Coming from nothing
January 03, 2020
In this raw, unfiltered piece of fiction, Missak Artinian takes readers on a ride full of questions of faith and unspoken truths...
“Who took the money?” Baba yelled, holding me up by my collar against the wall.
“I don’t know.”
“You stole the money from your mama’s purse, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”
“Don’t lie to me, Jirair.”
“I swear. It wasn’t me,” I cried.
“Who stole it, then? Tell me. Who?”
“It was me!” Chris barged in through the door. “It was me. I stole the money.”
Baba turned his sights on Chris and let go of my shirt, causing me to fall to the floor. “Where is it?”
“I lost it all. Gambling,” Chris said, calmly.
Baba unbuckled his belt and dragged Chris by the ear into the next room. I placed the pillow over my head to drown out the noise, but it was no use. I could hear every grunt, every whimper, every cry through the thin wall. I could hear Chris’ pain. Pain that should have been mine.
Chris didn’t mind the pain, or at least that’s what I tried to convince myself, anyway. He must’ve gotten beat by Baba at least once a week, especially when we were younger. And it’s not like he always took my beatings for me. I was the good kid: got good grades, never spoke out of turn, did what was asked of me. And not because I wasn’t capable of being rebellious like Chris. I just—not to sound cocky or anything—was just a lot smarter than he was. If Baba said the world was flat, I’d say, “Baba, you know best.” Not because I was weak. But why argue with a wall? That’s the one thing Chris could never wrap his mind around: that our parents were too deluded by an overinflated sense of pride to ever change.
“Why haven’t you touched your dolma,” mama asked me once at the dinner table. “You don’t like it?”
“It’s really good,” I lied, as I was sifting through the rice with my fork.
“There’s too much onions,” Chris chimed in, saying exactly what was on my mind. We both hated onions. And she knew it.
“What are you talking about onions?”
“Right here!” Chris exclaimed, pointing to a large piece on his plate.
“Esh es, inch es?” She said, calling him an ass, her favorite insult whenever anyone challenged her. “That is the skin of the chickpeas!”
“I know what a chickpea skin looks like!” Chris retorted. He couldn’t help himself. It’s like he’d go out of his way looking for conflict.
“Chris,” Baba interjected. “Stop it. Just eat your dolma.”
“How can I? Look at this! At least dice them smaller if you’re gonna lie about it!”
“I can’t do anything right,” Mama said, on the verge of tears.
"Why do you do this?” Baba yelled.
“Sometimes exposing a flaw can lead to change."
“Our family doesn’t have flaws! If you want to expose flaws, go to Turkey and expose their government, Mr. I-Want-To-Change-The-World!"
Despite his rebellious nature growing up, nothing could have prepared my parents for what Chris was going to do after graduating from college. As far as they were concerned, he committed the most unimaginable sin a son could commit against a proud Armenian family. He married an otar.
Upon hearing the news of his engagement, and after multiple failed attempts to convince him to find a nice Armenian girl, he was disowned from the family. I was forbidden from ever seeing or talking to him again, in fear that his progressive views on love and equality would influence me to follow his example and shame the Boghossian name by marrying a non-Armenian as well.
Last I heard, he moved to Boston with Susan. I’ve only seen her in pictures. I think she’s pretty, but my parents have unreasonable standards. I overheard Baba talking to Mama one evening back when they were still engaged. He said, “Chris must be blind. Who does he think she is, Brigitte Bardot?”
“Was Mama Brigitte Bardot when you met her?” is how I wanted to respond to him. But I held my tongue, as usual.
If Chris loved Susan enough to marry her, I knew she had to be special. He had this ability to see through the surface and appreciate the deeper complexities of a person’s character. In a letter he wrote to me back when he was still engaged to her, he said she challenged him to be a better person and she understood him in ways our parents never could.
For my last birthday, Chris sent me a framed photograph of him and Susan. I put it in my room as a reminder that one day I would move out and find happiness as well. A few days later, Mama threw the picture away and replaced it with a photo of herself.
The same night, I snuck into my parent’s room and found some old photo albums they kept in a worn-out cardboard box. One of them was full of photos from the day I was born. My favorite in the album was near the end, a picture of me as an infant gently wrapped around Chris’ arms. He was five then, but based on the way he was holding me carefully like an adult and smiling like a saint, he looked much older.
