Sunday, March 20, 2011

Short-a-Day: Saïd Sayafiezadeh's "Paranoia"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Feb. 28, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 93. 

"Why aren't you eating?" he asked.
"I saw a fly land on it," I admitted.
With irritation he said, "You are opulent," and he took the sandwich from me and bit into it, a huge, obvious bite, so that I could see the food in his mouth. "And I am indigent."
Which was true. I'd had a DVD player for ten years.

How silly all the terrible, unbearable things in life are, things we cannot imagine and yet which others undergo on a continual basis. We argue about an undercooked dish and send it back, and millions starve. We complain about a leaky faucet while countries deal with a lack of running water or, worse, actual flooding. And in America itself, we snipe at illegal aliens for the "damage" they do to this country -- without admitting that they are often the only ones willing to do the things that we, inanely, will not. Has it come to this? That we would pass up a sandwich because, at one time, a fly landed on it? That's the difference between Roberto, who at seventeen, refused to follow his family home, and Dean, a relaxed white dude who once played football, but now has what his former teammates call an "essential" job. Although these two can be friends, and although Dean can hang with Troy and Quincy down in the otherwise no-(white)-man's-land of Maple Tree Heights, they're worlds apart, and though the title of this story is ostensibly about the coming war that America is gearing up for, it's really about the paranoia Roberto lives with -- when will the INS come and ruin his life?

Sayafiezadeh's writing is excellent, mainly because it leaves itself open, and because the dialogue is so casual and fitting. Little details and short bursts of conversation keep things feeling real, and the plot is always spinning in multiple directions -- we follow one character, Dean, but the story could be about anyone: "They slapped one another's hands, stinging slaps. I smiled, but I didn't slap." In fact, the story keeps indirectly switching: we learn Robbie's fate from his employer, a cobbler who speaks in broken English ("Yesterday, middle of day, four car, four car, no warning, all pull up same time, right outside, happen fast, take him way, take him. What I can do? I can do no thing. I am one man. They have law.... Hurt me, too."); we learn the fate of Dean's former football friends (black, unemployed, no college), while watching a military parade march by on the Fourth of July: "The attitude of haughty disdain that he had had that day at the bus stop was now replaced with a look of fatigue and befuddlement." This particular incident is amplified by Dean's thoughtless comment: "I told you there wasn't going to be a draft." Of course not; not for the middle-class white citizens who have "essential" jobs -- but for those with a decreasing series of options?

Maybe, in the end, that's the real thing to be paranoid about. How close we always are to running out of choices -- after all, Roberto passes undetected through the system for years and then one day, in a freak accident, winds up in the hospital. Might that not be one of us, recently unemployed, unfortunately injured? Cry America, indeed.

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