1. We first noticed him in the park. As S and I followed the dog into the clovery meadow between groping oaks, he was off to the right in the shade, bent 90 degrees at the waist, agitating his torso like a washing machine, outstretched fists churning a blurred menace in the 90-degree air. Was this preparatory exercise for capoeira? What else explained the juxtaposition of these movements with his odd get-up: forest green cargo pants, a black T-shirt and thick-soled boots? His close cut hair, a uniform length all around his skull, made him look both militant and outside any organization. The dog chased his tennis ball and did circles around us in the sun, finally flopping onto his side while still in motion so that he slid to a rest on his back, panting beside us. When we looked up the man was gone.
A few days later we saw him in the park again. While the dog yanked me toward some urgent odor, the man ran past us a few dozen yards away. He was dressed in the same clothes as before. All around us, joggers, bikers, rollerbladers and walkers wore activity-appropriate outfits, often clumped in chattering pairs or groups, smiling at each other and proud of their dedication to their own fitness. Next to them, this man, all alone and stone-faced, overdressed in street clothes with skin-head overtones, seemed more than out of place. He looked dangerous, or at the very least crazy. Over the next weeks we saw him a few more times, always identically dressed, always running or performing combative exercise with the air. When we saw him together, S or I would point him out, careful not to look like we were looking. “There’s your friend,” I would say. “He’s your friend,” she would say. “Go ask him where you can get some of those pants.” Pulling up to the apartment building in the last light of another hot day we caught the finale of his routine. He was galloping sideways down the sidewalk across the street like an overgrown child. He stopped at the corner and calmly walked away from us down the block. As if this all was all perfectly normal. As if he had done what he had had to do, preparation for some great physical undertaking yet to come, and for now it was time to go back to the sorts of things the rest of us all did, blending in to bide time until that inevitable confrontation.
Yesterday evening, S and I brought the worn-out dog home from the park, and crossing to our block with the sun in our eyes, we saw the man walking toward us. There he was, in his makeshift fatigues, enlarging himself in my vision with every steady step. My muscles tensed and my mind raced. Had he heard us snickering at him, noticing us gaping at him in the park? I looked down at the dog as if he needed my surveillance. Just as the man came past me, I looked up and met his eye. I was shocked by what I saw before he shyly looked away: the sweet dark eyes of a tentatively curious young man, much younger than I had seen, much more gentle than I ever would have suspected. “He’s foreign, right?” said S when we were safely down the block. I agreed. Something in that facial stucture suggested he was seeing the strange details of everything, everyone around him with a kind of reverence. As if he saw the rest of us just as amusingly inexplicable as we saw him. But more generously, with much more hope and kindness.
2. I got up yesterday and made my way out into cyberspace. On a site probably best known for its porn clips and jokes in horrible taste (they also always have a few things that are pretty amazing that few others have publicized yet, and the porn is pretty easy to avoid, so, yeah, I’m a regular) I saw an image of two men crouching in the street beside someone who appeared to be bloody and struggling, with the caption, “Woman standing aside with her father watching the protests was shot by a Basij.” At first I paused to marvel that the webmaster of this apolitical site thought the name of Iran’s now-not-so-secret police was well-known enough that his visitors would understand this description. Then I began to study the image. These people could be anyone. Nothing in the image made it look like Tehran. I considered the possibility that this was a joke/snuff clip, ridiculing the violence on the other side of the world while turning it into a Tom and Jerry-like spectacle. The site had done this before. I had accidentally watched motorcyclists crushed by tractor-trailers and other caught-on-video deaths, tricked by a caption or an image that didn’t give away the grisly scenes. The possibility that this Basij video was a snuff clip from Tehran piqued my curiosity though. A scene from that conflagration that would make it to this site was just too strange a cultural crossroads to refuse. What scene from this struggle was so spectacular?
