Used with permission of Bloomsbury USA. Copyright © 2017 by Laleh Khadivi.




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