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Monday, January 14, 2019

This Is Afghanistan


by J. Malcolm Garcia

         My colleague, Zabiullah Fazly, picks me up at Kabul International Airport and drives me to the Park Palace, a guest house, near downtown. Stuck in traffic, I adjust the calendar on my watch to accommodate the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference between my Chicago home and here: August 28, 2015. Smoke from kabob grills cloud the sidewalk and young people group together to take selfies as elderly man trudge past them hauling carts of wood. It’s hard to believe the country has been at war for decades. I have worked as a reporter in Afghanistan since 2001. On this trip, an editor with Latterly Magazine has asked me to write about the rise in violence that has resulted in at least 5,000 civilian casualties. The government, riven by corruption and political rivalries, appears unable to confront it.
I first hired Zabiullah as my translator in 2010. He has a lean face and dark, black hair. He talks in a low voice and likes to wear jeans and polo shirts, and he carries two cell phones he uses to text constantly. He fills each moment of his day with activity, aware his life could be cut short in an instant. At thirty-three, Zabiullah has lived two years longer than his father, who died in 1995, killed by a stray bullet during Afghanistan’s civil war. Zabiullah himself almost died from shrapnel that pierced his neck.         
          When we first started working together, Zabiullah and I drove through Kabul without concern but after I completed a reporting assignment in 2014, the situation changed dramatically. NATO decided to drawdown most of its forces and the Taliban began taking control of wide swaths of the country. Since then, militants have been inflicting severe casualties on Afghan forces, more evidence of the country’s struggle to blunt a resilient insurgency despite nearly twenty years of U.S. military engagement. As a consequence, thousands of Afghans have sought sanctuary in Europe. About the same time, Zabiullah started receiving threatening phone calls.          
          --Why do you work with foreigners? the callers wanted to know. Join the jihad.           Zabiullah asked them if the jihad would pay as well as a foreigner. You will die for your smart mouth, the callers said. Zabiullah hung up. He told his wife, Sweetra, that should anyone ask where she works, she should tell them she was a nurse or a teacher. The truth, that she translated documents for western officials in the Ministry of Interior, would only create problems. A woman assisting westerners. No. Tell them you do women’s work.          
          After I check into my room, Zabiullah and I eat lunch at a nearby kabob stall. A young woman crosses in front of us in flesh-colored pants that at first glance give the impression she has nothing on.      
          --What the hell! Zabiullah shouts.
          The woman looks at us. She wears lipstick and makeup. She smiles and continues walking.       
          --Amazing, Zabiullah says. Is this how they dress in the United States?  
          When the Soviet Union controlled Afghanistan in the 1980s, Zabiullah tells me, women wore miniskirts and loose blouses that exposed their breasts when they leaned forward. He recalls fairs with stalls and clowns and singers and women with their children, everyone wearing Western clothes, especially blue jeans. When he was in the fourth grade, he attended a community center for boys and girls. The gray slab of a building had been built by the Soviets and despite its dour design it bustled with activities. Soviet-trained teachers taught painting and music and coached sports. In those days, Zabiullah didn’t see anyone carrying a gun. Even the police didn’t have guns. Their uniform alone had value.   
          An intangible something started to dissolve in Afghanistan after the Soviets left. One day there were Russian uniforms, the next day civil war, and the day after that the black turbans of the Taliban. Then American bombs rocked Kabul. Zabiullah’s family put blankets in front of their windows to protect the glass from flying debris. Barbers opened their shops and men lined up to have their beards shaved to celebrate the defeat of the Taliban. Boys collected bullet casings littering the ground and people cheered in the streets.               
          Zabiullah never suspected that the U.S. would leave Afghanistan. Now, he thinks he should have known but at the time he had seen so much war that he wanted to be happy for a moment and not think of the future. When he considers the decades of fighting, Zabiullah concludes that Afghanistan was better off under the Taliban than at any other time. It had security. No freedom but it was safe. You could leave your car without locking it and no one would dare touch it because they knew they’d be punished.          
          Zabiullah thought the U.S. would leave something behind when it began removing troops. Russia left good roads.  Zabiullah still uses a drinking glass made by a Russian shopkeeper. The Taliban left moral discipline. What has America left? The roads are shit now. There is no security. People don’t have work.  
          --Do you know what today’s date is? he asks me.      
          --No.  
          --The eleventh. September 11th. 
          --I’ve got jet lag.      
          --No one in Afghanistan remembers, either. It no longer matters. Nothing here does.
         
