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razi shadmehry / essay

Theories For How To Live In Reality, Or Maybe

On Defiance/Denial

I was always glad there were eight of us. It’s a solid number, easy to keep up with. We could pair off neatly, or the four boys could go off in one direction and four girls off in another. Headcounts were quick, buying enough groceries was simple: eight, eight, eight. When Nicky died, seven was a hard adjustment.

I didn’t realize paper party plates came in packs of eight until we no longer needed one of them. The first time we gathered without him, that extra plate sat on the counter like a cruel joke. When I write about them now, unless it’s explicitly about Nicky’s death, I can’t make myself write the accurate number, or even say it in conversation. Reality might be seven plates but my truth is eight, so that’s what I write, and say, and no stranger reading nor listening could ever know the difference.

It’s my little way of lying. I am trying to defy reality by making Nicky alive in yours though he is dead in mine. Transforming an “it was,” into an “I wanted it thus” is what Nietzsche called redemption. Of course there is no way to conquer death, to redeem life, but if you believe Nicky is alive even though he isn’t, haven’t I saved him a little?

On Alternatives

Though I walked through it only once, I dream of the apartment on Durant when I close my eyes. I see the passed-down Persian rugs I would have spread out on light hardwood, my grandmother’s piano the centerpiece of the front room. I loved how open and sunny the apartment was, how the floor sloped and crown molding cracked.

And I believe Ian would have liked the apartment, too. He was surprising that way, always appreciating beautiful things when I unfairly expected he wouldn’t. Plus, it had an updated kitchen and a nice, big bedroom. The bathroom was small but we would have made it work. We never minded being close, and nothing embarrassed me in front of Ian. He loved me.

Now, I want to tell Ian that sometimes I daydream we live in the apartment on Durant together. I want to tell him that I imagine we each have a key to the ancient brick building and it delights us, the foyer that was fancy once. We aren’t bothered that it’s right off Ponce, noisy no matter the time of day. In my daydream, we love the apartment. All that natural light.

There is a reality in which we live in that apartment on Durant together, Ian and I, and we no longer spend our evenings bickering for nothing; instead we walk across the street for a beer on top of the Clermont. But it isn’t the one we chose, and there would be no use in making him sad the way it makes me sad.

Especially because it isn’t the only alternative I daydream about. On another day, when I am not dreaming of Durant, I’m dreaming of the river where John lives down on Wilmington Island. Back when it felt possible, undeniable that it would be me and John in the end, I accepted that I would also live on the river. I wanted it. I craved the salty Savannah air, dreamed of dipping in the ocean after dinner.

Of course, when I daydream of the river, John himself is quite different: self-assured, comfortable when I reach for his hand in public. And I am different, too: no longer squirmy and strange around his family, and instead right at home in the old guard of Savannah society. I imagine that I offer the dissolution of my reality in exchange for absorption into his, and that I am content to be small with him, to take the boat out at sunset and trust that his eyes on me are all there is to want.

On the Liberation of Decision

I read The Bell Jar at a terribly cliche time in my life, at the very end of college when I was on the brink of something but unsure what. There is a moment in the book in which the main character envisions herself sitting in a fig tree, and all the figs look so wonderful, she can’t possibly pick one. She could choose one fig and become a famous poet, or another fig and be a wife and mother, or another and be a teacher, and yet another and be a magazine editor. She wants them all, and all are reasonably within her reach. But instead of choosing, she sits in the corner of the fig tree, paralyzed with indecision. She sits and sits until every fig shrivels up and falls to the ground.

My mother told me once that the only time she’s ever really, truly worried about me was after I called to tell her about the fig tree phenomenon. I remember the call. I was breathless with realization, excitement. I thought it was liberating; I called to liberate her too. All we have to do is pick something, anything!

But to her, she said later, it sounded like I was ready to throw in the towel, to sit in the corner of my fig tree until my options ran dry. It sounded to her like I was ready to die. Really, it was only the revelation that someday I would.

On Time Travel

I do believe we are able to time travel. For example: When I go back to my parents’ house, I walk through the same door I used to enter in a shorter, sweeter version of my body, and of course we have changed but we also haven’t—mom makes the same spaghetti, we eat at the same kitchen table, and sit in the same spots as always (mom, dad, sister, brother, me) and just as we have countless times before, we are here now having spaghetti together and the scene goes: mom passes parmesan, dad insists we eat more, sister makes us laugh, brother shares latest great idea, I am quiet and content.

