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  • Naira Kuzmich

FICTION | Anahit Number Eight

There are many Jennys and Amandas and Alejandras and, yes, here in East Hollywood, also many Mariams, Marinehs, and Anahits, but Anahits don’t go missing. Don’t poof, vanish, gone, never to be heard from again. My name is also Anahit and I have been here for four years and have never been lost or taken. And I came here at the right age for things to go wrong: seventeen. Just a year older than the girls having Sweet Sixteen parties here, and weddings over there. And me? I was going to this high school because my mother thought the word “magnet” meant something special. But I attract nothing and no one. I am a dime a dozen, as you all say. Seven other Anahits in my senior year, and I wasn’t the tallest, the funniest, or even the ugliest. When someone called out Anahit as I scanned the cafeteria for empty seats, I never had any reason to turn around.

I went to Northridge for college like everyone else, commuted from home like everyone else, like the six other Anahits did. The seventh Anahit got away, disappeared during the commencement address Bobby Jimenez was giving. She was there and then suddenly she was not. The fairytales my mother used to read to me in Armenia would begin like this, too: there was and there was not. In the Pasadena Civic Center, there were a thousand young bodies in oversized maroon robes and two parents who flashed their cameras at a ghost when Anahit’s name was called. Her last name was Semerjian. It was the loneliest light, this flash illuminating no body that mattered to her parents and everybody who was still there.

But here she is now: Anahit Semerjian standing in front of me at the Ralphs in Long Beach, paying for two small Pellegrinos and a bag of Chex-Mix with a credit card.

“Anahit,” I say, as she collects her bag.

She presses the brown paper against her chest and turns around to face me.

“Anahit,” she says, but in a way I can’t tell whether she’s confirming her name or mine.

“You are bald,” I say next, because I can’t think of anything else. But she is bald. Cancer or fashion statement is the question I don’t ask, not yet, because the cashier is scanning my items, and I must always be on guard. The average American loses approximately twenty-three dollars a year because of double-swiped items. Twenty-three dollars is a night out at the Cheesecake Factory for just cheesecake and a fancy cocktail with sugar or salt around the rim of the glass. So far I have tried nine different cheesecakes and four cocktails, because I really like mojitos. I am at Ralphs buying a box of Reese’s Puffs cereal because it is delicious and a fun snack for spending all day at the pier. You can feed it to the gulls, the fish, and to yourself, and this way I don’t feel selfish for leaving my mother at home and driving here all by myself to enjoy my Saturday.

“Paper or plastic,” the clerk asks, taking my five without looking at me.

“Paper,” I say, and wink at Anahit S. because now there are two Anahits who care about the environment standing in a Ralphs in Long Beach. We might as well be Jennys or Amandas, I think. Girls who don’t have fairytales whispered in their ears because they already have happy endings written on their foreheads. But Anahit S. doesn’t return my smile; she is just standing there, staring. But I have always been here, and have done what I was supposed to do. “You are the one who disappeared,” I say in Armenian. Her fat had disappeared, too. The only special thing about this Anahit was her size, I guess, which is more than what I can claim. Big breasts, big butt, and a big stomach which overshadowed the other parts. But she is skin and bones now, as you all say. I look down and pat my stomach. It does not wiggle so much, but no one is putting me on the cover of a magazine.

Before we came to Los Angeles, my mother promised me that there were people picking up girls on the street, putting them in movies and making them stars. This kind of thing happened to Anahit #4 (I am speaking alphabetically): Ghaplanyan. She was the best looking of us. Just the right amount of foreign look to her—thick eyebrows, but nicely tweezed. Before winter break, there was a rumor she slept with a black man for money, and after winter break, she was pregnant, and the video was circulating around on a pornographic website.

Once I saw her sitting on the bottom stairs of the raised cafeteria level where all the Armenians ate their lunch. She was sitting with her legs spread open to make room for her belly, and she was holding her belly like it was a heavy stone, shoulders hunched forward. I could come and go from the Armenian section as I pleased (if there was room, anyway), and that day, there was room, but I had to walk up past her. It was a very uncomfortable feeling, and I did not look down as I walked. She was gone for three weeks after that.

When she returned—because unlike Anahit Semerjian, she did return—she was paler and laughing a lot more, but with the Filipinos and Koreans, and whenever she passed me or any other Armenian, she made a sucking sound, shutting her eyes and nodding her head, as if to a music that only she could hear.

I look at the Anahit next to me, grab my paper bag, and ask, “Do you want to have lunch with me today?”