          After lunch, we stop by the barbershop of Uresh Jawid, a mutual friend. Magazine photos of posturing young men with stern looks and dark hair pompadoured in the latest fashions ––quiff, ducktail, mohawk––fill the walls. Uresh does not resemble any of these models. His mop of unruly hair hangs over his forehead uncombed. A patchy beard leapfrogs down both sides of his face, meeting at his chin in a scraggly goatee.     
          I’ve known Uresh since 2003. He was twelve then and polished shoes outside my hotel. His pants and sandals were stained and torn but the shirts, somehow, were always immaculate and I nicknamed him, Mr. Gigolo. He hung out with three other boys his age. I gave Uresh and his friends candy. One morning, Uresh said he’d had nothing to eat and candy would only upset his stomach. I took him and his friends to lunch. Every day after that we all ate lunch together. Then I enrolled them in school. Each evening, I reviewed their lessons in the dingy back room of a pharmacy owned by the brother of my translator at the time.  
          Now, at twenty-five, a worn smile creases Uresh’s face, the smile of a young man proud of his achievements but tired from his own hard-won accomplishments and the hopelessness of his country. When he takes a bus home, he asks himself, Will someone shoot me, stab me, blow me up? Will I die? People guess his age to be much older than twenty-five. I’m not even thirty, he tells them but they don’t believe him. His mother tells him each wrinkle in his face shows a year of his life.    
          --If that is true, he responds, then I must be ninety.     
          He reaches for a can of Red Bull, downs it in several gulps, tosses it in the trash and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He held any number of jobs in mobile phone companies, restaurants, tea and jewelry shops before he became a barber. Then his family moved to Parwan Province outside of Kabul where there was no work. He wondered, What should I do? and decided to return to the city where he apprenticed for a friend of the family, a barber. He slept in the barber’s shop beneath a table after the shop closed. He named the cockroaches that scuttled by his face. He spent all of his days and nights there. He watched YouTube videos to learn about modern haircuts the barber refused to teach him because he was a conservative man and disapproved of western fashion. He provided Uresh with a small allowance with which he bought food for his family.          
          --That was my life. Now I’m twenty-five and I have this shop. but I don’t define my life by what I have. I’m not happy.
          He looks at me for a long moment before he asks if he can trim my beard.
          --You look like the Taliban, he scolds.    
          He gestures toward a chair. I sit down and he wraps a white cloth around my neck and drapes a black sheet over my chest. Taking an electric razor, he adjusts the blade before he lifts my chin. I close my eyes and listen to the hum of the razor and Uresh.
          After he completed his apprenticeship, he and another student started their own hair style business. Four years later, they sold the shop and Uresh opened this one after a customer offered him the space. He has been here a year and earns from ten dollars to one hundred dollars a day. His mother gets angry with him for not wearing a salwar kameez to work. He tells her he can’t. He must look modern for his customers.   
          His father, he thinks, would be proud of him. He had been a lieutenant in the mujahadeen and died in the civil wars of the 1990s. Men who served under him are now commanders in the Afghan National Army and in Uresh’s opinion have grabbed everything of value for themselves. They drive armored cars, live in gated communities. They are happy. They can leave Afghanistan when they want. None of them came to Uresh’s house when his father died. None of them offered to help his family. It was left to him to take on the responsibilities of his father.        
          He shuts off the razor. Looking in the mirror, I see that my once bushy beard has been cut close to the skin. Uresh smiles his weary smile. 
          --Close your eyes, he tells me.    
          He flicks a brush over my face, removing stray hair. He wants to live outside of Afghanistan in a country where he’ll feel safe, some place he could call a new homeland. He remains in Kabul, however, because of his mother. If she let him go, he would leave this minute. But he can’t leave without her permission. He has tried to persuade her to find him a wife outside of Afghanistan. He would marry that girl and become a citizen of her country. Sweden, Germany, somewhere. He would live there legally and send for his mother. But she refuses and he can’t go because she depends on him. If he knew someone to look after her, he would take a bus and go to Iran as others have done and from there travel to Turkey and then Europe. Risky, yes, but it would be a chance at a better life. However, Uresh’s mother wants him to stay and meet a good Afghan girl. He has not told her he has a girlfriend. If he did, she would want them to get married. Then they’d have children and it would be that much harder for him to escape to Europe.        
          --You can get up now, Uresh tells me.
          I offer to pay but he refuses. Instead, he hugs me and tells me how good it is to see me. I’m happy to see him, too, flattered by his attention but depressed by his sense of hopelessness. My feelings are like an intense, magnified experience of teaching––running into a student I’d mentored at one time, who is doing well, but whose future somehow falls short of what I might have hoped. What difference can any of us make especially when you walk away?          


          Hours later, after he closes for the night, Uresh catches a bus home. It carries him past the home of Mohammad Qasim Karbalaye, a mender of broken bones. When he was a young man, Mohammad worked as a laborer. Short but powerful, he could do in one hour what it took other men a week to complete. He had never thought of helping people with physical ailments until he assisted a wrestler from Uzbekistan with a dislocated shoulder. He punched it back in place and the Uzbek told him he should go into business and doctor others as he had him. Mohammad opened a shop and the Uzbek would sit with him and people assumed that like the Uzbek he, too, was a wrestler, and they started calling him the Wrestler. Other than his wife and son, Mohammad does not know any other living person who knows his true name. He has been doing this kind of work for almost fifty years and has been called the Wrestler for so long he sometimes doesn’t answer his wife when she calls him Mohammad.          
          On this evening, a woman walks in carrying a boy just twenty days old. His right elbow juts out at an odd angle. Mohammad rubs the arm with car grease. He tells the mother to leave the grease on the child’s arm for three days to lubricate the joint. Then come back, he says, and he’ll fix it.

