There was one more election observation. When I returned from this trip, it would be time to secure a new job, and leave my home in Kazakhstan. I arrived in Ukraine three days before a group of one hundred monitors from Kazakhstan would arrive to monitor the second round of the highly contested presidential election. My taxi driver was in his late fifties, and sullen. His thick eyebrows were chronically furrowed and there was a deep crease between them. I sat in the front seat and placed the computer bag at my feet. As the car pulled out of the airport parking lot, I tried to make conversation with the driver. When he asked me where I was from, I said, Kazakhstan, and smiled, thinking he had no idea what a simple answer I had found for the most complex of questions. For months, my mantra had been, don’t get attached, to anything or anyone, but it was too late now. I was attached to everything and everyone.
We drove up to an old Soviet building with a big sign on top that read Bratislava Hotel. Kyiv was a beautiful, lively city. Orange ribbons were tied to trees, light poles, and antennas on cars. This was a riveting time. The Orange Revolution had just begun. After a quick meal and shower, I took another taxi to the election monitoring headquarters. I walked up to the second floor, opened the door and found myself in a spacious six-room office with dozens of people speaking loudly on phones, sending faxes, pulling papers out of printers, fiercely typing emails and airport pick-up schedules for a thousand observers from sixteen countries. It was the typically thrilling pre-electoral rush to which I had become addicted.
I gave hugs and shook hands, and was anxious to begin working. I was asked to find a spare laptop in a large conference room with a round table until someone would come up to me with a list of things for which I would be responsible. I found a computer next to a colleague from Kazakhstan. He was busy typing something, and we spoke only briefly about his work as a long-term observer in Ukraine. I walked to the small kitchen at the end of a long hallway, made myself a cup of strong black tea and sat down at my temporary laptop to check my email.
There were twenty-eight new messages in my mailbox. I quickly looked through the subject lines, as usual, to delete the spam before I read each e-mail. The long subject line of an e-mail from a friend of Noel’s read, very sad news, Maryam. I would call you, but I don’t have your phone number. The tips of my fingers tingled. Everything and nothing crossed my mind as to what the sad news might be. It felt like five full minutes had gone by before I had taken enough deep breaths to click on the link to open the e-mail. The messenger said he didn’t know if someone had already called me and that there was no easy way to say this, so he would just come out and say it: Noel killed himself this morning by jumping off the roof of his workplace.
I never finished reading the e-mail. My eyes went to the beginning of the note to the word workplace and back, again and again. I felt nothing until my colleague from Kazakhstan got up from his chair, rushed to me, kneeled down, and put his hand on my knee. I noticed that I was rocking back and forth, hands trembling on the edge of the keyboard. No, Noel, no, I said over and over again, although I didn’t feel my lips move, and only heard my voice like it was someone else’s, somewhere far away. I felt light-headed, couldn’t feel my legs. The tingling in the tips of my fingers spread through my body. I was short of breath. I couldn’t say anything to my colleague, but he already knew; he had looked at the open e-mail on the screen and now, still hearing my own voice, I heard his, also saying, oh, no.
The next day and night in Kyiv were a blizzard of phone calls, e-mails, faxes, deployment charts, press releases, tears that stayed inside until the end of the day, when I was alone in the hotel shower, and they gushed out stronger than the water above me. I talked to my mother, to friends I had shared with Noel. I fell asleep on a wet pillow to the sound of my own sorrow.
On the third day, I told the key people in the office what had happened, and they helped me buy tickets for the earliest available flight to New York. In just thirty-something hours, I would be home to say goodbye to Noel.
At home, I sat next to my grandmother on the sofa and held her hand in my lap. She began to cry, her lips quivering as she tried to speak. He had come to see her two days before he had died. He was sitting right where you are now, Alma said. He was holding my hand. He said, my grandmother has a blue chicken in Armenian, then in Russian. He looked so clean. He didn’t look sad. He didn’t want to eat.
A few hours later, I opened the door of a yellow cab, thanked the fifty-something Slovenian driver for the quick ride and pleasant conversation, and stepped onto the sidewalk of a quiet Tribeca street. There was no buzzer for the loft on the second floor, so I dug frantically in my purse, trying to find my cell phone amidst gum wrappers, loose change, make-up, and pens. I was greeted by a frazzled smile and awkward kiss from Ernest.
