Book excerpt: 'I Will Greet the Sun Again'
By Khashayar J. Khabushani
Baba marches into our room, clapping his hands. His shoulders are loose and his cheeks shiny from a fresh shave, the tiny bit of hair left on the top of his head combed to the side. He’s wearing his gray slacks and a clean dress shirt, tucked deep into his waist. Tavalod, tavalod, tavalod-et mo- barak, Baba chants, shutting off our game and swaying his body, dancing how he does at mehmoonis after the shirini has been served, the music turned up high. A Persian Happy Birthday just for me.
It’s a week after my actual birthday, but Baba announces we’re going to celebrate today just as he promised. Together, he says, like families are meant to.
I race down from my bunk, careful to skip the missing third step of the ladder. After seeing the fuck you Justin had carved into its wood, Baba hammered off the step. He didn’t bother asking which one of us it was, then had the three of us line up together, facing our bunk, a shoe in his hand, and Justin didn’t say a single word, just stood there taking it. I was crying the hardest even though Shawn got it the worst. As the oldest, Baba said, he’s supposed to know better. Even though he’s the oldest, Shawn is the shortest, shorter than Justin, even shorter than me.
Now standing beside him, I ask Baba to do his special Per- sian snap for me. Injoori, he shows me, bringing his thick and worn hands together. I watch and try to learn how he does it, the tip of his middle finger sliding against his index, where snaps like tiny firecrackers echo through our bedroom as he whistles. And now with Baba making music I lift my arms in the air, gently twisting and twirling my wrists, sway- ing my hips the way I’ve seen him do when he’s taken his place in the middle of the dance floor, Baba always the first to bring life to the party.
How old? he asks, like he doesn’t already know. I hold up a five and a four, showing him that I’m getting closer to Justin’s ten and to Shawn’s twelve. Any day now, Baba says, you’ll become a man.
Mashallah, he chants, smiling even bigger, the top of his gums shiny and pink. His eyes are small as he dances, my body following his.
Maryam-jan, he yells, calling for Maman. Hurry and look, he says, come see your son.
Right here in our own building, Baba tells us, a grill and two benches, just for us. Doesn’t—
Get any better than this, Shawn interrupts, finishing off Baba’s favorite line. He walks out of our room, and Baba, Justin and me follow behind.
Maman joins us outside in our building’s small picnic area. She has everything prepared. Sliced onions and tomatoes. Raw chicken shining bright gold with turmeric and oil. She wears her long black blouse and a scarf tied loosely around her hair. She fans the charcoal with a piece of cardboard, try- ing to get the coals to come to life. She asks Shawn to pick up the trash our neighbors left on the ground around us, which he does. Paper plates with spots of ketchup and used napkins, from whoever was here before.
For you, Baba says, handing me my birthday present as my brothers look on. A golden paper crown from Burger King. Baba knows it’s my favorite.
He tells me to stand in front of the grill, says he wants a picture for Iran, for them to see just how handsome his youngest boy is.
Shawn sits on the old splintery bench to watch, telling me how stupid I look as Baba tells me where to place my arms.
Justin’s already wandered off collecting dandelions that grow along the concrete path winding through our build- ing. He likes bringing the ones that haven’t yet died into our room, placing them by the window in the vase Maman let him have. Something nice to look at, he says. Our version of a hotel room.
Baba continues snapping, then scrolling the wheel on his camera, taking more pictures. When he finishes, he sets the camera aside and tells me to come to him. He grabs my shoulders and squeezes the muscles in my arms. Your broth- er’s becoming so strong, he tells Shawn, then Baba leans in close, his bushy mustache tickling my cheek as he whispers into my ear, a secret only for us to know, that I’m his favorite. He says my name loud and long, as if he wants everyone in the building to hear. His youngest son, named after a Persian king, our very first and the very best, though I haven’t felt any of that, not powerful or important the way a king is sup- posed to feel. Instead, each time Baba says my name it makes me want to disappear, so embarrassed, wanting to turn my back to whoever can hear. I hate the way my name sounds so foreign and old.
Which is why nobody but Baba uses my real name, not
me, not Johnny or Christian, and not even the adults at school who stutter whenever they see it on the roll sheet. I tell them all to call me K, because unlike Baba and Maman I was born right here and like my brothers I want to be known as a boy from L.A., since that’s the truth. Like Christian and Johnny, like my friends at school. And eventually I’ll even have tat- toos of my own, I’ll wear a Dodgers jersey and sunglasses everywhere I go, I’ll drink every kind of beer.
I ask Shawn, even though I already know the answer, why him and Justin got American names, and not me.
While you were in Maman’s belly, Shawn says, grinning, Baba had this dream that you’d grow up to be Iran’s next shah.
My brother thinks it’s hilarious.
Baba checks on the onions and tomatoes on the grill, turn- ing them over, yelling for Justin to come back. Shawn stands behind our dad and makes faces and Justin tries not to laugh. Maman tells me I should go and invite our neighbors.
This entire time I’ve been watching from the corner of my eye, hoping Johnny doesn’t come out to hang out on the steps like he usually does. He’d see how strict Baba is with us and how serious he dresses, as if in this very moment we’re on our way to the mosque for namaz. Johnny would see how different me and my brothers are, even though we act the same. Maman wearing a headscarf, Baba talking in Farsi, seeming more like a grandfather than a dad. He acts proud of it, too, as if being almost twenty years older than Maman is something to show off.
They aren’t home, I tell Maman.
One by one Baba removes the pieces of barbecued chicken from the grill. He places them over the long sheet of sesame flatbread, letting the noon sangak absorb the juice dripping from the boneless chicken thighs.
What about the friends you’re always going out to play with? Maman continues.
You mean Christian? Shawn asks.
Baleh. Maman nods. But the other one, too. That’s Johnny, Shawn reminds her.
Velesh kon, Baba says, interrupting. We don’t have time, he tells Maman.
Baba tells us to follow him to the parking lot, says we can finish eating in the car. With plastic plates in our hands we begin to leave, but that’s when I see him, sitting on the stair- case. Johnny’s wearing his fitted Dodgers cap, brim pulled low down to his eyebrows. His legs are open and wide, his arms resting at their elbows on his knees, palms down as if they’re too big for his wrists to carry. He nods my way, the tiniest smile on his mouth.
If it were nighttime, his mom gone to work, he’d have a stolen Marlboro and would be taking long drags while watching the blue-black sky that gives us a few scattered stars if we’re lucky. But for now Johnny sits there staring into nothing, copying the way we’ve seen the gangbangers in our neighborhood sitting on the curb outside of Lanark Park. Spines curved, bodies hunched forward with their heads slowly swiveling left to right, looking. Johnny does the same. Waits for the Valley’s still and hot summer day to give him something, anything.
Excerpted from "I Will Greet the Sun Again" copyright © 2023 by Khashayar J. Khabushani. Used by permission of Hogarth, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This segment aired on August 3, 2023.