          The woman departs and an elderly man leaning on a cane enters. A thick bandage swaddles his left hand. Mohammad examines it.         
          --Leave the bandage on for another week, he says.       
          The man leaves, his cane making small dents in the dirt floor. Outside, moonlight sweeps the street with a white, shivering glow and Mohammad sips tea and stares through the light at nothing. He has seen with his own eyes how much worse Afghanistan has become. Day by day nothing goes right. In Jalalabad, the wife of a man with five daughters gave birth to a son. The man fired his gun into the air with happiness. A Taliban commander said, Why are you shooting your gun? My wife finally had a son, the man explained. The commander took the two-day-old baby and crushed his head with the butt of his Kalashnikov. Then he shot the father. The father’s cousin told Mohammad about this when he came in to see him for back pain. Some people didn’t believe him but Mohammad did. He knows these things happen. He doesn’t need evidence. Living in Afghanistan is evidence enough. After September 11th, everything was fine and then it wasn’t. Nothing is sustainable. That is why everyone skips the country. He thinks of leaving, too, but how can he? Where will he go? Who will pay his expenses? He worries about these things. He’ll go if someone pays his way.
      Mohammad sits back and rubs his face. Another patient arrives. This time, a young woman and her husband. The woman lifts her swollen right foot. Mohammad examines it with the tips of his fingers. He advises her to put grease on it for three days. Her ankle had become solid, he explains. Grease will loosen it.          
          He watches the couple walk out. If he had money, obviously he would leave Afghanistan, why not? If his patients had money, they would see a doctor and not him. For some people, there are no alternatives.


Mohammad’s shop recedes in the distance as the bus carrying Uresh continues its journey, the passengers thinning with each stop until Uresh gets off and only a few remain, among them Abdul Malik Bakhytar. He lives in Logar Province a good two-hour drive outside of Kabul. When the bus stops near his house well past the hour for dinner, he gets out and pauses, listening for gunshots and the screams that often follow. On this night, hearing nothing, he hurries home passing through the shadows cast by white, stucco houses and diminished trees. During the day, he fulfills his duties as the director of publications for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. He recognizes the irony of his position. The newsletters of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs administered by a man. Men hold all the key positions in the ministry and the Taliban target them for supporting women’s rights. That is Afghanistan. In the end, what does it matter? Men and women are leaving the country and would still be leaving even if a woman ran the ministry. Why would any woman or man stay? Abdul is grateful just to have an income.
          In Logar, a province with a strong Taliban influence, Abdul doesn’t dare say where he works. Life here is fine except at night, when the province belongs to the Taliban. Abdul often wakes up in the middle of the night and hears shouting and fighting and terrified voices begging for mercy. Leave me alone, don’t kill me! He stays in his bed, does not move. No one comes to the rescue. Everyone stays inside, prepared to defend themselves. His neighbors all have guns. No one relies on NATO or the government. At night, each family lives in fear. At night, each family is on its own.
          Two weeks ago, Abdul saw a policeman return home from work. Eight o’clock at night, not that dark. The policeman lived on a street close to a stream. He used the water to grow a beautiful garden, dark green with bright flowers. Some men approached him, shot him in the head and ransacked the garden. Abdul saw the whole thing from his living room window. He doesn’t know how he feels about it. Numb. Not surprised. Grateful it wasn’t him. Guilty for these thoughts. He’s thought about it a lot.
          In Abdul’s neighborhood, everyone is related, but outside of it he knows no one and talks to no one. On his days off, Thursdays and Fridays, he stays home. He attended a wedding the other day but he didn’t participate in the reception. He does not wear Western suits but dresses traditionally in a salwar kameez. He changes into a suit at work.
          A driver takes his two daughters and two sons to school. He calls home four or five times a day to check in with his wife. If he had the money, he’d fly his family out of the country. Many others in the government have sent their wives and children abroad. His friends and in-laws tell him his daughters should not attend school. If they get raped or killed, it will bring shame on all of us, they warn him. People will wonder what they did to deserve their fate. It is my right to educate my daughters, he retorts emphatically.
          When he reads stories about boys and girls drowning on their way to Europe from Turkey, he sees the faces of his children and gets emotional. One newspaper photo showed a dead boy on a beach. He resembled his youngest son. Abdul felt ill. He quit reading and shut off the light and tried to sleep, hoping a scream in the night would not awaken him.
                
