Mary Gould has a Masters in Creative Writing from St Leo University, Tampa Florida. Originally, from an obscure village in Jamaica, she lived for the Book Mobile visits. Published in the Sandhill Review, Moko Magazine, and in the Opiate Magazine, she resides in Miami, Florida with her husband and three children and their family cat, Ms. Kitty as she works on first novel.
Russell’s eyes met hers. He pulled his dance partner closer, running his hand down her back, until his hands lingered on her backside.
“I’d say Russell’s little performance is for your benefit.” Her friend, Sandra said as she came to stand beside her. Not waiting for an answer, she continued. “He wants you to see him grope the ever-easy Sophia.”
“Who cares? I’m leaving, remember?” Treasure’s voice sounded shrill and unconvincing to her ears. She hurried from her friend’s penetrating blue eyes muttering “I’m going to circulate.” For the first time that night, she noticed the lovely decorated hall. Banners of congratulations, we’ll miss you, and best wishes; colorful center pieces that graced the tables and festive balloons filled the hall. Young women and men came up to her and said she was a role model to them and wished her well. Booze flowed freely and the guests and employees were taking advantage of the fact that the Law firm had provided the choice of taxis or uber-rides for those who over-indulged. The managing partner liked to say, “We take on high profile cases, not become the headline ourselves.”
Treasure took a glass of champagne from a nearby waiter and continued to walk across the room chatting briefly with each employee, thanking partners, paralegals, secretaries, and judges. Her paralegal, Joe was sprawled on the floor, drunk. She signaled to one of the security guards. “Get him a Taxi, please.” And gave him Joe’s address. Tears pricked her eyes as she thought how much she’ll miss him. She turned away quickly to hide her emotion and saw Russell now dancing with her secretary, Julia. Why do I give a damn? But she knew why. It was the same reason she was a Law Order TV Junkie, she needed the reason or motive behind the crime. Why did he hate her?
Treasure had a crush on Russell since she started at the law firm of Cohen and Braxton five years ago and had been determined to prove herself as his equal. In year two, she lost her enchantment with him. He seemed to take an instant dislike to her; even though she had never had any run-ins or made any romantic overtures towards him. Curious, she’d walked right up to him one day and demanded to know if she had done anything to offend him. “No,” he said. I just don’t like leftovers.”
Flushed with embarrassment and humiliation, she had forgotten to ask what he meant by “leftovers.” She had opted instead to avoid him over the years, but her curiosity and fascination with him had not waned. Russell’s antipathy towards her had only increased and last year when he was asked by the Managing Attorney to present the Business Woman of the Year trophy to her, he had declined claiming to have a pressing engagement he couldn’t break. A few days later, she had learned that Russell had made up the excuse. When pressed, her mentor and Managing Partner, Arnold Cohen would only say the mayor would present the award instead. Russell’s refusal to be the presenter fueled ugly gossip and speculation at the water cooler; some employees thought it was about competition for the highest billing in the firm; others thought he had dumped her.
That was one of reasons Treasure decided to leave the firm. Could he have learnt about her feelings? She wondered. No way. Sandra hated Russell and was frustrated with her inability to drop the torch she carried for him. Her brother died in Afghanistan a month ago. He left goodbye letter imploring her to take some time off and enjoy life. She had taken the advice to heart and decided to leave the firm. She had wasted years wishing that Russell would one day notice her and ask her out. Fool. No more. She had made the firm millions of dollars and she could afford to travel without being broke. And if she was lucky, she’d meet someone worthy of her attention.
Arnold Cohen tapped her on the shoulder. “Come back.”
She turned towards him. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
“May I have this dance?” He held out his arms. She walked into them and was soon on the dance floor dancing to Billy Preston’s, “You’re so beautiful.” They danced in comfortable silence for a few moments and the soothing tones of the music calmed her.
“Are you okay?” Arnold asked.
“I’m fine. Painful memories, that’s all.”
“He is a fool. You deserve better.”
“Why do you think it’s a he?”
“I’ve been around the bend a few times, my dear.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it.
Arnold kissed her cheek and whispered. “This is your big night, enjoy yourself, and don’t let him ruin it. Any guy who’s too stupid to show up for your party is not the guy for you.”
Treasure didn’t correct him “I’m going to miss you, Arnold.”
“Meet too. He put his hand over his heart. The music stopped and he kissed her cheek. “Don’t forget to check in once a month.” He had been her mentor when she started with the firm. Soon a close relationship developed between them. The other guys weren’t above trying to sleep with her under the guise of needing help with a difficult case or requesting help with research, not Arnold. He protected her and threatened the men with sexual harassment charges and warned them he would represent her, if they continue to bother her. Non-disclosure settlements were drawn up and no one in the office knew the amount except the board members. She had put it all behind her choosing to focus on her successful representation of her clients and the resulting bonuses.
When she tendered her resignation, Treasure had been surprised that the old geezers didn’t want her to leave, even offering her a partnership, begging her to stay, and refusing to take her resignation. She had lost her brother and his death reminded her of how fragile and uncertain life is. And she was damned if she was going to spend her life on a fruitless crush. Arnold had been her staunch supporter, agreeing to send assignments until she decided her next career. Arnold was the closest thing to a father she had; having been raised by her single aunt after her parents died in a plane crash when she was five years old.
She was brought back to the present by the sound of voices chanting her name. She had missed most of her toasts and goodbye wishes. Sandra was leading the chant. Arnold and her staff joined her, demanding, cajoling, and encouraging her to give a speech. She looked over to the corner where she last saw Russell and saw him standing nonchalantly, drink in hand, watching her. He wasn’t shouting, clapping or even smiling. Why did he come? And why couldn’t she ignore him?
Treasure sashayed in her sleek black dress with a long-split that showed off her golden leg, the dress hugged every curve as she made her way to the microphone. She didn’t look in Russell’s direction but made her way to the podium, high-fiving people along the way. Grabbing the microphone, she twirled around. Russell’s’ poker face stared back at her. I got to stop looking at him.
“They say Defense attorneys will represent anyone.” She began. “The story goes that a thief broke into a defense attorney’s home and he managed to shoot the burglar in the leg and tie him up. Then he called his partner over to represent him and to ensure his Miranda Rights were administered properly. When the Police got there, they asked why should he care if the burglar’s rights were violated? He replied, “He scared me half to death, the least he can do is pay my firm for his representation.” The audience laughed. Treasure ended her speech by thanking everyone, especially her support staff. She hated goodbyes. It was time to go home. She gave Arnold the peace sign, the signal she was leaving.
Treasure felt a tap on her shoulder and her heart thumped an uneven rhythm. She knew the scent of that cologne anywhere. Her anger ignited like brush fire. Trying to harness her temper, she ignored him. He tapped her shoulder again, applying more pressure. Typical arrogant--
“What do you want?” She asked.
“Dance with me.” Russell demanded.
“No.” She said.
She began to walk away. He grabbed her hand and pulled her on to the dance floor.
“Come on. It would be rude of me not to dance with the guest of honor.” Treasure didn’t answer. What was he up to? She looked across the room. All eyes were on them. She didn’t want to make a scene− not on her last day. He must have made the same calculation for he held her close, too close. His lips brushed her ear, her neck, drinking in her perfume. He was being deliberately provocative. What the hell did he want? She stood stiffly in his arms, hoping he’ll get the hint and let her go. Russell asked about her plans and she evaded them, saying only she will be taking a long vacation. He said she deserved it and hoped she will take some time to properly grieve for her brother. Who was this person? Was he so glad to see go, he could afford to be nice because he’d never see her again? She looked across the room and realized that room was almost empty. Only a few musicians were playing background music. How did he manage to distract her without her noticing?
“Where did everyone go?” She pulled herself from his arms, putting distance between them.
“I asked everyone to leave.”
“You had no right to do that. This is my party, something you seemed to forget.”
“I was the one who threw you this party. Besides, Arnold said you hated goodbyes, so we got rid of everybody.”
“Why would you throw me a party?”
“To make up for missing a few of your Award celebrations”
She got in his face and began pointing. “You ignored me for five years and now you host my party. You couldn’t just let me have my night, you arrogant, son of a bitch.” She was now beating his chest, her ample breast rising and falling as rage poured like a sieve from her.
“Calm down, Treasure.” You’-----
She didn’t let him finish. “Don’t you tell me to calm down? You Jerk.” She raised her hand to slap his face, but he caught her hand and with the other hand pulled her roughly towards him his arms held so she couldn’t extricate herself.
“You’re hurting me. Let me go, you--.” Instead he kissed her cutting off her words. The kiss startled her and she froze. He held her closer, his mouth teased and probed her mouth open; his tongue tasting, exploring sloppily. His teeth bruised her lips. No finesse, no chemistry, no skill, just slobbering, drooling in her mouth.
“Hell no!” She yelled and pushed him away.
“Shut you up, very effectively don’t you think?”
“I really wished you hadn’t. The words, shut up” would have sufficient.”
“But what would be the fun in that?
Fun for who? She didn’t say the words. She needed answers. “Why now?”
“I heard so much about your sexual adventures. And since you’re leaving and could no longer threaten my career with sexual harassment charges, I decided to see what the fuss is about.”
“Sexual exploits? Me?” She stuttered. “You’ve me mixed up with someone else.”
“Don’t be modest. You’re leaving a long line of satisfied lovers.”
He might have said the word customers. The insult was unmistakable. As usual, Russell appeared oblivious to the weight of his words. She had been called geeky, smart, cold, and a lesbian behind her back by people who didn’t know anything of her love life or lack thereof. No one had ever called her promiscuous− until now. He wore a smug expression as he gazed back at her. My God, the old geezers must have invented the slut label to debunk the office rumors of sexual harassment. She finally understood his cryptic remark that he “despised leftovers
Treasure smiled and moved close to him, so close, she could see the tiny hairs on his shaved chin. She held up her hands for silence and walked over to a nearby table and poured some champagne in two glasses. She finished the glass and poured herself another. She handed one to him and then clicked the glasses and toasted to “memorable goodbyes.” He took a sip of his champagne, his eyes lingering on her breasts. He wants me.
“I have another toast.” He said. “To great one-night stands.”
He had labeled her leftovers and the funny thing was his kiss wasn’t a delectable appetizer, In fact, she couldn’t wait to dine elsewhere. She had wasted five years, obsessing, fantasizing, dreaming about them being together. She raised her glass. “To crushes that don’t live up to the hype.”
His mouth opened in surprise.
“Bye Russell. Get some kissing lessons. I should charge you with kissing malpractice. Your sexual prowess is as contrived as my water-cooler reputation.”
“Want to try again?” He asked. “I’d like to restore my reputation.”
She laughed. “I despise do-overs, especially when its clear that extensive training is required to achieve competency.”
She left him red-faced red, nursing a bruised ego. She had built Russell up in her head like the sexiest man alive. Most fantasy never measure up to reality, the book is almost always better than the movie, a few of life’s ironies. She told the taxi-driver to take her to the Plaza Hotel, already planning her itinerary for her travels in her head.
Abdullah “A.H.” Erakat was born, raised, and educated in the United States. Following his graduation from Rider University in 1998, Erakat left Marlton, New Jersey, crossing the Atlantic to go to Jerusalem to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After journalism, Erakat served as a foreign press secretary in the Palestinian Authority, and would later teach undergraduate students media, cinema, and acting at Bard College’s Jerusalem campus.
His screenplays, works of Arab-American Erakat, often deal with issues of identity, diversity and family. Erakat co-wrote Birth of Words about Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and the short film Al Bier (or The Well) about the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. He also wrote Abdullah Smith, a
semi-biographical screenplay about his experiences as an Arab growing up in Vermont and New Jersey; currently in development. He has written a comedic play But It's a Dry Heat, about a Muslim family owning a liquor store in Arizona, which he hopes to adapt to a television series.
“Searching for Sidewalks,” about the struggles of being a Palestinian-American writer, husband and father in the occupied West Bank, is Erakat’s first novella.
Erakat lives with his wife Noura and four daughters, Haya, Mira, Laura, and Dana, in Abu Dis; a village southeast of Jerusalem.
Searching for Sidewalks: A novella
When Royal Jordanian Flight 263 touched down at O’Hare International Airport at 4:15 p.m., central time zone, the man with the strange face gave what could be described as a professional smile. For the most part, his chapped lips remained sealed. Shoulders back, he held his head high as if a film director had asked him to act that way for this scene. However, the look in his eyes was a strong contradiction. His hazel eyes signaled certain giddiness. He had been waiting for this moment, well, since autumn. It felt more like forever than it felt like fall. Regardless, December had finally come. Finally. And here he was in Chicago. At the gate. Waiting for them. To get off the plane. The smell of the frost was interchangeable with the exhaust fumes of airplanes.
Over the past few months, he had imagined, maybe close to ten thousand times this moment. Sure, he couldn’t wait to see all of them. But mostly he was dying to hold his children –his two daughters, in particular. The reunification was here. For a second, a painting of the resurrection of Christ popped up in his head. Ironically, it was followed by an image of him in bed with his wife. He had remained faithful since the very day she took the girls and left him, vowing never ever to have any further communication with him until the courts. “Vowing?” It was more like screaming. He drove them to the airport of course. Not for her. For his daughters, they spoke the necessaries. Six piece chicken nuggets. Two small fries. “What do you want to eat?” “I don’t want anything from you.” She agreed for him to drive them because she did not want the children to be the victims in their upcoming divorce. “Ha!” The children are the only victims in these matters. Ever. Somehow time mends. Getting here wasn’t easy though. Keeping it together would be even harder.
He had nightmares about the jumbo jet crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. He was both an observer and a passenger. You know those dreams because we’ve all had em’.
One dream he had, which was in the afternoon, a reason they say cat naps are bad for you, the plane was diving down like those roller coasters at Six Flags.
Then in slow motion, his wife turned to him and said, “You could have had five months with us. Live with that.” Swoosh! Crash! Boom! The man with the strange face was paranoid because things seemed perfect. He imagined himself losing to Murphy in an arm wrestling contest. “My win, my way, my law,” he would tell him after the defeat. Who the hell was this Murphy guy anyway?
Before he had a chance to search for an answer, the passengers started coming out from beyond the gate. Gate 16, in case you’re wondering. He saw a young woman run up to a man and almost knock him down. Within seconds, they were passionately kissing. She was doing the most work. “My wife could never be like that,” he found himself thinking. And then he watched a father holding a Baby Alive doll. It drinks and pees in case you didn’t know, but don’t rush to the nearest toy store, it has yet to poop. The Man with the strange face wanted to smile when the father handed the doll to his kid and kissed her. She must have been close to his daughter’s age. Be patient, he told himself. Still, he found himself envying the man for a moment. Over the last 150 days, he was jealous of every man with every daughter. Especially those he saw at the supermarket, when he went to buy his TV dinners in aisle 22. One evening, there was a man who held his girl by her left hand, as she dragged her feet, crying, “I want it, I want it.” He imagined punching the father out, giving the girl what she wanted, along with a balloon. A store employee would yell, “Maintenance to aisle 22, employees report to that aisle too!” The cleaning lady would be mopping the blood while the male and female associates cheered on the man with the strange face. The imagination bubble became broken when he saw his wife. Next, his eyes went to her waistline. Before he had time to react, he collapsed and was on his knees, sobbing. She ran up to him and picked him up. The man with the strange face was no longer confident. “Where are they?” “Where are they?” He asked over and over again. “Did something happen to them?” He didn’t wait for an answer and instead, cried more – the loud wails as if something had happened. The wife of the man with the strange face agreed to tell him if he calmed down. After a few minutes of walking away from the gate, they sat on a nearby metal bench. As uncomfortable as that was, he had a feeling that listening to what his wife would be more discomforting. “The girls did not come because they gave up on you. You took too long. They want to live with their grandparents.” When the stroke hit him, he thought at first he had been stung by a bee and then –
“It looks good from here,” a female voice said. Tear drops on the key pads, he could still type. But when his eyes became too watery, Munther stopped writing. He was too startled to recognize the sound of his wife. He turned to find Fatmah. “I heard that writers sleep to write.” The document was far from any writing – just notes. He didn’t even write short stories. But this one came to him in a dream and he put pen to paper. “Can you please come to bed?” He nodded. “The girls asleep?” This time, it was her turn, to nod. Munther saved his document the same way by emailing a draft to himself. When he actually completed a piece of writing, in the textbox of the email he always wrote something like “Thank God or Just God,” so that if HE was tuning in one evening, he would bless his writing. When he could only outline or jot notes, he still saved the document but as “Please God.” He turned off the computer and the light and closed the door of his study. In the dark he sat for a couple of minutes. His wife once asked him about this particular ritual. He was too polite to explain it to her. But to his friend Ramzy he would answer, “The same reason some people smoke after sex.”
It happened Sundays through Thursday. If there was work on Friday and Saturday, Munther was sure it would happen on the early mornings of those days too. Well, probably. The day his wife Fatmah caught him was the last day of the work week in the Palestinian Territories…
While this Muslim couple woke up to pray the Fajr together, Munther was quick to jump up from the rug after completing the morning prayer, re-set the alarm for 6:45 a.m. and sleep a little bit more. Fatmah, unlike her husband, remained on her knees, tasajud, in worship. She asked for forgiveness of sins she may have committed -- willingly or unwillingly. She also liked to read a chapter from the Holy Koran. Being tomorrow was Friday, she liked to read Surat Al Kahf or The Cave.
Fatmah stopped only to adjust her Abaya.
She digressed for a moment about how it bothered her husband that she only wore the white prayer garments her mother had given her when Munther had bought a brand new one on his trip last year to make Omra. “What does he have against Mamma?” she asked out loud, not sure if that was meant for her or Allah.
