You Aren’t Who I Expected
Alto Flute, Cello, and samples
Paul Wolfram and Maria Johnson, of the cello and flute duo Migrations, commissioned a piece from me in 2014, and I wrote a piece that includes pre-recorded audio of me reading a text I wrote for the piece. They perform it tonight in Brooklyn, NY! Here are the program notes:
“You Aren’t Who I Expected” grew from an image that forced its way into my mind soon after the terror attacks in Paris and Beirut in late 2015. As I listened to the stories about the shootings and bombings on the radio, I was suddenly confronted with the vision of some version of myself face to face with a suicide bomber who had “blue skin, a pale, almost purple color like the sky in the morning in the winter,” as I wrote in the piece. Surprisingly, we were alone, close enough to touch the tips of our fingers together, in some nondescript place, not a place with rushing crowds like you’d expect. He had orange eyes, yellow hair, and red teeth, and he was impossible to ignore.
As I spent more time thinking about this image, building a story around it, and trying to understand what it meant, I felt more and more as if I was staring into a mirror, rather than into the eyes of an evil person. I imagined him in scenes from my own childhood, reacting to his changing surroundings in the same way I did. I found he was a human being with his own story, but it was intertwined with mine.
But, to say terrorists are just like the rest of us just wouldn’t be right, because it isn’t true. However, we can’t go to the other extreme, and pretend that we can bomb terrorism out of the world. There are no easy solutions, only a unending series of hard choices. We’ll never make the right ones if we can’t recognize the humanity of every person who may suffer the consequences of our actions.
This piece isn’t meant as simply a political statement, though it is one. It is meant as an examination of humanity, of fatherhood, of race, of justice, of violence, of dreams, and how we are meant to find their meaning. I hope that the music and text woven together will help you to hear the story as I saw it, as a dream that carries a deep meaning, even if you don’t know exactly what it is.
You Aren’t Who I Expected
I dreamed that I stood face to face with a man who had blue skin, a pale, almost purple color like the sky in the morning in the winter. And his eyes were orange, and his hair was yellow like sulfur and the lines around his mouth and on his forehead were a darker blue, but so fine, just beginning to show his age. We were so close we could have touched the tips of our fingers together, the underside of his finger a lighter shade of blue like the sky seen looking up through water. His lips were the darkest blue, like gun metal and pulled tight together, but then he opened them to scream and I saw his red teeth and it wasn’t until then that I saw the explosives strapped around his chest. I was standing face to face with a suicide bomber.
In the days before the dream, I’d been consuming every bit of news about the attacks in Beirut and Paris, taking in more and more even as the stories turned sour in my stomach. It turns out I couldn’t resist even when I slept. But now I’m awake, sickened still, and I wonder—Is this sickness like a hangover that I brought upon myself, or a parasite that survives by feeding off its host, or a virus that infects without any consciousness at all? Or maybe it’s genetic, something that’s part of me. It’s just a dream, but it has changed my waking hours.
People who have nearly died always say they saw their life flash before their eyes. But when I heard his scream, I saw him in scenes from my life as me, as if he had taken my place. I saw him as a boy pulling the legs from the body of an insect. My grandmother appears and scolds him, then touches her forehead to his, soothing him after he cries in apology. And in another scene I see him as a young man, lifting heavy boxes into a truck, over and over again. The work is deadening, but he takes some pleasure in feeling the strength of his muscles, even as fatigue sets in, even as pain sets in, and his blue forehead grows wet with sweat. He doesn’t yet know how little this kind of strength is valued.
And then I saw him again in the “now” of this dream world. And the sound of his scream still hangs in the air, a thick, dark, deep green, so loud it was nearly black. And then I hear the sound of the bomb exploding, pure white with white filling the spaces between white like millions of spider webs, and I couldn’t have heard him if he spoke to me, even if he had wanted to speak to me.
I know he didn’t want to speak to me, but I wanted to speak to him, to say: I wasn’t expecting you, but you aren’t who I expected. You aren’t who I thought you would be, and I am not who I thought I would be.
Ever since my son was born I haven’t been able to stop myself from imagining every way he could be hurt—I see him falling after taking his first steps and choking on his first solid food as he looks to me for help, and worse. In my dreams, I am confident and heroic, but not perfectly so—I save him in some dreams and lose him in others and in those I mourn and moan and bellow like I’ve lost something more precious to me even than me. And I see him in the future as a father, as a grandfather even, as a man whose eyes light up bright with prideful gold, and green copper with worry.
But now, I’m nothing but silver like fish scales, black-green-grey like tree moss. I’m the yellow of butter on popcorn, the transparent white of a movie reflected on faces in a darkened room, the blue-red of closeness, of gathering. I’m a rainbow oil stain on the concrete and the shimmering purple of crow feathers. I’m the black of a passing shadow cast from above, moving quickly out of view, and the sting of sunlight in your eyes as you look up, looking for the thing that cast the shadow.