He led me up a narrow flight of stairs and opened the door to the spacious loft. I gasped as I walked in, barely able to recognize the space I had seen a few months ago, when it had been a mass of rubble, without a ceiling or an obvious hope for ever becoming a usable space. Ernest planned to open a writers’ loft, and he had demolished and built it up himself from nothing. The loft was enormous, with sunlight pouring in from two big windows to the left. I walked in to face a brick wall, on which two paintings, one of the cover of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and the other of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, hung. These were the only items in the freshly painted loft, besides a small square table by the window with a computer on top, some papers on the floor, and a lone chair. In the back was a conference room and the space Ernest had separated as his living quarters. My praise was shrouded in tense anticipation of the conversations we would inevitably have about our friend’s death, and our respective lovers, the elephant in the room that, when finally acknowledged, would crush what we were or ever would be.
We began to walk back toward the living room, when in a corner by the door I saw a backpack with the zipper opened half-way and an umbrella sticking out, and on it, a neatly folded green bath towel, and a napkin with Noel’s easily recognizable handwriting, saying he might ask to stay another night, and would let Ernest know in the afternoon. I kneeled down on the floor next to the pile of things Noel had left there on Monday morning, having spent the last two days of his life at Ernest’s loft. I picked up the towel, lifted it up to my face, and wept. He had not been in touch to say he would not be coming back.
The two had never been close, although they had always liked each other and enjoyed the time we had spent together. Ernest told me that Noel had begun calling him often, wanting to know if he had time to go out for food and drinks. Then, he had called one day to ask if he could spend a few nights at the loft, not explaining the reasons. Ernest spent years unable to forgive himself for having surmised nothing of our friend’s torment, not having recognized what had been Noel’s last attempts at finding something to which he could hold on. I always told him there was nothing he could have done, and that he had done more than any of us by giving him a home to rest before he had left. We did not talk about the elephant that evening. We cried, drank vodka, and talked about Noel.
On Saturday afternoon, Amy invited some of Noel’s friends to meet at her apartment on Riverside Drive, then go down to the river to scatter Noel’s ashes. As I ran in and out of subway stations, offices and stores, trying to complete dozens of errands before I would return to Kazakhstan, I kept telling myself, we are going to scatter Noel’s ashes. There was no reality yet to the loss. I spent most of my time awake waiting for him to call and leave one of his typically frantic messages, still waiting for him to show up at my mother’s, at Ernest’s, at his own memorial service on Sunday, with his backpack across one shoulder and a big bottle of cheap white wine in his hand. We are going to scatter Noel’s ashes.
We settled on a spot on the river—a big rock that we could find easily when we walked down to the river to remember Noel. There were six of us and we barely fit on the rock, which protruded from the bank over the water. Each of us said something about Noel. There were no prayers. The sun was beginning to set over New Jersey. When we had depleted our remembrances, Amy said quietly, I don’t know if this is appropriate right now, but it’s just such a Noel joke. Without waiting for anyone to encourage her to tell it, she went on—a Buddhist goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, make me one with everything. We all laughed. At that very moment, the sun shot a bright thick pathway of light from the sky and across the river right to the rock on which we were standing.
We took turns scattering Noel’s ashes into the river, each of us scooping a handful out of two plastic boxes with white labels that read his name. I scooped some of the ashes into my hand, feeling little pieces of bones in the sandy mass. I couldn’t know or claim to understand my friend’s decision to take his life. Noel had many reasons to end his journey on earth, some of which we might never even guess. But more than anything, what drove my friend to the kind of despair that leaves no room for living was that he had not had a family. Noel took his life because he had lived it as an orphan, never having found a family on which to count for reasons to go on.
We ended the evening at the Pastry Shop, where some of us had met Noel and spent most of our time together. Noel had no parents and no family, and had not left a note. We were his family, so we agreed to hold an informal, intimate service in Ernest’s loft.
When it was my turn to say a few words, I told the story of how I had written a frantic e-mail to all my friends the day I had accepted the job in Kazakhstan, saying I thought I was making a huge mistake, that I knew nothing about Central Asia, and asking for advice. Noel had responded within five minutes: Maryam, I have done some research. Almaty has two strip clubs—Golden Dolls and Red Cat. Both are top of the line. As you know, strip clubs are the true mark of civilization. Go to Kazakhstan. I told the story of how we had met when Noel was thirty-nine and I was sixteen, and he had called me a UN poster child, and asked me for translations of the most bizarre of phrases. Everyone laughed.
Others stood up to share memories of Noel. I heard about his teenage years and learned that he had been as fascinating then as when I had met him. When the service ended and people began to mingle, I found my mother in the crowd and buried my face in her neck, sobbing, he didn’t come, mama. Mama, he’s gone.
