Excerpt

“Paradise”

Hannah Lillith Assadi

January 31, 2020 
The following story is excerpted from Take Us to a Better Place: Stories, a collection of original short fiction from a diverse group of authors that tells multiple truths about our health and the world in which we live. Hannah Lillith Assadi says,”I wanted to explore how, as Americans, we can and should be more healthy toward our growing diversity, a diversity that has always defined us, and has always made America great.”

Published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and produced by Melcher Media, with a foreword by Roxane Gay and an introduction by Pam Belluck. The entire collection is available to readers free by visiting www.rwjf.org/fiction.

Rita was staring out at the desert from the window of Ms. Williams’s English class on the Friday before Mother’s Day in America. The entire year she had been trying to find a poetic word to describe her new home, thinking if she found it she might learn to love Arizona, but all she could come up with was: brown, hot, dead. She wondered if it was a fault of the desert or if it was a fault in the English language. The Arabic word for desert was far more beautiful: sahrah.

Back in class, Joey whispered to Sarah, “Goin’ to Ed’s party, blue-ball queen?” To which Sarah responded, “Fuck you.” Rita did not understand why this upset Sarah. What was a “blue ball”? Angel threw a wad of paper licked with spit that grazed Rita’s hand. Everyone else was doing things on their phones, which were technically supposed to be left in their lockers. Rita was the only person in her class who did not have one. She shared an iPhone with her father and brother, but that was usually kept charged in the kitchen. She hoped it was not too close to the faucet. She had moved it this morning to the plug above the oven. It was there above the oven, yes, yes, yes it was. It was not near the water; the apartment was not burning in an electrical fire. These all-consuming thoughts were interrupted by Sarah screaming at Joey.

“On the count of three, everyone be quiet!” Ms. Williams screamed, throwing the wad of paper back at Angel. “One, two…”

The room fell silent. It was twenty minutes until the lunch bell rang. Then the students would be released to the cafeteria, where there would be another fight: a water balloon thrown at the chest of a girl in a white T-shirt.

Everyone was hungry, but in the cafeteria it seemed to Rita that no one ever really ate. Food was thrown, spilled, and trashed; it was put everywhere but in her peers’ mouths.

“For your writing assignment today, I want you to do something a little different,” Ms. Williams said. Rita tried to guess at her age. She wore no ring. If Rita had to describe Ms. Williams, she would say that her teacher was handsome rather than beautiful. But handsome, she had been told, was a word reserved for men. “I want you to write a letter to a woman in your life—this does not have to be your mother, though if your mother is in your life, it should be, but if not, let’s say a woman in your life you are grateful for. If you want to be teacher’s pet, then you can write it to me.”

“Oh my god,” Trevor groaned. “L-A-M-E.”

“I know how to spell lame, Trevor, thank you,” Ms. Williams said.

*

Five minutes before the bell rang, Rita finally wrote something down. Instead of a letter, it was a proverb her mother loved. She distinctly remembered the last time she heard her mother say it: Rita’s mother had become obsessed with saving the rose bushes on the porch. Like a curse of the war itself, spider mites had colonized the bushes after the first bombs fell on Aleppo that July. Overnight, all the blossoms had browned and died. Within a week, almost all the leaves had fallen. There was a single living branch left.

Yallah rouh jeeb mai…,” her mother said to Rita. Rita whined that she should just give up. The bushes were dead. Water would not help. But the truth was that Rita simply did not want to interrupt the show she was watching to water the pathetic roses. And though her mother’s response made no sense to her then, it did to her now: “Rita, al jenna tahta aqdam al ummuhat.

In her notebook for Ms. Williams, she translated it to English: “Paradise lies under the feet of your mother.”

Rita’s mother was dead. It was not something she liked to talk about. She did not like to think about it either. Her mother’s passing always returned very late at night, just before she fell asleep. Instead of praying, Rita would distinctly imagine her mother’s feet as they were when she was alive, her mother’s toes pretty and dainty and always painted red, unlike Rita’s, which were long and ugly and even a little hairy like her father’s. Before falling asleep, Rita would imagine squeezing beneath the arch of her mother’s foot, and from there she could see paradise, which appeared to Rita always as the sea, with the clearest blue waters (where there were no sharks) on the edge of a great rain forest: a land entirely opposite to Arizona. Instead of the sun in the sky, there were a million stars, bursting supernovas, and nebulae. The sky was purple rather than blue.

Sometimes Rita felt like the three of them were all ghosts, living together in Arizona, in some purgatory, not just playing dead but actually dead.

