Bargaining. That is the third stage of loss. Well I suppose that Black Friday in America will be the perfect time to move on to this stage. But all I can think of when I hear bargaining is Kabul, I mean we are basically the masters of the skill. You’re guaranteed to use this daily in Afghanistan, whether with the lounging vendors selling watermelon on the side of the road to Qargha, or with the rowdy kochi women garbed in shimmering scarves, trying to push a bundle of bangles up your wrist without your consent, hoping that once they make it painfully over your thumb bone, you would be stuck paying any price they ask since they’re impossible to remove. Bargaining is life in Afghanistan. It is a little bit of victory the people can enjoy in their lives of constant defeat trying to make ends meet. It’s a temporary relief, but it is a sweet one.
But sometimes it is more bitter than sweet. Every time I finally made a purchase after this back and forth price trade, I always had the sinking feeling that I’d been played. That whatever cost I paid in the end was more likely the actual price, and what the store keeper had asked for first was just a ridiculously higher price because he didn’t want the bargaining to bring the price lower than what he would accept. So really, with bargaining, you can never win. You can only ever let yourself bathe in the momentary satisfaction of your work and try not to concentrate on the obvious fact that you’ve probably been taken advantage of anyway. And maybe that’s true for Afghans too, that they know every win is not real, and that somewhere down the road they will discover how they’re being played. Eventually it will out that lithium can be mined from our dusty mountains, and the reason so many foreign troops are “helping” us seems to make sense. Eventually it will be apparent that your bargaining was useless, it just gave you a placebo to the ugly reality.
“The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control.” This is how bargaining as a stage of loss is described. A need to regain control. How often have I looked back at my departure from Kabul and regretted something, wished I could change it, how many nights have I spent replaying moments that I mentally fine-tune and pray I can somehow rewind the clock and go back and get a do-over? Too many.
The cliché is to say that I try to live my life without regret but it seems impossible, especially when we are raised watching movies about perfect moments that all align in the stars of destiny. In truth, these moments tend to pass us by more often than not. But one thing is for sure, regret has never creeped into my mind and heart for things I should not have done, but rather things I should have done. And in this way I suppose that when people tell you to “seize the moment” and overcome your fears, your insecurities; that’s all very correct advice. There is no worse feeling than to sit back and watch your life, your future, your destiny just walk right past you. What I have now in my mind is a string of moments that I wish I could have done differently. They play in my mind like that broken record everyone talks about, a haunting tune of moments I can’t get back.
I should have fought that fight. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I would speak my mind, I would not hold back, no mercy. I would have defended myself rather than placating. I wouldn’t have stood aside with a smile while being walked all over. Because ever since it, I feel that I am screaming inside all the things I would have screamed on the outside.
I should have watched her more. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I would spend hours in the kitchen with her, learning the art but more importantly sharing the moment. She would hum as she always does and I would peel the onions and help her with the dishes and listen to her stories and revel in her laughter. I would be there for every dish, until we had spent a decade of foods together. Because ever since it, I miss my mother and the culture that goes with her cooking.
I should have given that foot massage. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I wouldn’t be so tired and shrewish. I would have spent more time giving relief to those crooked toes on those cracked feet because they had stood every day to support me growing up. I would have given a small amount of my time to give happiness to him because he spent a lifetime giving us happiness. Because ever since it, all I can do is buy the pills when needed and ship them back home and that is the only relief I can give my father from across the world.
I should have stopped the car. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I would have stopped it, turned it around, and come back to you. I would have told you everything and said goodbye the right way. Because ever since it, I can’t get that last painful image of you out of my head as the car left that night.
I should have been on that swing every night. If it could go right, here’s how it would go. I would spend every night on that swing, watching the stars and their reflection on the mountains, the soft grass tickling my feet every swish back and forth. I would sit in that yard with one of my best friends as she wagged her tail at me in that perpetual happiness that a dog can have. I would have whispered more secrets to her knowing eyes. I would have given her attention to last her a lifetime after I left. Because ever since it, all I can dream is nightmares of her being lost in the streets of Kabul, dying not of the cold or the fights but because she has no more love to feed her soul.
In the end, all we’re left with is a list of should have’s. We’d be here all night if I listed them all. This is the burden of the nomad kid, a lifetime of should have’s in different countries, with different people, and different situations. No matter if you are an individual with initiative, there is always that one moment you wish you could have at least just done, let alone done different. We spend our nights going over each one, bargaining with God or whoever or whatever controls the structure of the world, thinking of what we should have done, wishing for a do-over for an incomplete moment. Never able to change it, because every individual involved in our past life, lives somewhere far from our reach. We try so hard to bargain a change in our present lives but are setting ourselves up for disappointment, sitting here peeling a pomegranate thinking “let it be as good as at home, let it be as good”, waking up each day with the chant “let today be different, let today be different”, sleeping each night with “let tomorrow be different, let tomorrow be different”.
But we don’t go far with this bargaining, in the end you realize you’ve been sold something valueless for more than it will ever be worth and you have to deal with it, that even though you have won, you have lost. It is like the fake Uggs I bought from Walgreens for $15 that fell apart when I wore them out into the first Denver snow, realizing I bought a piece of shit, but accepting that it wasn’t surprising, after all it was $15 what did I expect? In this lifestyle, that is our reality. The only difference is that we’ve been sold the “American Dream”, and it was not cheap. And now that we have it, we see that the quality isn’t as good as it seemed, and understand that now the only way to go is forward because the planes have left and there is no going back.
We can spend our lives saying, “I should have bought real boots”, but where would that get us? $15 dollars out and nothing to show for it, that’s where. So instead we trudge on through the snow in our holed, cheap ass boots because to take them off and throw them away would be accepting defeat instead of at least getting our money’s worth. This is what we have now, us kids scattered around the world. We have moved on, I believe, from the need to be understood. We have begun to accept that many people just don’t care, and some people do, and it is all part of the fun to wait for those people to discover you. And we know that the only way to understand our lives is to have lived them, and we can’t expect that from America. I don’t expect anyone to walk in my shoes anymore. They’re falling apart anyway.
If we are going to make this work, America, it’s got to be unconditional. The way to doom something from the start is to make a relationship based on expectations, like the song that will soon be dominating the radios across the States says, “acceptance is the key to be truly free.”
It’s time for us to stop the bargaining, and know that there is nothing in the world, not even our souls, that we can trade to make things different. We are here. Chin up, sweetheart, like my Cali nomad tells me. Yes, chin up, trudge on. We can do this.
This thanksgiving I am not thankful for what I have, but for what I had. Because I did not spend enough time appreciating it. I am thankful for the love I was given by a country that did not need to recognize me as one of its own children, but who took me in and dealt with my hatred and my months of disgust, and eventually enthralled me to a point where the dust shimmers in my eyes. I am thankful for the constant care given to me by my mother when I was in Kabul, who is the embodiment of loving unconditionally. I am thankful for the challenges my father gave me, the arguments, the discussions, the stories, the advice, the patience, and everything that made me think twice. I am thankful for Haroun making sesame chicken with me in Kabul even though he was not in the mood. I am thankful that somehow all five of us ended up in Kabul and made my home complete after so long for that one year. I am thankful for the respect given to me by so many Afghans that has made me understand what it means to be worthy. And I am thankful for all the disrespect given as well, that has taught me what it means to be thick-skinned.
I am thankful for everything that I do not have anymore. I am thankful for every moment I can look back at and not think I should have done differently. I am thankful for that life that seemed too short and yet spanned an eternity. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The bargaining comes to an end, the bangles have already been pushed over the bone. It is time for acceptance now, before we spend the next decade regretting what we should have done today.