It will be September’s end. You’ll be ironing a collared button-down shirt by yourself for the very first time when you realize that you’re homesick.
You’ll be in Boston (“it’s like New York Lite”—New York Lite—New York Lite—the wisps of Gloria’s voice will dwindle as they unwind into the recesses of your memory, in her Frenchie accent from high school, even though you’ve heard her new-and-improved yank-cent from living stateside the last few years) in a place of your own, an apartment you signed the lease for in April.
There’ll be a YouTube tutorial for ironing shirts garbling out of your phone at half-volume, and you won’t be able to see it properly because the phone will be lying supine halfway between the shirt and the end of the ironing board, facing God. Erwin will be leering at you from the bed with his eerie green eyes. The shirt’ll be for a—well, hopefully for a job, but who are you kidding, it’ll be a paid internship at best. You’ve done nothing of note; you’d fallen behind before you even knew you were moving.
Here is an image you can hone for me: a drop of water from the iron will fall on the shirt and you will pass it off to yourself as a tear; the iron will dry it up; no one except Erwin will ever have to know the trachea-tightening agony of missing a place you loathed to live in for so long, where your father died six-and-a-half years after hauling his four-pack there and left you to survive the next six repairing the legacy of a youngish man who died too soon.
When that happened, you grew for a quick second: You did the husband things alongside your mother like drinking coffee with attorneys and bank managers under the bleakest LED lights known to man while your heart burned and shriveled up with bitterness and fear as your eight paternal uncles and three paternal aunts and two paternal grandparents turned on you and your sibs and your brown mother. You became her husband so well that your chin sprouted eleven coarse husband-hairs. But you did not become yourself.
The collar won’t sit right. I forgot to tell you what time of day it will be—I want to say the evening, but that robs you of the light pouring in from the tall windows, touted by the property manager to be a highlight of the apartment. But I want to say evening, the evening before your first day at maybe-an-internship, a harbinger of a life you chose shortsightedly from the inside of a capsule of disgusting, crippling privilege. Evening seems to me like the proper time of day to iron a shirt. If it’s the evening, Erwin will begin meowing plaintively until you feed him. His name is on two leases—mom’s and yours—because you thought his future through more thoroughly than you did your own.
There is one unbroken echelon in this world inhabited by the offspring of fathers who went far west or far east or far north or far south and came back with wealth and foreign passports and sometimes foreign wives. Its infrastructure is comprised of high-tuition private schools, literacy in at least two languages, and neglectful parenting. Your parents tried to inject you here once you were in Beirut because they loved you and wanted you to be a part of a world that they could never reach (and also because you never properly learned to speak Arabic) as a half-and-half in America—you couldn’t have made it anywhere else; you’d never known this dizzying privilege, because living there wasn’t coming back, with the fruits of first-world labor. It was over there, in the first world itself, where your family were but first-gen Muslim immigrants in the wake of 9/11.
The immersion never quite took for reasons that you never scrutinized too closely because you were afraid they might reveal shortcomings rather than strengths.
All that remained with you was some funky mind poison: the elitist excess, the game of success. You had to—could—become every anything: privileged and powerless; old-fashioned and liberal; eastern and western; diasporatic while you were in the homeland. A trace of one while embodying the other, all at once. You never even had to be anything, you just had to look it.
So where was the you, in all of it? What were you, when you got a mediocre grade on the LSAT and had to put off going to law school indefinitely because you’d taken three years off after undergrad to do something for your resume because you’d read that law schools like to see someone with professional experience instead of yet another a prospective K-JD? What were you, when you applied for a master’s in a frenzy at the prospect of another gaping maw of a year away from school or meaningful work? It didn’t go as planned.
But what was planned? You never really wanted to be a lawyer, in your heart of hearts; you wanted the job title on LinkedIn, the show-offy (in an understated way) photo captions on Instagram, all to signify that you were better. It’s toxic, this way of thinking, this state of determined indeterminacy, because you’re not trying to be anything except everything.
I have to be honest: I don’t know what state you will take, once you’ve been observed. Something will settle, when you leave this place, and you will be observed as only yourself and you will become yourself. You and I are particles, entangled quantumly—it’s only when you are finally known, so I will be, too.
But I do know that you’ll have to iron a smart button-down shirt sometime, as a matter of course, and that you will be struck suddenly by a feeling of acute homesickness, as a matter of fact. I don’t know if you’ll be liberal or old-fashioned, or eastern or western, or diasporatic while in the homeland, because America is your homeland as much as Lebanon is—as much as they both cancel each other out, as much as they’ve each kept the other from fully embracing you.
I don’t know how any of this will manifest while you’re just trying to eat and sleep and shit in a city you can only afford because of the work of a dead man, but it will.
You will be twenty-four years old when you are born—late, so late. What will they see when they look at you? What will you be?
S. Khalil is a Brooklyn-born, Beirut-bred, and Boston-bound MA candidate in Publishing & Writing at Emerson College.