Lately, her paradise dreams were troubled. Walking on her white crystalline beach to pick a coconut from a tree, Rita would notice that the sand was covered in blood, then that the blood was coming from the water, and finally that the entire sea had turned red, and in it were hundreds of bodies. Rita would wake up covered in sweat and pace the apartment, checking that the doors were locked and the gas on the oven was off. She would lie in bed for hours, afraid to dream again, until the first sign of yellow dawn entered through the windows and the birds began to chirp. Sometimes, when she finally fell back asleep, her paradise looked even worse. Sometimes she heard the roar of sirens, or the crack of gunshots followed by screams. Sometimes the supernova rained fire like bombs. She found that she was not beneath her mother’s feet after all, because her mother was lying beneath a pile of rubble, crushed, her foot sticking out—the only part of her not bleeding—almost still alive, just as  Rita had found her in the real world one year and seven months ago. When Rita woke again, she was grateful she had to go to school, knowing that there was nothing to fear in the day ahead—not even  in the snide comments from the Homecoming Queen Christy, who had recently said, referring to her hijab, “If you got rid of that head thing you might actually be pretty”—because she had already seen hell. She had lived in it.

*

At last the lunch bell rang. All the students in Ms. Williams’s junior-year English class ran for the door as if the room had begun raining lava.

“Rita!” Ms. Williams called after her when she was already in the hall.

Angel snickered to Ed, “Yo, new girl is in trouble.” Rita was hardly new; she had been at the school the entire year.

“Would you quit it?” Ms. Williams said to Angel. “Rita, come here for a moment.”

Rita approached Ms. Williams’s desk tentatively. She would have to explain to Ms. Williams why her writing assignment was so short. She would have to explain why she could not write a letter to her mother.

“Rita,” Ms. Williams said. “Hussein hasn’t been to my first-period English class in three days. Is he sick?”

Rita did not know the correct answer to this question, to whether or not her brother was sick in the sense that Ms. Williams meant it. Rita nodded her head.

“Well, he’ll need a doctor’s note if he misses any more class,” Ms. Williams said.

*

Hussein was shot in the hand the same day that Rita’s father was shot in the spine. Hussein’s hand was disfigured by the wound, though he tried to hide it beneath extra-long sleeves and even sometimes by wearing winter gloves whenever he left the apartment. The boys from the apartment complex nicknamed Hussein “Edward Scissorhands.” The previous Tuesday, their leader, Logan, yelled, “Osama Scissorhands Bin Laden!” at Hussein from the back of the lunch line, and half the cafeteria erupted in laughter. Hussein had not been to school since.

Months earlier, Rita, her father, and her brother had gone to the public assistance office in hopes of finding a doctor who might perform a surgery on Hussein’s hand. The secretary said instead that they could cover part of the surgery for her father’s back, but not for Hussein, because it was considered “cosmetic.”

“We both stay crippled,” her father had said to the secretary that day. “I won’t fix if he can’t fix.”

“Have a good day!” was her reply.

*

Rita walked the long way home from school, along the freeway, where on one side of her an endless stream of cars raced by at 80 miles an hour, and on the other, the dull, brown, hot, dead sahrah stretched to oblivion. It was May. Already, the temperatures had risen past 100 degrees. Rita was wearing jeans and a thin long-sleeved T-shirt. Her hair beneath her hijab was almost entirely wet. Then the freeway bent west, and Rita could faintly smell through the exhaust the strange musk of the desert plants. It was still odd to her that no one walked in Arizona. She felt like an alien in a world composed of SUVs, stoplights, and sprawling, almost always empty, grocery store complexes. The spread of saguaro cactuses, their limbs often disfigured, reminded her—though she wished it weren’t so—of Hussein’s left hand.

Rita’s mother used to say: “Jenna mafiha nas ma tendas.” A paradise without people in it is not worth walking in.

Her shift at Frank’s Pizza began at 5 pm. It was already 3:45 by the time she reached the complex. Rita still had to cook dinner, shower, change her shirt, refresh the kohl around her eyes, and spray herself with perfume before she saw Paul, the delivery guy. Rita fantasized about Paul locking his arms around her, pushing her into the bathroom of the little pizzeria, and kissing her—violently, wonderfully—or taking her in the delivery car somewhere far into the mountains, which miraculously also hid a secret ocean where there were no sharks, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, bears, or bugs of any kind. Paul was blond-haired and blue-eyed; Rita liked to think he resembled Paul Newman, her mother’s favorite American actor. “Helu Paul helu helu,” her mother said every time she made Rita watch one of those old boring films he starred in. Back then, Rita thought he was too old to be beautiful.

The apartment complex was called Sonoran Vista. Rita considered it the ugliest building she had ever seen, both in Syria and in America. It was uglier than all of the beautiful mosques and ancient ruins turned to debris in Aleppo. Someone had painted the exterior the color of feces. The stairways were filled with cockroaches. The apartment carpeting smelled of cigarettes and beer. The pool was green and filled with the wreckage of monsoons from summers previous. No one swam in it, and there were rumors that poisonous snakes, found in the lakes and rivers of faraway places, had somehow populated the swamp of  a swimming pool. Rita would not be surprised if one day a crocodile crawled out. There were two creatures in the world that frightened Rita more than humans: sharks and crocodiles. But she also hated scorpions, hyenas, and bats.

But the worst part of the apartment was all of the boys—Logan especially—who lived there. It bothered Rita that Logan also happened to look a little like Paul Newman. When Rita, eye makeup streaming down her face from the heat, reached her apartment at last, Logan, trailed by three other boys on skateboards, yelled at her, “Has your brother killed anyone yet with his Scissorhands?”

