we are always asked
to understand the other person's
no matter how
one is asked
their total error
to understand the other person's
no matter how
one is asked
their total error
-- from Be Kind by Charles Bukowski
“Now that it's become spring-like Yerevan is much better.”
-- from an e-mail from Josh (March 11, 2004)
When I was pregnant with my daughter, who is now nineteen months old, I used to think about Stalin and Hitler a lot. Actually, about their parents, more than anything. Especially, Hitler’s mother. I was wondering how much of who Stalin and Hitler became was something their parents did, unknowingly poisoning them. And I was thinking How can we, as parents, know how not to slip and trigger some Hitlerness or Stalinness in the beautiful person we think we are bringing to this world?
Sometime in mid-fall of 2004, long before parental anxieties snuck up on me, I was crossing Sayat-Nova street to go towards the opera House in Yerevan. Yerevan can sometimes look mellow and momentarily clean and beautiful in the fall as well. Downtown can. After a gentle rainy touch, you know, to dust the streets and turning leaves, yet not giving the drivers a chance to re-paint pedestrian clothing with mud or splash. So it was on a day like that, when I saw a young, bald man crossing the same street from the opposite side, coming towards me. Joshua? I thought squinting, shocked. Was as tall, as thin, as balding, with as short hair. Everything was right, until the man passed me by. How important is chronology? I ask myself.
I did not know much about Joshua. Only what he had told me as we would meet in our program office at our school, one of the many Yerevan universities in the fall of 2003. We would meet to discuss the forthcoming online class that we were thinking of co-teaching.
He was always on time. So when he didn’t show up for his last class with my students on May 18th, 2004, a class that he had been covering for me for three months as I was away on an exchange program, I was hoping that the shocked student walking into the office and later the newspaper that I bought (with a photo of Josh lying on the ground, his usually neat clothes tumbled in dust and blood) were instances of a mass hallucination. Murdered?!
I only knew that Josh was from Minnesota, that he liked to travel and teach; that everywhere he went it was hard for him to leave friends and landscapes that he got to like behind. I only knew that he had adopted a stray dog, after having seen that the dog had been mistreated; that he loved and missed his family. He was going to go back a few days after that mid-May day. Linearity of time!
Unweaving the fragile and frail layers of the thick smog of my memory has no temporal precision. I didn’t know much about Joshua. Only what he had told me. And some of what I had seen. A gentle young man in his early thirties, with a kind and warm smile, gently touching people around him. Humble, almost as though uncomfortable to be the tallest in the constantly moving group of thirty plus small female English instructors hanging out, sitting, standing, walking through, in and out of a smoke and conversation woven room that could probably sit 10-11 people at most.
Sometimes, we would talk standing, sometimes, when there was room, we would sit, and one of the program assistants would smile broadly at Josh offering him fruit and coffee. I can’t remember if he drank coffee. Sometimes, a couple of young instructors would discuss him after he left. How handsome he was, how shy, polite. Does chronology matter?
After May 2004, I used to see Joshua very often: crossing a street, or smiling, or looking on, talking to me, while I could not hear a word he was saying… in my dreams. Then I would wake up to the next moment of the linear chronology.
I was in Germany in the summer of 2004. Not in a dream. I was going to be a witness at friends’ wedding. So I was walking with my soon-to-be-spouses friends in Hannaford. Suddenly, Joshua materialized in the crowd. Then the linearity of time shook me, reminding me of the futility of my efforts to fight time, or rather the time underused, the time not lived with presence in the moment, I guess. Witnessing.
The thick smoke of our program office, or was it the thick smoke of a human shock, is making the events in my memory un- untangleable in terms of the linearity of time.
I remember the face of the police officer who asked for instructors and students that Joshua had worked with to be gathered in a particular room. And so we did. Actually, I don’t really remember his face. I remember his physique and his approach to masculinity. He was asking us questions about Joshua. What kind of person was he? Did you know the kind of places he liked to go? When did you see him last? Did you know that he was, you know…? Through the smog of my memory that is now also layered by the sensitivities sharpened through my entrance into parenthood, I cannot remember, what word, exactly, the police officer used. But he communicated to us very clearly that Josh was not heterosexual. And he communicated it to us lightheartedly and with a grin, in a lower voice, not much emotion, but in a way that one of the female students felt she had to stand up for Josh: “He was NOT!” (rolling her eyes, confident of the accuracy of her knowledge).
It all started in his apartment. He was stabbed in his apartment. He had opened the door for the killer. It must have been someone he had known. From his inner circles. Then he had run out, seeking help. I always thought the police try to get as much information from you as possible not the other way around. This was weird. We were all shocked in different ways. At the same time our faces looked like different parts of the same question Why? And here there was the police officer with his technical questions. And comments that seemed too much for the first police encounter. Too much too little.
And yet, this first police encounter opened the can of the rumors and fed them well. Rumors like whispers, It was a passion crime. His partner didn’t want Josh to leave Armenia. Rumors, like innumerable and creeping worms that gradually turned into boa constrictors, It was a hate crime. It was the father of a student who was unhappy with his or her grade. It was a student’s father who believed he [Joshua] had molested his child. Rumors, whispers, constrictors. Rumors, like thin layers of thick cigarette smoke in a program office, a café, a restaurant, or a bar in Yerevan, the smell of which you take home in your hair and clothes. They [US Embassy] know far well what happened, that’s why they are not commenting on it publicly. It was done at the hands of their own.