          The next morning, Uresh catches a bus back into Kabul and calls Zabiullah. A friend telephoned Uresh last night to say he was leaving Kabul for Germany with his pregnant wife in a few days. Uresh thought I’d want to speak to him. He gives us his name, Shekib Younissi, and cell number. Zabiullah calls him and Shekib invites us to his home. We follow Shekib’s directions to a narrow alley near the Park Palace. The alley takes us to a road of stone and rubble. We follow uphill and soon have an expansive view of Kabul, and the bare, brown mountains in the distance, and the grainy haze hovering above everything. The road turns and we dip downhill and stop outside a two-story white house on a dead-end street.
          Twenty-six-year-old Shekib meets us at the door. He wears a bright blue silk shirt I associate with the disco era, and his skintight jeans show creases where he, or more likely, his wife ironed them. We follow him inside to a room where his wife, mother, and father sit on the floor. The sun shines through a window illuminating the bare walls. I sit down and Shekib’s father offers me a plate of nuts and raisins.
          For two years, Shekib saved and borrowed money and eventually put aside $4,000. An uncle in Germany who had left Afghanistan during the Taliban years helped with additional funds. However, Shekib still did not have enough money for them all to leave. After a lengthy discussion, the family decided that his father, wife and cousin would go to Iran and hire a smuggler for the long trek to Turkey and beyond into Europe; Shekib and his mother would stay behind. They hope to leave next year if Shekib raises the money. A quiet despair fills the room, the mute sadness mixed with a stoic resolve not to show it.         
          Shekib first thought of leaving when his wife became pregnant. Many reasons led to this decision, the welfare of his child and the lack of security being number one. Shekib doesn’t know when or where a bomb might go off, when or where a man with a gun might begin shooting. Every day Shekib meets with friends and ask, How are you? Is everyone in your family still alive? Being alive in Afghanistan is a big thing. When insurgents attach magnet bombs to cars, being alive can’t be taken for granted.       
          Shekib’s wife, Yazdi, does not want to travel without him. The day when she agreed to leave Kabul, she wept from morning to night. Shekib looked so sad as he explained that it was better for him to stay behind and pay back the loans and then start saving again so he and his mother could leave. He works for Kam Air, an airline headquartered in Kabul. He can save and reimburse people a little bit at a time. Yazdi told him, I know it will be hard but I tell myself I can do it.                
          --Don’t cry, Shekib tells her now. Afghans are very courageous. We don’t cry.       
          --It will be the first time I’ll be apart from my family, she says. I am seven months pregnant and I will be without my husband.      
          Shekib’s father, Shaiq Hamid, stares out a window, eyes brimming with tears. He worries and nervously runs his hands through his thinning, gray hair. He has friends stuck in Iran. They have children and children don’t run as fast as adults and they may need to run from police, border guards and God knows who else. Like children, a pregnant woman can’t run fast, either. The smuggler will pay the police to look the other way but they have only so much money and there are many police. They can’t pay them all.
          Shekib’s mother, Sham Sad, also struggles to hold back tears. She wears a black, body-length veil and only exposes her face to her family. Wiping her eyes, she stares at the floor to conceal her sorrow. She knows the trip will be long and difficult for Yazdi. That is the way for Afghan women. They must suffer. Carrying a baby and clothes and food. God will be testing her. She should buy sneakers. Better to walk in.
          Sham remembers baking bread when rockets fell around their house during the civil war years. She had to run and seek shelter with her children only to return later to finish baking bread; otherwise, they’d have no food. As her grandchild grows, he or she will take care of her one day. That is what women hope for, the love of their children and their grandchildren.
          --I have to get you a mobile phone to call me, Shekib tells Yazdi.      
          --You have to give me some of your clothes to pack.      
          --I’ll need them here.         
          --No, I’ll keep them so that I know one day you will come to me.

          Before I return to the States, I meet Uresh one last time at the Herat Restaurant, where I used to take him for lunch every day in 2003. The Herat has changed dramatically since then. The once roughhewn interior with its concrete floor and warped wood tables has been completely remodeled. It now has white, tile floors, glossy glass tables, and bright, glaring lights. Its prices have nearly quadrupled.          
          --You see improvements like this and you think we’re becoming a modern country, Uresh says noticing my open-mouth surprise. Then a bomb explodes. Nothing is certain in Afghanistan. 
          We take a table and order a plate of beef kabob and two Cokes. As we wait for the food, Uresh shows me photographs of his girlfriend on his cell phone. She has a wide, open face and a generous smile. An orange headscarf covers her hair. Uresh tells me she wants to leave Afghanistan.
          --Let’s go, she says, and then we’ll marry in Europe, but he demurs. Her family, he believes, would kill him.    
          --Why? I ask.
          Before he answers, Uresh takes back the phone and deletes her pictures. If he was to lose it and her family found it with her photos, they’d shoot him, he says.
          --They believe she should marry within the family, Uresh says. That is the Afghan way. They don’t want their daughter with a poor boy.          
          --That makes no sense, I tell him.

          He puts the phone down, and faces me. The exasperated look on his face suggests I’m the one who doesn’t make sense.          
          --This is Afghanistan, he says, as if that alone explains everything.

J. Malcolm Garcia is a freelance writer. His most recent book, Riding Through Katrina With the Red Baron's Ghost (Skyhorse), was published in August 2018.

All photographs by Zabiullah Fazly.



Monday, December 31, 2018

Rhiannon

by Kelsie Shaw

          She left me on a Tuesday, three years after we met, one year after I realized I loved her. We weren't together, though, not romantically anyway. Still, this felt like a breakup. I sat across from Rhiannon at a table at The Spot Cafe and stared at the small chai latte cooling in my hands while she told me she didn't want to talk to me anymore. I was too needy. I drained her. She needed space. I sobbed louder than I ever have in public, loud enough to catch glimpses of strangers peering at me from behind their laptop screens. She said we'd cross paths again someday, but I haven't seen her since.

