I saw the picture before I saw you.
It took us three days to get to the police station. Three days to see your body at the funeral home. Three days to get to your cramped little apartment in the attic of an old townhouse. Three days for the universe to confirm that you found a new home.
But I saw the picture before that. I saw the picture when I landed in Boston and heard about your death and piled into a car and got off at the house of a distant relative where I was going to be sharing a room with the whole family. I saw the picture that night as I rolled over and let my mind go numb over mindless social media scrolling when the Boston Globe article popped up.
And there you were. A close up of your back so I could make out the broad shoulders that my head would droop on during long car rides on Eid. The sheen of your sweatpants that always reminded me you were a soccer coach even if you were wearing them to sit at home and munch on greasy old burgers and chocolate pretzels. The glimmer on your left wrist from the watch you ‘borrowed’ from Baba years ago but soon the permanent tan on your skin proved that it was yours to keep.
There was another picture of the front. It was further, grainier, as if the photographer was as hesitant as me. As if he didn’t want to take it just as much as I didn’t want to see it. But we both couldn’t help ourselves. I stared at it for a few seconds – for the grains to settle like the colors of a mandala finally making sense together as a coherent pattern – but when your face emerged through the grains, I scrolled right down again.
Down to the debate. A debate over what had happened. A debate of amateurs, like most internet conversations. A controversial picture is bait to people who thrive behind their screens, those who sit and wait for an excuse to share their two cents that nobody asked for, but they anticipate as essential. The left-wing liberals who hashtagged it #BlackLivesMatter. The internet comedians who were desperate for attention so they commented on the picture of a deceased with an inappropriate meme that made no sense. The surprising certainty behind assertions like “this is a lynching!” The young man who asked why you chose this way to go, as if you would visit just to answer his query. Another student from your university who insisted calling you black is wrong – it’s African American. The opportunists who used your picture to start a political debate, regardless of its insignificance. The congregation of uninvited spectators who gravitate towards controversial conversation, each of them claiming a stake in your story, each of them claiming to know the reality.
That mess of a congregation in my palms was the first time I saw you when I got to Boston. It was a mess I brought knowingly upon myself, immersing myself in a breathless, silent oblivion of confusion and grief, even though I could easily lock my screen and stare my reflection instead. Everything that followed since that news update was somehow… gentler. Seeing you with the same sleepy expression. Seeing your bedroom with the sweatshirt from the last video sprawled across the bed you built a couple of months before. Seeing that video where you were alive and well and talking directly to us. You were still ours. You were gone, but you were ours. But in the palm of my hand, the noise around that picture of you long after you had passed – in that picture, you were subject to vultures who speak carelessly and shove their pitchforks into you and scream so loudly, I couldn’t even whisper my last goodbye.