Many social scientists call this us vs. they, their, them, he, his, him “othering,” or, in other words, distancing oneself and marking boundaries between oneself, one’s own group and those whom we exclude from our in-group. Washing hands off, even when you had nothing to do with anything or anyone involved. This hand washing was, perhaps, meant for a third party and had less to do with the outside others it was pointing to on the surface. Others on the inside. You want to keep them unsuspecting and at a safe distance. So washing hands off through the rumors was, perhaps, an attempt to stay safe.
With the smell of the rumor smoke in my hair and clothes, I went to Joshua’s memorial service at the American University of Armenia. I realize now that it was my first memorial service experience of the kind. In Armenia, when someone passes on, you usually go to the wake or vigil in the person’s house or apartment. And she or he is usually lying there in an open casket, on a table, in the middle of the living or dining room. And you can see their neatly dressed body peacefully silent, seemingly asleep. There is usually a lot of crying out loud. LOUD. SCREAMING. WAILING, especially if the diseased is young. Instances of intense silence dotted by the “Tsavaktsum em” (My condolences) of all the new comers, whose flowers are picked up by someone at the entrance to the living room, and whose entrance triggers more WAILING. There are also some technical conversation bits on the margins, in the kitchen, hallways, usually travelling as mumbles, unless you get really close. And this loud wailing used to get on my nerves. Much like the linearity of time.
At the memorial service, however, there was only Josh’s picture. He was not there. Silence on the margins. And people were reminiscing and talking about him softly, publicly, from a podium. There was no SCREAMING. No WAILING. And that’s when for the first time in my life I wanted to digest the reality through seeing the seemingly asleepness.
Through my traumatized and shocked memory, I remember mostly female voices at Josh’s memorial service. Very humbling, warm words. Humbling and warm, much like him. I remember wishing really hard to go speak and trying hard not to cry too much, albeit quietly, sitting next to one of my male students. I remember I wanted to talk about Josh, wanted to partake of the experience more actively, but didn’t have much to say. So I didn’t. My previous Armenian experience of a wake, my active participation through being silent with those whose family member had just passed on did not translate into this new mode of active participation.
Five months later Josh’s colleagues and students were asked to gather again. Remember the room with the police officer? That was where we were asked to gather again. This time Josh’s mother and brothers wanted to meet with us. It was strange to be in the same room, see them sitting at the same place where the police officer had been sitting five months prior. They were also asking us questions. But the only question I remember is: What is the professional background of your parents? And it turned out that 90 per cent of us had parents who were engineers (there you have it: the overproduction of Soviet prestige on the margins of the empire). We all grinned or laughed. Awkwardly. Short. Was Josh’s family trying to re-gather, re-materialize, re-touch, re-hug, re-communicate with Josh through us, through our eyes that had seen him more recently? In Armenian I would ask Karotn ein arnum? One of the brothers was videotaping. The other was sitting there and looking at us, a group of strangers in whose eyes Josh had reflected on a weekly basis until mid-May. Unlike the police officer, they did not give us details into what happened. Couldn’t.
A friend and colleague of mine whispered in my ear that the sitting brother was wearing Josh’s clothes. I looked at his black shoes, a bit Yerevan dusty; grayish pants on his crossed legs, grayish-black sweater, light colored shirt underneath, and longish hair. He looked very different from Joshua and seemed to be looking for him in our eyes. I remembered a scene from a French movie I had seen a decade prior to that meeting, where the daughter was wearing her father’s clothes (whom she didn’t see much of), because she was missing him. Missing! I was looking at Joshua’s mom looking at our faces and into our eyes.
I am re-remembering Joshua’s mother now, through a mother’s mind. The way she was looking at us. Asking us questions that seemed to have nothing to do with Josh, unlike those the police officer was asking. His physique and approach to masculinity.
They never found out anything. The police. Case closed. Period. Inner circles. The rumor had it.
In my confused memory cocoon, the rumor had it that the police, the offspring of Sovietness, with some of its parental upbringing still intact, had one direction. If for the Soviets it was the uncatchable, ever-elusive socialism, for the police of 2004 it was the ever-elusive gay guy, sought for among the many that had to experience police officers with similar physique and approach to masculinity that we did, but much more directly (perhaps intensely). The rumor had it that much like the Soviet Union long gone, the police involved in Josh’s investigation ended up in the same place with the same diagnosis: deadlock, due to self-imposed misguidance. Was it a systemic failure?
I’ve been trying to understand why I keep having these visitations from a gentle, kind, smiling colleague that I did not know well. Perhaps seeing Josh in the streets of different countries and in different dimensions, is a human’s desperate attempt to exert control over the irreversible caused by another human, to whom we are often asked to be kind. Or is it a naïve attempt to restore the unserved justice? Or is it a futile attempt to have my own Groundhog Day?
What if, as Bukowski reminds me elsewhere, the killer looks just like us, drinking coffee, reading a newspaper, sitting in a café, at a table across from someone who knew Josh? Perhaps, some of us have smiled at that person, talked to that person, or perhaps known that person a little. Without knowing. So, like Josh’s reflection, we carry the reflection of his killer in our eyes. Without knowing.
And perhaps, the Justice and Peace scholarship in Joshua’s name, for deserving students from different parts of the world is the way to be kind. But how do we reshuffle the linearity of time, so that there is no systemic failure? The linearity of time, does it irritate you too?
Note: Joshua Haglund was teaching English in Yerevan, Armenia, as part of a U.S. State Department funded English Language Fellow program (ELF). He was found murdered outside of his apartment in Yerevan on May 17th, 2004.