Mama died when I was four years old, and I hated her for it. I demanded that my pink stuffed bunny, the one with a loosely-threaded eye and unnecessarily long ears, promise not to talk to her anymore. Every night, before baba came to tuck me in, I aligned my stuffed animals on my bed and taught them a lesson called “why Mama is mean.” I also wrote her letters in a purple notebook that had pink flowers on the cover. In each letter, I asked her not to write me back.
Twenty years later, I was reading these letters to my father, as he stared at the glint of sunlight reflecting against the glass of Arabic coffee he held in his hand. He squinted at it, as if daring it to be brighter. Or, he may have simply been bored. I could almost hear him recoiling with each word I read, and I felt his voice in my head, accusing me of being an emotional whirlwind of a woman.
We sat in our chairs facing the window and the grass beyond it, a book in his lap and the purple notebook in mine. Between us, a yellow envelope rested on the table, holding our green cards and passports. We had sat down together to decide if we would leave Saudi Arabia for the United States. When we could not come to an agreement, I decided to consult an expert I had created years ago: The Castor.
After I realized that my mother was not coming back, I had created a superhero called The Castor. I filled my school notebooks with stories about him. His superpower was the ability to cast off his persona when he felt sick of it, and don a different one. He was banished from Superheroland when he decided not to dedicate his life to saving people.
Using his superpower, The Castor spent his days trying to find a new home, only to feel alienated wherever he went. When his family finally accepted him back, he found himself feeling like a stranger––even in Superheroland.
He left again. He had to go back to the bitter, in-between, void. The search for another home.
In my favorite Castor story, the reluctant superhero finally asked himself: if I change who I am every day, then who am I? In an effort to find the answer, he went on a journey of self-discovery, the stereotypical remedy for an existential void. But I, a Saudi, discovered early enough that existential crises were a luxury that my Castor could not afford. So instead, I prescribed him despair. He eventually learned that his superpower was merely an escape from social interaction. Everyone else shed their personas as well; they were just stuck with having to explain it to others.
Now, sitting before my father, I introduced him to the superhero I had created. I told him I decided that The Castor had to be male, because I needed access to public spaces in Saudi Arabia that were forbidden to me, a woman. In truth though, I don’t think I knew another gender for a superhero.
My father said, ya benti, there is a way to live happily at home without forgetting that you’re a woman. With gentle force and an unwavering persistence, I told him that Saudi Arabia never let me forget that I’m a woman. It never forgave me for being a woman. He told me that in the rest of the world, they will never let me forget that I’m Saudi. That I’m Muslim. That I’m Arab. And they will never forgive it. There lies the dilemma, baba.
What’s your obsession with forgetting yourself anyway? He asked. I paused.
That’s not what I’m saying, I thought. I considered telling him that I continuously felt like I was floating above the globe––that I sought the ground in every room but I was never able to find it. I wanted to tell him that ambivalence haunted me, chased me like an unshakable shadow threatening mental homelessness. I almost told him I was a stranger in every country––a self-exiled entity.
When I looked at him though––at his arching eyebrows, his heavy lids, his shallow breathing––I refused to tell him that I was bombarded, shattered, by the idea of belonging. All I longed for was a moment of simple kinship.
Instead, I told him that I did not know. And I began to read one of The Castor stories to him. But he interrupted me and said he knew I was trying to forget myself because I did not love myself. To find the genuine kinship you seek, he said, you need to love yourself first.
Oh, cut the fortune cookie bullshit, I told him. Love is an interaction, not a solitary act. Loving yourself is bound by others loving you. Now let me read, baba.
Ah, that’s why you were obsessed with The Castor, then. You were looking for a persona others would like, because you were looking for love?
No, baba, I answered. I am still looking for a persona others will like, one that I can be comfortable in.
Comfortable? That’s it? He asked. You don’t want to like it?
Oh, we don’t want to be idealistic now, do we, baba? We don’t want to dream of the impossible, I said. I had already learned not to aim for the moon for fear of getting disappointed.
He brushed off my hopeless declaration, and asked me why I wanted to see what a man’s world looked like. I thought for a second. Why did I? I told him I did not like feeling constricted simply because I was born female. Gaining access through a male character was a way for me not to hate my femaleness. He chuckled.
I wouldn’t want to be a woman in Saudi Arabia, he said. It’s the worst thing that could happen to someone.
I squinted at him, my nostrils flaring, and words tumbled out of my mouth before I can catch them.
Remarks like that made me feel ashamed of myself for a long time, baba. Being a Saudi woman is much more than constriction. And I am definitely not the worst thing that could happen to someone.
And if your apparent empathy is true, I continued, you wouldn’t have internalized the male guardianship system.