When I returned to Kazakhstan, my mind was in a haze, and even though I kept telling myself the grief would subside, something had irreversibly changed. It did not matter anymore that other countries might need help conducting fair elections, especially since I had come to know these never came. Nor did it matter whether there would be work that would thrill me nearly as much as this one that had come to define me and shape my journey. I suddenly longed for family—my family in New York, and a family of my own, for which my friend had sown the seed in me, somehow, in passing.
A few months of elections, love, phone calls, letters, pleas and deals later it was decided that I would return to New York, after a brief stop in Ethiopia where there would be a parliamentary election.
Soon, I was in Addis Ababa. When I landed, it felt as though I had gone back a few years, getting off the airplane to spend a few weeks in Europe that summer between Armenia and New York. Here I was again, suspended between two homes, once again having no clear picture in my mind of what life might look like once I had returned to New York. I needed this time—to make peace with not having found a place that was home enough to make me want to stay, to become accustomed to waking up and not seeing the Ala Tau.
On days when there was nothing we could do, we traveled to the countryside, stopping in villages for food and drink. Once, we drove for hours along narrow, winding roads through the Blue Nile Gorge to Bahar Dar. Sometimes, we stayed out late at a restaurant to hear a singer or watch a performance of eskista. We ate injera, yebek tibs, alecha and doro wat, and drank many bottles of tej, the traditional honey wine, sweet, smooth, deceiving in the way it tasted like nectar, and suddenly made itself known as my head began to swim to the sound of krar.
One morning, I walked up a hill to a small Armenian church. Emperor Selassie had offered refuge to Armenians after the slaughter by the Ottoman Turks had begun. Since our two nations shared the same church and faith, thousands of Armenians took advantage of the invitation, and settled into a neighborhood in Addis Ababa, where there was still a community decades later, albeit now small. The service was familiar and comforting, even though I understood not a word, and felt strangely other, as I did everywhere those days.
Most nights, I lay in bed, drenched in tears and sweat, afraid of the uncertainty that lied ahead. Did I want another job overseas where I would build a nest, make friends, fall in love, only to leave again when another contract expired? What would I do in New York? Where would I live? What would happen to Ernest’s woman? Would he leave her for me? Would I want him to?
I called Ernest one night and wept these questions to him, and he said, Mari, stop. Stop for a moment. Forget all that. Why are you in Ethiopia? He guided me to a conclusion that only a star over my head could have given me this most unlikely opportunity to travel to Ethiopia without ever having had anything to do with Africa through my studies or my work. He said this was not the time to plan or wonder or fester. It was the time to remember Noel, the days we had spent together at the homes of our Ethiopian friends, or in Ethiopian restaurants, where we had dined to our hearts’ content and become drunk on honey wine. Did you scatter all the ashes in Almaty? he asked, and I told him that I still had some with me. Well, Mari, Ernest said, make this time about saying goodbye to Noel.
The next day, I took a ride up a mountain overlooking the entire city of Addis Ababa. I sat on the edge of a rock, looked out into what my friend had called the land of the most beautiful women on earth, and scattered the remainder of his ashes over the city. That night, I sat at a bar with my colleagues, drinking too much hard liquor, and avoiding empty conversation. My eyes froze for a moment, and I thought I saw Noel sitting at the bar across from our table, drinking a glass of white wine, and smoking a cigarette. I thought I saw him raise his glass and wink at me. I raised my glass and took a sip.
After a few more drinks, I surrendered to a dare one of my colleagues had thrown at me when I had boasted knowledge of eskista. I joined the group of Ethiopian women dancing in a circle, and when I began to dance, everyone clapped and whistled. The dance became a face-off, and when there were only two of us left, I was overcome by a hysterical need to win this ridiculous contest. So I danced. Every joint in my body moved and bent the way Tiki had taught me all those years in New York, the year we had danced together in our living room in Virginia. I was the last one dancing, and as I turned this way and that, I looked for Noel, to make him out in the crowd one last time, to say, we’re here. We are in Ethiopia. But Noel was gone.
“Happiness is always the better choice,” were the last words he ever wrote to me. For him, this meant to jump, and only he will ever know why. All we have are guesses, ideas we feed our minds in ridiculous attempts to make sense of the incomprehensible, the unbearable–that someone we loved was so unloved that he chose not to be. On the eleventh anniversary of the jump, I pledge to finally start living by this truth: The fact that it is not in my nature to be happy notwithstanding, happiness is a choice. It is available to me. It is within me. And even while I want to scream — for my friend, for all the grieving mothers of the world, for all the orphans, and all the hungry — today, I choose happiness. I choose it because I can do nothing more important than to teach my children that happiness is within, and that it is always the better choice. And to teach this lesson I must first make the choice myself.