Although she wouldn’t mind God answering the question and perhaps providing a remedy for her husband to get along better with his in laws. The question certainly wasn’t for Munther who, like the people in the cave, was deep in sleep. Why can’t he ever learn to fall asleep holding me as tightly as he holds that pillow?
“Astaghfirullah,” she said. On her knees, the Muslim holy book in hand, she uttered that word for forgiveness several times, failing to hear when five year old Maya came in. Her daughter startled her. Why is it that on the brink of my 40th birthday, I get startled so easily, she thought and not asked. “I peed myself again,” said Maya. “The bed, too?” Maya shook her head.
“The pee didn’t wait till I got to the bathroom,” she said. “It was in a hurry,” the preschooler added with a peculiar, semi-intelligent look on her face.
Was that guilt? Mashallah, this generation grows up, and graduates before it’s out of the womb. In town, people were astonished how Munther’s girls answered their father in English and mother in Arabic. She remembered the time when the father of one of Maya’s classmates approached Munther after school. This particular father had one thing in common with her husband. He, too, had spent a number of years in America and could speak English fluently. He was born in Abu Dis and went to Chicago after high school. Was it Chicago or Cheyenne? In the minimal encounters which took place between the two men, he compared himself to Munther, although her husband was born, raised and educated in the U.S. What was his name, Fatmah? Ever since he returned to the West Bank, people always questioned his motive and he got asked the same question over and over – “who leaves America and comes here?” She probably inserts the words, ‘the hell,’ between who and leaves. Motassem. That was his name.
He said it wasn’t pure coincidence that both of their names started with ‘m’ but a sign of how close they should be. Motassem met Munther and made his way to Madrid for milk.
An obvious play on words. She knew this word. It started with the letter, “T.” She did well in English. Anyway, Motassem told Munther how his wife was giving him f-ing shit for not speaking to his children in English. Oh that was the other thing that annoyed her about people like Motassem, who went to America, learned English and came back.
They always felt like they had to use the f word in every sentence, even those that didn’t belong. Tautogram, she said out loud, startling herself. God! I startle myself, too, Fatmah thought. She recalled the “Be like Mike” commercial for Michael Jordan she once saw on Youtube.com. Was he a basketball player or baseball? “Mish muhimm.” What was important was the comparison – “Be more like Munther, Motassem, for me,” Fatmah imagined Motassem’s wife saying, playing with her hair with one leg in front of the other. M.M.M.M. Motassem’s wife, whose name was probably Manal, Muntaha, Miral or Marwa, was like many others in this town – who wanted their husbands to be everybody else except for who they were. This town…Abu Dis. The best way to describe it would be like the experience of witnessing the aftermath of a horrible accident on a busy road. Everybody slows down and you know it’s bad, but you still look anyway. “That happens here, too?” Munther once asked her. “It’s not an American phenomenon, it’s a worldly one,” she told him.
She closed the Muslim holy book and kissed it, brought it to her forehead, repeating that acknowledgement one more time.
She took off her prayer clothes, folding it and placing it neatly in the drawer next to the side her husband slept on. They kept each other’s belongings in the other’s bed stand drawer. “A good way for couples to stay together,” Munther once said to Fatmah in a dream.
After giving Maya a half bath and dressing her in her second Frozen pajamas, Fatmah put her back in bed, tucked her in and kissed her on the cheek. “Hold my hand and stay with me until I fall asleep,” she ordered. Wow! Kids give the orders and we follow them. It’s no longer the other way around.
She glanced at Linda sleeping in the other bed. At first she was sad to have had Irish twins. She didn’t want to remember the fights she had with Munther. “It’s too soon to have another baby because Maya hadn’t received enough attention yet!”
She was mad at him for a week. And of course when a Palestinian girl gets angry at her husband, she can’t stay with him in the home. No. No. No. She has to take her anger out at her parent’s house. In Arabic, the word for that was Harad. Fatmah imagined a classroom lesson -- The adjective would be – Fatmah is har-da-neh at her mom and dad’s home. Some would joke that it’s become a tradition. Others would ask if they’re teaching this stuff in school. Four year old Linda slept better than her older sister.
She also played better, ate better and had no trouble making friends. But Fatmah didn’t want to think about that now. She could feel the tears forming already. Instead, she uttered “Al hamdulileh.” Always, thank God. Thank God, they were each other’s best friends. Thank God they’re 11 months apart. No regrets. Just God.
By the time Maya fell back asleep, the sunlight had entered the room so Fatmah turned off the cheap night lite.
“Oh Munther you’re not cheap, why do you buy that way?” On her way to the bedroom, she stopped at the mirror between the family room and dining room. She checked herself out. Pointing to her stomach, she said, “This could be smaller.” She turned and looked at her butt. Grabbing it, she said “God forgive you Mamoun, this mirror does make everything look bigger.” Mamoun, another M.
Mamoun was the owner of the Qader furniture place. It was indeed destiny that they would replace the original mirror after it cracked due to the sound of a nearby Israeli sound bomb that exploded.
But Fatmah was sure Mamoun had fooled them and given them a second hand mirror which made people look bigger. She made her husband Munther tell Mamoun. “Tell” here meant call him and bring him over to the house to show him the mirror and get him to replace it.
Munther was embarrassed. But he did it because Fatmah was his Abla, the Arabic version of Juliet. She knew that Munther quietly wondered to himself if she considered him to be her Antar aka the Arabic Romeo.
Muslims were allowed to have four wives but she didn’t have to worry about that with Munther. She knew he would die for her.
Or because of her. Poor men. Besides, his job was not steady which meant he couldn’t afford to marry a second wife, buy or even rent a second home, pay the utilities. Running two separate households? He wasn’t properly running this one. More children that were not hers? What would she call them? “How are the children belonging to the woman, you, my husband, married and made with wife number two?” That would just get… confusing.
But most of all, she couldn’t imagine dealing with her durra – Arabic for, “the woman I want to kill for becoming my husband’s second wife.” That wasn’t the actual definition, but that’s what it should be. Just the image of him sleeping in bed with another –Stop! Breathe! No! Wait! Another point – although he practiced Islam, she knew that the American in him was against this which was fine by her. What wasn’t fine was how in some things he was American and other, he was Arab. He got mad at this but not that. But it was true. What was the name of his favorite musical? Jekyll and Hyde. For example, when it came to money, Americans saved. Munther didn’t save. He was being Arab here. That’s not fair, a voice inside told her. She knew a couple who had money because they saved money. They were also considered to be extremely bakheel, the Arabic word for cheap. “We always have difficulty finding a middle ground,” she said. When his girls would grow up, he argued with her that he wasn’t going to mind if they wore a veil or not. That was the American in him. She could go back and forth on this, but she didn’t want to be late for work. Besides, she also didn’t want the prayer she just prayed to go to waste with such thoughts.
Munther pretended to sleep as his wife stood in front of the mirror. Dressed, she was putting on her veil. He had trained himself to sleep just in time to wake up and watch. He loved this. He wasn’t sure what part of it turned him on the most. Perhaps it was how for the years they’ve been married she always did it the same way. Imagine a scientist conducting an experiment. Or one of those cooking shows where the chef is letting the salt back into the jar because it exceeded the one table spoon. He never thought he would marry an Arab looking woman. If she didn’t wear the veil, she could pass for an American due to her skin being whiter than the Middle Eastern complexion. Growing up, his parents worried he would end up marrying an American, or rather a non-Arab girl. Ironically, although he had grown up in the states, his skin color was darker and he was once taken for Sicilian or Italian rather than Middle Eastern.
He always knew he would marry a Palestinian but one who was less conservative and didn’t mind showing her hair, legs and arms while she was outdoors. If he were creating a character like the love of his life Fatmah, for one of his screenplays, he would describe her as in her thirties, a moderately dressed Muslim, barely revealing her women features. Barely revealing, still meaning she wore tight jeans and-
“You need to write,” he heard a voice interrupt him.
Talk the talk about being a writer but never walk the walk, the same voice said. “I’ll write,” he thought to himself.
Just as she was using the last pin to secure the veil from falling she spotted his eyes moving. Does she know I’m not sleeping? Next thing he knew, she had jumped on top of him. Fatmah was cool like that. “Want to explain yourself?” She asked tickling him. He couldn’t get a word out because he was laughing so hard he couldn’t even think. Aroused, absolutely. He managed to have one thought, other than “that” thought - life was, good!
Then his cell phone rang.
She stopped tickling him. They looked at each other. “Your parents?” She gave him a frown. A math equation popped into his head: Early morning plus phone calls equals bad news. She looked at the name. “Office,” she said and threw the phone at him almost playfully. He answered the phone and was cut off to listen. Looking at him, she could tell immediately that her husband had been let go.
He closed the phone and gave a look to confirm what she had been thinking, her face went from pink to pale and would be followed by, pissed. While they both knew this was a possibility, they didn’t expect it so soon. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You never stand up for your rights,” she said. He got out of bed and faced her. “What do you mean? Of course I do.” She shook her head, her eyes starting to tear immediately. “You spent two months in taxi fare going to Ramallah – “-Money comes and goes, Fatmah he said. “I’m not talking about the shekels you blew. I’m talking about your dignity, Munther. Going to that office, sitting there among people in their twenties making more than you and for what? To be let go like this? Do you want me to talk to him for you?” He just stared at her, then, “Say it Fatmah, Munther don’t write. Don’t waste your time being a writer.” She shook her head. “There’s Matlubeh from yesterday. I’m going to work.” Like the English name for the Arabic dish, his life which had literally been good a few minutes ago, was now, ‘upside down.’ He heard Forrest Gump’s voice saying “Life is like a matlubeh, you never know whether your feet will be on the floor or ceiling.”
She grabbed her purse, put on her sunglasses, opened the door and stopped to look at him. This was a frequent move of hers and reminded him of Whitney Houston’s character in The Bodyguard. Fatmah walked back into the bedroom, gave him a peck on the cheek and left. “Daddy? Do you have to go to work? Can you take us instead to ride our bikes outside the gate?” It was Maya. How they grow fast, he thought. What’s the rush? “What about school?” Sitting with people younger than you. In America, life starts at 40. Why was the mentality different here? “If you’re not going to work, we want to stay home to play with you, Baba.” What was he mad at again?
Being overprotective, he immediately said “Okay. We can ride but within the gate, not outside.” To say no to the child would have crushed Maya’s feelings and been down right cruel. “Come on, let’s get breakfast.” They headed for the kitchen. “But your scrambled eggs taste like our toy ones so we want cereal,” Linda added.
The new routine went on and on. Get the girls to school, have a couple of hours to himself. Close the windows when the Israeli soldiers fired tear gas. “Oh, I love the smell of tear gas in the morning,” he said. Another movie reference. It’s Apocalypse Now, don’t lose sleep over it. Movies. An idea came to his mind. He thought that he could be a triple threat – look for work, write and get some things in the house done before he had to go back out to pick up the girls. One out of three ain’t bad. No work. No writing. Just chores. This lightbulb idea though – heat up lunch their mother had made and then put on a film. “While they’re watching Tangled, I will try to write a screenplay.” They got scared from the witch and called their father over to watch with them. Damn you Disney, you’re not supposed to be this scary. “Who wants to color?” He took out coloring books and crayons. The moment he was about to come up with a storyline, world war three erupted, although it was more like the fights amongst the Kardashians. “I want the red one.”
“No, it’s my turn. I want the red one, now.” Put on the referee hat. He thought of the Dallas Cowboys playing any team. Eureka! He decided that he would try to write when they napped. The problem was simple. Irish twins, yes? Take a nap at the same time? No. Power off. Laptop to study. Lights off. Den door closed, locked.
Kids don’t forget. Namely, Maya’s questioning about riding bikes outside the house gate continued. Finally, he subdued, surrendered, put the white flag up, gave in, and agreed.
It made them happy. What would make me this happy? He forgot about the writing, not having a job. It was like that metal object Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones use in Men in Black.
“Except the children are using it on us,” he thought.
The last time the girls were this excited was when they first rode a horse in Jericho. Due to Munther losing his job and having to pick up the girls after school, he stopped going down to the oldest city in the world. He was stuck in Abu Dis. He remembered the summers he used to visit. He couldn’t wait to get back to the states. His mother and father took him and his siblings there so “they wouldn’t forget their roots.”
He brought books and spent time locked in his room reading them. With each new day, he marked an X on the calendar – almost time to go home. At first, for him Abu Dis was like that ride at the amusement park that went back and forth, before hanging upside down in the air. Matluba again. One night his mother’s cousin told him Abu Dis was lovely in the summer, but beware in the winter. She went on to tell him that when it gets colder, Arab hyenas with horns emerge and to stay warm they ram themselves into people. “They have an extraordinary sense of smell and can sense those who grew up in America,” she said to Munther’s horror. He was 19, naïve so he believed every word. Somehow the town in his eyes had changed. The people too. He stopped being Anti-Arab.
God how mad his Dad used to get at him when Munther called his own people Camel jockeys. That was a long time ago. Yet, it wasn’t.
Munther stayed behind Maya and Linda as they rode their bikes up and down the dirt road. Taking a break only to use the bathroom. Then immediately, they were back outside. He liked this.
Yes, he wasn’t working but he was hanging out with his girls. There had been nights he’d come home from Ramallah only to find them in bed. Suddenly, unemployment didn’t seem so bad.
As the days passed more and more, he found new places to take them. Their favorite became “Land 4 Kedz.” The spelling of kids with an ‘e’ and a ‘z’ was not intentional. They meant to write land for kids.
These places spent so much money opening a business, yet when it came to making the sign in English, they failed to hit the spell check button. Maya and Linda considered this place their favorite because there wasn’t anywhere else to go. It was a small playground in a mini mall in Al Azariya, just a couple minutes from Abu Dis and where Munther lived with his family. Al Azaria, Abu Dis and Al Suwahra were a district, located Southeast of Jerusalem, containing a population of 35,000 villagers, he recalled from his days writing for a business newspaper.
But you’d be wise not to quote him on that because he never was a good economic reporter. He wasn’t very good with numbers. “That’s why I married a math teacher,” he often joked. There was one main road for these villages. It was impossible to get lost. Munther, being bad with directions, managed to find a way. His relatives always asking him – “Who gets lost in Abu Dis? It’s one road.”
One particularly cloudy day, Land 4 Kedz was packed – with women. He only looked at the women when he entered and this is not to mean that he checked them out. He only really did have eyes for Fatmah. Munther recognized them as his wife’s friends or colleagues. After marriage, his wife had less and less time to mingle.
He wasn’t like other those Palestinian husbands who politely asked their wives to sever all contact with friends or people she went to college with or else. It’s a village. People see each other out all the time. Going to a pharmacy, you were sure to bump into someone you knew. On a number of occasions, he was shy to give a prescription to a pharmacist because someone he knew he would see would ask him about his ailments. He would go in spending twenty minutes looking at the different tooth pastes. He would quickly give the scrip and avoid making small talk. He was made to feel like he was doing something wrong. It felt like a quick drug exchange. It made it worse when the pharmacist was a cousin. “Oh no my cousin, you got high blood pressure? From the woman I’ll bet.” He smiled. He didn’t like those jokes men made about their wives.
Picking up medicine in Abu Dis should be like obtaining top secret documents. Munther often imagined himself as Robert Redford, although he looked more like Dustin Hoffman, in All the President’s Men when Woodward and Bernstein met up with ‘Deep Throat’ for an exchange of information.
Abu Dis was not a place for a man to wear shorts. Unlike Ramallah which was liberal, going out in public in this town, you dressed not ultra conservative but semi-ultra. One evening his wife fell ill.
And for the first time in his ten plus years living there, he went out in his pajamas.
Well, what he slept in really were shorts and a tee shirt. He drove to the pharmacy, got the medicine and drove home. It was dark and he was sure no one saw him. The next day Fatmah came home laughing. Laughing so hard she couldn’t even tell the story. She spent ten minutes trying to get through the first sentence. She finally managed to tell him that her colleague’s husband had asked her what’s the matter with Munther? – that phrased sounded like a title of bad 1990’s television show. “Yousef saw Munther at the pharmacy (pause for dramatic effect) wearing shorts!” She said it, the line delivery, as one was about to tell her friend that she saw her husband with another woman. Netherless, that’s how he began to recognize or rather look out for his wife’s acquaintances.
Now, Munther could tell they were looking at him carefully watching his daughters jump up and down in the colorful plastic balls. That they would stare at him the whole night, as he played with his girls. One of the mothers there even bought chips for Maya and Linda. “Say hi to Fatmah,” she said as she handed him the bag of Lays. “Who are you,” he thought. And why are you wearing so much eye shadow? He didn’t mind being the center of attention. He knew they were all whispering about him. This did not bother him. What he didn’t like was having to take his daughters into the disgusting bathroom with that disgusting smell. Worse than the fact that there were no paper towels in the dispenser was the disgusting fact that there was no toilet paper. The owners of this place would probably spell toilet, Toy Let, his mind drifted.
Luckily his wife had taught him to bring his own tissues as well as Huggie wet wipes, two hand sanitizers. One for Maya and one for Linda. Who fights over hand sanitizers? Oh yeah, the Kardashians. So one of the other sisters wouldn’t get taken or lost, he would take both of them to the bathroom at the same time. His wife called a few minutes later to say that her parents were over and to bring the “kedz” home. He said the girls were still playing and politely told her to say hello to his in laws. This was his time.
It bothered him sometime, maybe – no that’s not the right word - often, that he was expected to stop everything and bring the girls home just because people came over.