Oh no, habibti, he jumped in. You are the best thing that could have happened to me. You made life possible after your mother passed away. I know I wasn’t a perfect father. But whenever you were not in the same room as me, I was disoriented. I was afraid of having a daughter before I had you, and the fear never went away, until today. I took you from country to country because I was looking for a home that was safe. But nowhere was safe enough for a daughter.
I know you think I internalized the guardianship system from our country, he continued, and maintained it all around the globe, but it wasn’t that simple. When you were a child, I had to make every decision for you, it was hard to recognize when you stopped being a child sometimes. I never thought of the guardianship system. I never questioned it because it was inconsequential. It’s not like I thought I am legally capable. No. I didn’t think I was capable. I didn’t even think I was reasonable. I just was.
I rolled my eyes. What do I do with this, baba? I don’t know what to do with your words. Where do I put them? Oh my, why did I comment?
I let out a sigh. And a tear. He let out a cough. And a tear. I’m sorry, he told me. I did the best I could, habibti.
I know you did, baba. I tried to steady my fingers enough to put them in his cold wrinkly hand and rub my thumb against his palm in soothing circles until he fell asleep.
I knew I would gawk at his words for days.
When he woke up from his nap, I read him another one of The Castor’s stories. In this one, The Castor chose a persona he admired, rather than a persona that society considered prestigious – he chose to be an artist instead of a lawyer. To his surprise, he found himself surrounded by the same people still, people who relished in agreeing with one another, who delighted in fitting in, and believed intensely in their own superiority — it was sickening.
How funny is life, The Castor thought. A bunch of bodies placed on earth, walking around aimlessly, looking for a purpose, for a reason to stay alive, hoping someone will tell us we’re worth staying alive, worth being loved. What a pity, he thought.
He banished himself to the mountains and lived in a one person house. He endeavored to develop an attachment with loneliness. He was excited by the idea of not being responsible for who he was. He sought an escape from the boundaries of life, of people, of home. He wanted more. Or less. Despair was not quite the word for what he felt. Rather, he felt a freedom from himself.
With a sarcastic smile inching across his lips, my father asked me why none of The Castor’s stories involved him looking for immortality. The Castor would roll his eyes, I said. That is the exact opposite of what he wants! Existence is a burden to him, a constraint, baba. Not something he wants more of.
Oh, so he is the villain in his own stories? He wondered loudly. I didn’t answer.
Instead, I let my eyes wander toward the pink flowers mama planted in our garden a lifetime ago, the ones she promised me would make my life a tiny bit more beautiful. She had promised.
Why did you write these stories, benti?
I considered his question for a few moments, taken aback. I am not sure, I say. Perhaps because after mama died, the world hurt, but it did not hurt enough. Perhaps because I read her copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea until the pages yellowed and caved in around the edges. Perhaps because I needed these stories to keep me company, to rectify the boredom to which we are condemned in life. Perhaps I wanted to understand why people cling to life so much. Perhaps it gave life meaning.
Perhaps I wanted to find another home. Not that growing up in Saudi was not enough. No. If I had grown up in America or Japan, I would have felt the same gnawing impatience with the world.
Perhaps I wanted not to feel like a ghareeb, a stranger. And The Castor made me feel familiar.
When I wrote The Castor into existence, he taught me about being strong. After a few years, though, he began posing questions to which I did not have the answers. My hero was lost and I could not save him. But it was not up to me to save him.
It’s always up to you to save yourself, habibti, my father said.
That is not what I’m concerned with, baba.
Yes, it is, he insisted. The Castor is a part of you, don’t deny that. Tell me, what happened to him?
I stopped writing him.
Because I did not have answers to his questions.
Why were you consumed with answers? Why wasn’t posing the question good enough?
I took a deep breath, allowing the oxygen to linger in my lungs. I felt my chest expanding. My necklace, the one that spelt baba’s name in Arabic, felt constricting, as it glittered in the sunlight. The chair got tighter and tighter around my thighs, threatening to explode.
When my heart slowed, I responded. Because in the last story, I said, The Castor asked me: why is life much more than the lack of it? And I did not know how to write him after that.
I drew another frustrated breath before answering. Because, I said, I knew that the only possible way for him to find an answer was to find the home he was looking for. But, he could not find it. I stopped writing him because I was a coward. I did not and do not want to know what happens to him if he cannot find a home.
I looked at the envelope. The yellow envelope that was forcing us to determine our future.
Resting my head against the leather of the chair, I let my eyes drift. The warmth of the sun stroked my skin, collapsing the boundaries of terror that had kept this conversation going.
My gaze settled on the sprinklers in the garden, watching them squirt warm water. I knew the water was warm from years of playing hide-and-seek with baba when I was a child. I could feel him staring at me, waiting to see a glimpse of hope in his little girl’s eyes.
Baba, I said. I don’t think it matters if we stay or go.