Rita slammed the door. It was as if the sun had never risen inside the apartment. Her father was asleep on the couch, as he was now almost all of the time. Sometimes, he rolled over onto his side to turn on the little television and watch the Weather Channel on mute. Hussein was at the kitchen table, his face cast perpetually in blue from the computer screen.

Hua barra?” Hussein said.

“Logan is not king of the apartment,” Rita said. He had asked her if Logan was outside. Hussein returned his gaze to the laptop. Rita’s father turned onto his side, groaned, and reached for the remote. He turned on his weather, quickly becoming rapt with following the movements of an early hurricane headed for the northeast. The news was banned in the house. Rita’s father had not watched the news since they left Syria. Rita noticed that the apartment was beginning to smell of him, of an old man. She couldn’t remember when it had started to happen, his old man smell.

Baba, inta telfant al maktub?” Rita asked. When the family first arrived, her father had called daily the number given to him by the resettlement agency, seeking a job. Rita was beginning to think he was lying to her when he said he was still trying.

Aiwa. Construction, faqat.” Could it be that there were only construction jobs in the entire state of Arizona? The one job her father certainly could not take, given his back. Then her father said what he always said when she asked about work: “Wa yahdi Allah man yisha al huda.” Allah only helps those who want to be helped.

Rita didn’t think Allah had anything to do with her figuring out the cash register at the pizzeria.

Maa salameh baba.” Rita kissed her father’s cheek. Hussein looked up, almost said goodbye to her, but then decided whatever was on his screen was more important. In another time, Rita’s father would have reprimanded her for the amount of makeup she had lined her hazel eyes with, the way her chestnut hair was falling out of her hijab, why she was wearing five sprays of the perfume she had stolen from Walgreens. He also might once have noticed the way Rita circled the oven, counted aloud in her head not once or twice but three times over, the number of burners, and after accounting for each said: “off, off, off.” The way she returned to the bathroom, snapping pictures of the electrical outlet with their phone where she had plugged in her blow dryer (and yes unplugged it, yes unplugged it). Yes it’s off, off, off. Triple- checked the faucets in the sinks and in the shower, made sure the windows were all closed. There could be a monsoon; there could be a flash flood, but neither her father nor her brother would notice. Her father was intent on the weather over New England, and her brother was becoming a blue screen. Like they were still playing dead.

When they were shot—Rita’s father and brother—they had been walking with other men from their neighborhood to fetch rations for the family, and having believed the snipers had passed on from the area, ran out into the road. Rita’s father and brother played dead for an hour, tangled beside the corpses of neighbors they had known their entire lives. Rita’s father had taught the entire family to “play dead” before the war reached Aleppo. In their apartment in Aleppo back then, it was hard for Rita not to laugh, the four of them, Rita’s mother among them, lying on the tile floor, practicing death. When Rita first came upon her mother, her body crumpled beneath a blasted-out ceiling, Rita thought maybe, just maybe, she was playing. She was in there still after all.…

Most weekend nights after work, she would sit on the porch of their apartment—while her father slept and her brother remained in front of his computer—remembering Aleppo sometimes until dawn.

Sometimes Rita felt like the three of them were all ghosts, living together in Arizona, in some purgatory, not just playing dead but actually dead, somewhere far from beneath her mother’s feet, but also not quite in hell.

*

Toward five, the heat had abated. The temperature sank below one hundred degrees. Cars were stuck in standstill traffic as Rita walked along the freeway. Rita combatted the thoughts that the entire apartment was burning down, that the burner she’d cooked the lentils on was still on, and when she returned home she’d find her family burnt black. “Off off off,” she said to herself aloud in English. She had never been this way in Syria before the war. Off meant off, not 100 bombs falling, not apartment buildings burning, not her loved ones dead. Rita squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them again. Over the valley, smog obscured the mountains in the distance, even the one that resembled a camel lying down. Paul had once told her that when he was a child, you could see hundreds of stars in the night sky in Phoenix. But now, at night, it was bright everywhere. It seemed no humans lived in Arizona—only cars, only malls, only highways. Her mother would have hated it for that reason. Whenever Rita’s father wanted to take a drive out of Aleppo into the countryside, Rita’s mother used to say another one of her favorite proverbs in response: “Jenna mafiha nas ma tendas.” A paradise without people in it is not worth walking in.

*

Mar-hey-ba!” Paul cried when she approached the patio of Frank’s Pizza. He was smoking a cigarette in the parking lot by the delivery car. “Marhaba,” Rita replied. Paul had begun studying Arabic on his own. He had dropped out of high school; she knew this, but did not know why.

Keif mo-drinsa?” Paul asked.

“I don’t know,” Rita answered. She had no idea what he was even trying to say.

Modrinsa is school, right?” Paul asked.

Madressa is well,” Rita answered. Paul was wearing a short-sleeve blue shirt so that his heavily tattooed forearm showed. Rita wondered about his astrological sign. She had wanted to ask him, but felt too shy. She was a Cancer and hoped Paul was a Pisces: they were supposed to be compatible. Her mother had always told her to find a Pisces for a husband.