In a Palestinian village, no one believes in calling first. “Great! Munther and Fatmah, you’re home? Screw your plans we’re coming in and we’ll start with the fruit.” Starting with the fruit meant a long visit. Starting with a hot beverage meant a shorter visit. What’s the name of that restaurant in California and that hilarious movie with Kevin Kline -- In & Out? Those kinds of visits were out of the question.
Afterwards, he stopped at “Bizza and botato.” They didn’t want bizza, so he ordered them a large blate of French fries.
When the girls had finished, he took them home and found Fatmah bored out of her mind.
She also seemed a little perturbed. She gave the girls a bath, brushed their teeth. They were fast asleep immediately upon their heads hitting the pillows.
“I got a phone call today,” she said. Then she paused. Munther hated when she did that. The pause meant a storm was brewing. “Yeah from who,” he asked getting nervous. “Jolan called.” Again that silence. He felt like the boy who was weak in math about to take a Geometry test. Mr. Procida was my high school geometry teacher, his mind digressed. “Oh baby, let’s do some geometry,” was his catch phrase. Oh baby, let’s get another 60 was Munther’s motto. “She saw you at the playground. A lot of women did too.” He put his hands up as if to say ‘so.’ “They’re talking Munther. This whole town is.” “What are they saying about me exactly, Fatmah?” She added his name at the sentence, he could too. She shook her head and pointed to herself. “They say I’m controlling you. That I’m making you take the girls out.” Munther stayed calm. It wouldn’t last. “We know that’s not true.” She got closer to him on the couch. “Maha told Raghad who told Golan that all that’s left is for you to breast feed.”
Breast feed, he thought? What the hell? “A father can’t spend time with his daughters?” “You have to change. You have to find a job. After school, my parents can -”
“ - Fatmah, women talk. Gossip. That’s nothing new.” She looked at him thinking how innocent he was and honest. Growing up in the U.S. and then moving to Palestine he did not break this habit of being a good person. Good was good.
But overly good in this town meant you’re an idiot. “It’s not just the women. Men too. My friend Samar who bought the chips for the girls told me that her cousin Senat went home and caused a fight with her husband.” “Because of me,” Munther said, almost loudly. “Senat asked Said why can’t you be a good father and take your kids out like Munther?” She continued with the story, pausing to dab a tear under her eye. “A big fight erupted and she is hardaneh at her parent’s house.” Hardaneh, adjective for harad. Munther looked at Fatmah long and hard. “You would get mad at me when I would spend hours at that stupid office I was working out. You would accuse me of not wanting to hang with my children if I said I need to write.
Now, I am neither working or writing and spending a lot of time with Maya and Linda and I’m still doing something wrong? Add to that I’m causing couples to divorce? Well slap a pump onto my nipples and oh baby let’s breast feed!” He was fuming now. It rarely happened. He was hurt. Genuinely hurt.
He hadn’t done anything wrong. But what was he thinking? In today’s world, right is wrong and wrong is right.
He unlocked his study, went inside and closed the door. Slamming it would have been to overdo it, although the thought had crossed his mind. He opened up a blank Microsoft Office Document and stood staring at the cursor. He looked at his hands, namely his fingers resting on top of the keys. He typed:
Premise: A Palestinian father gives up his love of writing when he loses his job and has to become a homemaker, look after the kids, while his wife works and society talks.
“She’ll kill me.” He backspaced and deleted the words. A writer loves to touch the skin of his significant other. But once he has touched the keys of computer to punch out a story or put a pen to a pad of paper, everything else was secondary. To him nothing else was like writing. He remembered when he used to smoke. The best cigarette was the first one of the day. That was writing to him every time he wrote. After the first cigarette, everything else, was, bland. Blah.
He loved movies about writers. He loved the sound of the pen scratching on the notebook or hearing the sound of the keys on the computer. But now there would be no sound.
After a minute, he turned off the computer, swiveled left in his chair to the book shelf. The Book shelf that she had not only designed but paid for. He had a number of books on writing. Screenwriting, mostly. “I’m onto you writers of screenwriting books,” he said out loud. He often thought that coming out with these books was a secret plot. Type in screenwriting on Amazon and you get over 13,000 titles or 13,000 books written mostly by wannabe screenwriters used to distract us from writing so they can write while we read book after book on the subject without ever getting our own writing done. “I’m on to you,” he said as he looked at his dozens of screenwriting books. “I’m not falling for that.”
Instead, he reached for Stephen King’s Misery, a book he must have read thirteen times. He went to page one and started reading…
He woke up to the smell of pancakes. He missed the Fajr prayer. And yes, he was sleeping in his bed. No matter how bad it got between the two of them, they had both agreed that they would never sleep apart from each other. 5:16 a.m., his cell phone read. He didn’t notice her at first. Or he thought she was a figure of his imagination. She was holding a tray – two glass tea cups filled with Arabic coffee and pancakes. Although he spent the majority of his life in America, he loved Arabic coffee more. That was the Arab in him, Fatmah thought.
“Good morning,” she said. “Hey,” he said quietly. “What’s that?” “That,” she said pausing for effect, “is an apology.” It was followed by that smile of hers. If it was placed on a SAT exam, the question would go like this: Fatmah’s smile to Munther is like a) Kryptonite to Superman or b) spinach to Popeye. The latter. Yes, definitely a fair analogy indeed. They had breakfast in bed but hardly spoke. The vibes were good though. And unlike the movies, the scene did not end with them making love. Instead, they got up, turned on the television, found Law & Order: SVU. Although they had seen the episode three times, they didn’t change the channel. They drank their second cup of coffee. It’s true what they say -- the best part about arguing with your significant other is making up.
Despite living and working in the Palestinian Territories for ten years, the locals still considered Munther to be ajnabee or foreign. Speaking broken Arabic didn’t help. On the contrary. It caused trouble for him because he was often taken advantage of. Taxi drivers and merchants alike. If a taxi ride from the end of Al Azaria to the beginning was 15 New Israeli Shekels, $4.00, he would be charged double.
Munther’s mind wandered again: how can Palestinians and Israelis share a currency but not a state or the land. They had just finished their second cup of coffee when Fatmah’s mother called – Abu Kinan had died.
With the death of Abu Kinan, one of the village’s leaders, Munther was off to offer his condolences. Maher Abu Kinan Surkhi was from the village of Al Suwahra – a village known for their temper. Mel Gibson’s Rigg character in Lethal Weapon was Mike Brady compared to them. The impression of the town from residents of Abu Dis and Al Azaria was that it was a town full of hooligans and trouble makers who got away with murder, literally. Of course, a non-Suwahra resident wouldn’t be caught dead saying that out loud. To do so would be like shouting bomb at an airport. Abu Kinan’s nickname was ‘Rajal al adel’ or Justice man.
He was well liked and would be remembered as the greatest Palestinian tribal chief ever. What helped him tremendously was his voice. If there were hundreds in the crowd, Justice man never needed to use a microphone. He had a strong presence and a voice that would echo blocks away. He also wore expensive cologne. If you went to the store to buy something, you could tell Abu Kinan had been there and you would be sad that you just missed him. It was like Jack Nicholson at the L.A. Laker games. The level of respect Abu Kinan had was higher than anyone else. Not because he lived in the most beautiful home in the area. Like most Palestinian homes, it was built of stone. Munther was astonished to notice this immediately. Americans use wood. Palestinians build their homes out of stone. Abu Kinan’s home was also the only two level story home in the area. Nobody built two story homes. It had an elevator. He built that for his wife in her last days. It cost him a fortune. And she died the morning the elevator was to be switched on. She.never.rode.it.
Not only could Abu Kinan fight, but he could love. And that made a girl’s heart melt like an ice cream cone in Jericho, the oldest city in the world, in the summer. The last few years of Abu Kinan’s life saw a rapid deterioration in his health.
People from Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, even Syria and Iraq came to say their goodbyes. If the women’s tears had been rain, the 35,000 villagers would have been all flooded. Although he was 80 something and a heavy smoker, it wasn’t cancer. One day after reuniting a husband and wife after a judge irresponsibly and expediently passed a divorce verdict, his leg went out and he fell as he was leaving the couple’s home. Doctors prematurely went and amputated without seeking an alternate operation.
Not even a few months, some disease Munther couldn’t pronounce had made the leg of Justice man, also known to some as Braveheart, go rotten. So. It. Was. cut. Then a nerve hit his brain and this once powerful voice started mumbling. Because visitors could not understand him when he spoke, he would cry. His sons and daughters knew his death was near when he refused a cigarette. Although it had been weeks since he stopped eating, instead only sipping a little water, he kept on smoking. When Kinan put a cigarette in his father’s mouth, Justice man spit it back out as one did when salt was accidentally placed in a tea cup instead of sugar. No one spoke it but everybody thought it as they were coming to say their goodbyes – his four sons are not like father, like son. And they never will be. An hour after he spit the cigarette out of his mouth, extended both of his arms out as if in a pool, reaching for the ladder. And then he was gone.
For Munther, this was the largest funeral he had ever attended. Later at the azza, funeral repast, he learned it was the biggest sendoff a non-political leader or martyr had ever been given.
The Palestinian President sent the family his condolences in an official letter with a signature that had actually been signed and not been scanned as he was often known to do. The PLO leader had it put in a frame and had it delivered by the Chief of Staff himself.
Relatives of the deceased would later say that Israelis dressed in disguise attended to pay their respects to Abu Kinan. For them to come as themselves in this time, without peace, Abu Kinan and his family would be seen as spies.
Tradition has it that since the family is too much in mourning to cook, someone not directly related to the dead would cook. The other two days could be a family member. They ate mensaf; Lamb and rice drowned in hot yogurt and broken pieces of taboun bread. For Munther, this, too, was the biggest lunch he had ever been at in Palestine or anywhere in general.
He couldn’t get over the organization. Enter, shake hands and be seated in an area and wait to be taken to your table. Munther sat with people he didn’t know. This was normal.
There was no room for conversation here. Eat and wash your hands at rented sinks brought in on flatbeds. Drink coffee, eat fruit and go home if you like only to return later to continue paying respects. It should be noted here that fruit is not an obligation. Neither are sweets.
Yet, they are passed out favorably to show appreciation of coming out to pay respects. The largest Palestinian daily wrote an article about Abu Kinan, the Justice Man, and, filled a page with his photo and a brief obituary.
It was common to find pictures of the recently deceased at the back page of the newspaper. Munther remembered a response an old man had given when asked “How is your health?” The old man replied: "As long as I can read the newspaper without finding my picture on the back page, my health must be good.” In the case of Abu Kinan, however, his photo came in all sections -- Front, middle and end. And all sizes – large, medium, and small.
The hired help immediately rushed to the men returning from washing their hands to serve them saadeh, coffee without sugar. That was followed by the one carrying tamerr, dates. The movement of those coming in and out of the Surkhi diwan, flowed like the Nile River. Some would come alone or with a friend or cousin. But the majority of the town dispatched family members who gathered themselves at one location, then went to azza as a group to pay their respects.
The heads of the deceased, that is, the sons, brothers, cousins stood at the front, accepting the condolences via handshakes or kisses. After extending sympathies, the party would then be seated. Although the chairs were plastic, Munther swore that they shined. He couldn’t stay long because he would have to go home to the girls so his wife could come and pay her respects. It was rare that men and women offered condolences in the same place due to logistical reasons. Culturally, it was unacceptable for Muslim men and women to be seated in azza. This happened at weddings, too. This was something that Munther never got used to and promised himself that he wouldn’t. “Your being American here,” his wife began, “Expecting for men and women to be seated at occasions together,” Fatmah had told him. Well, it was more like taught him.
He and his wife, getting dressed up, going to a wedding only for the men to follow the signs to their side and the women to theirs. It was a bunch of men sitting down talking politics. Hell, business transactions were held here too. The chatting discontinued only twice – for collective prayers to take place.
If you were lucky, you didn’t stay long enough to pray the last prayer of the night, the ishaa. “Lucky” here meant your wife would call and say she was ready to go home. Although more and more women were driving in Abu Dis, it was a rarity at night. Add to that the occasion of wedding. Men did not want their wives to drive at night wearing high heels. “That’s like drinking araq and taking a bunch of pills while drunk to get rid of a hangover that has yet to come.”
While discussing politics at the wedding, they would be served coffee and a small piece of cake. Money gifts are the tradition. Most stuff 100 shekels (25 bucks) into a white envelope with the guest’s name on it so the groom or bride’s family knows where it came from. Next, came kissing the groom and wishing him the best. At each wedding, Munther remembered the day he married. He felt bad for the groom only because he, too, had to make the rounds. Regardless of how many men there were, one to one hundred, the groom had to go up to each men and kiss them on each cheek. Sometimes he got four kisses; two on each side. Probably, Munther deduced, because they wanted to get the most for their money.
For the 100 shekels, a guest received unlimited soda and water, coffee, a small piece of bad tasting cake drowned in frost a little cake and four kisses. Munther also figured men preferred to kiss more for good luck. “They’re gonna need it,” Munther thought. He imagined mafia movies where a man receives a kiss of death right before he is sent to the bottom of the ocean.
Once he attended the wedding for a man who had been in prison for ten years. Add to that that he was the only son amongst five daughters. Thousands turned up to celebrate and kiss the groom. It took Munther over an hour to approach the groom, to shake his hand and hand him his money gift. Two days later, Munther heard a story that the bride’s parents had followed them to make sure “everything” was okay; a custom still practiced in the West Bank to the chagrin of the groom. When they approached the room, they found the newlyweds still in their wedding attire. More, their son in law was fast asleep and snoring. “What happened? Mish nafe,“ the bride’s mother asked. Translated literally, it means he is useless. “I don’t know.” The story goes that the mother and father stared at their daughter puzzled. “He was all kissed out,” were the words that came out of the bride’s mouth. And tears came out of her eyes.
After that digression, Munther first heard the word, baytooti, Arabic for homebody or someone who likes to stay at home. Separately, sitting amongst men in the azza, his ear caught another phrase, more of a fragment, actually, something along the lines of “she wears the pants.”
Munther had to admit his spoken Arabic was definitely not at the level it should be. That’s why he talked to his girls in English. He also didn’t want them to have broken Arabic. But as for understanding, his comprehension was excellent. He wasn’t paranoid to think people would talk about him. He was a writer – yes – had a low self-esteem when it came to whether or not someone reading his work would like it. Overall, any other issues, he was confident. Hada mish zalameh, was the second sentence he heard. Who is not a man, he wondered? He was not into the gossip circuit. Just a few short months after living in Palestine, he discovered men gossiped too, more than the women. Months, it must have been only weeks he recalled.
That’s what some of them hung out at coffee shops and did. Smoked cigarettes, nargila, cigars, talked politics, played cards and gossiped. Try to imagine this. One coffee shop has twenty tables. Seated are at least four men. That’s 80.
Imagine that instead of gossiping they put a plan about regaining independence --nonviolently of course. Forget politics. Creating businesses. Analyzing the situation and then brainstorming. Addressing things like ‘let’s see what our cities are missing, what the people want and let’s work to achieve those goals.’ No. An Oprah Winfrey book club was definitely out of the question. Forget Oprah. What about Mahmoud Darwish or Khalil Gibran? No. No. Then they couldn’t play Hend. Tarneeb. Trix or other card games Arab men were addicted to. “It’s strange,” Munther said, speaking out loud for the first time since saying goodbye to his wife and two girls and coming here, how the place was packed and despite the Holy Koran playing, you could still make out the conversation people were having. But were they talking about him? “Munther,” someone said. That’s when he heard his name. It was a Palestinian name but there were definitely more Mohammad’s here than Munthers. 20:1 ratio. Hey Fatmah, I could do ratios, he wanted to say.
He looked around and someone waved to him and was red in the face as if he did not intentionally mean to say his name. You know those times you enter and a room and everybody goes silent? And you know they’re talking about you? “He cooks… he irons… he changes diapers while his wife takes the car and goes to work. If Munther is not careful, his wife is going to come home with a real man and have him kick her husband’s ass.” That was followed by quiet laughter.
It was confirmed. They were talking about him at a funeral repast for one of the most respected men ever to walk the soils of the Palestinian Territories. What could Munther say? Let’s take this outside? They were sitting outside. “Please take that to a coffee shop?” What could be done? He had too much respect for the man who passed away. More, he was not brave enough to fight. It was true, men in the town were talking about him. He decided the best thing to do was leave the azza.
But sometimes men just don’t leave other men alone. As he was walking down the rows, one pointed.
A major figure in the town died and you’re talking about me, he thought. “Munther,” he stopped and turned. “Yes, that’s his name. He lost his job and got too comfortable wearing a house dress,” the man said. Munther did not recognize him.
But he had to say something until he got the sudden urge to pee. He was nervous. Fear of confrontation began to grow on him. He felt like he had to go number two. He walked further away from the crowd, still within distance of the diwan, a housa of sorts. It was sad. He walked out of the azza and felt like he could cry. And he could probably get away with crying because men would think he was crying over Abu Kinan. So he let go. And cried. Slowly, he started becoming angry. “He’s a writer?” If it was an action line from a screenplay it would read:
Chuckles come in the dark of faces only lit by the end of their burning cigarettes.
MAN IN DARK #2
What does he write?
MAN IN DARK #3
Whatever his wife tells him.
The SOUND of men in the dark LAUGHING some more.
MAN IN DARK #4
If he was my son or brother I’ll tell you what
I’d have him write -- his last will and testament, because
I’d kill him for acting like a slut.
That’s when Munther started yelling. The Holy Koran was switched off. Men started saying to each other sallee ala nabee -- swearing upon the Prophet was a way to get people to calm down. One of Munther’s cousins, a third cousin, was the first to get to him.
If you have something to say to me,
say it to my face!