          We were friends in high school; we tried to remain friends in college. When I think about Rhiannon, I have to remind myself that she was never my lover, that we were never anything beyond two young women who enjoyed each other's company. We were close, emotionally: We could talk about almost anything—my depression, her father's death, our mutual anxiety about our futures. But Rhiannon and I were never close physically, no matter how much I wished we were. Sex, love, and romance were the only topics we would never discuss: If she mentioned a boyfriend, an ex, or merely hinted at a sexual experience, my face would get hot; I'd squirm in my seat. I never found out if she identified as straight, or bi, or something else, not that I could answer that question for myself; I don't think I wanted to know. When she pointed out my awkwardness, I told her that my family never discussed intimacy (which was true), and that I just wasn't as comfortable with sexuality as she was. I could never admit that I wanted her to want those things with me.
          Sometimes, when I think back to the afternoon we met in September of 2011, I imagine falling in love at first sight: I tell myself that when I walked into my first day of German class, Rhiannon's voice or laugh or smile seized my attention and propelled me into a state of love-struck bliss. That would make a pretty story, but I know it's not true. I didn't think much of Rhiannon when I met her; although I thought she seemed likeable, friendly enough, she was just another acquaintance. In fact, I found her strange. She didn't talk the way other people I knew did: She thought before she spoke—you could see her looking inward and choosing her words—and everything she said verged on whimsical. Rhiannon could quote Winnie-the-Pooh in one sentence and Shakespeare in the next; she referenced The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz daily; she sang to herself, often her favorite "Que Sera Sera," never caring who heard. On the day we met, I was a new student at our tiny private high school, and the first thing Rhiannon asked me was to describe myself in three words. I don't think anyone had ever taken such an earnest and polite interest in me before, which was enough to make me think she was weird.
          I did notice immediately that we looked alike. Same wavy chestnut hair that frizzed in humidity, same slightly curvy build, same chocolate brown eyes, except hers were rimmed with rainbows when the sun hit them just right. But, unlike me, Rhiannon loved her body, and always seemed so comfortable in it; there was an effortless grace about her, from the way she flipped her hair over her shoulder to how she leaned back in a chair, that betrayed an innate strength of self and an awareness of that strength. It was this that first drew me to her: the sight of a girl who could pass as my sister inhabiting her body and her being in a way I had not yet figured out.
          I should not have been surprised that the first person I loved was a woman, but I was. I can't remember if there were any indications in my childhood that I wasn't exactly straight: I don't recall ever having a crush on a girl; I have always appeared traditionally feminine, if appearance indicates sexuality; I certainly never "experimented" with anyone, ever. But I do remember learning about sex, the straight kind, and thinking it a strange affair. When asked if I thought a guy was attractive, I'd shrug my shoulders or give a weak "yeah, sure." I know I was captivated by any same-sex relationship I found in literature or history. Most of all, I could never imagine being some man's wife.
          I wasn't aware of the word "queer" in its modern usage until my freshman year of college, around the time I was beginning to understand my feelings for Rhiannon. Not long before that, I discovered the Kinsey Scale; the thought that people did not come in only "straight" and "gay" varieties fascinated me. I spent many hours sliding myself up and down the scale, trying to figure out where to land—was I a three, capable of attraction to both men and women? Or was I just a one or a two, a mostly-straight girl with exceptions? I couldn't possibly be a six, could I? I never picked a number. Kinsey's spectrum was still too limiting. "Queer" seemed more spacious, more open to possibilities. But, being a word lover, "queer" to me meant strange, unsavory, downright peculiar. And although I was confused, and overwhelmed, and slightly scared of being a lesbian, I didn't think there was anything queer about love, in any form. So I couldn't be that, either.
          Did it really matter who I was attracted to, though, if I was too nervous to talk to anyone? I told myself it did not. What I remember most from my romantic development is that I tried hard not to have one. While other girls were identifying the classroom heartthrobs and, eventually, dating them, I was studying. I told myself I was above love: I was a thinker, a bright one, and caring about romance would only distract me from my studies, which I would not allow. I realize now that my strict adherence to intellectual life was a disguise that masked my true desire for a relationship. If I was honest with myself, I wanted to be loved more than I wanted to be brilliant, but I feared all non-familial love was off-limits to me, though I could not articulate why. I knew I couldn't talk to anyone without my throat tightening around my breaths and my heart racing as if for a trophy. Given my social awkwardness and anxiety, all romantic issues were incomprehensible: How do you even get into such a situation, first finding a potential partner, and then forming a relationship that would involve intimacy, emotional or physical? What are the steps involved, the rules to follow? I still cannot answer those questions. I was sure I was incapable of any kind of intimacy; I could not imagine anyone ever being attracted to anxious, emotional me. So I refused all labels, and love itself. It's easy to say you don't want what you think you can never have.
*
          Not long after we met, I discovered that Rhiannon played classical piano, like I did. Music became the glue that bound us: We played pieces for each other on our school's piano; we spent hours comparing Chopin to Tchaikovsky to Rachmaninoff; we made lists of the pieces we dreamed of playing, including duets to learn together.
          Rhiannon and I went to a concert once during senior year. It was my first classical concert, given by a pianist at our town's college. That night, I spent an hour getting ready, assembling an outfit of my favorite cream-colored lace dress, a black shawl, and the glossy black stilettos I wore on only the most special occasions. Completely overdressed, I told myself that classical performances were more formal than a typical concert, so I must prepare accordingly. But, in retrospect, I think I really wanted to look good for Rhiannon. I had started admiring her style—black and white dresses almost daily, matching cardigan tied up around her waist, signature red paisley scarf, curled hair pinned in faux victory rolls. I found myself looking at her a lot, quick glances here and there when her attention was elsewhere; I thought I just wanted to see how she looked that day, to see if she had deviated from her almost formulaic wardrobe, but there was a deeper motive that I couldn't name, or didn't want to. My heart pounded as my eyes traced her form, following her profile down to the slope of her shoulders and lingering on her strong but slender hands. I had never felt sexual attraction before; I didn’t have a clue how to recognize it. So I ignored these impulses, denied them outright. I told myself I was simply appreciating a beautiful person, as if Rhiannon was walking art, an ancient statue of Aphrodite sprung to life. I was comfortable with admitting that much.
          I don't remember what Rhiannon wore the night of the concert, though I probably noticed then. All I do remember is that I could have stayed there in the shadowed seat of that concert hall for eternity, basking in the thought that next to me was someone who wanted me with her.