As I flipped through the dusty pages of the album, I saw younger versions of the people I used to call my family. They’re all there: Mama, Baba, my four uncles, three aunts, Nene, Dede, cousins, and some other people I didn’t recognize, all crammed in the tiny hospital room.
Most of them are still alive, except for Nene. She died three years ago from a brain tumor. Baba took her death pretty hard. Mama pretended to care at the funeral, but I knew she didn’t because when she got the news over the phone, she said hamdullah after she hung up, which is Arabic for "Thank God" or something like that.
Mama didn’t like Nene because she was Halebtsi, among other reasons. Mama used to tell Chris and me stories of the kinds of things Nene used to say to her when she was first engaged to Baba. Like, when Mama tried to help Nene and my aunts cook dolma, Nene turned to my aunts and said, “Don’t let her near pot. She’ll ruin the flavor.”
The stories were always ancient history, but she’d tell them with such passion, capturing the accents of her characters and almost inhabiting them. If only the content was as memorable as her performances, maybe Chris and I wouldn’t have gotten sick of listening to her all the time.
Mama always said she couldn’t believe how she married into such a hasarak (lowbrow) family. It took me a long time to understand why there was so much bad blood between Nene and Mama. They were both ethnically Armenian, after all. But their issues with each other extended beyond cultural differences between Syrian and Lebanese-Armenians.
I think the real reason Mama disliked Nene, along with the rest of the people from my baba’s side of the family, was because she was jealous. Every birthday party, Christmas party, and New Year’s party was spent with Baba’s side of the family, while all of Mama's family was left behind in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. She only saw them once every few years when she flew back to Lebanon.
Nene, on the other hand, disapproved of Mama because she married Baba, which meant that Baba had to move out of Nene's already packed house. Moving out of the house after marriage is not only expected, it’s encouraged. But because Baba was the first of four brothers to get married, nene had a hard time coping with the idea that her eldest son would be eating another woman’s food. That baba married a Lipanantsi over a Halebtsi perhaps added more heat to the fire.
Nene died in 2005—the same year Lebanon’s prime minister was assassinated. That was the year Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon after 25 years of occupation. If you ask Mama, God was responsible for both blessings—Lebanon’s independence and Nene's death.
The Syrian army drafted Baba when he was 18. He doesn’t talk about what happened while he was on duty, but Mama said he once saw a prisoner tortured to death. After that, he abandoned the army and escaped to Lebanon with his family. That’s where Baba met mama. When the war broke out in Lebanon, they immigrated to California, where Chris and I were born.
The best advice Baba ever imparted to Chris and me was to live life in moderation. Given his immoderate food consumption, he never came across as a man who led by example. To cover his double chin, he grew out a thick, unkempt beard, which was a fine way to conceal his fat until it wasn’t. After 9/11, I was embarrassed when he’d drop me off at school because a lot of kids said he looked like a fat Osama Bin Laden. He kind of did.
Mama is less than half the size of Baba. She stays skinny because unlike Baba, she doesn’t let food stay in her stomach long enough for digestion. It’s obvious to most everyone that she also pays a few visits to the plastic surgeon because her wrinkled neck is at odds with her plastic complexion. When she first met Baba, she had beautiful black hair, which matched her dark eyes much better than the unnatural and ugly blonde does now.
Chris was actually born with blonde hair. Mama said he takes after her great grandfather, who had blue eyes and a fair complexion. His name was Manook. Among Armenians, he was a well-known political activist in the Ottoman Empire who fought for social equality for Armenians during the First World War. For that reason, he was of the first victims of the Armenian Genocide.
“Hey, you awake?”
“Yeah,” Chris whispered, as he turned over in his bed and faced me.
“Can I ask something?”
“You promise not to tell Mama and Baba?”
Chris raised his head off the pillow. “I promise.”
“Is Santa real?”
“What makes you say that?”
“When I went downstairs to get some water last night, I saw Mama wrapping the Power Rangers toy I asked Santa to get me.”
“Listen, Jiro. Maybe it’s time you started thinking of Santa like he’s a character in a story.”
“So he isn’t real?”
Chris paused for a lengthy moment, thinking how to answer me. Finally, he looked into my eyes, and said, “No.”
