Instructor: Kate Webb
All Our Broken Clocks
Personal Essay & Memoir
All Our Broken Clocks
i. Thirty minutes to midnight
My cousin drives off the edge of the world. He keeps the windows down, floods his discount sports car with night air and stars, the phone stuck to his dashboard blasting 2000s hits. Against the current of the wind, he asks me over and over if I recognize the songs. Each time I do not.
"Come on," he shouts, every volume amplified. I'd be embarrassed if the streets weren't so empty. "Teach Me How To Dougie?"
I shake my head, tuck back a smile. I'm too tired to do anything else.
We're getting ice cream, an hour away from my house and two hours from his, because he says it's the best in Ohio, says it'll drip through my fingers and bleed down my face.
My mother barely lets me go. Safety fades when the sun does, she said, both swallowed by the horizon's pink lips until dawn. It's a long way to go for even the best ice cream. But she let us wage our bets on only once.
She's not protective of anything but me. As a little girl she'd danced alone through the crowded streets of Tehran and feared no man but God, but then the revolution came and theocracy came and God's snarl became too clear, too unbelievable, and she stopped fearing that, too. But her free spirit brought her danger, so she vowed never to pass it onto her children. Here I was anyway.
Another song starts on my cousin's playlist. He turns a corner. This late at night, all the trees look like shadows stretching from nothing, onyx branches melting into the air.
ii. Five years to midnight
My cousin and I are similar the way clementines and oranges are similar. Larger and smaller fruits, thicker and thinner rinds, hopeful green stem-eyes. I met him once as a baby, then again in middle school, when his side of the family moved into our house on the outskirts of the city. It was a communal feeling; migration to escape the density of inner Cleveland, immigration to escape the military draft. My cousin wanted to finish high school in a country that wasn't supposed to rattle. To be an engineer. I only looked at him from the distance of a doorway, talked in half-fluent scraps of Farsi, and imagined him building sentient robots like any ancient genius would. Eventually, I imagined him gone.
If and when he visited Iran, his friends would come knocking on the door, asking questions. My mother told me not to speak to strangers; to stand where the banister hid me from view and listen to her explain that no, he wasn't here. Come back in a week. Or come back never.
Those were the two times he might return.
iii. Twenty minutes to midnight
His genius, sentient robots be damned, carried him out of the house and into the great wide American dream, with its mouth of silicon teeth and luscious crown of wires. College and internships. I like to imagine Iran peeling off of him as he replaces his skin with tattoos and buns in his hair. If only the world worked that way, culture evaporating until all that's left are wisps of misinterpretation.
But I can compromise for leaning my head out the open window. My cousin tries conversation. I respond with asocial slivers: yes. No. Okay. Haha. It's anxiety, not animosity. He must know that I love him, even if I can't show it. He must.
iv. Four years to midnight
He swears. Ugly swears and slurs that crawl on the house's walls like an infestation. Dark humor above all. My mother shoots him cautionary looks across dinner tables, and someone inevitably responds that they're all adults here, so what was the fuss? I'm hidden from view, sunken in the socket of my chair. My uncle will smile one of his Heineken smiles at me, teeth hanging crooked against one another—I think he was punched at a protest, when he was a kid, but I could have imagined it. All I know for certain was that he'd come back from jail with a shaved head and didn't stop fighting. Our suburbs are an overrun white, and crookedness and motorcycles and cigarettes stand out like lumps within perfection. I'm still small, still plated in picket fences, and the ugly angry insects are swarming at my knees.
v. Ten minutes to midnight
"We're here!" my cousin declares over the music. I startle out of the dinner table and into the shotgun seat of his car. Journey has mutated into destination. He'll drop me off soon and go back home, reality itself is folding to a close. When he slows the car, we see the ice cream parlor he'd waxed poetic about. Lines of colorfully-clothed citizens curled around the building, its sidewalks, its streetlights, tight braids and coils of people waiting for their turn at the ordering kiosk. Crowded. Busy. Occupied. A place that doesn't belong to us in a country that doesn't belong to us, either.
My stomach rolls around inside of me. My cousin, stubble stretching into a grimace, says, "Shit. Do you want to wait in line?"
I shake my head. It's such a simple answer, maybe I'm still dreaming, someplace where everything is fluid and God responds to questions in a heartbeat.
vi. Two years to midnight
We used to go on picnics. Ohio is pleasant in places, sickly in others. It's a handful of urban hubs slathered with acres of farmland. It's fields of corn and peanut plants, occasionally speckled with run-down houses, more occasionally speckled with political banners or parables used to fill potholes. I've seen the hikers fear us before; brown people crammed into a car, horsemen of the apocalypse. My uncle cracks sunflower seeds between crooked teeth and doesn't apologize for laughing too loud. Even my mother speaks in excited Farsi when she can feel the sun on her face. I dissolve into the campground trees. I blur out my family in favor of seeing the distaste on other picnicker's faces, afraid of what hate could feel like.
We pass a Confederate flag on a wooden leg, posted at the edge of a barn. My soft humor comes first: "Ohio's in the North, though."
My uncle tells my mother: "Run it over!"
My cousin last: "No, don't run it over… stay true to our heritage and use a bomb instead."
They laugh and my mother chides them for laughing.
vii. One minute to midnight
Up rises the road. Down go the bikers, the joggers, flitting towards whatever corner of the county still has bright streets. Stars return above us, and we are alone. No ice cream parlor. No infinite crowd. No history or future, even if those muddy river lines and cracks of darkness will always divide him from me. He speaks Farsi fluently and I don't. He is brave and I am not. Everything he has, he got with a fight. Everything I have I don't know who to thank for.
But he's fluent in English alongside Farsi, and he's the closest thing I have to someone who understands. I wish to be more like him. And I wish the opposite—to be more American—but is that even the opposite anymore?
I wish to fight, I settle on. I wish I wasn't scared of my knuckles bleeding.
We decide we didn't go on this whole excursion for nothing. We'll stop by an ice cream shop five minutes from home. As he turns the car into a familiar, pristine mall, I feel my world shrink again. An invisible butler cordons off the street behind us to keep us in. We order, drunk on Katy Perry and midnight oil and the whole place smelling like candied youth. I take out a napkin to write Farsi I don't understand and then tear it up. My name, his name, squiggles on a page. All language is nonsense if I think about it hard enough.
My cousin spills his sundae on his car seat and curses about it. It doesn't matter, because soon enough he'll get his windows broken in and he'll need a repair anyways. Our seats scraped off and reapplied, the memories shaven away, left to forests and the wind and an Akron dealership that smells like bleach.
But that's a week or forever from now. I bite my ice cream and violence sinks into sweetness. My cousin's Spotify playlist ends and starts again from the beginning. A text pops up on the screen, from my mother, telling him to bring me home soon.
He puts his ice cream down and starts the car. I hold the bowl steady. As we drive toward the city and away from the edge of the world, artificial lights prick up, from towers and suburbs, schools like mine and companies like his, window lights, billboards, planes, red, blue, white. They swallow the stars one by one by one.