          I first heard the Fleetwood Mac song "Rhiannon" when I was three or four, on one of the afternoons when my mother, a long-time Stevie Nicks fan, would slide one of her CDs into our stereo and dance with me around our small, wood-paneled living room. Some days we would twirl in circles to "Bella Donna," and others we would jump around to "Edge of Seventeen;” on particularly special days we would sing "Leather and Lace" with me on Stevie's part, Mom on Don Henley's. Though I don't remember hearing "Rhiannon" specifically, I am sure my mother played it; the music didn't matter to me nearly as much as the fun I had dancing with her.
          When I started going to school, I forgot those afternoons in the living room. I didn't think about Stevie Nicks or Fleetwood Mac or "Rhiannon" again until my first semester of college. Driving home one evening in December and listening to the local oldies station, I heard the opening sixteenth-note guitar riff of "Edge of Seventeen" and was suddenly back in my old living room, bouncing around with my once thirty-five-year-old mother. I went straight to my computer the moment I got home, opened up YouTube, and listened to every Stevie Nicks or Fleetwood Mac song I could find.
          And then I found "Rhiannon." I must have listened to it ten times in a row. Stevie's lyrics, crooned over a simple a-minor chord progression, mesmerized me. The song tells of Rhiannon, the Welsh goddess of horses, birds, and the moon; flocks of birds follow her and chirp tunes that ease pain. With a name meaning either "Great Queen" or "White Witch," she appears in the first and third volumes of The Mabinogion, a Medieval collection of Welsh stories. According to legend, Rhiannon leaves her spiritual world when she falls in love with a human, but runs away from him when he attempts to return her affections—she'll lose her powers if she marries a mortal. In the end, the two do marry, but Stevie only wrote about the enchanting yet elusive goddess. I didn't know that story until after many months of listening to the song, not that it mattered. To me, "Rhiannon" was, and is, about a woman terrified of getting hurt, of people she loves leaving her. Maybe it's happened before; she wonders what she has to do to make them stay—must she promise them heaven? So she flies away "like a fine skylark," never stopping anywhere, letting herself be "taken by the sky." What she doesn't realize is that someone would "love to love her," if only she let herself get close.
          Somehow, I never thought about my own Rhiannon when I listened to the song—I thought only of myself. This song was mine.

          The summer after graduation brought on one of my more troubling depressive episodes. I've never handled changes or transitions gracefully. At least Rhiannon and I would be staying in the same town, and that knowledge was enough to keep me from a total breakdown—I had someone to see, someone to talk to. I called her a few times that summer, just to hear her voice. I don't remember what we talked about, if we talked about anything; sometimes I just cried, and she listened. I didn't mind though—even the sound of her breathing told me I wasn't alone.
          Many of those phone calls ended with us meeting at a coffee shop or her apartment, on the days my depression was dim enough to accept her invitation. We didn't do much beyond chatting about the music we were learning and the books we were reading—our relationship was comprised largely of conversations, with the occasional concert thrown in. Still, this was more than I'd ever had. I remember trying, subtly, to make everything we did together last longer: suggest another place to go; start a new conversation; ask her anything I could think of. Every minute with Rhiannon was a minute I was not alone. I think she caught on to my minor manipulations eventually.I wonder, now, how much they pushed her away.
          Although I cannot pinpoint a moment when I realized my love for Rhiannon was more than friendly, I know this summer was when things changed—on my end, anyway. Every time we met, I tried to ignore how her eyes brightened when she talked about something she loved, or how pretty she looked no matter what she wore or what she was doing. I began to think everything she said was perfect: Her references to old films I once found odd were now adorable; her singing under her breath became more beautiful than a Liszt melody. You could say I was infatuated, but I didn't think so then. I thought this was the simplest and most honest love there was, a love that was felt and given but did not demand anything in return. I struggle, now, to think it was anything else.

          You would have thought she died by how I reacted to Rhiannon's departure. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep; I went to class but couldn't focus. I still managed to get As, if only because studying gave me something else to think about. Otherwise, it was always Rhiannon. When I wasn't in class, I either slept or banged out Chopin nocturnes, the tears in my eyes blending the black and white keyboard into a column of gray.
          Rhiannon's ghost followed me wherever I went. Everything reminded me of her: the cafes where we once sat; Rachmaninoff and Ravel; the hand-knit blanket she gave me; my own reflection. I avoided any place we had gone together; I drove miles out of my way so I wouldn't pass by her neighborhood. Even in sleep, I saw her: Nightly I dreamt I was searching for her through tangled woods or congested city streets, and I would come so close, within inches, only for her image to disappear. I'd wake up breathless and weeping, unable to fall back asleep.
          I started listening to "Rhiannon" almost daily; I memorized all the lyrics to every version, and they flew around my mind constantly, chirping like the birds that follow the mythical goddess. If I was alone at home, I would don my most Stevie-esque black embroidered shawl, turn up my laptop's volume, and twirl around in circles to the music.
          It didn't hurt to hear her name repeated over and over, although I am still not sure why. Maybe it was because I was not aware of the song for the first two years of knowing my Rhiannon, and when I did hear it, we were still friends—the title was just a coincidence. But really, I think I identified with the mythical, musical version of Rhiannon too strongly to think of anyone but myself. Wasn't I as elusive and mysterious as the goddess, a fellow "cat in the dark"? I've flown away from everyone I've ever cared about like a "bird in flight," except for my own Rhiannon. So who would be my lover? Not her, I knew. But someone would "love to love" me, right? Would I ever win?