Come on! Cowards!
Let’s hear it!
Khaled and Jamal dragged him away but he broke away and just left. Munther was too busy to notice that they were smiling and about to break out into laughter.
Although by the time he got home, he was calm, Fatmah could tell something was wrong. He changed the subject, handing her the key to the car instead and asking if she still planned on going to the azza. “Yes I will pick up my mom and Aunt Najiah and go,” she said.
He wanted to say can’t you go alone? But the words of his best friend Ramzy rang into his ears. “Pick your fights.” Maya and Linda were asleep. He went into their room and sat on the couch. He closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them, Fatmah was standing in front of him, arms folded. He imagined the settings on a washing machine - Pink to pale to pissed.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” For a second, he had no idea what she was talking about. And then he remembered. If it was a movie, insert flashback scene here. It was best to stay silent. “I’m tired,” he replied. “I had to hear from the women? At Abu Kinan’s azza? I told them, no, no, he came home fine. You weren’t fine, but I said that. I didn’t imagine you would fight at Abu Kinan’s azza!” Fought? “You know me, as someone to fight,” he said rather tipsy-like. “I’m not even man enough to fight you,” Munther added. This stopped her. “What did you say?” He left her standing in the girl’s room. She called him, not once, but twice and by full name. “Munther Naser Al Sayed.”
It was only when he turned around slowly did she see that there were tears in his eyes. “Fatmah, I think you should go. Take the girls and sleep at your parent’s house.” Her jaw dropped. “You’re going to let cheap talk get in between us?” He laughed a laugh that was louder in his mind than in real life. “It’s not cheap. It’s costing me my, what was the word you used a couple of weeks ago, dignity,” he replied. Fatmah looked at him curiously for a moment. She wasn’t sure to be tense. Or mad at him. Although she was pissed. Do the math. “Munther, since when do we fight over people? When we do that, we let them control us,” she said, almost pleadingly. There was a knock on the door and his father in law entered. “I got to the azza a few minutes after you left. I heard about what happened. Are you okay?” Munther nodded. Her dad also confirmed that people were talking about his son in law in town.
“Nobody interferes with-“, but he didn’t let his father in law complete the sentence, instead putting his hand up. “Your daughter doesn’t deserve this. Someone sitting at home, taking care of the girls. It upsets her too that people are talking about me because it looks like she’s the boss.” “God decides the rizek,” his father in law said using the Arabic word for sustenance.
“You think these people know God? All they know is what they see. Me at home or out with the girls. Not working. They see that she is providing for the family. If this were America, a stay at home Dad would be acceptable but not here,” he said. Although he was addressing the love of his life, he couldn’t face her. “So until I find work, I think you should take the girls and have your mom take care of them while you’re at work.” It hurt like hell for him to say this. Hell wouldn’t be this much pain, he thought, goosebumps erecting on both of his arms.
His girls were his world. But Fatmah was his everything. However, he had to do this. His father in law tried to argue with him but it was no use. He carried the girls in their pajamas to the car. Fatmah, meanwhile packed a few items, mostly for the girls. Munther made coffee and brought it to the table. His father in law declined politely. Munther locked the door, turned off the porch light. He downed the three cups of coffee as if they were shots. Quietly, he went to the study to the story he had begun earlier. He saw himself as the man with the strange face. He backspaced until the whole story was deleted. Save changes? Yes. He didn’t know when he started crying or how he found himself in his daughter’s bedroom. He looked at the beds of his daughters. A moment ago they had been filled with treasure. Now, like that Nicolas Cage movie, they were gone in 60 seconds. Movies! “Is that all you think about, Munther,” he yelled at himself. He climbed into Maya’s bed and violently threw the covers off with his feet. Not knowing what to do, he jumped out of the bed as if he had just spotted a snake and ran to the bathroom.
He performed wadu, replaced his short shorts with a pair that went below the knee. He prayed, crying uncontrollably, wetting the sajadeh he was kneeling on with tears that fell like hail.
When the Fajr prayer called, he didn’t hear it. He was snoring in Linda’s bed, holding her stuffed bunny rabbit, Dory, along with Maya’s.
Two days later, Munther’s Great Uncle Dahoud came in from Jordan to pay his respects to the passing of Abu Kinan. He had another mission: to apologize on behalf of himself and family for Munther’s outburst and lack of deference for the deceased and his family. “He was raised in America,” his Great Uncle Dahoud added.
Murmers from the crowd and looks as if to say, “Ah,that makes sense.” Oh yeah, Munther thought, it’s always America’s fault or the occupation. Believe it or not, guys, blame can be assigned to you. That was forgotten with the thoughts of his two beautiful daughters. And his heaven on earth, Fatmah. To make it right, he had to work.
But the job search wasn’t going well. If he was interviewed and about to be hired, they stopped short after discovering he couldn’t write Arabic. He was going to Ramallah on a daily basis. Talking to everyone he knew. What was that line? A friend is someone who walks in when everyone else has walked out. That wasn’t it. “And you call yourself a writer,” he heard a voice in his head tell him. In the taxi on his way back to Abu Dis, he couldn’t think straight too. It seemed as if the lights of the house had dimmed without his girls and wife at home. Had his home had a soul, it would have left with them that night when darkness entered. Like when Christopher Reeve’s Superman turned bad and Peter Parker wore the black Spiderman suit. “Those guys were heroes to start with. I was never a hero and never will be one.”
Sure, Munther saw his daughters. He was able to take them out, not like those Palestinian women who use the children as leverage and forbid the father from seeing the children. But what broke Munther’s heart was how the conversation with the love of his life had become very business oriented. Like Sargent Friday used to say in Dragnet, “Just the facts, mam.” Separation was hard. It changed people. Communication among a couple was implemented in as few words as possible. A cashier and a customer at the local supermarket said more to each other. It seemed almost militarily. “Girls ready?” “Yes?” “What time?” “Pick them up at thirteen hundred hours and return them at seventeen hundred hours.” There were whispers in the village. People were still talking about him. Her. Them. Some were bothered. Many were happy this had happened to them. Selfishness and jealousy are incurable diseases. “They talk about a dead person when his grave is warm,” his friend Ramzy once told him at their meeting place on Rukub Street. Ramzy is to Munther as Jiminy Cricket was to Pinocchio. He wore glasses, was bald and like Alfred Hitchcock rarely could be seen in public without a suit. In the Tom and Jerry cartoons, he was the white angel sitting on the right shoulder. He loved Munther and always told him something people in the world disliked hearing – the truth.
But her mom only said, “Turn off the lights before you go to bed and Fatmah?” Here it comes. “Go to bed.” She nodded. Go to bed. It was strange to think that she could not fall asleep in the room she had spent most of her life in. It was something to visit mom and dad, spend hours there, but something else to sleep. Especially in conflict. Many times her mother had told her the same sentence, “A woman has only her husband.”
With that her mom left. It’s true. It was different. How? I don’t know, she thought. But it was. Divorce popped into her head but she quickly shooed it out as one does to a fly. God, I hope not.
While Americans put their hands together to say a prayer, Muslims open them to the sky. “Please. I can’t live without him. Help me, help him be together.” She wanted to cry. She wanted to text him but she looked at a picture instead. It was the one they had taken in Ramallah at Angelo’s after seeing the new Anne Hathaway movie. They almost didn’t go. They got into a fight over nothing. She couldn’t even remember what it was about. “That’s not true, Fatmah.”
She turned to see Munther standing behind her. “You remember all the arguments.” From where had he entered? She must have fallen asleep on the table. She tried to wake herself up. “You’re not dreaming, I am,” he said. “I’ve been having the greatest dream since I married you.” But we’re fighting. “How many times have your parents gotten into a fight?” “Never.” He folded his arms, and gave her a stern look. He sat down next to her. “Balloons?” he asked looking at the photo on her phone. “Angelos,” she said correcting him. “I like that picture,” he said. So did she. “We look like each other,” she thought. “And that’s why we’re going to get through this.” Did he just read my mind? “I heard that that too.” She stared at him as one does a magician after having witnessed a great act. Now she was crying. “Don’t do that. Look at the photo. They say couples who get married start looking like each other after marriage due to the amount of love they have for each other.” He touched her phone until she came to a family photo with the girls. “And look how beautiful they are? Only two people who love each other so much can create such beauty.” Astifigurallah. “Yes. God forgives us more than we forgive each other.”
The sound that she had received a text message woke her up. She opened the message to find a photo Munther had sent. Her mouth dropped and tears streamed down her eyes.
The photo he sent was the same one she had been looking at; where the both of them were at Angelo’s restaurant.
Ramzy wanted Munther to sleep over but he had to get home. “They’re always going to talk,” Munther realized out loud in the taxi. “Shoo?” the college girl said to him. What. What indeed. He shook his head and told himself “I’m the one who kicked my wife and kids out of the house.” “Taroff innu inta majnoon?” the college girl asked. “Yes,” he said to himself. “I know I’m crazy.” On the way home, he thought of the plan to get his family back.
He would get his haircut, take a shower, dress nice, go over there and bring his family home. With the 50 shekels he had borrowed from Ramzy, he bought a small bouquet of flowers. They were all almost withered.
He picked the least wilted purple flowers. And of course, he bought zakee -- junk food for his girls. When he went to unlock the door, it was partially ajar…
“Baba!” his girls screamed as they came running up to their father. Each one taking a leg, none wanting to let go. “What are you girls doing here?” “We live here, Dad,” said Maya in perfect English. “Why are you late?” Linda asked in Arabic. “Because your father was buying you chips and chocolate,” said Fatmah. In the girl’s bedroom, he saw his in laws sitting on Maya’s bed. Standing almost immediately, they simply greeted him and didn’t say much more than “Take care of each other.” And with that they left. “It’s not the time, Fatmah, but I swear your mom looks mad that you’re not going to spend another night at her place.” Fatmah shot him ‘the look.’ You know the one that’s universal no matter whether you’re Arab, Jewish or 100% pure American, if there was such a thing anymore. “Are the flowers for me?”
“No. Your durra is supposed to meet me here in an hour. You can stay if you like and make us tea.” She made a laugh that she had seen Woody from Toy Story do in one of those films she had watched with her daughter.
“Yeah, but I will serve it cold so I can dump it over your hot head and break the tea pot over hers.” They hugged each other. “And I thought you would change.” What had happened to them that they had to be away from each other for three weeks?
After they put the girls to bed, they promised each other that no one would ever come between them. She would be patient with him in finding work. They talked until the Fajr prayer. After praying together, they made love. When they finished, they showered separately and got into their night wear although it was almost time for Fatmah to go to work. “Call out sick,” he told her. “Let me work now so I can use the time off deservingly so when you want to take me to Paris or Turkey.” He smiled. “Inshallah.” He remembered his old South African editor Mark Andrews who used to joke that the Palestinian answer to everything was IBM. “IBM, the computer company?” Munther asked. “No, Inshallah, Bookra, Malish.” God willing, tomorrow, okay.
Munther thought of his Australian friend, Barry Bolton who said inshallah was the word Palestinians used when they knew procrastination was inevitable – “Did you get any writing done while we were gone?” Fatmah interrupted spraying perfume on her wrists and rubbing them against each other. Munther remembered the story he had deleted and shook his head. That was a hard night. “Then what did you do?” He blushed. “I opened your closet to smell the perfume on your clothes. I couldn’t think without you.”
“You said you can’t write because of the girls. We go, the house is quiet and you still can’t write. Do all writers act like you and look for excuses not to write? Just write, make excuses later.” He loved her for giving him a line he knew he would one day utilize in a movie or something, if he ever got around to it. I’ll make it my status on Facebook tomorrow morning so I don’t forget the line. He was waiting for the story idea to come. “God is big. He doesn’t forget anyone -- the good or the bad,” she said. He remembered a line from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. “God sees the truth but waits.” Fatmah took his hand. “You’ll get your 15 hours of fame,” she said in English. He laughed. He thought it was so cute when she incorrectly used an American expression. “You mean minutes,” he said. She shook her finger. “I want more than 15 minutes for you.” What a woman.
Linda saw the four Israeli soldiers before her older sister and her father did. They were just there. As if they dropped from the sky or came up from the ground.
She barely had a chance to say “Baba!” when the armed men, donning M-16’s, were on the sidewalk. Munther was used to the army, but he knew better to say so. To do that would be to acknowledge and accept the Israeli occupation – something no Palestinian would ever do. Now it was Munther and his two daughters. Finally after days of teaching the girls to ride their bikes, and finding the nearest sidewalk, the party was to be spoiled? Munther was not intent on making a scene. Protection of his girls was a priority. But how to move to the side? On the right side was a cliff that went down to a valley. The left side was the highway. Sure, there were speed bumps, but they were built incorrectly.
You could barely see them and you only slowed down after you went over them, destroying your car in the process. ‘Can’t we get anything right?’ Munther found himself ironically joking to himself. “Shalom! Ma nish ma?”
Peace, how are you, was the only Hebrew phrase he had ever learned. That and Yesh lee stayh todao oot zahoot, I have two Ids. Being the social of the two girls Maya said “Hello.” The soldiers just stood there. “Bo,” said the soldier who seemed to be the leader. He waved his hand. My daughter just said hello, Munther, thought.
Fearing the safety of his children, he looked to the right, then to the left and back as if to say where am I going to go with my girls? Not one of the soldiers cracked a smile. Their eyes suggested they were studying the subjects. “Dad, what did he say?” Maya asked. “I said move, little girl!” he yelled. The yelling startled the two girls, but they did not cry. It was not the first time they had seen the army. But they had never seen them up this close before. Most of the kids were terrified of the soldiers. In America, growing up, children played Cowboys and Indians. Here, in the West Bank, kids played Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.
“Captain, where can we go? It’s easier for you to move, Sir,” Munther said in his perfect English, exerting every ounce of diplomacy. “Me en fo ta,” the Captain gawked. “I am from Abu Dis.” Looking at him puzzled, he said, “You’re American?” “shtay Todaoot zaoout”, one of the other soldiers mumbled, holding up two fingers for two ID’s, a Palestinian one and an American one. “Haweeyeah,” the soldier said asking for the West Bank Green I.D.
Munther always regretted it when he heard other people speaking Arabic better than him. In particular, when they were Israeli soldiers. But he had no one to blame for this but himself. Twenty years and he had never bothered to learn his mother tongue properly. Other people would have also learned Hebrew. He remembered visiting professors who came from the U.S. to teach. Efforts exerted, they were speaking Arabic by the end of the first semester.
Muther took out his green I.D. and handed it to him. The leader told the third soldier something else in Hebrew. Munther understood it as “Run the name,” because the soldier took out a walkie talkie, stepped a little away from the group.
“Tasha, effes, effes, arba-“, giving the ID numbers into the walkie. “Baba?” “Yes, Linda.” “I have to go the bathroom number one.” “Hold it sweetheart, okay?” “Okay, Dad,” she obeyed. What bothered Munther was the look the lead soldier gave his children. It was of disgust. Like he was in the operating room, watching the doctors perform a spleen transplant. “You have children?” he asked the soldier. Perhaps he had been married, got divorced and couldn’t see his children. Munther immediately wished he had not asked the question. The consequence came – face to face with the barrel of an M-16. “Not your business!” He screamed. Again, the girls were startled. “Baba?” “Yes, Linda,” Munther said eyes to barrel. “I peed myself.” “We’ll get you cleaned when we get home,” he said calmly thinking if he would ever get to see his house again. An image of the Mel Gibson film Signs popped into his mind. It’s the scene where Mel Gibson’s character comes face to face with an alien while his two children and brother look on. Second, he thought of his wife, Fatmah. And strangely enough he thought, ‘I’m too young to die and still haven’t read all of Stephen King’s books.’ “I want to go home,” said Maya. “Kamen shway, habibi,” he said, using Arabic here because he remembered Ramzy once telling him that Israeli soldiers despised a Palestinian that spoke better English than he or she did.
The lead soldier looked at the soldier checking Munther’s ID numbers. “Ha kol beseder?” He nodded. Everything was okay. He handed the ID back to his boss, who lowered the gun and aggressively gave it to Munther. He couldn’t remember if he put the ID in his front pocket or back. He could have dropped it down the cliff for all he knew. All that was racing through his mind was “Let’s load up the bikes in the car and get the H-E double hockey sticks out of here,” a phrase he had not uttered since junior high school. Oh what were my worries back then, he thought?
It was over or so he thought until the lead soldier said the most frightening thing yet. And he didn’t say it to Munther but to Linda…
Munther thought there was something wrong with his hearing when the solider said to his four year old daughter, “Get off your bike.” Although it was technically a tricycle, Linda called it her bike. “We’ll leave. Okay -?” He yelled it again, but this time in Hebrew. Facing the father and the two toddlers, the other soldiers transformed into defense mode. “Linda, sweetheart,” Munther said quivering. “Please get off of your bike.” She did. Social Maya looked up at the soldier. “Do you want me to get up, too?” The lead soldier didn’t answer her. It angered Munther when Maya said something to an adult and they ignored her. The captain shrugged passed Maya and Munther, picked up Linda’s tricycle and threw it down, over the cliff, into the valley. “My bike!”
On impact of hitting the medium and large sharp rocks, the tricycle broke into pieces until it was no more than little bits of plastic. Linda was crying as if the mute button on the remote control had been switched on. It was after the soldiers turned the opposite direction and departed that the sound of Linda’s cries could be heard. Like some messed up orchestra, the cries collaborated with the horns of speeding cars flying over incorrectly constructed speed bumps. He remembered the gun to be fired at the scheduled crash of the symbols in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. The moon even seemed to give off a bamboozled glow. Maya took one look at her sister. “He’s a bad man,” she said. Like an adult, she put her arm around her sister and started crying too.