* * *

When I come to Long Beach with my parents, we always settle near the park area where there’s shade, and also because of my mother’s small bladder. The park area has the public restrooms, and my mother refuses to use the ocean for her needs like the people tanning so far away. Too hard on the feet to walk on bright sand so long only to be met with cold dark grass; it’s confusing for the skin. The first year we came here, there were no doors on the restroom stalls, so you had to take a friend (or in my case, a mother) and a towel so that together they could stand guard and protect your shame. Thankfully the next year, someone had alerted the people running the beach that doors are a civilized way to hide the things even the uncivilized do, so I could pee without waking my mother from her afternoon naps, or from her Bible, which she loved to read, though I could see she was usually just dreaming. She napped a lot. It was the ocean breeze, she said. Could put a baby to bed. Here in America, my mother has become more and more of a baby.

Today that I am by myself, or was, I planned to sit by the shore, on actual sand, and tan, as you all seem to do. I have been here four years and still I am acclimating. In one more year I will become an American citizen, and then perhaps things will come more naturally to me. Tanning is a way to spend your day when you are rich or beautiful, or carefree, which are all synonyms here in Los Angeles. But I knew someone in Yerevan who was the most beautiful girl in the country, and she had a father and no mother, which meant she had nobody, really.

I tell all this to Anahit S. as we drive—my car, because she said she walked here—and she is holding onto her grocery bag against the seatbelt and says, “I do not remember you being this weird.”

“Most people do not remember me at all.”

“That’s very sad,” she says. The Chex-Mix makes a crunch inside the brown paper bag like it is eating itself.

I peer at her. “Do not worry. I am not even the saddest person I know.”

She doesn’t glance in my direction, but if she did, she’d think that I was talking about her. So I say, just in case it’s in her bald head, “I don’t mean you.” And then: “Are you sick?”

She doesn’t respond, so I turn my energy to finding a parking spot. Sometimes people don’t want to talk, but that just means the environment isn’t right, or the time. People always have something to say and sooner or later, they will say it, and if you’re lucky they will say it to you. My father says this is how you get somewhere in life: by knowing everyone’s secrets. The houses around the beach are a good place to look for parking because those people park in their garages, and have not converted them into a studio apartment which they rent out to their friends like the people I know and the place I live in with my mother and father, even though I am twenty-one years old and in America this means by now both my parents should have found a real place in which to live and so should’ve I—one far away from them.

I have my choice of houses here in Long Beach, and so I choose the yellow one with the red shutters because it looks like it’s been painted a long, long time ago. Maybe the people who live here have always lived here, and perhaps this is not a bad thing, though I am sure no one sleeps on the couch and that people actually know how to clean the house, and keep doing it even if life doesn’t turn out the way they expected. Though I imagine the lives of the people here probably did.

“Are we going to sit here long?” Anahit S. readjusts herself, spreads her legs to put the bag between them, and I think about Anahit #4 and if this Anahit thinks about her and all the other Anahits the way I do. Like Anahit #2, for example, Badikyan, who had the unfortunate fate to resemble a duck like her surname destined, though that did not stop all the boys from buying her Hot Cheetos from the vending machine since that one lunch when she had the whole bag and her lips were on fire. Or so she kept saying, fanning herself, very, very loudly. The difference between Anahit #2 and Anahit #4, I think, was that #2 was all talk and no action, as you all say, which the boys soon found out anyway (or will have heard by now, like I have heard, that she, in fact, only dates lesbians).

But back to this one, this one who has appeared in front me like a dream. I tap Anahit S.’s knee and apologize. “I am always in my head.”

She makes a little sound, like a huff, or a puff. It’s very small and cute, like a child, and I think about my mother and the way she sleeps now, her snores that don’t sound like snores but like little train whistles. All day when I am searching on Jobbuilder and for a job, I hear that train coming, and I think, where is she going? And then I think, where am I?

“You’re not the only one, Anahit,” she says, which makes me laugh.

“I know I am not the only Anahit,” I say, so then we both laugh. And I think, when I remember this, if I will remember only one sound, only one laughter from one body, because we are both laughing alike, and we stop at the same time, like we had the same thought, and that thought made us pause and look at each other like I look at myself in the mirror every day in the morning after I wash my face. I like to roll my fingers into a fist and say: Today is a new day, Anahit, but you are the same person you were yesterday, hoping the Anahit in the mirror would shake her head and say, No, you are wrong, today you are different.