          "Did something happen between you and Rhiannon? You don't talk about her anymore."
          I don't remember what spurred my mother's question. We were eating lunch silently across from each other at our kitchen table, both typing on our laptops. I had never noticed that I talked about Rhiannon, apparently enough for my mother to notice that I stopped. She was right though—I didn't talk about her anymore. "There isn't anything to say." Although we both knew there was more to say, a lot more, the conversation ended there.
           A few weeks later, my psychologist asked a similar question: "What exactly went on between you two?" Dr. Sullivan was, at this point, the only person who knew Rhiannon and I were no longer friends, and the only one who'd seen me cry over my loss. But her question was different than my mother's: She wasn't asking me if the friendship ended, but if the friendship was strictly—platonically—a friendship. An inexplicable increase in the tension between us signaled her next question. "Kelsie, this might sound weird, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but ... did you maybe love her ... as more than a friend?"
          Shit, she knows. Somehow, I did not expect a psychologist with decades of experience to figure that out. I never answered Dr. Sullivan's question—my immediate bawling was enough to confirm her suspicions.
          "Are you ashamed of that, that you loved a woman?"
          I gasped for air, but hardly found any. "No." And it was true, I wasn't ashamed that I loved a woman. But I was ashamed of loving that woman, whom I knew wasn't interested in me in the same way, whose actual friendship I did value more than the imagined future I wished for. I was ashamed of not knowing better.
          What followed my appointment was the most intense panic attack I've ever suffered; it felt how I imagine suffocating feels, except the heart pounding and breathlessness lasted for hours instead of minutes. Although I really wasn't ashamed of my now-confirmed Sapphic tendencies, I told myself the day I knew I loved Rhiannon that I would go to my grave with that knowledge. But now the secret was out, spoken, known by someone other than myself. My body didn't know how to handle that stress. I almost drove myself to the emergency room, but I feared crashing my car on the way, and if I did get there, I sure didn't want to explain the problem.
          I pretended to be asleep on the couch when my mother came home from work that night. After she retreated to her and my father's bedroom to watch TV, I padded down the hall, crawled into her bed, and curled up under the covers. The television clicked off when I started crying.
          "Kels, what's wrong?"
          I turned my face away from her, choosing instead to examine the folds in her taupe linen sheets. "There's something I should probably tell you. I don't really want to, but Dr. Sullivan brought it up in our session today and now I can't stop thinking about it."
          A pause. "It's about Rhiannon, isn't it?"
          "Yeah." I don't remember what I said next. I must have sputtered out something about how I loved Rhiannon as more than a friend, and that's why I'd been so sad lately, because the loss of her was more painful than it should have been. I know I wrapped my arms around my knees and sobbed; my fingertips tingled, the cells there searching for oxygen.
          "I'm sorry, Kels. I'm sorry you hurt so much. I wish I could make you feel better." She patted my arm, stroked my hair. She was crying too.
          "I know, Mom. Thanks." I fell asleep right there, my face wet and eyes swollen, next to my mother in her bed. This became a habit for months, lying with my mother on nights when I was too sad to be alone. We hardly ever spoke; I'd cry, and she'd hug me. Never have I felt more like a child.

          I have been told many times, mostly by my family, that I would not know how to love someone. Rather, I would not know how to distinguish love from loneliness—I would love anyone who gave me any attention. Although she did comfort me on the night I told her about Rhiannon, my mother also said I was just "confused." I was "wrong about that." What I really loved, according to her, was having a companion, and not the companion herself. I couldn't help but wonder if she would have said the same thing if I was confessing my love for a man, but it didn't matter in the moment. I was afraid my mother was right, though I didn't want to believe her. I was lonely, I did long for someone to spend time with and talk to. Did that mean any affection I would ever have for someone would actually be a fear of loneliness, manifesting as love? Or are longing and loneliness two separate but easily conflated things?
          Just as I have to remind myself that Rhiannon and I were never in a romantic relationship, I have to remind myself that I did love her. I know I did. I felt most like myself when I was around her; I felt I could be myself around her, not only because she was someone like me, but because she liked me. Although I am sure our similarities were what drew me to Rhiannon, I truly loved her for her. I loved her for the ways she was like me, and I loved her for the ways she wasn't. Of course I loved having a companion, but I loved having her as my companion; I wouldn't have felt the same way about anyone else.
          I was not confused, as my mother believed and still believes. But, she was not entirely wrong: My longing for closeness did propel me toward Rhiannon. But isn't such a longing the basis of all friendships and partnerships and marriages? What are relationships, of any kind, if not remedies for loneliness?