“We’ll get you another bike. Don’t cry now.” Inside, Munther was screaming. His blood was boiling. But looking at him, you’d think he was just given some bad news about an older relative in Phoenix, Arizona passing at the age of 83, surrounded by all of his sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. “We’ll get you another bike, don’t cry.” Adding to the cries, and the traffic, came the call to prayer. His cell phone rang, too. He knew it was his wife, but he was frozen with his girls.
After a moment of listening to the muezzin finish calling the Maghrib, evening prayer, Munther said, “Yalla. Let’s go home.” Munther carried Maya’s bike back to the car, managing to also hold the hands of his two daughters.
When you get to be a father, these skills come from some unknown source. He opened the trunk and put her bike in. Before slamming the trunk, he looked at the empty space where Linda’s trike should be sitting. He opened the sliding door and helped the girls in. Despite being distraught, they put on their seatbelts by themselves. Watching Linda do so broke his heart because she was sniffling. In the very few times Linda wet herself while out, Munther would have her sit on the prayer rug. But he didn’t care now. How dare them. Munther started the car when the phone rang again. This time he answered and spoke immediately. “We are coming,” he said. He listened. “Palmolive. Anything else? Twix? Got it.” He hung up. That’s appropriate. For his daughters, again he failed to be hero instead choosing to be zero. When he switched on his left turn signal, checked the rearview mirror, he saw that Maya and Linda had fallen asleep…
Her mother brought over a flask for the coffee after Fatmah told her that one was not enough for the people who had showed up. Frankly, she didn’t expect anyone to come. But suddenly, people she knew and didn’t know, relatives and non-relatives were at their home. Munther borrowed chairs from the neighbors. They had set up the chairs on the veranda.
The women were sitting in the family room and living room. Her sister in law and her mother had come over, showing up at the Duhr Prayer along with a couple of journalists from The Associated Press and Reuters. Soon there were other reporters, local, Arab, international. The attendance of Israeli reporters surprised her. One not so pretty female reporter was from Yedioth Ahrinot and another handsome reporter from Haaretz. Although it wasn’t the time, Fatmah wondered if these two were married in holy matrimony and if they had kids, what would they look like? Munther complimented his wife on how easily she spoke to the press. She was always good at public speaking.
After all, she was a teacher. She also once had wanted to be a journalist. It was either that or be a nurse. How she ended up studying business only to become a teacher was one of the consequences of being a Palestinian woman. Most of the good jobs went to men. Other available jobs were for Ramallah residents. The positions that were open required the woman to work late hours. It was not about her having a family to get home to. With the assistance of her parents and Munther of course, she could make it work. But the talk of the town would be unnerving. “What’s a woman doing coming home that late? You actually believe she’s working?” While she once thought time could make such unfortunates go away, in the case of her home town of Abu Dis, she predicted it to be like DNA – “Once it’s there, it’s there forever,” as Madeline Stowe’s character had uttered in the John Travolta film, The General’s Daughter. Like Munther, she found herself memorizing movie lines, too.
Unlike Fatmah, Munther was nervous talking to the press. He came across as neurotic. That’s a first for a writer, eh? His daughters were even better than he was. One reporter from The Financial Times managed to get a quote from Linda, in almost grammatically correct English. “The Jaysh throwed my bike and broked it,” said four year old Linda Sayed. “I cried this much,” she added, holding out her arms wide apart. “Linda, what’s Jaysh?” the amused reporter asked. In English, she answered, “The army.” She brought her arms back in, turned her palm face up and said, “Now, can I have chocolate?” Munther sat among the men speaking to each other over and over about the incident. Repeating the story. The questions. Nine out of ten had cigarettes in between their fingers. He looked around to the men he knew and didn’t know and had the same thought – how old were they when they started smoking. He wondered how many had been caught by their mothers and beaten by their fathers.
When he wasn’t looking, the men were staring at him, like he was a hero. He knew that some did not like the attention he was receiving, and that he had hassad, envy and gheera, jealousy. But to the majority he had redeemed himself, somehow. It no longer matter that he was unemployed. All the gossip that existed about him receiving a salary from his wife to baby sit had ceased. Surviving this ordeal with the army had made him a man again.
To them, anyway. And again, he was someone who could be associated with. Accepted. Still he hadn’t wanted it to happen this way. And he was still determined to work. To become a writer.
Well, he was a writer, as he had once read in director Robert Rodriguez’s book on writing when he was supposed to be writing but wasn’t. He was seeking to be a professional. He did not feel right about using his and his family’s newly founded fame to do so. He excused himself from the men he was sitting with and went to his den walking in from a door that went directly from the patio to his study. He liked his home. Two bedrooms. A living room. Family room. A study. Baytooti and damn proud of it.
A kitchen that “could always be bigger,” his wife had hinted at several times. He wondered if she had been secretly referring to the kitchen as a metaphor for something else. It was one story although he had discussed with Fatmah a number of times to build a second story when he sold a, well, a story. Abu Dis was crowded. Al Azaria was even more crowded. He remembered attending a talk on urban cities at Al Quds University where the British lecturer had said all of the places were built incorrectly without any consideration for the public. Wedding halls and stores without adequate parking lots. But it would stop there. No action plan. Well, nothing could be done. If the authority ever attempted to redesign, riots would break out. Sometimes, crooked is better than straight. To imagine traffic in Al Azaria, ladies and gentlemen, you would have to take L.A., San Francisco and New York City and combine them. Abu Dis had one problem, no sidewalks. They built semi-sidewalks where it was safer to walk in the middle of the street than the sidewalk itself. But he loved this town. He lived in Ramallah for a few years. One time, he spent months living in Jericho. At ten million years old, it held the record for the oldest city in the world. But he didn’t like it there either. Abu Dis was like the porridge that Goldie Locks drank – just right. We will get it right eventually. “Who is we,” Munther asked himself out loud again. Was it the American in him talking or the Palestinian? Both. A lot of American money had come through Abu Dis. Some of it was physically visible. Others came in the form of education grants, funding. A knock on the study startled him and Fatmah came in.
“Why did you leave the men to come in here?”
“I thought the writing would come,” he told her. She smiled genuinely at him, kissed him on the forehead and returned to her women guests, whom he could hear speaking. But when the writing came, nothing would be able to interrupt him. A number of evenings he had written during Israeli-Palestinian clashes in his village. The sound grenades were loud as were the Palestinian chants of ‘Allah Akbar’ but that, too, could not keep him from firing away an ammunition of words. Another time he wrote while Bethlehem was being tank shelled. He could hear it despite being 18 minutes, give or take the Container Israeli military checkpoint, located just after Abu Kinan’s village of Suwahra. “I am a writer,” he said. No, you’re a wannabe another voice told him. He quickly changed the subject.
Sitting in his black leather swivel chair that she had also bought him, he started imagining himself making a living as a writer. He visualized the times she had asked him a question he could not answer – why did you become a writer? Why? How? It just happened. “Dad used to write science fiction,” he said out loud. But your father died before he could ever see any of his writings published. Is that going to be me? “Why does someone become a doctor? They like biology, chemistry. Now, whether they become a podiatrist, pediatrician, or any other depends on which areas they feel more comfortable with,” he had once told someone who had asked him about the type of writing. As for the specialty he could not write songs. Poetry was definitely out. Fatmah had asked him to write her a poem. He spent hours and hours but could not produce one. Well he came up with something but he knew he would not share it with her or anyone for that matter. What was it? “Roses are red, violets are blue, falafel is brown, and all women are ugly when they frown.” He started out writing short stories but fell in love with screenwriting. “One day,” he said. Actually he said that a lot. For now, he would keep at it. Although the town had become okay with him, the fact that he was not writing, created a vacuum. There was no money in writing. “Yet Munther.” he said to himself. Yet. In the meantime, he settled for writing commercials and women empowerment videos. But $100 for a 3 minute did not cut it. But it was better than zero…until he got terminated.
He had been promised a full time job at a salary of $1000…until he got terminated. How am I going to pay the electricity bill of $1500? The outstanding debt he had generated at the local supermarket or pharmacy. $2000. They would have to wait. He turned off the lights and returned to the men where he found them praying the Maghrab evening prayer together. He couldn’t join them. When Fatmah had startled him, he had broken wind, therefore losing his wadu and therefore would have to do the ritual washing again before he could pray.
“I have to buy a new trike for Linda,” he thought to himself.
He remembered watching a news briefing at the State Department where a Palestinian reporter working with Al Quds Newspaper asked the spokesperson if the U.S. would compensate the Al Sayed family. The spokesperson said, “No.” The reporter, in his late sixties, was quick to rebuttal.
“Can’t you take out $30 from the billions of dollars you give your ally Israel to get her a new bike?” The U.S. State department responded that such a compensation would be unlikely but added that “If an Israeli Army soldier had done this, he should know better.” That evening an Israeli Army spokesperson made a statement. It only took one week and only happened because they were probably pinched by America to do so. And, Munther, thought Israel was better to have stayed quiet.
“The IDF is investigating reports that a soldier threw a small child’s bike into the valley near Al Azaria. But at this time, we cannot confirm that this incident actually happened.” The words did not come as a surprise to anyone. The next thing that happened would shock everyone. The second thing would embarrass the U.S. State Department…
When the Israeli soldiers came to arrest Munther, he was just about to pray the morning prayer. They did not pound on the door or make one of their fancy noisy entrances. It was a simple knock. Munther asked “Meen?” A voice in Arabic better than his wife’s, responded, “Jaysh.” He opened the door and three soldiers stood in the street. Munther noticed the jeep parked with an additional two soldiers sitting in the front seat. “Munther Al Sayed?” He nodded. “Haweeyeah.” He went into the bedroom where Fatmah was sitting up.
He put his finger on his lips. He got his ID and American passport. The door closed and he was gone. Fatmah ran to the door, opened it without her veil, just in time to see the jeep driving off.
His eyes were covered and plastic had been used to cuff his hands. A zip tie was what it was called. He wasn’t scared. He was concerned though. Although he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. He knew that after he had left, Fatmah had called her parents, woke them up, and they were there within minutes. The girls will be fine, he thought. “Quiet!” the soldier shouted. He hadn’t realized he had said that out loud. “Sorry,” Munther added. He didn’t know what to call it but it was a combination between a slap and a punch. It hurt more than a slap, but came across his face in a fist fashion. Tears came down his eyes immediately.
He wasn’t crying, it was involuntary. For a moment, it felt like his nose would bleed, too. The last time he had been punched was in seventh grade on his first day of a school he had just transferred to. Munther’s dad was proud because he had lied to his dad that he punched the kid, too. The only lie he ever told his father. Well, the truth was he did shove him and he fell. Wow, that was so many years ago. He found himself thinking about the soldier who had just hit him. ‘What was he doing when I was in seventh grade?’ You probably weren’t born yet, he thought. PUNCHSLAP! “Quiet!” ‘I’ll take Jaime Ketchum’s punches over yours any day and twice on Friday.’ They were there, wherever ‘there’ was. Where’s there? He didn’t know. The jeep had stopped. And he could hear Hebrew.
He learned a little but not enough to understand the plans they had for him. But his fate would be known soon. He heard the backdoors open and he was dragged by his arms. It reminded him of high school when he had acted in the musical Oliver! He was one of the Bumble’s henchmen who had to drag Oliver by his arms because he had asked for more. The he who had played Oliver was actually a she. Kristin Whitmore. Wow!
Even at this moment, it impressed him that he could remember her name. Only a high school girl had the Soprano voice to play the title character.
Munther also recalled how she’d tape her breasts together and cut her hair short to appear convincingly as a boy. “Today, actresses do much more,” he thought. What are you doing now Fatmah, he wondered with heart ache?
The Al Sayed house was filled to brim. “There must be more people here than the Abu Kinan azza,” Fatmah’s mother said. Her husband had been following up with the Prisoner’s club in Ramallah, an organization which immediately handles and tracks prisoners detained or arrested. They said since there was nothing concrete to hold Munther on, the Israeli Army would interrogate him a little and send him home. Fatmah looked at the women in her home. To make room, they had moved the couches and little coffee tables to the master bedroom. “It’s amazing how supportive everyone has been through this ordeal,” she said out loud, to God to make sure he heard her expression of thanks. Watching the girls color in their Frozen coloring books, she brushed away the thought that these girls would grow up without a father figure in their lives. As orphans? Stop!
Fatmah went into the room and hugged them. In actuality, she needed it. As she held them both, she looked out the window to notice that the number of men in attendance had aggrandized. What she observed more than anything else was that none of the women were whispering poorly about her or her husband. No glances. And she wanted to believe that the same was to be said on the men’s side. At the moment, her faith and belief that God would make everything right, rose 200%.
The events that took place the past month or so had been bad. Horrible. Munther losing his job. The gossip after her husband had taken the girls to the Land of Kedz. His outburst at Abu Kinan’s azza. The three week separation. The Israeli soldier throwing Linda’s tricycle in the valley. And now, the Army arresting Munther. All of it, she believed was part of God’s bigger plan. It had to be. She and her husband were good people who kept HIM close. And she remembered her Grandfather’s words, ‘keep God close and he will keep you closer.’ And God was not about to let the people of the town think otherwise. Across the globe people were always looking for roads to a better life. The path to success. What was the song she heard her husband once sing – life is a highway, I want to ride it all night long.
But she wasn’t asking for streets or roads or highways. Fatmah would settle for sidewalks. “What are you doing now, Munther?” she wondered out loud.
He was sitting in a chair now. His mind had taken him back almost 20 years ago. A door that sounded like the Titanic going down opened. While he knew it would shut, he was still startled when it did. The hair on his arms stood on end. Coffee? American? Just a few seconds again, it smelled like rusted metal and wet wood. Was he smelling coffee now? His blind fold came off and a man in civilian clothing was standing in front of him.
He looked around. There was a small window, but it wasn’t big enough so that light lit the room. The lights were on. A small table that didn’t belong there was in front of him. But Munther’s eyes soon went to the object that was in the man’s hands. Closer look, he didn’t appear to be Israeli or Arab. He didn’t care who this blond haired man was. He cared about what this man was going to do with the scissor-plier object in his hand. “I guess you’re a coffee drinker,” the 50’s something man said in a British accent. Or was it South African? My political science professor in college was a South African Jew, Munther recalled. Are you still alive Jonathan Mendilow?
“But teaching does not suit you,” Munther concluded to himself. With your looks, you should be in the movies. The man with the British accent cut the plastic and his hands were free. The man stood next to him. “I am Yoav. It’s not every day you meet a celebrity. Mister Al Sayed, may I shake your hand?” He extended his hand to Munther who paused for a second before shaking it. Yoav let out a boastful laugh. “That’s the American in you to shake hands. The pause was the Palestinian part of you. If you had been fully Palestinian, you would have refused.” An image appeared in his mind of Fatmah saying, “You’re American when you want to be and Palestinian when you want to be.”
He picked up a blue pack and brought it towards his face. Munther started backing up. “Ice. It’s for the beauty mark my incompetent man gave you,” he said charmingly. “I’m sorry.” Sorry? Munther put the pack on his cheek which felt like swimming in the dead sea with an open cut.
Yoav sat in a chair that was placed for him. He pushed the coffee towards him. “It’s not Starbucks or Stars and Bucks,” he said referring to the copy restaurant in Ramallah. He knew not to take the coffee. But he did. He sipped it. It tasted like the beans had just been grinded from Brazil and flown over just for him on the Enterprise at warp speed.
“Thank –“, Munther started saying but stopped when he noticed the tape recorder. “I am not recording anything yet,” he said in broken Arabic. “As soon as I do and we’re finished here you can go home to Fatmah, Maya and Linda,” he said with warmth and compassion. Was he for real? The next two minutes there was silence. Yoav just eyed him. If it were a staring contest, Munther would have lost. He looked at his coffee cup which had the Hebrew letters of Tet and Alef. It wasn’t the time but he also wished he had used the nail clippers to cut the hang nail on his thumb. He would remove it now, but it would bleed.
When Munther looked back at Yoav, he had lost the smile. He was dead serious. In fact, he even seemed threatening. Pink. Pale. Pissed. “It’s simple, Mr. Al Sayed.” He took out a handkerchief barely in time to catch the sneeze. “Summer colds,” commented Yoav.
“Bless you,” said Munther. Yoav’s eyes widened. Munther didn’t realize he had said it until afterwards. It was involuntary, like, well, like a sneeze.
“A Palestinian would never say that to a Jew. But I thank you. The American part of you anyway. I’ll be direct, Sir. I want you to say that the story about my soldier throwing your daughter Linda’s bike into the valley was made up. That you lied about it.” Munther looked scared. Yoav pointed at him. “That emotion you have on your face is only necessary if you do not say the truth.” Between the ‘the and the truth,’ he had paused for effect. All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players. Munther was not a trouble maker.
He hated confrontation. Why was he here? Why had this happened? Suddenly the coffee tasted bad. He didn’t want it. He wanted the only thing that gave him comfort in the world – Fatmah.
“We did not think it was going to turn into such a big deal. That’s the truth.” Yoav shook his head.
Once again, for effect, he was pretending as if he was thinking about what to say. But Munther studied acting. In acting class, you take a course on body language. He had rehearsed this dialogue a number of times. Maybe not rehearsed. At least, he had gone over it with his superior officer. “You live in Abu Dis, the capital of gossip. How can you say such a thing? Is it because you think me to be an ahbell,” he said using the Arabic word for idiot. “We hear everything. How the town is against you. Not calling you a man. A husband divorcing his wife because his wife said he should be more like you when it comes to caring for babies.” The way he said babies made Munther want to smile, laugh actually, because it was an Arnold Schwarzenegger “It’s not a tumor” moment.