“Let us get out of the car,” I say.

She nods, puts the bag on the floor, digs through it to get the Chex-Mix and reaches for the door, before I put out a hand to stop her.

“Leave the Chex-Mix, and let’s get some ice cream instead.” Because it’s that kind of day.

* * *

We find a spot near the shore beside a lifeguard’s post, though he or she is not there now. Probably peeing and not saving someone’s life. I tell this to Anahit S. and she has a funny thought: “They should pee in the water like the rest of them. That way, they could be around in case someone needs saving.” I tell her I had the same exact thought last year, and I wonder if me and Anahit S. are the same person but on different schedules, like she’s a year behind me or ahead. I am not the kind of person who has an existential crisis, especially one near a beach, like I imagine the people who live around here must, especially the ones who visit other beaches much farther away, since this one has become immigrant heaven, as you all say. Just Armenians and Mexicans and Chinese people barbequing on their Sears grills and swimming in their black T-shirts, driving thirty and forty miles to park in front of pretty houses, and sleep on cold dark grass instead of peeing in the great big ocean like real Americans.

Anahit S. is wearing dark jeans rolled to her ankles and a white T-shirt, and though I see a shadow of a bra pushing against the fabric, I think there’s no need for one. She lies on her back, her head on the towel I draped horizontally on the sand. Her elbows jut out like sticks for a fire that won’t keep long and I imagine her coming home to my mother and my mother embracing her the way she imagined she would her daughter after she landed her first acting job.

“You could model,” I say. “You are that skinny.”

“Are you trying to get out of buying me that ice-cream?” She turns her head to me and smiles like we have been friends all of our lives.

“No, it was just a compliment,” and I feel stupid immediately when I see the friends-forever smile turn into the high school Anahit S. smile, which I remember very well due to its frequency in my regard and also its condescension. I guess the only special thing about me then was the fact that I was fresh off the boat, as you all say, and everyone else had been here long enough to get off welfare by senior year of high school. But my mother did the best she could so that this would not to be the defining thing about me. Welfare Anahit.

On Saturdays she went to downtown with the bus to find me the latest styles. Hanging on plastic hangers in front of the stores, they swayed madly when the cars drove by, like they were ready to fly the coop, as you all say. The problem was that the Armanis were Armanls, and the Guccis were Cuccis and one of the two e’s in bebe looked like c’s and sometimes o’s, and sometimes both. Of course everyone noticed. Even if I didn’t open my mouth, which I didn’t that first week, everyone knew and pitied me and smiled condescendingly. The Anahit on welfare. Number 8.

“Do you live here? You said you walked here?”

“I do, about a mile. I’ve got roommates. Two white girls.”

I nod, and bring my knees to my chest. There were no white girls in high school—only two Ukrainians—and the white girls of college never sat down next to me the first day of class for icebreakers. “What’s it like? Are they like us?”

Anahit S. thinks. “Yes and no. Much sluttier,” she says, then gives me a wink. “Not really. Not as slutty as you might imagine.”

I nod, though I am not sure just how slutty I believe white girls to be. I have never kissed a boy but that’s because I commuted to college and worked part-time in a library.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” I ask Anahit S.

Anahit S. sits up and arranges herself into a pretzel. She smiles again, this time kindly, a smile that reaches her eyes, and I notice they are green and round, like my mother’s, and I wonder where she came from, and what kind of blood is in her, because I don’t know what kind of blood is in mine.

Anahit S. glances around, as if she is looking for the answer to my question elsewhere. I join her in the looking because I am that curious. There are a lot of fat children sitting on the sand, or lying down on their backs making sand-angels or on their bellies making sandcastles, and some parents with newborns in wet diapers learning how to walk in water, their baby knees spastically kicking out and then stiffening. My mother says she can’t walk more than a block anymore, but you don’t need to do much walking to wipe the table after your daughter has made food for you. What she can do is read her Bible and sleep, and really well, too. She is tired, she says when I get mad. Tired of what, I say, and she says, Everything. Like that’s a good excuse.

“No boyfriend, but I’m looking. I want to have a baby so bad,” Anahit S. says. “Have my own family.”

I am surprised by this and cannot hide my surprise. I point my index finger to a rather forgettable looking baby, smacking her hands on the sand like she is drumming. I know it is a girl because she has on a one-piece swimsuit to cover her baby breasts. “A baby like that,” I say. “But why?”