Or, for example: Everybody makes the trip to Madie’s wedding, all of us—me, Hannah, Haley, Carolinecourtneypaigelaneylindseykatie, everyone!—And to turn around and see them next to me in a barstool feels like it always did, and hearing each of their distinct laughter is comforting like it always was, and we giggle about the same things as before, and when the band plays our old favorite song we know exactly what to do as if we are barefoot in my college kitchen again, and for all I know maybe we are, the only giveaway being my new forehead wrinkles and theirs.

What I mean is that when dinner is over, and when the wedding has ended, we will snap back to our current reality and move again in our different directions, but for a moment we open a time capsule and rest in a scene that is precisely how we left it. See?

On Panic

When I was a kid, I used to walk into a room and feel washed over by a feeling that I wasn't supposed to be there. It would happen in places that made me nervous, the lunchroom or the playground after school where I waited for my mom to come get me. I’d cycle through and through where I thought I was supposed to be, usually landing on the living room couch. Someplace familiar and comfortable.

I’m still trying to understand the difference between walking into a light-filled apartment and believing it is yours when it isn’t, and walking into a school cafeteria and feeling like you’re being catapulted out of it when you aren’t. How do you know when you’re right if so often you’ve been wrong?

On Kevin, or Something That Helped

Finally, after I took myself to the hospital for what I didn’t recognize was a panic attack, I enlisted help. Kevin was not a licensed therapist yet—just a grad student at the university where I worked—but the weekly appointments were nearly free.

Kevin was only one year older than me and his About Me page listed that he was interested in the “queer experience” and the “immigrant experience,” of which I had neither. I worried I wasn’t the right client to help further his education, but he laughed easily when I wanted him to laugh, and knew exactly how long to pause so that I would finish sentences I didn’t want to finish.

Kevin taught me to regulate my breathing, to sit with every part of my body and feel the whole thing. He said to start in my toes, feel and relax each one, and work all the way up to the top of my head through the ends of my fingertips. Then, “pretend like you’re trying to smell fresh-made cookies and take a deeeeep breath,” he said, demonstrating a dramatic inhale, then releasing. We did that together five times, and I loved Kevin for talking to me like a child, for never allowing me to make fun of myself.

Therapy is like being in a wonderful, intimate one-sided friendship in which you get to take and take without expectation of reciprocity. In fact, reciprocity is forbidden. Kevin was always professional. He barely ever let me peek into his reality save for what I could see of his apartment in the background of our Zoom meeting, and the one time I asked if he’d read The Bell Jar and he smiled and said he hadn’t, but it was his best friend’s favorite book, so then I knew Kevin had a best friend, and that she had a favorite book.

Kevin helped me change nearly everything about my life in that simple, gradual way that doesn’t register until it’s happened. We met almost every week for a year and a half, and our last session was bittersweet. I offered to listen to his problems for a change, but he said that wasn’t how it worked. Fine, I said, so instead we mutually thanked each other, and Kevin told me I’d taught him so much. About what, I wondered, because I knew it wasn’t the queer nor immigrant experience he was looking for.

On Contentment, However Brief

The fact is that in any reality, I would spend miraculous time doing ordinary things. Swishing mouthwash between my teeth and inspecting whether they’ve indeed been made whiter in just one single use! Preheating the oven, the car. Changing the oil, the water filter, my mind. Things would be different and likely the same.

I read somewhere that fear of death is the root of anxiety. I believe this is true, that it can be translated into: fear of losing time, wasting time, passing up on lives that could have been yours. Perhaps that’s what a panic attack is, then—an obsession with all the things you’re not doing, all the people/ places/ things you aren’t—and so the only cure for such panic is taking stock of what you feel/ see/ smell, and counting your fingers toes as if being born again.

And it works, sometimes, like at 7 p.m. in my bedroom, the one that is really mine in this realm of reality, when the last of a late June sun lights my space and the thought of being anywhere else seems frivolous, stupid. I love it here, for however long “now” is. I love this bedroom, this sunlight, my silly cat photos and concert posters and hanging plants. There is no need to be anywhere else, no use for other company.

And in my contentment, however brief, I imagine that every person I love or have loved, my parents and siblings and Ian, John, Kevin, Carolinecourtneypaigelaneylindseykatie, everyone!, are comfortable on their streets, in their sunlight, counting their fingers and toes. Yep, all 10 accounted for, congrats mom and dad, it is what it is, life begins (again) today.


Razi Shadmehry is a writer from Atlanta, GA. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University and serves as the nonfiction editor for Thin Air Magazine.

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