“Is slow today?” She pronounced her words clearly, opened her mouth wide, like her first English teacher in Aleppo had told her to do. “Slow as hell,” Paul said. He spoke quickly, dropped the last consonants on his words. Sometimes Rita had to watch his mouth to understand him, but when she did, she became distracted by his lips, which were pretty as a girl’s. Paul was not handsome. He was beautiful. She imagined his mouth kissing her in places she had never been touched. “Fuck this fucking place.”

Rita always felt embarrassed when Paul swore, like he was taking off his clothing and handing a piece of his nudity to her.

“I am clocking now.” What was the right way to say it? She never knew.

Was it clocking in or clocking on or clocking at?

“But where do you really want to be?” Paul asked. Rita shook her head. The answer was too big and too complicated to tell him. “I wish I could just paint all day.” Paul was looking into the parking lot with an expression that seemed romantic.

“Have a smoke with me,” Paul said. “No one’s here.” She couldn’t tell if his smile meant he liked her or if he was secretly making fun  of her. Maybe he had a monstrous nickname for her the way the  boys did at the apartment for Hussein. The thought that he might return her affection was impossible. Surely he had a cheerleader somewhere: a Homecoming Queen, a blonde, blue-eyed teenage goddess like Christy.

Rita recalled her first cigarette: she had snuck one from her father’s pack and smoked it in the middle of the night on the porch of their apartment in Aleppo. The city then was all alive, full of light and sound, the call of music in the streets, people laughing. The smoke burned but felt natural, like it was made to be a part of her. She had not had a cigarette since. Paul tossed his out before she had a chance to say yes or no. He opened the door to the pizzeria for her. Paul was so close she could already smell him: his clean scent, his aftershave, probably cheaper than her own perfume. Rita wanted it all over her.

It was nearly midnight when Rita finished her shift and began walking toward home. She liked the complex at that hour. Logan and his friends were all out at parties, drinking beer, smoking marijuana, somewhere far away. The lights were off in most of the apartments. Sometimes she felt the dreamy sensation that someone—a stranger—was watching her from one of the darkened windows. A camera was tracking her movements. She was part of a beautiful movie and was walking to a gorgeous, heartbreaking soundtrack. She closed her eyes, and it was almost quiet enough to believe she was on her island paradise, with its clear blue waters, the rain forest whispering around her. Rita found peace in the night in Arizona because she knew in Syria the sun had long since risen. On the other side of the world, it was bright.

Most weekend nights after work, she would sit on the porch of their apartment—while her father slept and her brother remained in front of his computer—remembering Aleppo sometimes until dawn. She tried to recall the scent of her mother’s roses in bloom. She remembered the smell of the trees, of the dirt in the ground, of the rain, the smell of her best friend Alia’s shampoo. Alia and her family had taken a boat to Europe. Either Alia was at the bottom of the Mediterranean or she was in Paris, London, Berlin—places Rita wished she were in rather than Phoenix. It was a terrible thing to feel jealous of someone who might be dead, and when Rita had these thoughts, she felt compelled to pray to Allah for forgiveness. Lately, it seemed, Rita only ever turned to Him when she felt guilty.

When Rita reached her apartment, she heard footsteps from within and her father’s voice. It was impossible that he would even be standing up. For a moment she thought the boys from the complex had gotten inside, and her father was not laughing but crying. He was being tortured. Rita dropped her keys, and her hands began to shake, when her father opened the door and took her in his arms with such force she thought her vision of the apartment burning had been correct. This was surely her father’s ghost.

Her father had handed him the money, which the smuggler counted thoroughly, and then they were put—the three of them—into the trunk of his car.

“Rita, habibti! ” her father cried. Hussein was still at his computer screen with his headphones on.

So the world had not toppled after all.

This was her father standing, pacing, excited. This was her father as Rita had not seen him for years. He was shaking a letter in her face like it was one million American dollars. “Doktor Hadid! Wa yahdi Allah man yisha al huda!

The letter was signed by Dr. Jean al-Hadid. He was one of those fancy Arabs with a French first name. Rita read it: Dr. Jean was inviting them to dinner the following Friday. “Every week,” the letter said, “I host a refugee family in the valley. Would you please join me for dinner at seven in the evening?” Below, the scrawl of a pretty-sounding address.

“He saves us. He’ll do surgery for Hussein on the hand. A Syrian surgeon is best in the world!” her father shouted.

Rita left her father to rave into the telephone at a relative across  the ocean and walked onto the porch. The lot was empty except for a single car idling in a parking spot to the right of her apartment. When Rita looked closer, she saw that it was the delivery car from Frank’s. The familiar shape of Paul was silhouetted by a lamp. He was sitting on the trunk, smoking. Rita wanted to crawl back inside of her apartment and hide, but it was too late. Paul had already turned around and seen her.

“You forgot your tips!” he cried.

“What you are doing?” Rita asked. She meant to add “here,” but the words fell out of her mouth.