Anahit S. raises her hands like she is stretching and then stretches them toward her ankles. She is very compact looking, like you can fold her up neatly and take her anywhere. But you can’t take a pregnant woman anywhere you want to, or worse, a woman with child. There is all that weight of responsibility, my mother said when I asked her why she didn’t just become an actress in Yerevan like she always wanted. This was after I got a C in Drama my second and final semester of high school and she remembered that her daughter wasn’t really her daughter after all, but a girl she found in a dilapidated old building on the outskirts of Yerevan, Anahit just a name in some old nun’s record book, aged two, motherless, fatherless, lonely. My mother had acted her whole life but never made it, because you don’t make it in places like Armenia. There are pictures of her all over our fake-house, black and white photographs of her laughing, sometimes with her mouth, sometimes with her eyes, but always with strange skinny flowers in her arms, their buds unopened, like she is carrying wood. My mother decided to stop acting with me when she realized I wouldn’t make it either, not even in America, which is where you all say it happens.

Confirmation of what she was long afraid of, she said. You just don’t have it in you, Anahit. My blood.

“Hey, hey, are you okay?” Anahit S. asks. “You look lost.”

“My mother uses Lent as an excuse to diet,” I say. “Did you know that?”

She scoots closer to me, our hips almost touching. Two Anahits sitting on the beach. One sick, one healthy. Like the start of a joke, I think. What will happen if we step into a bar? Or perhaps the big ocean, because it’s closest even though right now it feels so far away?

“No, I didn’t know that,” she says, and her voice is soft like she is talking to a baby, and I think, maybe she will make a great mother after all.

“No wheat and dairy and meat for forty days, and then she goes shopping after church.”

“That’s funny,” she says, but doesn’t laugh.

“What’s your mother like?” I ask.

“Sad,” she says, looking at the baby again. “I haven’t been home in a long time.”

I nod, so it can help with the understanding. “Because you’re sick?”

“No, because my father is,” she says, standing up, and rubbing the sand from the back of her knees. “Really sick. Disgusting. My mother has no idea.”

I scramble to my feet, and then I stand there, staring at her face smiling kindly back at me, and it’s not like looking into a mirror at all.

* * *

We get ice cream, she a Bugs Bunny popsicle, and I a strawberry sandwich. I offer to pay for her, and she laughs long and hard.

“We are not on a date,” she says. “And you’re not my mother either. I can treat myself. I treat myself well, actually. I mean, I live in fucking Long Beach, right?”

And it’s not as if she’s really angry when she says this. She’s smiling and looking at me with her smile, and the edges of her words are not edges but curves that I follow in my mind. Still I know not to say anything. This might be the time for Anahit S. to talk and Anahit #8 to listen. So we walk a long time in silence, eating. When I’m done, I just rub my palms together to get rid of the sticky sweetness, but Anahit S. still has her popsicle stick, and she bends down and sticks it straight into the sand and so deep that you can’t even see it. It goes down so easily and I don’t know what’s happening but all of a sudden I’m crying and she’s taking my arm and we are walking back to my car.

I’m sitting there, with my fingers curled around the wheel, breathing loudly, when I notice Anahit S. crunching on something, her Chex-Mix. Her eyes are closed, she’s leaning her head back against the rest, and she’s popping the little squares in her mouth with the confidence of someone who knows they’re never going to get the chance to be fat ever again. She was supposed to be the lucky one, Anahit #7, the one that came before me.

“Why don’t you take a picture,” she says, opening her right eye, then plopping a whole bunch of Chex-Mix into her mouth. “Get my good side.”

“What’s it like?” I ask before I can stop myself.

“What’s what like?”

“Disappearing,” I say.

She looks at me hard, her green eyes narrowing, and what a strange world we live in, when you can look into someone else’s face and see what yours was supposed to be or might still be, if the timing’s right.

“Easier than you think,” she finally says. “The hard part is staying that way.”

“You miss your mom?”

“Of course,” she says, peering into her bag. “Don’t you miss yours?”

“What a weird thing to ask,” I say, frowning. “My mother’s not dead.”

“Neither’s mine,” she says, frowning, too. “That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?”

“Hey, how are you going to get out of here?” she says, nodding at the red Corvette parked just inches from my headlights. Its paint job looks new, red glistening in the sun so that it looks not red at all, but like something trembling. Orange.

“Was the car there when we got here?” I ask her. “I don’t remember how we parked if it was.”

The Corvette suddenly lurches forward. I thought it might have been waiting for us to notice it before it drove off. We watched it go until it disappeared into the horizon, past the main intersection. “Do you want to come home with me?” I say, turning back to Anahit S.