“Is that true, Munther?” Munther shook his head. He indicated to the paper. “I can fix it. All of it. I have a few friends in Hollywood. I must, I’m Jewish, right? Seriously, I can find you work. I know people. My wife is best friends with the woman who created that show in the 90’s where everybody are friends. What’s it called?” “Friends?” Munther said with a question mark. “Sign and we will be. Friends.” You sneaky British or South African bastard, Munther wanted to say. “All you do is sign that little paper with this little pen that this little incident never happened and this little problem will be go away like Stuart Little.” Today’s secret word, boys and girls, is little. Whenever you hear the secret word scream real loud, okay? Is Pee-Wee Herman still working? No matter, Munther wanted to get back his reputation in the town, something the people and their tongues let him lose unfairly. But this man in front of him was not the one to do it. He would be seen as a liar to the two people who trusted him the most – his girls, Maya and Linda.
“In Arabic, Munther, there is a saying: Make it big, it gets bigger. Keep it small, it stays little.” Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. “You’re asking me to lie,” Munther asked.
Yoav let out a boastful laugh that belonged to an overweight man like the producer in The Player or the one from Barton Fink. “No. No. You lied, Munther. I’m asking you to tell the truth that you lied and get respected again.” He felt shivers on his hands. Yoav noticed. He knew he was getting to him. “This is a trick. Whatever I say or do will incriminate me.” Yoav got into his face.
“You made up the story about my soldier breaking your little girl’s bicycle.” The breath mint was poorly hiding the fact that Yoav was a smoker.
“Don’t sign.” Marlboro lights. “Case closed.” No, Marlboro Reds. You’re going to jail” He stood up and Yoav’s cell phone rang. “Ken…ken. Yoav.” he said agitated. Listening, his mouth fell to the floor and he let out a loud “MA?!? he said slamming the pen on the paper. Munther knew that word, too. It was Hebrew for what.
He ended the call. “I’m sorry for my behavior,” he said. “It seems you are free to go.” Yoav didn’t speak anything else after that. He left, leaving Munther alone with the pen. After a minute, he turned the paper over and started handwriting something. Yoav re-entered and grabbed the pen and paper out his hand and started ripping it into three or four pieces. It doesn’t matter. The pen is truly mightier than the sword. Besides, “You can’t rip up what’s in my head,” Munther said out loud. He took a drink from the coffee. It tasted good. Just then Yoav re-entered the room. He took the coffee out of his hands and left. Even in the ugliest situations and places, a smile is hiding somewhere. He was back…
Fatmah’s brother Samy told Munther about the video on the car ride home after picking him up from the Ma’ale Adumim settlement police headquarters. The video showed Munther with his daughters and the whole scene with the Israeli Army. More, it was visual confirmation that the Israeli soldier had in fact, thrown Linda’s tricycle.
“Then it’s all over the news?” Munther asked. “The video has gone viral,” Samy said.
Someone in Al Azaria, using their IPhone, had secretly filmed the encounter of Munther Al Sayed and his daughters Maya and Linda. Filmed from across the street, the anonymous good Samaritan was behind a tree.
In the video, in between the passing automobiles, the traffic lulls and you can make out the soldier pushing Munther and his daughter aside, picking up the bike and throwing it.
It was clear as day and on Twitter and Facebook. “516,329” have seen it on You Tube already, Samy added.
The streets of Abu Dis were lined with residents and with people from all around as Munther came home. Waving, clapping, and cheering.
Children were holding Palestinian flags. As soon as he pulled up to his home, a mass crowd swarmed on him like, pick your choice of words here. He was home. And everybody had spent hours waiting to catch a glimpse of him. He emerged from the car and people started greeting him. Kissed on the cheek. He yelled out to Fatmah similar to the scene from Rocky when he calls Talia Shire. Fatmah was his Adrian. But this was no movie. This was life. And it was sure pretty, he thought as he hugged Fatmah and his two daughters. Things were happening. He heard the writer in him say “I’m not mad at you anymore, come on let’s do lunch.” In that cold interrogation room, the voice that had once gone into hibernation had awoken.
At another briefing at the U.S. State Department, the Palestinian journalist had been allowed in, contrary to the rumors that the Americans would forbid him. Later, they wished they had denied him entry. Despite the Spokesperson going left, right, up and down to avoid the question about the video, she finally answered. Her face beet red she said: “We regret this troubling incident deeply and only hope our ally will exercise, no, will know how to act next time.” Next time, Ms. Spokesperson? Oops!
Munther felt that everything would turn out the way it was supposed to. He would find work. He would write again.
But somehow, for this moment, what mattered to him more than anything were the girls in his life. That sentence is wrong, he thought -- The girls are his life. He was greater than any super hero.
Journalists, politicians, men, women, children of all ages, had been in and out of the Al Sayed house for days. People around the world could not stop talking about the video, the bike incident.
But the shock came when he received a phone call from Los Angeles that a certain director had taken a great interest in his family’s story.
Two weeks after the video had gone viral and he’d been released from the police station, Munther could not believe that Mr. Oliver Stone was sitting in his living room. God forgive me, but after God, the Platoon and Wall Street director was God. His wife was reacting better than he was. Because she was not familiar with him, she was not star struck. She respected him and treated her as she did the villagers. She smiled at him, looked him in the eye.
It was no surprise when Oliver Stone later told Munther that he liked his wife more than him. She was not acting giddy. “What’s your favorite film, Oliver?” She asked him. Oliver? Wow. “I really liked Omar, Fatmah” he said referring to the Hany Abu-Assad movie. Munther liked the way he said his wife’s name. Although it was pronounced Fot-ma. Mr. Stone had said it Fot-e-ma. “Don’t say that you like Omar just because we’re Palestinian. In Israel, you say your favorite film is an Avi Nesher film, no?” Munther’s mouth dropped. First, she called him Oliver. Now this. How can she be talking to him like that? “While Israel has a pool of talented filmmakers, and yes Mr. Nesher is absolutely brilliant, I never really got into the Israeli film scene. But Omar will be studied as one of the greatest love stories ever told. You don’t have to be Palestinian or even Arab to relate to that.” He took out a cigarette. Munther jumped to put the ashtray in front of him. “I’m sorry Mr. Stone we don’t allow smoking in our home,” Fatmah said. “Fatmah!” Munther snapped, his face turning red.
Her choice to call him Mr. Stone over Oliver did not influence him to put his cigarette back in the box. He would have done so anyway. But hearing her say Mr. Stone didn’t hurt. “Would you like Arabic coffee or tea with mint?” He chose the latter and Fatmah left for the kitchen. Maya and Linda came running into the living room holding paper with colored drawing on them.
“Umo, Umo, this is for you,” said Maya in English, umo, meaning mister. Linda repeated the same sentence but in Arabic. “Girls, don’t bother Mister Stone,” their father said.
Oliver Stone put up a hand and turned his head sideways to Munther as if to say ‘Really? Come on they’re kids.’ He took the drawings from the girls. “What is it?? He asked, his famous eyebrows elevating in genuine curiosity. “It’s you making a movie,” Maya said smiling. Linda repeated the same sentence in Arabic. “Is that me?” Oliver Stone said pointing to the squiggly line. “No, that’s the camera. This is you,” Maya said pointing to something that looked like a cloud. “Why thank you. What’s your name?” “I’m Maya and this is my sister Linda,” she said. “You’re the one whose bike was broken, right?” Linda nodded. “What did you do?” “I cried.” “I cried, too,” Maya shouted.
Wow she speaks to Oliver Stone more confident than I do, Munther thought. “Well, thank you, Maya. Thank you Linda.” They ran out of the room, almost bumping into Fatmah carrying a silver tray with three glass cups of tea. “I love mint tea,” Oliver Stone said.
Munther couldn’t believe that not only was the Born on the Fourth of July director in his home, but drinking tea. He likes one sugar in his tea, by the way. “Tom Cruise is a tea freak,” he said smiling just before sipping his tea. The doorbell rang. Fatmah got up and returned with her father and mother. “Oliver, this is my mom and dad, Abu Samy and Um Samy,” she said. They shook hands. “Oliver Stone, Mohkrij cinematee,” she said to her mom, using the Arabic word for movie director. “Sahafee kaman,” Oliver Stone added, surprising all that he had used the Arabic word for journalist. Fatmah left to get cups of tea as the parents sat down. Her father engaged in conversation with the famous personality about his visit to America a few years back. Namely to California. Oliver Stone seemed genuinely interested.
“In your one month visit, Abu Samy, you saw more of the United States than I have seen in my whole life.” Man, thought Munther, this guy really listens to you. This is how Oliver Stone became Oliver Stone. Fatmah returned with two glasses of tea. “So Munther let me cut to the chase because I have to fly back to L.A. tonight and security at Ben Gurion airport is a nightmare,” he said. Before Munther could wonder, “And I tell that to their faces. I’m not afraid like Jon Voight.” he added. “What happened with Linda and your family is terrible and shocking. And I don’t want you to think that I want to profit it on that or exploit your family or anything like that. Yes, I like controversy. But I love a great story even more. However, I can’t tell it alone.
I would like you to work on the screenplay with me and you’ll get sole credit for it. “Hitchcock did that all the time,” said Fatmah. “Munther, if your wife wasn’t married --,” he began to say but noticed a look from Munther’s father in law. Fatmah was kind of bummed that Munther hadn’t given Oliver Stone the look. “I’m impressed,” he said correcting himself. After a moment, Fatmah’s father chuckled as her mother covered her mouth and giggled. He smiled with them. “Look, I don’t want to make this movie, I have to make this movie,” he said. Munther was speechless. Her parents, too. “How much will you pay up front?” Fatmah asked. Munther’s eyes widen. “I’m sorry if my question bothers you but Munther has worked hard and written for too many people and nobody paid him,” she said without breaking a sweat. “Fatmah,” he said talking with his hands. “Don’t be sorry. I will give him fifteen thousand down, plus another fifteen after submitting the first draft. Each draft I ask, he will receive an additional five thousand.” “Dollars?” Fatmah asked. “The only language we Americans know how to speak. Is that okay?”
“Yes!” Munther shouted, startling his mother in law who almost spilled a little of the tea on herself. “Can you write that down,” Fatmah asked. Oliver Stone let out a whole hearty laugh.
“The moment I get back to L.A., it will be done. You have nothing to worry about. I need Munther. Munther doesn’t need me.” With his Shukran, he put the tea saucer and cup down and got up. “Oh. May I say good bye to the girls?”
Munther called them saying that the guest filmmaker was leaving. They all walked him outside to his SUV where the driver was reading a newspaper that had a still image of the video gone viral.
“Gal,” Oliver Stone said followed by a word in Hebrew that Munther did not know. The Israeli driver got out and went to the back and opened up the trunk. He produced two brand new hot pink bicycles. “For Maya and Linda,” he said taking one of the bikes from Gal. Maya and Linda started jumping up and down. He kissed the girls on their heads. Then he shook the hands of Fatmah’s parents and hugged Munther. Fatmah put her hand out. “No. I’m going to hug you, too. Fatmah. You’re an amazing woman.” Munther watched as she returned the embrace.
“I want this one.” No, I want this one, Maya and Linda said. “I’ll let you handle the Kardashians.” With that, he got in the SUV and drove off.
The last thing Munther saw was the driver handing Oliver Stone his mobile phone. For the rest of the evening, Munther and Fatmah watched the girls ride the bikes that Mr. Oliver Stone had brought them. They hardly spoke to each other. Sure, they could have. But really for some moments in life, a picture is worth a thousand words. A moving picture is worth infinity.
Fatmah grabbed Munther’s left arm. He managed to kiss her forehead. As the sun was setting over Israel’s separation wall, Fatmah grabbed Munther’s hand and together they strolled after Maya and Linda. “Daddy,” Maya called out. “Yes, Maya?” “I have to go to the bathroom.” “Mamma?” “Yes, Linda?” “I have to go to the bathroom, too.”
That night Munther woke up from a dream. He wasn’t sure whether it was bad or not. He tried to recall it but couldn’t. “Sometimes a cake is just a cake,” Impath Deanna Troi had once uttered on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He got out of bed and walked to the kitchen and drank a tall glass of water. Half way he stopped, starting to remember bits of the dream. Then he saw all of it:
Oliver Stone is driving away in his SUV after having just given the girls their new bikes. But Munther’s point of view is that of the driver, not himself. Behind the wheel, he looks over to his right at Oliver Stone who is speaking on the telephone. “You’re right, Yoav. The family is definitely lovely.”
Portrait of silhouettes in the dark
Or maybe I am becoming nothing more than a conglomeration of skin, hair, limbs twitching and twirling under their own weight.
The small letters run away from my eyes as I try to decipher them. I take one more sip of the whiskey to settle my vision. It doesn’t help. Then I can finally read the headline. And something inside me snaps…
A smile blossoms on my lips and I can feel the warm tears licking their way down my cheeks, meeting on my chin, then streaming down towards the ground. He could help me.
“She was… Everything,” I stutter, tongue heavy, laying at the bottom of my dry mouth. The pressure in my shoulders is reaching my temples, making a headache drum against the back of my head. I take in half a breath, swallow hard the air, force it down my throat and into my lungs. The black coffee stares back at me from the plastic cup - or styrofoam? For a moment, the question sits on my lips, then I realise the eyes pinning me to my place in the metalic chair would give me disapproving looks. Is it styrofoam or plastic? Paper? A chuckle is yanked out of my chest - they are probably thinking I’m losing my marbles.
“She was… Light. Soft light, like a sunrise or sunset. Never harsh, just mellow and gentle and warm and…” I exhale through my nose, my nostrils flare up as I inhale. Smell the flowers, blow out the candle. Is that what they say?
“Thank you, David. That was very brave of you.” I nod - I don’t agree with her. She smiles at me, white teeth sprouting from behind her dark lips, the grin wide and bright against her brown complexion. “Anyone else who wants to share?”
The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks cradles my thoughts back and forth, almost as if carried away on the arms of the springbreeze. In the distance, greedy seagulls are surveying the area, beady eyes searching for an unknowing prey. They descend upon a man walking along the pier, hotdog in hand and phone in the other. As he’s tapping the screen to capture the perfect selfie, the big, hungry bird launches its attack.
Two minutes later, the seagulls are back in the sky, relish from the hotdog sitting on the scorching asphalt - the scene of the crime.
The metal scratching the floor rings in my ears and echoes behind my tired eyes. The coffee is cold in my plastic - I decided - cup. Rhonda gives me another smile. The worry in her gaze is barely masked by her usual jovial attitude. I sit up, breaking away from the group of people now giving each other hugs and pats on the back. Broken people.
Her eyes are the first thing I notice. Dark, abysmal, curious. Then her breath - it’s deep, calculated.
“Hey,” she chews on the word like you would on an ice cone, hurried and afraid of pain.
“Hey,” I reply and pick up a glazed donut. If this place had anything going for it, aside from the mint coloured walls decorated with posters of Jesus and celestial light beaming down on mortals, it was the donuts. Two flavours only, glazed and with sprinkles. Chocolate was seen as a coping mechanism and the only coping mechanism allowed under this roof was crying it out in the arms of a stranger.
“What you said about uh…” She pauses, clearly not having paid attention to the first half of my story.
“Julia,” I offer and she takes it with a smile - not a smile, a smirk, the right corner of her lip tugged at in an upwards motion.
“Sorry, yeah, Julia. What you said was beautiful.” She pushes with trembling fingers a few scattered, loose strands of russet hair behind her small ear that ends with a pearl earring.
“Thanks.” Silence - it covers us, like a blanket, wrapped around our tense shoulders, an embrace from awkwardness itself. “I’m a writer, I write sometimes.” As soon as the words evaporate off my lips, I feel laughter bubble in my chest. “Uh, apologies. Julia, my… She always said that I give out that information way too easily.” My palm comes to scratch the poorly maintained beard I have, before plunging straight ahead between me and the woman. “I’m David.”
Her eyebrows arch above her dark eyes and, with a nod, she grabs my hand, cold fingers sitting against my warm skin for a few seconds before swimming away.
“Dina.” Her name tumbles around my head, travels from one chamber to another, before installing itself in my long term memory.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, nice to meet you.”
I drive for two hours, with the grey cupola of the sky above me, with clouds chasing each other on the firmament. By the time I get home, the neighbourhood is lost in the evening silence. A few windows glint at me in the darkness, lights orange and diffuse.
“How was it?” Julia’s voice is inviting and sweet, syllables jumping around, dancing in the air, her tone rich and raspy.
“I don’t know?” My words are curt and cut short as I kiss the rim of the glass. I breathe only when the empty glass hits the counter, then I pour some more. The wine swirls and sways back and forth until it settles, red drops clinging to the walls of its container.
“You can tell me.” She’s nowhere. I turn towards the fridge. Me and her and Bucky, our dog, on the beach. Her holding her baby niece. Me covered in whipped cream, a destroyed cake in front of me, her arms around me. Her smile is so big in that picture it almost takes over her face. She was always insecure about her big mouth. I always told her I loved it.
“And my freckles, you loved those too.” I close my eyes and lean against the kitchen island. The cold marble beneath my palms grounds me.
When I wake up, I can smell the rain - then I hear it, knocking at my window. Bucky is barking somewhere in the hallway and I sit up, inspecting the time.
“I’m coming!” I yell as I peel myself off the bed, my bare feet against the wooden floor making me wince. “Come here, boy,” I speak as I find Bucky in the living room, tail wagging and tongue out. As I lean over to put his leash on, I feel a wet nose rubbing against my naked calf. The cat purrs as my fingers dig under its chin. I can almost hear her saying that...