          About four months after Rhiannon ended our friendship, I read Cheryl Strayed's "The Love of My Life." Just what I need, I thought, looking at the title, another love story. But the essay is not a love story, not in the cheesy "rom-com" way I was expecting. Instead, Strayed attempts to cope with her mother's death through bouts of sexual promiscuity and heroin addiction. Meanwhile, an older and more healed Strayed intersperses her memories with critiques of modern attitudes toward grieving—she argues that grief doesn't progress in clearly-defined stages, and that all losses are not equal. But what struck me about the essay, what made me burst into tears the first time I read it, were the repeated lines, "I want my mother. My mother is dead," and "I cannot continue to live." I thought the pain of Strayed's loss resonated with my own; had I written this essay two years ago, I would have written, "I want my friend. My friend left me. How can I continue to live?"
          But I hadn't lost anyone, not really. No one died. I could still call Rhiannon's number and expect an answer; I could punch her name into Facebook's search bar and find out what she was doing and where she lived. I would have been one of the people who tells Strayed about their minor losses that they equate with death. Did that mean I had no right to grieve?
          I don't think so. But I am aware that there was no narrative for my grief, not when the intensity of grief I felt is reserved for the deaths of family members and real romantic partners. There is no Hallmark card that says, "I'm sorry for the loss of your best friend with whom you were in love even if nothing romantic ever happened between you." No one sent me flowers.
*
          I'm afraid I've written myself as a cold-hearted woman's innocent victim, but Rhiannon did not leave me without cause. I was not just a sometimes sad but otherwise loveable friend, as I often thought of myself. I could be clingy, and desperately so. I know I was, as she told me, needy. If she did not return my text messages within a few hours, I'd text again. I'd panic if she was late to meet me somewhere (resulting in more sent messages). I told her, on at least a few occasions, "I don't know what I'd do without you." That's a lot of pressure to put on one person. I'd need space too.
          I was worse after she left, though. I'd call her, and hit voicemail; I'd text to no reply. Eventually, I decided to write her a letter, partly because Dr. Sullivan suggested it, but mostly because I could not imagine anyone rejecting a beautifully-crafted letter of apology, written in my neatest cursive on my best stationary. I don't remember what I wrote, except that I was sorry, and that anxiety made connection hard for me, but depression made loss worse, and that I was a little bit crazy, but I'd be whatever friend she wanted me to be if she’d just come back. I would not admit it, but I believed—I wanted so badly to believe—that if I put the perfect words in the perfect order, in the perfect tone, at the perfect time, she would forgive me, and we could continue on as friends, laughing about the mistake we almost made. I sent out the letter. Nothing.
          About six months after sending that letter, I texted Rhiannon in a final effort to win her back. Actually, I don't think I wanted to "win her back" so much as I just wanted to see her, to know how she was doing, to remember she was real. I said I was feeling better, a lot better (an exaggeration). I asked if she wanted to get coffee sometime and catch up. Short and casual— how could she refuse? But she did refuse, and, apparently, had moved away. All I remember of her message is the last line: "Kelsie, you have an incredible future ahead of you." Somehow, reading that was worse than hearing her say goodbye, because I knew she was right. I did have an incredible future ahead of me, maybe even a future with someone who loved me back, but the thought that I would have to live that future without her tore me in two. Could I really be happy in this future? Could I possibly move on? What hurt was that the answer to both of those questions was "yes."
          I want to say that I accept Rhiannon's choice; I want to accept that she lives her own life, and is smart enough to know what she doesn't want in it, even if I am one of those things. But I'm not sure I can. Although I forgive her for the pain she caused me—and I do forgive her, I forgave her the moment she walked away from me—I wish she knew that I was not myself when I was depressed. I clung to her with all my might because I believed I would die if I lost her—the melancholic mind requires something to live for, and often grabs hold of the nearest person. I wouldn't do that now. Maybe it doesn't matter.
          I like to think, if I ever saw Rhiannon again, she would greet me as if it was only yesterday that we went to a concert together or talked about books over coffee. I like to think I would curse her out and saunter off, hips swaying, tables turned. But I know better. I know I would be happy to see her, overjoyed even. I don't think I would fall in love with her again, but I would want her friendship just as much as I did three years ago. Perhaps it is best, then, that we don't meet. I can't watch her leave again.

          When my mother would tell me on the nights I wandered into her room that "time heals all wounds," I would scoff at the clichéd truism and ask her when time started practicing medicine. I was positive that some wounds were irreparable, and that this was one of them. Though I still believe that you never fully heal from grief, I admit that thinking of Rhiannon is easier now, almost three years later, than it has ever been. Most of the time, I can recall the joy she brought me without feeling the stab of loss in my heart; I can imagine her out in the world, wherever she is, without yearning for her to return. I can write this essay.
          Despite experiencing what was obviously a "queer" attraction, I am still as ambivalent about sexuality, and my sexuality, as I was when I was younger. I don't identify as anything, not straight, gay, bi, or queer. I can understand the comfort such labels bring so many people, that feeling of "yes, this is me," but every identity sounds like a song I don't know the words to, or a piece I'm playing in the wrong key—there's no harmony. And yet, I find something attractive in defying definition. I guess I'm like the goddess Rhiannon in this respect too—I won't be pinned down.
          I still listen to "Rhiannon" frequently, sometimes dancing along, though I don't search for the same cathartic comfort in the lyrics like I used to. I hear hope instead. Maybe she is lonely, this Rhiannon, maybe she does fly away from love to protect herself from loss. But she's strong, too. She can survive on her own. Maybe someday, she'll find someone worth staying for. And someone who'd stay for her.

Kelsie Shaw is a writer from Saratoga Springs, New York. She holds a B.A. in English from Skidmore College, and is currently pursuing an M.A. in English at the University at Albany, SUNY. When not writing or studying, Kelsie teaches classical piano lessons.