“I wanted to bring you your tips.” Paul jumped off the car and walked toward the apartment. When he was nearly before her, Rita caught sight of his eyes, so blue they pained her.

“How do you know my house?” Rita asked.

“You told me,” Paul said. “My mom’s apartment is the next complex over.”

At that moment, the zombie Hussein had miraculously risen from his permanent home in front of the laptop. Her brother opened the screen door to the porch. “Min hua?

“Nobody, go away,” Rita hissed to Hussein.

Mar-hey-ba! ” Paul shouted to Hussein, but Hussein had already slammed the screen door shut and closed the blinds.

“I go sleep now,” Rita said to Paul. Paul handed her the envelope with her tip money. “Shukran very much.”

His hand touched hers and lingered there, it felt to her, a beat long. She would have liked it to stay there forever. Rita went to sleep that night, not dreaming of her mother’s paradise, but of Paul.

II.

“I am new man,” her father said, looking into the mirror before they left the apartment. And in fact, her father for the last week had been incredible for Rita to behold. He made breakfast. He shaved. He did not watch the Weather Channel once. He walked without hunching over. Her father was no Paul Newman, but to Rita, he was briefly almost as handsome as he had been before the war.

The iPhone said the journey to Dr. Jean’s would take two and a half hours each way. They had no car and would have to walk a mile to the bus station beside the pizzeria, where the bus came every 30 minutes. They would take that bus 15 stops before transferring to another bus, which would go most of the way to Dr. Jean’s, just two miles short of his address.

It was even hotter than it was the week before, 103 at half past four. They had all put on their nicest clothing, and their nicest clothing was black. Beneath his breath, Rita’s father was singing songs she remembered from her mother’s movies. Meanwhile, Hussein would not look up from the ground. His hands were shoved into his pockets.

Rita was trying to picture the burners in the apartment. She had counted the four of them off, six times. The windows were closed. She had not used a blow dryer. It was definitely off, off, off, she whispered aloud. A car on the road ran over a glass bottle. Rita’s brother and father jumped. It almost sounded like a gunshot. A memory returned to Rita from their last days in Aleppo—a man running, in tears with  a baby in his arms, screaming for God to save him, the sound of his voice drowned beneath gunshots while Rita watched him from the safety of the old tobacco store. Rita closed her eyes tightly, opened them. She began to shiver despite the heat.

That was not a gun. We are in Arizona, not Syria.

*

The bus filled and then emptied and then filled  again. The entire ride, Hussein played some sort of game on their iPhone that involved killing fish. Rita’s father still sang beneath his breath, looking out the window. Rita watched the faces change on the bus as it moved through neighborhoods. At first, the faces were browner, and then the farther the bus got from the complex, the whiter they became. When they transferred to the final bus, there were hardly any faces on it except their own. And suddenly, they were on a road through the middle of the desert.

Dusk was beginning to settle over the ridges of the purpling mountains. There was a magical quality to the landscape Rita had never seen before. The sahrah left to itself—unscarred by malls and hideous apartment complexes—here it was: the bottom of her sea floor in paradise, the ocean turned upside down. There were so many saguaros, of so many different shapes, hundreds of them, stretching their arms toward the darkening sky. Rita squinted. It was a mirage, but there in the distance, wearing a white robe, Rita saw her mother walking through the desert. Rita looked at her father to see if he had seen her, but he had fallen asleep.

The bus stopped abruptly at a station that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. “Last stop!” the driver said over the intercom. How could Dr. Jean’s house be anywhere here? There was nothing but desert. They had not passed a stoplight for at least ten minutes.

“Excuse me?” her father said to the driver and pointed to the map on the iPhone screen.

The driver put his hands up and shrugged. “Good luck.”

*

They were left in the middle of the road, the bus blowing dust all over their black attire. Rita’s eyes burned. Dusk was passing into night. Soon they would have only the phone for light, and then the phone would die, and they would be alone without food, without water. It would get as dark as the night they had met the smuggler who took them out of Aleppo. Rita had never known his name. Her father had handed him the money, which the smuggler counted thoroughly, and then they were put—the three of them—into the trunk of his car. Rita felt like she had forgotten how to breathe when the car stopped and they heard the government men speaking, their footsteps rounding the perimeter of the car. Her breath was caught in her chest. It would not come out. One of the officers hit the trunk with something, a baton perhaps. Rita’s father pressed his hands down harder on both Rita’s and Hussein’s mouths. She could feel her father’s heartbeat wild and mad in his chest. Then it was over, the car picked up speed, and they were left just like this on the edge of an abandoned town. The border was a mile away, the smuggler said. “Allah ma’ak.”

*

Back in Arizona, Rita looked in the distance and saw on the seat of a small mountain, a row of lights. There was a large house there, up a small road Rita could hardly make out. It was all alone, grandiose, like a palace from another century.

The three of them, for that two-mile walk to Dr. Jean’s, were all walking in the past, away from that abandoned town, into the dawn, on toward the border. Birds somehow still chirped in Syria, and they had come for them that morning, oblivious to the blood and the bombs and to Rita’s mother being gone. The twilight was magnificent. The land never looked more beautiful to Rita. Syria was the color of straw. They were leaving. They would never return. Rita’s father collapsed in the road, burying his head in his hands, just before they reached the border. The wind that morning was made of tears.