“Cats are not domesticated, you know? Kind of sweet how they decided to put up with our insanity.”
“We feed them, offer them shelter and unconditional love, why wouldn’t they?” She takes in a breath, sips her cold beer, the crickets echoing around us, almost swallowing her next words.
“Some need more than that to put up with our insanity. They choose not to, though.”
I tell her she’s not insane, I tell her I love her and that I’m not a cat person anyway and I’ve always appreciated the loyalty of dogs more. She laughs and chokes on her tears, her head under my chin, her arms around my waist.
The rain comes crashing down in waves, the wind pushing and tugging at the water drops. Bucky is running a few steps ahead of me, daring me to catch up with him. I stop and prop my hands on my knees, letting the cold air swirl around my head, fill my insides, travel along my trachea. My breath cascades into the cold morning air in mist clouds, propelled by my wheezing exhales.
“You’re out of shape,” she says and pokes at my shoulder, then gives me a playful grin.
“Have I ever been in shape?” She laughs, her chest filling with giggles before expelling them into the autumn air. She shakes her head as she wraps the blanket tighter against her cold, bare shoulders.
“Hey… Ever thought you’d marry me?”
The question takes me by surprise - my forehead is decorated with trenches and my eyebrows furrow deep above my blue eyes.
“I don’t know, why do you ask?” I should have noticed then and there what was wrong. I should have hugged her tighter, I should have kissed her more, I should have done a million things I haven’t done.
The sound of the TV in the background comes to me in waves. Something about the forecast, a rainy season, down south hail should be expected. I watch the steam rise from my coffee cup while Rover and Bucky are having their breakfast. They chew loudly, Rover barely stopping for air and meowing in that specific way cats meow when it comes to food.
“Greedy bastard,” I call him and Julia laughs from somewhere in the living room. I try to drown the sound of her voice in the black, bitter coffee burning its way down my throat now. I try to calm down my mind, I try to erase the smell of her perfume from my nostrils, I try to forget for the tenth time that day how her lips tasted after she had a cigarette.
“Do you have a cigarette?” The air is warm, suffocating. The party is roaring inside the two story house and the porch creaks as she moves closer to me to grab the cigarette I have offered her. She takes it, places it between her lips, holds her breath and gives me a charming grin.
I know in that moment, as the light flickers alive, as the end of her cigarette burns and as she inhales, hungrily, that I will love her.
She was everything. The sound of my fingers caressing the keyboard brings to me a certain… Security. The cup of coffee is sitting next to my laptop on the desk - cold, forgotten. I have been staring at the white page for twenty minutes. That may not seem long, but if you ever craved finding the right words, seeing those letters align in front of your eyes… Yes, it’s an eternity.
She was everything I had,
She was joy and fright and sad,
She was light and she was dark,
She was afkhsfgzsek5rrtd
My palms lay flat against the keys. The black letters suspended on the white page gaze at me indolently. The tears rolling down my cheeks are warm, wet, salty. Past tense; it’s the past tense that did it…
Before I know it, I’m two glasses deep into a bottle of Pinot Grigio, slurping the last few drops of my second portion. The bottle crashes against the glass as I hurry to pour more and the rosé splashes on the grey marble counter.
“Grey marble! We have to have it! Oh, it will look amazing with the black furniture!”
“Fuck off!” The scream is pushed out of my chest through chattering teeth and I curse again under my breath as the glass hits my teeth; it makes pain crawl across my face and plant itself in my forehead. I’m shaking and I can feel Rover’s fur against my leg.
A wave of embarrassment washes over me and I’m not sure if it’s the alcohol or the tears, but I lose my breath. I close my eyes, hear the air fighting against my closing neck. The tingling sensation in my arms and legs returns and I stumble to the floor, back against the oven, its buttons digging deep into the back of my head.
Smell the flowers, blow out the candle. Smell the… Blow…
One, two, three, four, hold, hold, seven, eight, nine, ten, release.
The light is seeping through my opening eyelids. For a moment, everything is just blotches of colour around me. I blink. Then start looking again. My chest is rising slowly now, descending ever slower.
“Oh, darling… I’m so sorry.”
“Who would like to share something today?” There’s tense silence in the room, clinging to the mint hued walls, draping the sunlight drenched windows. “Maybe one of our newcomers?” Rhonda’s large eyes turn towards me, her smile punctuated by deep dimples.
“I’ll go.” A voice next to me echoes, barely above a whisper. When I turn, her dark eyes welcome me, her tousled hair and bare face making her look older than she is.
“Please,” Rhonda encourages, her maternal tone making Dina try to put on a smile.
“My Roger, he… Worked in the army. We met at one of those things for single people. And I just… I don’t know, I fell in love with his kindness and bravery and the way he could make me laugh and the way his arms felt around me. He… He came from what he called the ghetto.” A stiff cough marks a pause in her speech, before she continues. “And the only way he saw out was the army.” She sucks in her lip, almost as if holding back tears, her palms in her lap, fingers holding onto each other. “What he didn’t know was that the army was going to take him away from me.” She clears her throat, lifts her head up and blinks a few times. “I am… So lost without him.”
Scattered applause fills the silence. I feel a shiver run along my spine and I move my gaze away, almost embarrassed, feeling like an intruder. Sighs around the room and a silent cough disturb the solemn quiet. Then Rhonda takes in a breath, her palms come together almost as if she’s praying and she directs her attention towards other people. The crying woman next to her wants to speak - as she does every time she has the opportunity. I interrupt.
“I would like to tell this story about Julia.” Rhonda’s big eyes widen even more, then her features soften under the mellow light of patience. She nods towards me. I take a sip of my watered down coffee and clear my throat. I can feel Dina’s burning gaze on the side of my head.
“The beach. We were at the beach and it was a lazy spring day. Easter holiday.”
The waves keep eating away at the shore before retreating towards the horizon, foaming and swaying. The air is salty and humid and the sand is warm. I can feel her warmth across my chest, as she is leaning against me, my arm draped around her shoulders. She is humming something and I’m trying to decipher what it is between swigs of beer.
“What are you singing?” I say, in the end, and I can feel her body jolt. A pause - her shoulders grow tense and when she turns towards me, the colour in her cheeks has evaporated. In just a few seconds, she is transformed. Her face looks sunken now, her eyes teary, her eyebrows joined together in a deep frow. Her lips are quivering and she whispers wetly, before breaking down in my arms.
“I don’t know, she said. That’s… That’s when we knew something was wrong. Then we had it confirmed.” A pause filled with dread as I try to keep my thoughts aligned. “Early onset dementia.” The last few words die on my lips, liberated in the air as a hoarse whisper. Just now I realise how tight I’m holding the plastic cup. I loosen my grip - the plastic stays the same, dented, misshapen.
The burning wood whispers and groans as the fire is eating away at it, the flames jumping, leaping and consuming the oxygen in the room. I stare at the incandescent display for a few moments, before turning my attention back to my laptop. I can hear her in the kitchen. The title of the webpage reads: Oak Care Home. I bite my lip, feeling blood pool in my mouth. I try to distract myself. Why do all care homes have trees in their name? It doesn’t work. Then the sound of shattered glass pushes me to my feet, steps hurried towards the kitchen, heart pounding and vision blurry.
I scream her name and she jerks away from the broken glass when she sees me. She is a crying, trembling mess and the word ‘sorry’ keeps jumping off her lips. Her breath is ragged and her fingers tremble, blood decorating her left palm. And I stand there, watching my wife apologise for a broken glass like a small child, on her knees, sobbing and rocking back and forth.
The phone vibrating next to my shoulder pulls me away from the embrace of the sleep. I groan as I turn and I palm the sheets beneath me in search of the vibrating device. The screen reads Paul and beneath the letters in an uninspiring font stands the picture of a greying man. On his nose rests a pair of large glasses and they almost take over his face, if not for the huge grin. I pause and clear my throat.
“Hey, David. Sorry if I’m waking you up, uh…” Silence, the sound of traffic in the background. The scream of a car horn inundates the quiet between us.
“Morning, Paul, it’s alright. What can I do for you?” Salesman voice, I can almost hear Julia say. She was right - what is a lawyer if not a fancy salesman?
“I just wanted to check in with you, I just got back from my trip and Jesus… I am so sorry I wasn’t there. I heard about it a week ago and I…” A low chuckle, one of those huffs he gives every time he feels awkward. “To be honest, I’ve been trying to figure out what to say to you. And I decided I don’t have to say anything and probably… Anything I could say has been already said.”
“Thanks, Paul,” I murmur, voice dry, mouth dry, cheeks wet. I press my lips together, place a hand over them and try to keep the sobbing at bay.
“I’m really sorry. I loved Julia - everyone did.” I nod, despite knowing he can’t see me. “Do you… Want to get a drink sometime? This Friday maybe?” His invitation makes my shoulders tense and my breath lodge itself in my closing throat. I haven’t really seen any of our friends after… Between drinking myself to sleep and the support group, time flew past me.
“Sure, Paul, I appreciate it. Will meet you at Cube downtown?” I almost feel the protest from him coming. And then it doesn’t. He picks up on it - he knows any bar near the office would put me off. He knows any familiar faces would bring a wave of questions and gazes and pats on the back I was not ready for.
“Sounds good, buddy. Will see you Friday and uh... “ His words stop abruptly and I can almost hear him mull over the next ones. “Call me if you need anything.”
“Thank you, Paul. Will do. Thanks.” The last sound is him rushing a goodbye.
I lean against the headboard and take in a breath. I know how hard it is to find the balance between being supportive and taking pity. One is appreciated - the other…
“I never liked these groups, you know. Too much pity going around.” The sound of her voice makes my shoulders stand up. I nod, even before I can see her round face. She’s got her hair stiffly pulled into a ponytail, only her fringe swept to one side let loose to frame her face. As I roll the next words around my mouth, I see her pulling on her long sleeves and folding her arms around herself.
“I know how you feel,” I murmur and I finish my glazed donut. Her eyes inspect me, measure me. Say yes, I hear Julia’s voice in my head before Dina opens her mouth to let hers be heard. I say yes.
The car is purring softly and a breeze is flying in through the partly open window of the car. She is leaning into the door, her temple pressed against the window. Her breath is stable, deep. I can almost feel the tiredness evaporate from her body, the clouds drifting away from her thoughts, the worry and pain mellowed out by the peace of her nap. I tighten my grip against the steering wheel and bite down on a scream that wants to escape my chest. I want to stop the car and lie next to her, take her in my arms, kiss her face, tell her everything will be alright. I don’t.
Ten minutes later we pull into the driveway and the car gives a last hum before the engine settles. I listen to her breathe, watch her blond hair move above her chest, falling down in big curls down her back. Her lips sit slightly ajar and her eyelashes flutter softly. As I look at her, deep lost in her dream, I feel the desperation infiltrate my brain. I can still hear the doctor’s voice - his words haven’t left my thoughts. My neurons are firing chaotically and it’s hard to breathe. I open the door of the car, heaving, my mouth sucking in the afternoon air, my lungs holding onto every molecule of oxygen they can get.
I throw up until my stomach hurts and I can taste the bitter bile coating my mouth.
He waves a hand at me, propped in one of the stools at the bar, holding with the other hand a glass of whiskey. I wonder for a moment if he needed that drink to get himself ready to face me - I wouldn’t blame him. His eyes roam over me with worry anchored deep within them from behind the big glasses.
“Nice to see you,” I greet him and let him wrap an arm around me - two pats on the back. His fingers linger for a brief moment on my arm and I’m not sure if that’s a comforting gesture or something to ground him. I notice the quiver at the end of his smile - he’s nervous.
“So good to see you.” The chair groans as I sit and a sigh instinctively flies off my lips as I let my elbows rest on the wooden countertop.
“Whiskey, double, on the rocks.” The bartender offers me a smile to accompany my drink, promptly poured into a thick tumbler. I let the spirit coat my lips, snake past them to the back of my throat where it sets it alight gently. Then I push it down with a wince, letting it tumble further into my body until it settles into a pool of warmth in my belly.
“So… I guess it would be stupid to ask how you’re feeling?” His voice is soft, gentle and he avoids my gaze when I try to find his eyes. I chuckle under my breath, then take another sip of my drink.
“You can ask me that, but don’t expect much,” I joke and I can see his shoulders relaxing, captured by the power of gravity once again. He nods and pats me on the back, as if to say he appreciates me not being a depressing mess - even if I am one.
He tells me about Thailand and the case he’s been working on. A class action against some big company that let hazardous waste run through the rivers of the village nearby. I let him fill the silence with the details of his trip, the stories about the justice system over there. I let him talk about himself, afraid he will ask about me, he will ask… About her.
Glass after glass, his words become more unintelligible, my chuckles louder, his eyes softer, our nervousness quieter and quieter.
Then he stops. As he turns around, I can see the shadows that capture his light eyes, I can see the worry lines around his face deepen and I can read on the topography of his face his next question.
“Will you marry me?” The night sky breathes in the same rhythm as me, deep, nervous. The sea foams, waves advance and retreat. We can hear the crickets in the distance and the cars. They all seem distant, however, and I get lost in her blue eyes. The moon shines in her tears as she jumps in my arms. We stumble into the warm sand, while she whispers ‘yes’ over and over again in my ear and as she places wet kisses all over my face.
And all I want is to freeze us in this moment - under the starry sky, under the night’s embrace, holding each other, crushing whispered words between our lips.
Did you do it?
The words swim between my confused thoughts, echoing in my sleeping mind. I can feel the pain throbbing in my temples, I can still feel his gaze on me, burning, questioning, worried - all those things at once. My stomach churns, my blood is pumping.
I wake up with sweat seeping through my clothes, leaving wet spots on the grey sheets of my bed. I hurl myself away from it, feet stumbling towards the bathroom. It all comes down, the whiskey and peanuts we munched on, everything.
When I finish, I let the toilet flush away the memory of the previous night. I let the water take with it the question and Paul’s gaze, his sombre voice, the alcohol… I sit next to the toilet, breathing in, face contorted under the pressure of pain. Pain that starts with loud thumps around my temples and spreads everywhere else in my body. It grabs my tense shoulders, it settles into my unsettled stomach, it reaches for my sprained ankle.
When I open my eyes, Bucky is in the door, curious eyes on me.
“I’m alright, bud,” I choke out, before pushing myself up to my feet.
The clock on the wall whispers its ticks and tocks at me with perseverance. I lean against the kitchen island and push the two pills between my lips, then follow them with a big gulp of water.
“You shouldn’t miss it.” Her voice echoes around the room, drives along the corners of the counters, surfs against the marble and wood.
“I’m in no state to be there, I’d probably lose my shit, Julia.” No reply. But if I close my eyes I can see her shrugging her shoulders, giving me a side look to express her disagreement.
The phone buzzes against my thigh and I let it vibrate three times before I fish for it in my pocket. The number displayed is… Just a number. No name, no picture attached to the contact.
this is Dina sorry to bother you but i noticed ur not here.. let me know ur ok?
I lock the screen and watch my reflection. My hair is tousled, the white peppered through the black tresses making me look older than I am. My face looks almost grey, especially in the crepuscular light of the kitchen. My eyes are lost in their sockets and I am...
“You’re not a mess, darling. You are dealing with loss.”
“In a messy way.” My hoarse voice bounces against the white walls of the kitchen - it catches me by surprise.
“You’re grieving. It’s normal.” I let my lips be pulled upwards in an empty smile. She’s right. And also very wrong.
I’ve been mourning her loss since that day on the beach when her mind could not reach for the name of that damned song. I’ve been losing my wife for a year now and her being… I take in a breath, exhale shakily. The sound of the glass hitting the counter makes Rover lift his head and give me a look from his place in his bed, next to the back door.
“She’s…” I feel my jaw clenching, my teeth pushing into each other, as if my mouth doesn’t want the word to escape into the ether. “She’s…” I try again, this time a sob accompanying the syllable. I break down before I can say it - Rover is watching me from his bed, then he stretches with a purr. I still can’t say it…
“David Alby, resident here is Julia Alby.” The receptionist gives me a smile, one of those grins that have been trained over the years to emanate as much hospitality as possible while maintaining a specific level of professionalism. She nods and reminds me of the room number. I repeat it in my head, reciting the digits as they form on her lips.
My breath quickens as my steps shuffle across the carpeted floor. Small golden flowers lost within a sea of burgundy are crushed under my shoes as I make my way down the corridor. The neutral painted walls - she would call them beige or taupe - are lined with water colour paintings. Vases and beaches and branches of flowers decorate the halls, all a tad faded, old. Then my steps stop - my breath does as well. I watch from the door, my fists clenching at my side, the hair on my neck standing up.
“Oh, look who’s here, Julia.” The woman fretting above my wife gives me a wry smile and a pitiful look. I swallow the curse that wants to fly off my lips. And smile. Julia smiles back. I can see the confusion settling into the lines of her face.
“Hey, beautiful.” The nurse shakes her head. I wet my lips and approach the chair she’s installed in. “You’re reading The Catcher in the rye?” Her eyes travel across the expanse of my face and a light blossoms within her gaze.
“Darling,” she exhales, jumping out of her chair and into my arms. I let myself get lost in her embrace. I take in the scent of her skin and her hair, sigh as her fingers travel up my neck and surround my shoulders, melt into her as I drag her closer. When I open my eyes the nurse is gone and the room is silent.
“I’m so glad to see you,” I say and, when I speak, my tone is wet and my vision blurry.
