The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 21, No. 4

How It Used to Be

by David Bezmozgis

For the sin of the cross look. For the sin of the terse reply. For the sin of the damp towel on the floor. For the sin of the intemperate purchase. For the sin of the selfish minute. For the sin of undermining my fucking authority with the children. For the sin of repeating yourself for the thousandth time. For the sin of the frigid silence. For the sin of never accepting responsibility. For the sin of not seeing yourself. For the sin of not apologizing and for the sin of apologizing too late. For the sin of treating you like a stranger. For the sin of not showing affection. For the sin of not appreciating me even a little bit. For all these, not to mention others, we stood in the doorway, with my Uber parked outside, its hazards blinking and the neurotic fever dream of my plane crash reverberating between us in series with my lurid carnal opportunism should the plane not go down.
     From upstairs, the littlest one called for "Mama." The middle one ran to the door, hugged my legs, and said she was going to miss me so much. The oldest one was somewhere in the house, squatting on the floor, turning the pages of a graphic novel. Something crashed to the ceiling above our heads. The littlest one called more insistently for "Ma-ma."
     "I have to go," my wife said. "Enjoy your trip."
     For the sin of deliberately misconstruing my trip.
     Reza M., my Uber driver, younger than I, waited by the trunk of his cobalt-blue Honda Civic. We engaged in a courteous pantomime over my carry-on, then I took my place in the back seat and looked at my house. It had stood there for ninety years. How many families had filled it with their swirling involvements? I knew only the people we'd bought it from, of whom no instrument could now detect any trace.
     The car moved, and my house slid away. Two strollers casually deposited on the porch and a silver scooter flat on the ground. Some rocks the children had collected, painted, and named. Beside the garbage and recycling, a red plastic car with a seat and a steering wheel and an orange hood that accumulated rainwater. Yellow dandelions in a lawn that needed cutting. And in the flower beds, our drooping peonies, their frilled heads grazing the dirt.
     I thought, My God, what if it's really the end this time? Misery and euphoria seized my heart, and for a moment I felt like I might be sick. To calm myself, I addressed the back of Reza's head. His dark hair, freshly barbered, was a solid block between the pink vulnerability of his ears. And his posture was that of a schoolboy from a land where posture was still respected. With so many clues it wasn't hard to guess the land, but Reza was nevertheless impressed that I had done it. I impressed him further by reciting a few assorted facts about his country. He corrected me on the last.
     "It was wrong of the CIA and the British to meddle in our affairs," Reza said. "But my countrymen who mourn Mosaddegh are very naive. Name me one country that is not Norway where the oil is nationalized and there is democracy. Mosaddegh has been made into a martyr, but if he had succeeded he would have been a thief. Other things are also known about him, but they are improper to talk about."
     Reza then asked for my relevant details. The country of my birth: a place that technically no longer existed, and which I'd left before I was old enough to put on the red neckerchief of the Young Pioneers. My profession: a thing to which I rarely confessed because of some relation to the sacred, the profane, and to doubt—also because the word writer made people feel guilty and confused and caused them to say things they didn't mean. The purpose of my journey: a conference about which I could say little more than that I'd received an invitation from someone I didn't know representing an organization I'd never heard of. Such things occasionally happened. Because I always worried about money, every time I checked my email it was with the faint, pathetic wishfulness that it would happen again. This time it was to join a group of "thought leaders" for something called FICNIC, the First Immersive Continuum Narrative Innovation Conference. Travel, accommodation, and a $2,500 honorarium were provided—the honorarium applicable in full against a possible engagement contract. I was also required to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
     "Technology," Reza reflected. In his home country he had studied computers. Now he was back in school pursuing accreditation, while also doing IT for a local Persian media company and driving Uber. His wife was at home with their two children and would soon give birth to a third. Every day he thanked God.
     We had arrived at the airport.
     "What's your secret?" I asked.
     "There is no secret. We are no different from the birds and the fishes."

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