In the video, the woman is in the arms of a few shouting men as the person holding the camera shakily circles the scene. Suddenly her eyes loll to the side and the shouting increases in rate and volume. Something blossoms at her mouth, and then across the rest of her face like a dark ribbon. Even though I knew what I was watching, it took me a moment that I was seeing blood seeping out of her mouth, nose and eyes. That’s what I remember seeing. I could only watch it once, and now recalling it in detail, I don’t want to see it again. In the last few seconds of footage, the sound drops away and the mourning, frantic crowd scrambles silently around the body of this woman whose life has disappeared right before them and now us.
The video had been posted in the morning. By midday the Times was reporting that a funeral for the woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, had been broken up by the Basij, and that the video of her death had become a sensation over the weekend in Iran. Now Iranian state television is saying that her death was staged. The opposition describe her as a martyr. She is beautiful in the photo that accompanies the article on the Times website. “Is everyone in Iran really good looking?” S asked me last night as we watched a lame Daily Show report from Iran. It’s hard, looking at the photographs from Tehran each day, not to suspect they all are. I suspect part of the attraction is how full of life the faces of the protesters appear. These people who flaunt death, who put their lives in the street to demand better ones, they look nothing like us but appear exactly as we hope we would in such circumstances. No wonder the Republicans identify with their oppression. No wonder they look beautiful to all of us. In a connection world, everything is a mirror. And maybe that’s why this footage is so moving: it doesn’t really allow identification. In the video of Neda’s death – everyone just calls her Neda now – she is beautiful, and her expiration is not exactly ugly. But watching that video one is overcome not so much with the tragedy of a life cut short in its prime, but by the terror of how much is unknown and undocumented by the amateur photographer. Seeing those black ribbons suddenly appear on her face you are horrified by how little you understand what is going on. How was she shot? Where did the bullet enter her body? What was this life that you have seen ended? What would it have been? Why are you the one watching it disappear instead of the one lying there in the street, unable to hear all those people silently wailing all around you?
3. These days I avoid writing my novel by reading a draft of one my friend has finally finished writing and by doting on the small dog with whom I live. It is surprisingly comforting to read page after page of this story, the making of which I have been witness to for six years, a story that is so much better put together than it was in pieces that reencountering each previously read scene is like being reunited with a presumed-dead loved one. It is unfathomably gratifying to speak to a creature who hangs on every word I say, cocking his head for better comprehension, a look of such eager love on his face that I find myself speaking to him all day long. Together, the dog, the pages and I, help each other believe we understand each other and ourselves.
Reading E’s book I begin to see again how I will be able to write my own. I recall conversations we had in which he described wrestling with passages, and then I see them there on the page, mostly wrestled through. I think of my own comments over the years about particular moments or habits of the structure, and then I see them accounted for or rightfully ignored. He has created a whole thing, 550 pages of a story that needs reading. The lively insights of his characters, the purity of their voices, the places where I see the mechanics of the plot reflect the tenderness of E’s own mind – all of these are not just impressive. They are beacons of hope. Sitting down to read these pages that few others have seen, and I believe many will love, I am buoyed by the people I see in the scenes and the person I can detect behind them. My friend and his characters are better than I had previously suspected.
Walking the dog, I am aware of the eyes of others upon me. A couple weeks ago, when my sister was visiting, she overheard a woman say, “Look at that man walking his Chihuahua.” I’m not sure if I was more disconcerted at being perceived as the kind of man who walks a Chihuahua or as a man at all, since the feeling adulthood always seems to elude me. Besides, he’s only half Chihuahua. Half rat terrier. S tells me that I have stolen his heart away from her, and for now perhaps that is true. He sleeps by me, sits on my lap when he can and stares me in the eye when he wants to know what is happening next. I am in love with this little dog, because he is smart and adorable and good natured and obedient, but also because he so clearly is a person underneath that little fur tuxedo, because you can see, as you can with a great character in a novel, the way his mind works, how he considers his position in a room, why his particular life happens to belong to him. And every day I love him more because my heart breaks that he can’t tell any of it to me.
If I notice, I am always caught in the tidal awareness of what I do and do not know about others. I concoct back stories and conduct possible conversations in my head. I ache for details of the lives out of my grasp. I revel in their unwillingness to be my own.