*

It was dark by the time they reached the foot of the hill of Dr. Jean’s home. “We’re almost there,” Rita said. And when she saw the house up close, lit up like a chandelier in the dusky desert, for a minute she thought what she meant to say was: we’re almost home.

*

Dr. Jean was a tall, middle-aged man with green eyes. He wore a cream dress shirt with silky pants Rita yearned to touch, to feel against her face. He greeted them in English. “I was born here,” he explained, and waved his hands for them to come inside. The ceilings were painted like Rita imagined the churches were in Italy, and from them hung true chandeliers. The floor beneath them was marble and cold to the touch. They didn’t have to remove their shoes, Dr. Jean had said, but it was habit. Through the glass windows, Rita saw the sparkling spread of Phoenix beyond a clear blue pool that fell over the side of the mountain like a waterfall. Dr. Jean’s wife was blonde and beautiful, not unlike Christy. She wore an ankle-length opal dress and was hardly a decade older than Rita.

“This is Angela,” Dr. Jean explained. “She designed the interior of the house.”

Rita’s father was stupefied. He kept saying helu helu helu. Whether about the house, Angela, or Dr. Jean’s entire life, Rita did not know.

“You live American dream,” her father said next. Dr. Jean smiled. “Would you like a tour?”

Shukran, shukran.” Rita’s father seemed to have forgotten all of his English.

There were seven bedrooms in the house, five bathrooms, enough room in all for 20 families, Rita calculated, a movie theater in the basement, a basketball court to the right of the house. Rita imagined the tent cities where hundreds of her countrymen and women now lived, and thought of how it would look if Dr. Jean’s house were full of them. They would roast meat and sing songs and dance around fires, looking out over the desert. The tour ended at the pool. Rita did not know how to swim—she had never learned—but imagined herself in those clear blue waters with Paul wrapped around her, laughing, his limbs slippery, his mouth sweet. In Dr. Jean’s pool, there could be no sharks.

“We’ve made lamb,” Angela said. The tone of her sentences seemed to end with question marks rather than periods. In her hand, perpetually, was a glass of white wine. Dr.  Jean  had offered them  all wine too, and Rita, lost in her reverie, said yes, when her father interjected saying they would have soda.

Rita had not had lamb since her mother made it years ago, and though the lamb Angela had made was nothing like her mother’s, she savored every bite, chewing slowly and carefully as Angela did. Rita’s father and Hussein devoured their plates like animals, her father eating the meat with bread clutched in his hands rather than with a fork.

Dr. Jean sat at the head of the table, Angela at the other end. It was the longest table Rita had ever seen. Rita figured that at least 12 people could fit around it, and they were only five.

“You know, my mother and father were immigrants here too,” Dr. Jean said. “They came here 50 years ago with nothing in their pockets but a dream. They bought a house in the valley and opened a grocery store that quickly became one of the most popular stores in the state, and now we have ten of them. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Georgie’s Supermarket? My father’s name was George.”

Aiwa,” Rita’s father said. Then correcting himself, said, “Yes, we hear.”

For the first time in many months, Rita did something without checking herself, without making sure her father was still alive inside, that nothing had burned down, that the windows were all closed.

“But it wasn’t always easy. They were successful but they always missed Syria. They were always talking about their old neighborhood. They never quite came to accept Arizona as home. I suppose it never really was…” Dr. Jean looked at Angela. “What wonderful lamb, Angela! Angela is quite the cook, right?”

Shukran jazeelan,” Rita’s father said and looked at his children to follow suit.

Hussein raised his head and smiled shyly. He had eaten the entire meal with his wounded hand in his lap, trying to slice the lamb with his fork only.

“Thank you very much, Mrs. Angela,” Rita said. “Where they are, imik wa abuk?” Rita’s father said. “Your mother and father?” Rita clarified.

“Oh, my parents passed many years ago,” Dr. Jean said, still smiling. He had smiled the entire meal throughout his entire life story. He never stopped smiling, Dr. Jean, as if life and death were as pleasant as wine drinking and lamb eating. Nothing could touch him, not in this palace in the hills. His teeth were perfectly straight, perfectly white.

Allah yerhamuhom,” Rita’s father said of Dr. Jean’s parents. Dr. Jean coughed.

A small woman wearing an apron appeared from nowhere and gathered their dishes and their glasses. At first, neither Dr. Jean nor Angela acknowledged this figure, and Rita wondered if it was their job to thank her. Then Angela stood and followed the woman into the kitchen. When Angela returned, she had a tray of knafeh the small woman must have baked. The smell reminded Rita of her mother—that most luscious smell of rosewater and sweet cheese. Rita’s mother had made knafeh for the last time on Hussein’s birthday. Her mother was such a perfectionist about her knafeh that she sulked the entire evening while Rita, Rita’s father, and Hussein all devoured it. “Harat al knafeh,” her mother finally said. But that was why it was so delicious, because it was slightly burned.

