A few years after the break, I received an envelope from Beirut, from my brother, Mazen, containing nothing but a black-and-white photograph. Standing before the cadre of mailboxes in the dark lobby of my building, I tore open the envelope and tried to figure out why Mazen would send me a picture of himself and his bride. No note, not one word, just a cliché of a wedding portrait: the couple coming out of the church, a young Mazen, plump and fleshy, beginning to follow in his father’s footsteps, dark suit and tie, a beaming smile on his face, grains of rice stuck to his meticulously gelled hair. Clearly besotted, he was gazing at his bride, while she, coiffed hair streaked with highlights and gardenias, looked seductively at the camera, her leer proclaiming, I’ll give him the wedding night, and then all bets are off.
Had we been speaking, I would have warned poor Mazen. They divorced after ten hellish years.
At the time, I didn’t understand what he was trying to do. If he wanted to make contact, why send me a picture? Why not a letter, a phone call? Did he think this inanity would make me forgive him his duplicity? He was my closest friend always, my only friend. Co-signers of a covenant, we shared a bed till he was ten, pressed together against the same sheets of cotton, and he abandoned me.
I sent my reply, a photograph of my girlfriend and me. She and I were young and in lesbian love, and the picture reflected it. We were atop each other in Central Park, haloed by glorious sunlight and a furious cloud of gnats. I sported big hair and layers of early-Madonna tops over my budding breasts.
Ten years earlier, I had won a scholarship to Yale, a full eating-drinking-sleeping-studying scholarship, the prestige of which had earned me my family’s blessing. Leave, leave, young man, God be with you—leave and return to us with untold riches and a smidgen of culture to edify. I left Lebanon, and I transitioned in college, changing from a depressed young man to an angry one. The humiliations of my childhood, the don’t-do-this, the boys-don’t-do-that, the you-must-try-to-be-normal, all those sticks and twigs, dry kindling, burst into a furious bonfire. Everything was my family’s fault, of course it was. My cracked cup runnethed over with molten rage that no saucer could contain. My calls home became more obstreperous and less frequent. My side of the conversations consisted of various permutations of “I hate you, I loathe you, you never respected me, you never understood me, I’m unhappy and you made me so, I demand justice, I despise you.” Anger was the shape of my breath, outrage the sound of my voice. I cultivated indignation like a hothouse flower. My mother made sure to explain that I was giving the whole family a bad name, that they would be mocked and ridiculed because of me and the way I was choosing to live my life.
I don’t know which was the final straw: changing my major or changing my sex. I switched from pre-med to English at the beginning of my second year. I went out in public with kohl on my eyes and ruby-red lipstick in the middle of my third. My mother decided that I was dead—no one was to talk to or of me, not my father, not my siblings. She killed me.
Nothing hurt as much as being cut off from Mazen. When, as a child, I used to wake up terrified in the dark, so scared that I would sidle closer to him in our small bed and hug him fiercely; he poured comfort into my ears. The nightmare was not real, he would tell me. It couldn’t hurt me.
I was certain that I’d never forgive his betrayal.
But he sneaked back into my life, slipped into the water with a silent paddle. We sent photographs back and forth for seven years, but no words were exchanged; our relationship was reduced to a visual correspondence. It was only later, when he came to visit for the first time, that I learned that he’d sworn to the homunculus that was his mother that he would chop off his tongue if he uttered a word to me, that he’d saw off a finger if he wrote a single letter to the family freak. Instead, he’d send me a picture of himself on a Beirut beach, and I’d return one of my wife and me in matching skirts. I received a snapshot of his son and returned one of my cats. I refused to break. I immured my heart in iron. I was the strong one.
When I published my first book, I didn’t think anyone back in my cursed home country would even notice—small press, different name, poetry. How Mazen found it I do not know. I received a picture of him with his second baby boy cradled in his right arm and his left hand holding “Epistles,” my pride in paperback, the title stationed right where his heart was supposed to be.
He broke first. I received a four-by-six portrait of his son with a slightly bleeding nose, taken hastily, badly lit, likely by a bathroom bulb. On the ten-year-old face, a thread of blood trickled from nose to upper lip, curving an ogee around the corner of the mouth and down the chin. The boy was in no pain; he looked inquisitively at the camera, probably wondering why his father had had the urge to bring it out.
I held my breath for a beat or two or three when I saw the image. On the back of the photograph Mazen had written, “I keep seeing you.”
Iron is iron until it is rust.
When I was ten, a bully at school pushed me into a wall. My nose bled. Mazen, eleven at the time, took me to the lavatory and helped me clean my face. We missed two classes, hiding and holding each other in the bathroom. The boy’s face in the photograph is an almost exact replica of the one I saw in the mirror that day. Mazen’s son looks more like me than like his father. My response didn’t include a picture. Like him, I began with only one sentence, the incipit of all further conversation. In the middle of a white sheet, I wrote, “I have never stopped missing you.”