“We can watch a movie.”

“Sure. Where do you live?”

“East Hollywood, by the elementary school.”

“No kidding. Ramona? I went there.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“Yeah, that’s right. Anahit Number Eight. The One Who Got Here A Little Late.” She smiles at me when she finishes her little song. “We used to sing that whenever we passed you in the hallway.”

I don’t smile back. “Who was this ‘we?’”

“You know what? I can’t recall. I’m terrible with faces.”

“And names, too, it seems.”

“Some names,” she says. “Some names are hard to forget.”

“Anahit,” I say, feeling a little dizzy.

“Yeah, like Anahit,” she says. “Can’t move past that, can you?”

“You can’t,” I say, reaching for her hand.

She takes it. “There was this teacher in Ramona, Mrs. Donovan. She made me eat soap when she caught me copying this girl’s story. I was in the 2nd grade.” She laughs. “You’re lucky you missed all that.”

“She wasn’t Armenian?”

“Isn’t that amazing?”

“Who would’ve thought?” I say, laughing, and so happy to laugh. “They’re like us.”

“Yeah,” Anahit S. says, squeezing my hand. “Just like us.”

So I drive home with only one hand, because she still is holding onto my right, but somehow it’s there on the wheel, too, steadying me.

When we enter the driveway, past the main house and towards the remodeled garage in the back, my fake-house, I slow down and lower the window. Anahit S. stops talking and she’s listening, too.

“My mother’s home,” I say when we don’t hear anything. “She’s asleep.”

“Do you want to go somewhere else?” she asks, and I shake my head.

“No, no, she needs to wake up.” I turn off the engine and put the car in park. We stay parked for a while.

“Where’s your dad?”

“Works Saturdays,” I tell her.

“Ah. Which one of our dear fathers doesn’t?” she says, and sits up. Anahit S. stares at the door to my fake-house. The owner of the main house brought a new one from Home Depot, the nice brown ones with the glass arc that disembodies your face when you try to peer through it, but most of the outside of my home still looks like a garage. He never got permission to remodel it into a livable space and didn’t want to pay any more fines so he and his wife have to keep up appearances, which means so must everyone in my family. We don’t even have a mailbox.

“I haven’t been home in a long time,” Anahit S. says.

“Yeah,” I say because she’s said this before, but then I say, “Oh,” because she hadn’t said it like this.

“Do you mind?” she says, and reaches to touch my face. I lean into her hand because it’s nice to feel someone so close even when they are years and lifetimes away.

She opens the passenger side-door and I watch her take four, five, six steps toward the garage. She knocks once and I hold my breath, I straighten my back. She knocks again and I imagine my mother grumbling as she shuffles away from the couch that, during the evening, serves as her and my father’s bed. From their couch cushions, I make my own bed, and I lie beside them every night, below their bodies, staring at the black frame of the convertible couch and listening to my mother snore and the train come and no one get on that train.

The door opens.

“Can I help you?” my mother asks in Armenian.

Though I can’t see her, Anahit S. is so skinny I feel as if I can—right through Anahit’s body and, there, in front of me, my mother’s face.

“Hello,” Anahit says in English and I hear the tremor in her voice, how unsure she is of this word. “Barev,” she says, then, louder, in Armenian, and I know it is for my benefit. “I am Anahit.” And maybe hers, too.

“Anahit?” my mother says and I see that tired expression turn into confusion, the slight furrow of her brows, the narrowing of the green eyes. Then from my seat I see her taking in all of Anahit, her round head, the sharp edges of her curves, the effortless perfection of her deteriorating body. She would be cast the star in any picture. You would want to see her face everywhere you go, in every screen, behind any door. Like a ghost, she’d be there and not there, but she would be with you, under your skin.

“I want to go home,” Anahit says, and the heart thudding in my ear is both of ours. I press my forehead against the windshield and I feel myself go through the glass.

My mother steps aside and opens up her arms. “Come in, my beautiful daughter,” she says, as you all say. “I have been waiting for you all of my life.”


In Memoriam:

Puerto del Sol was deeply saddened to learn that Naira Kuzmich, a young and incredibly talented writer, passed away on October 24, 2017 at the age of 29.

Naira Kuzmich was born in Armenia and raised in the Los Angeles enclave of Little Armenia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ecotone, Prairie Schooner, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015, The Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere.

Author photo by Vedran Husic.

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