And then it was all over,  the dinner, the dessert. They had been at  Dr. Jean’s only an hour and 15 minutes according to Rita’s watch. Dinners back in Syria had lasted all night. They were all standing in the entryway and Dr. Jean had not offered to take them in, let them live in his palace, save them from the complex. And Rita’s father had still not asked him about the surgeries. Rita’s father had grown fidgety, she could see—he had not smoked a cigarette the entire night. Rita said to her father, “Inta bidek tisaalo?

“What’d she say?” Dr. Jean said to Rita’s father. “Shukran, Dr. Jean,” Rita’s father said.

Rita held up Hussein’s hand. “Dr. Jean, can you help us?”  Hussein’s face turned red. He would never forgive her for this.

Neither of them would.

They were so alike, her brother and her father. They lived as if an angel were going to knock on their door and carry them away in a chariot to a better life. The very angel who only helped those who wanted to be helped. Dr. Jean looked back nervously at Angela who walked toward them, her glass of wine refilled. She was smiling wider now, but her smile was saying “time to go” in a way only Americans knew how to do.

“It’s not my specialty, but I have a colleague,” Dr. Jean said. “Don’t I, Angela?”

“Yes,” Angela said. “Why yes.”

“I’ll be in touch with you all. Wonderful to have you. Just wonderful.”

Rita’s father kept saying shukran shukran, shaking Dr. Jean’s hand like he was God, Himself.

“How are you all getting home?” Dr. Jean asked. “The bus,” Rita said.

Dr. Jean looked offended by her answer. “Oh no,” he said. “I’ll call you a car.”

They spent the ten minutes until the car came with Rita’s father thanking Dr. Jean over and over again, and telling him please no please no to the car, and Dr. Jean nodding his head, ignoring him, saying he would call them in the coming days, very soon, not to worry, very soon.

“Just wonderful, so wonderful you all being able to share a meal with us. See you again,” he smiled.

And then they were in a black Suburban, one of those cars that resembled the army tanks Rita had seen so many times from the side of the road. It smelled of new leather and air freshener and peppermint. The radio was on playing pop songs about love, and out the window Rita gazed into the desert passing back into suburbs, and as the light became brighter, and the houses more tightly set against one another, she prayed to her mother that Dr. Jean would have them back to his house the very next week. She did not care if her brother and her father were angry at her for her boldness; she was trying to save their lives. One day she would bring Paul there. She fantasized about him waiting for her in the pool: she would release her hair for him and dive down into the clear blue water like a mermaid. She would learn, just like that, how to swim. And then so quickly they were back at Sonoran Vista. The driver said only one word the entire drive, and it was goodnight.

As soon as they had exited the car, Hussein turned to Rita. “Mind your own fucking business.”

Shu hada?” her father said, uncomprehending. “Nothing,” Rita said.

III.

The last day of school before summer vacation arrived, and there was still no word from Dr. Jean. Hussein had returned to school but had received a D on his final math test. Of the two of them, Hussein was the better at English, though he rarely spoke it, and Rita was the better at math but was terrible in English, though she tried to speak it all the time. Rita was the only junior in her calculus class. Rita felt the most solace inside of math equations. The world simplified to solving y as a function of x.

“I can help you with the math,” Rita said to Hussein on the walk home. Hussein was staring at the iPhone. He had learned to play on it and hold it with only one hand. “Math is peace for me.”

“Steve Jobs dropped out of school. And he was Syrian,” Hussein said. “You can’t drop from high school,” Rita said. Hussein grunted and returned to his game, which involved multicolored birds. He was so occupied by the phone that when they approached the door of their apartment, Hussein hardly noticed that “go the fuck home towelhead terrorists” and “sandy Scissorhands sucks ISIS cock” was graffitied on their apartment door.

For the first time in many months, Rita did something without checking herself, without making sure her father was still alive inside, that nothing had burned down, that the windows were all closed. Something took over her. She dropped her book bag at the door. She felt as if a thousand crows had burst from her chest, and she was attached to them by string, and they were flying her away from the door, toward the apartment pool where she knew Logan and the boys would be at that time of the afternoon.

“Rita! Ty le hone!” Hussein screamed after her.

Without saying anything at all, she walked up to Logan, who was in the middle of telling some sort of terrible joke.

“What are you…?” Logan started to say, but before he could, Rita’s hands were pressed against his chest, and the next thing she knew, she heard the smack of his body fall into the pool. Rita did not wait to  see his reaction. She ran away from the boys, and though they chased her—one managed to tear her hijab from her head—they lost her at the first stoplight when she ran through traffic, through the sound of angry horns. Rita had always been a strong runner. She ran and ran, and in her head could not kill the delusion mounting in her: she had killed Logan. Rather than landing in the swamp, snake-ridden, alligator-filled, monsoon-trashed pool, which she had seen, had seen, had seen, with her own eyes, but no, no, no, maybe Logan’s head had hit the ledge of it. Not only was he dead, but her brother and father were both burning alive in the apartment, for she had not checked the burners. And she was all alone. And she could not go back.