“But why would Mama and Baba lie?”
“Sometimes people invent stories to explain things that are unexplainable. That’s why in church, they tell us about Jesus and Moses and God.”
“You mean they’re not real, either?”
“It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. What matters is what you take away from the story. Does it make you feel something? That’s what’s important.”
“Don’t say that, Chris. God will throw a rock on you.”
Chris smiled as if the threat of an eternity in hell meant nothing to him. “Do you want to hear a story?
I nodded my head.
Once upon a time, there lived a happy shepherd who tended his flock of sheep on top of the whitest mountain in the land. The shepherd cared very much for his flock and protected them from harm. But at the bottom of the mountain, where it was dark, there lived a jealous wolf, who wanted the land on top of the White Mountain for himself. The wolf, clever as he was, knew the only way to take the shepherd’s land was to first kill the shepherd. So one night, he climbed to the top of the mountain, snuck past the sleeping sheep and ate the shepherd.
As the sun rose, the wolf put on the shepherd’s clothing, and he said to the sheep, "Follow me. I shall take you to Paradise." Mistaking the wolf for their protector, the sheep faithfully followed him down the mountain. After many days and nights of walking, one of the sheep said, "I’m thirsty." And another said, "I’m hungry." The wolf replied, "Paradise is only a little further. Food and water aplenty await you there." This gave the sheep strength to continue their march.
They marched and marched until finally, the wolf led the sheep to a barren desert. Their legs weary, the sheep began to lose hope. "Where are we? Why are we here" they asked. It was in this moment that the wolf took off the shepherd’s clothing, and said, "Welcome to Paradise." The sheep prayed to the shepherd for help and they prayed and they prayed.
“And the shepherd came down from Heaven and saved them, right?” I interrupted.
Chris paused for a lengthy moment, thinking about how to answer me. Finally, he looked into my eyes, and said, “Yes.”
I lost faith in God a few years after I stopped believing in Santa. As I learned more about the Armenian Genocide, I became convinced that God, if he did exist, was neither benevolent nor kind. And I surely would never worship an all-powerful entity that was indifferent to the pain and suffering of innocent people.
I never told Mama or Baba about my thoughts on God. They’d never understand, anyway. Mama was the kind of person who thanked God for everything. When she was cured of breast cancer, it wasn’t the doctor who got the credit. It wasn’t even advances in science and medicine that saved her. No. It was only by virtue of God’s grace that she survived.
Sometimes I’m not sure if my parents believed in God themselves. Church, for them, wasn’t just a house of worship. It was their social world. That’s where men talked about their jobs and the new car or entertainment system they just bought, while the women gossiped about who was getting married with whom and provided fashion critiques behind each other’s backs.
Everyone in church seemed more interested in partying than praying. My parents hosted a party at our house twice a month. Everyone from church was invited; except for the people my parents hated, which were a lot. It was always strange to me that the same people who took pride in the fact that Armenia was the first Christian nation could hold onto grudges as long as they did.
Like my nene. Back when she was still alive, she refused to speak to her brother. They saw each other in church every Sunday—a place where they preached, “Love thy neighbor”—and yet they turned a blind eye and pretended they each didn’t exist whenever they were within proximity of one other.
I asked Mama once why Nene never talked to him. She said my uncle got fired from the family jewelry shop 20 years ago, a shop owned by Nene’s brother. My uncle was about my age at the time and was accused of stealing cash from the register. I’m not sure if it’s true, but if I had a son and he was accused of stealing money from Chris’s shop, my first reaction wouldn’t be to stop talking to Chris for two decades.
It always bothered me when people who I barely knew, and who didn’t care about me or my parents came to our house, pretending like they were all friends just because they went to the same church and could speak the same language. My parents never seemed to care that they were being used; that the only reason the guests came was for the free food. For them, the more people that came to our house, the more they could flaunt their wealth and social status. That’s why I stole the money out of Mama's purse and flushed it down the toilet when I was a kid.
“Let this be a lesson to you, Jirair,” Baba said after beating Chris all those years ago. “Your mama and I, we worked hard for everything that you and your brother take for granted. We came from nothing.”
“And you’ll die with nothing,” is what I wanted to say. But I held my tongue, as usual.