Suddenly, she thought she could run all the way to Dr. Jean’s. She could hide there. She caught her breath at the station by the pizzeria. She had no money for the bus, but she knew the route well enough. She remembered it. She remembered everything.

*

It was nearly sundown, but the heat was still beating down on the valley. Rita had no water. Her lips were chapped, and her hair lay sleek and wet against her face. It had been years since she had been outside without covering her hair. She believed she had reached the part of the desert the second bus had taken on the way to Dr. Jean’s. She was almost there. There was a sign that read: landfill. Rita did not know what a landfill meant but thought it might be something to do with the land filling a place, a place full of land? Of desert? Pure sahrah? Rather than a place filled with malls and cars and buildings.

She walked on. It was only after some minutes that the smell began to reach her. She could not place it at first, though it was familiar.  The dusk was settling and turning the desert into that pretty magical thing she had seen on the bus, but here up close, she saw the desert was filled with pieces of plastic, that there was no empty space of earth but rot all around her and crows swooping down like a plague pecking at the corpses of human waste. Rita’s head began to feel heavy. In the distance she saw a wave of water. Maybe she was in Aleppo. She was walking amid the debris. Soon she would find her mother, her mother’s foot twitched even after death. She had come upon her at this hour, this same hour,  the blue hour.  Rita screamed  at the two medics who crowded around her, who were too late. She pointed to her mother’s foot. She shouted at them to save her. They weren’t Arabs. They couldn’t understand her. They were French but spoke to her in English. She read Médecins Sans Frontières on their badges. Her mother’s foot moved again, ever so slightly. The medic took her mother’s pulse, shook his head. “It’s a Lazarus sign,” he said to Rita. “Lazarus?” Rita pronounced it slowly. She did not know what it meant. “Mish hone,” the medic said, pointing at Rita’s mother. Not here. She is not here.

The sunset above Rita in Arizona was tortuously beautiful, red and yellow splashed like paint on the blue night, but Rita was still in hell. She had never made it out.

*

“Rita!” She heard the voice from afar, the way sound travels underwater. Soon she would faint. She turned slowly. She had to walk back the way she had come. She had to find the road.

Paul was walking toward her. Another hallucination. Was this what death was like? If so, it was not entirely bad. She could grow used to the smell if she could see Paul. He was so close to her now.

“What are you doing?” he screamed. She would have liked to ask him the same question.

“What?” she managed to say. Her mouth was parched. He handed her a bottle of water, which was as warm as the air. “Where we are?” “We followed you,” he said. Paul took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. He was nervous, she saw. His hand shook. He dropped the lighter, then, though revolted, clawed it out from the trash. He was flesh and blood. “Hussein was running down the road by Frank’s. I picked him up and we followed you all the way here. Hussein didn’t want you to know we were following you. But I couldn’t let you walk farther in this shit.”

“Where are we?” Rita said again.

“In a fucking landfill,” Paul said. This time Rita didn’t feel embarrassed when he cursed. Rita wanted to yell it out too, yell fuck fuck fuck at the sky, at the world, at God if He were ever listening. Come to think of it, English did have a good word: it was fuck.

Then she saw it, the little black Honda with the Frank’s sign on its side parked just yards away from them and Hussein in the passenger seat not staring at a blue screen but through the window, at her. “Come on, I’ll take you guys home,” Paul said.

Rita wanted to tell Paul she didn’t know where home was—if it even existed, if it ever had—but she only took his hand and let him lead her out of the landfill, a word she still did not understand, into the car, which smelled of cigarettes, beer, and of Paul, of his cheap, sweet aftershave, which she still, despite everything, wanted all over her.

Una bahebik,” Hussein said when Rita got into the car. “I love you too,” Rita said to Hussein.

*

It was already night when Rita and Hussein returned to the apartment. Their father was asleep on the couch, the weather muted and projected over his face. There was a heat wave in New York, storms throughout the Plains. Rain would fall in Arizona the following morning. Hussein went to sit at his computer. She could hear through his headphones Skype trying to dial someone and failing, someone who was maybe, by now, too far away from this life. Rita walked onto the porch. Paul was still there, digging for something in the trunk of the delivery car. She ducked down and through the slits of the porch watched him walk up to the apartment with a large duffel bag.

*

She watched him secretly until dawn rose. Paul had finished his painting, thinking himself unobserved all those hours, then drove away. Rita could already smell the coming rain. It was a stunning smell: rain in the sahrah.

Rita walked outside to look at their new door. It reminded Rita of something she had dreamed: a seascape of blue, mermaids swimming, cactuses shooting out of the water, an ocean made of desert, the night sky filled with stars. Paul’s painting was even more beautiful than her paradise.

__________________________________

“Paradise,” copyright © 2019 by Hannah Lillith Assadi. From the collection Take Us to a Better Place: Stories by multiple authors, copyright © 2019 by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher. Published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and produced by Melcher Media, with a foreword by Roxane Gay and an introduction by Pam Belluck. The entire collection is available to readers free by visiting www.rwjf.org/fiction




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