“Oh, darling, please don’t,” she pleads, her small hands cupping my jaw, her big mouth on mine, her breath settling into the same rhythm as my own. We stand there and breathe. I’ve seen her every day the past week and this is the first time she knows who I am. I want to break down into her arms, let her run her fingers through my hair as she does when she feels maternal. I don’t.
Instead, we sit at the edge of the bed, her hands in mine and her blue eyes silently asking me. Then the silence is shattered by her low, raspy voice.
“Will you do it?” I suck in a breath, hold the air in my lungs for as long as possible before releasing it. I let my trembling lips pepper kisses along her cheek and temple and I can feel her fingers tightening their hold against mine. I nod before I answer and her gaze softens with relief.
“Yes, Julia. I’ll do it.”
My knuckles crash against the wood, the knock echoing in the evening air. Behind the door, there’s a bark, then I hear light shuffles and a low voice. The phone vibrates in my pocket. I ignore it. The door swings open and Dina welcomes me with a smile; the first smile I’ve seen painted on her face that was more than a strenuous smirk. Silence permeates the air between us for a moment, as she holds onto the collar of the dog who is whimpering in her grasp.
“Hey,” I struggle and she chuckles under breath, closing the door behind her.
“Hey. Did you find this place alright?” I nod, holding my breath for a moment, unable to grasp at any words that would make me feel less awkward. “Do you… Want to go?” The light playing in her gaze confers her an amused air. The sun envelops her pale face and paints atop her mellow features a golden hue. I move out of the way and follow her with unsure steps down into the road, her long sleeve dress swaying with every movement. She lives in a cul-de-sac, I notice. A kid is toying with his bike in his garden under the watchful gaze of a man who I presume is his dad.
“Nice neighbourhood.” The words escaping my tight throat come across as cold - an observation, rather than a compliment. She receives it as a compliment, however, turning her face towards me and letting the thin line of her mouth bend under the curve of a gentle grin.
“It really is.”
Our steps find a common rhythm as they shuffle across the asphalt. All of the sudden, I can see myself and her, walking side by side, weighing words and ideas in our mind, searching for a way to make conversation. Two lonely people - two silhouettes brought together and lost in the shadows left by death itself.
She clears her throat and turns her gaze towards me, eager to let her voice fill the tense silence between us.
“I’ve heard good things about this place and we’re lucky it’s not that far. Did you drive here? Not sure if I’ve seen your car or…” The syllables rush out one after another, a cascade of sounds and half taken breaths between them, all collapsing into the evening air. I nod and try to find something to do with my hands. Pockets? No, too casual. Behind my back? Too formal. I choose to use them as a visual tool and I throw my thumb over my shoulder, pointing behind me.
“Yeah, the car is parked right there, but you said you wanted to walk so… We’re walking.” I sigh under my breath, realising she’s now smiling again. It could have been the soft light of the bright sunset or just the way her dark eyes glistened next, but she suddenly looked beautiful. Beautiful in an uncommon way, with her shoulder length hair swayed by the spring breeze and her high forehead illuminated by the sunset and straight nose casting a shadow along her face.
“Anything wrong?” Her question makes me blink slowly - time rushes past me for a few moments before my brain is giving orders again, telling my head to move.
“Not at all,” I chuckle and let my gaze wander away from her face.
“Hey uh…” A pause, my eyes are captured by a curious glisten. “I know this is a bit awkward but uh… I’ve been through the thick of it already.” As she speaks, her steps slow down, then they shuffle to a stop. She’s facing me now, the door of the bar behind her, the sun embracing her silhouette and making her squint softly. “And I know how hard it is to go through those first six months without drinking yourself dead or becoming a recluse. So… No expectations?”
There’s something in the way she’s looking at me that makes me nod my head. Her words dance around my head and I try to grab them, make sense of them, but then it’s too late. She’s already in the bar, holding the door open for me. I follow quietly, taking in the wood tables and the modern detailing. Industrial feel, Julia would call it, with its copper everywhere and harsh angles and dark greys.
“Dark grey,” she orders.
“You sure?” She turns towards me with a patient smile, a look on her face that betrays the sentiment behind her next words:
“You don’t trust my opinion now? Shall I remind you that this is what I do for a living?” I chuckle and shake my head and, all of a sudden, we’re all over each other, me whispering sweet nothings, she torturing me with silence.
“I’ll go with the dark grey, of course,” I give up, in the end, and her arms snake around my neck. I lean in, almost instinctively, before she twists away from me.
“No,” she dictates as she points a finger at me, “I’m still hurt you think your wife doesn’t know what suits you best.” Laughter bubbles in my throat but I push it down with a deep breath, before clasping her accusatory hand between my warm palms. Her fingers were always a tad cold and it became almost a habit for me to try to warm them up.
“I’m sorry. You are the best interior decorator and an amazing partner and you… Know best,” I plead, eyebrows brought together and pout on full display.
“Oh, don’t give me the hurt puppy look,” she chuckles as she drags me towards her. Her lips trace my jawline as she deposits a whisper in my ear. “Thank you for admitting I know better, though, I know that’s hard for a lawyer.”
“A lawyer, hm? Fancy.” I shake my head, laughter drowned in the cocktail I’m drinking - it’s sweet, too sweet for my taste but Dina insisted we try the cocktails first. We are sitting in the far left corner of the bar, table for two, next to the window. The shadows of the night are creeping up her face, while the sunset bathes her in orange light.
“Not really. Don’t believe those legal dramas on TV. What I used to do, mostly, was read interminable papers and fight with people in corridors.” She giggles, breathlessly, before pushing a few strands of hair behind her ear.
“Sounds just like a legal drama!” I join her in her laughter and shrug my shoulders as if to say maybe she’s right.
“At least there are less risky romances in a real courtroom,” I note as I take another sip from my drink. A sigh is pushed out of her chest and she theatrically dons a disappointed look.
“So nobody’s fucking the hot interns?” A large, playful smile adorns her lips and her cursing takes me aback, eyes wide and a surprised grin contouring on my face.
“None of that, I’m afraid,” I reply with a shake of the head as the initial shock subsides. I watch her for a second, as the red straw sits in her mouth, as her cheeks are sucked in, as she wets her lips after she has finished her sip. And I can see a question forming at the corners of her mouth - I can also see her being unsure about whether to let it be heard or not.
“You said you used to? Are you not… Working as a lawyer anymore?” She decides to voice it and I try to not let my quickening heartbeat give away my fear.
“I’m... Taking a break, with all that’s happened.” A fake smile - and a fake answer. She takes it, nonetheless, her gaze avoiding me, roaming the street behind the softly tinted glass. She murmurs something resembling ‘of course’ and the blood pulsing behind my eyes makes a loud thumping noise. I excuse myself and, despite me knowing better, I let her ruminate my answer while I let my feet carry me in the direction of the bathroom.
The reflection in the mirror looks back at me with worry anchored deep in its gaze, with its lips set firmly into a thin line. I can taste the blood as I suck into my lip harder and all of a sudden I am reminded that she is safe and she is doing well so far and… The bathroom door is pushed open, steps approaching. I finish drying my hands up, despite them being clammy still, and I stumble back in the restaurant. Julia is laughing like a child, full of joy and no worry shadowing the lines on her face. She is enjoying herself. I don a smile and walk back towards our table, Paul greeting me with a grin while May is trying her best to breathe between the giggles she is sharing with my wife.
“And then, oh god... “ When she speaks, Julia is gasping for air, tears forming at the corner of her eyes. She looks in my direction with a pleased smile and points her fork at me. “This man right here was so clumsy as to spill his beer all over me. It was the worst first date of my life, I swear!”
I groan as I try to not let a smile creep up my face and I shake my head as I grab my glass of wine. I point the rim at her as I turn my gaze towards May and Paul who are trying their best not to laugh at the story of how I ruined me and Julia’s first date.
“She says that but she still went out with me for a second time.” I take a sip of my wine and put up my hands with a shrug.
“I believe in second chances!” Julia says in her defence, before letting her hand find mine. “And I’m glad I do…”
Rosé is sweating in her glass while mine has red wine swirling around in it as I place it on the table. The sunset has dissipated now behind the line of the horizon, engulfed by the dark mantles of the night. Her voice is now soft, mellow, her usually curt words spilling into each other - I guess the alcohol has that effect on her.
“Oh, by the way, congrats on being published in The New York Times!” Her words make my eyebrows furrow above my eyes, surprise and confusion capturing my gaze.
“How do you know that?” My words are harsh - harsher than I intended them to be, anyhow. She is visibly embarrassed now, a few brushes of red painted atop her cheeks and her mouth slightly open.
“I’m sorry, you said you’re a writer or that you sometimes write and… Oh, Jesus, this must seem really creepy, I’m sorry!” Her syllables tangle and rush into each other and she’s barely breathing as she expels them out of her chest. Her hands come to cover her face now as she’s biting her lip. My expression softens as I give her a shake of the head and a smile. I try to make it not look forced, despite the fact my lips refuse to curve further than an understanding grin.
“Don’t worry, it’s just… Surprising, is all.” A pause, curt one, before I drown my smile in a gulp of wine. “Also, thank you.” Her chest is moved by a shaky chuckle and she settles her palms on the table, as if to ground herself.
“It was really good, by the way. The story, I mean. Roger used to-” she stops herself, abruptly, her eyes large and her words dying on her lips. Her shoulders stand up now and she offers me an almost apologetic sigh. “I said I wouldn’t talk about him and…” The letters subside to a whisper as they escape her mouth and her gaze is pinned to the glass of Zinfandel in front of her. She’s holding onto the neck of the glass with trembling fingers, her knuckles white and her face taken over by a dark shadow.
“Don’t worry,” I mutter, letting my hand rest on hers. And I suddenly get the urge to warm up her cold fingers.
Julia’s hand rests in my palm as we listen to Paul talk about a case he’s been working on, May interrupting with small details and gleeful chuckles. Her cheeks are now pink and she’s clearly been having fun with the Pinot Noir in her glass. Paul doesn’t mind - instead, he offers his wife thankful smiles and adoring gazes.
I sense Julia tense next to me and when I search her face for an answer, the light is gone from her blue eyes. Instead, it’s replaced by the shadow of doubt and fear and insecurity…
“Beautiful?” I murmur and Paul interrupts himself to ask my wife if she’s alright. Tears well up in her eyes and her muscles are shivering, her gaze searching, confused and lost. She’s trying to grasp what’s happening and she exhales, her broken voice loud, while she’s choking on her own sobs.
“David, where are we?” A shiver patrols along my back and crawls higher and higher until it reaches the back of my neck. I plunge towards her, grab her in my arms as she’s asking me again and again where we are and who they are and what’s happening… I feel Paul and May’s worried looks on us and they know better than to intervene. They know I need to do this.
I cradle Julia’s head between my big palms and I search for her gaze, I thumb away the tears from her cheeks, I kiss her forehead and let her arms hold onto me, I let her melt into me for support. I let her ride this out in my arms - the confusion, the fear, the panic. They all come rushing down her cheeks and then get soaked by the dark grey jacket she chose for me a few hours ago.
“It’s alright, baby, you’ll come back around,” I susurate into her ear and she nods; she wants to believe me and she ignores the tremble in my voice and the way my fingers are shaking as I hold her close to me. May offers her water and Julia downs it with big gulps, holding onto the glass with both hands as a child would, sucking into the liquid and breathing deeply through her nose, eyes closed.
When she opens her eyes, she’s back… And she’s shattered.
The stars breathe above us, glinting in the distance, thrown haphazardly across the dark cupola of the sky. Aside from the bark of a dog and the sound of our steps trying to find a common rhythm, the silence embraces the cul-de-sac. I open my mouth to say something, anything, but it’s left agape as Dina turns around, her house rearing its head behind her.
“So… This is it,” she chuckles, an exhale accompanying her rushing words. I nod, the phantom of a smile barely on my lips, and she extends a hand between us, fingers steady.
“Oh,” I make as I grab her cold palm, her touch lingering in my hold for a few moments. I search for her gaze and, despite my efforts, she avoids mine tactfully.
“Thanks for tonight,” she says with a smile that trembles at the corner of her lips, almost as if she’s unsure of what to do next. I try to settle her nerves with a shake of the head and liberate her hand from my hold.
“No problem at all. I had fun.” I try to reach for a joke, but when I can’t find one I settle on a soft cough and an awkward grin. “I’ll get going, but uh… Yeah, thanks as well. Have a good night.” Despite having bid my farewell, my feet remain firmly planted in the same place and, when my body finally catches up with my brain, I am stopped by a pair of arms tugging at my shoulders. I barely have the time to return her embrace, that Dina peels herself away from me with a sweet smile. In the dim light of the streetlight, her dark eyes almost look teary and there’s a subdued tremble in her deep voice as she says:
“You’re a good man, David.”
Before I can question her statement, her feet carry her away in a rushed step towards the house, further lost into the shadows of the night. She throws over her shoulder a ‘goodnight’ towards me, before plunging into her purse in search of her keys.
I stand in the driveway, frozen, long after I hear her door is shut and her dog welcomes her into the house with a bark. I stand there, thoughts avalanching and silence settling on me like dust on old books. I only move when her windows blossom with yellow light and the curtains fall over them.
The car comes to a halt as the engine hums softly. The light on the porch invades our car and I turn towards her with a shadow crossing my features. She notices it but doesn’t say anything. And I can almost hear her words before they slip through her lips:
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs into her palms, covering her face, while her body is jerked by quiet sobs. I let my arm slither around her shoulders and I gently usher her into my embrace.
“It’s not your fault, beautiful.” My whisper gets lost in her golden tresses as I deposit kisses on the top of her head. She is shivering in my arms and I feel impotent… And no matter how tight I wrap my arms around her trembling, jerking body, the feeling of doom clouding my thoughts doesn’t go away, the weight on my shoulders pushes harder onto me, almost as if I wanted the ground to open and swallow me.
“Maybe…” A sniffle and a sigh, then her wet eyes find my gaze - she’s pleading. “Maybe a care home is a good idea.” I blink, rarely, then I shake my head furiously - no, no, no.
“No way, no, I am not putting you away, you’re my wife and…”
“Stop!” The shout makes my shoulders stand up straight, stiff. Fear hungrily takes over her expression and I suddenly feel small and once again helpless. It fills me to the brim and when I can’t hold it in anymore, I collapse into her arms, murmuring in a mad fashion ‘no’ again and again…
The empty chair stares back at me defiantly, while I can hear in the background the sputtered words of the woman next to Rhonda and her loud, whiney sobs. I tap my foot, impatience coursing through my body and, as soon as the closing words are left to hang in the air, I sit up and march across the room. Rhonda’s eyes grow big and a smile slithers onto her lips as she sees me.
“David, how’re you holding up?” She cups my elbow as if to support me and I ignore the gesture.
“I’m good, thanks. Uh… Do you know about Dina? She’s always here and…” I stop as I notice confusion wrapping around the woman’s expression. Her eyebrows collapse into a furrow and her next question makes a buzz invade my ears, it makes the air stop in its tracks down my throat.
“Dina? Sorry, sweety, I don’t… Who is she again?” Rhonda looks almost embarrassed - could she have forgotten her name? She tries to lodge out of me an answer or a description and I can see my stunned silence sends her reeling. Of course she knows everyone by name.
“Uh…” I take in a breath, fingers trembling and flying through the air as I gesticulate. You always flail when you’ve nervous, Julia used to say. “She’s about this height, shoulder length hair, brown, has uh… Dark brown eyes?” All of a sudden, I am unsure of my description. If I close my eyes, I can still see her, her back turned to her door, her eyes glistening under the streetlight. “I haven’t heard from her, tried to call her and…” Rhonda’s face lights up, the shadows of doubt and confusion lifted away.
“I know who you’re talking about.”
My knuckles are white, my fingers shakily holding onto the flower stems. I recite in my head the room number, in the same fashion as the receptionist said them. A buzz floats around my head; it makes the world fade to a hum around me and I nod, give her a smile. Then her lips move again.
“Sorry?” I exhale, only now realising I have been holding a breath hostage in my lungs. She repeats her question and her words register in my mind, barely. “Yeah, they are her favourite,” I respond as I look at the blooming flowers in my hand. The petals bounce and sway as I step down the hallway.
I try to focus on the flower vases and beach pictures and the branches adorning the light coloured walls. They all pass before my eyes as nothing more than colours - Rorschach-esque blotches of colour. I can hear her in her room before I see her.
The loud thumping of my heart rings in my ears, echoes behind my closed eyes. A long exhale is pushed out of my chest and, within a few steps, I’m standing next to her. She investigates me and recognition flourishes within her blue eyes. Then she hurls herself into my arms, abandoning herself within my embrace.
“Hey, beautiful,” I breathe in her ear and she giggles softly, pushing herself away from me to find my gaze. Her palms come to rest on my face and I meet her halfway, her mouth on mine, her sighs silenced by the kiss.
“I knew you’d come.” I nod, the tinge of a smile struggling to adorn my lips. My hand is still shaking, my grip onto the bouquet still stiff.
“I want to be here.” It’s a wish, a plea, falling off my lips and into the air coloured by fear and longing and… Desperation. It settles in the small space between us and gets engulfed by silence, finally. She peels herself away from me, slowly. Only now I notice the way her lips are quivering, how her fingers are shaking as she’s trying to not let the shiver possess her voice, how she’s trying to hide her teary gaze away from me.
“No, David. I can’t…” The flowers land on the bed, the lilies shivering within the wrapping paper, and I turn her towards me, forcing her gaze to settle into mine.
“I want to. I want to hold you and kiss you and I want to be here, beautiful.” A long pause stretches lazily between us. Then her face is adorned by a gentle smile and her hands crawl up my shoulders to my head. She’s caressing the tears that are tumbling down my cheeks as her own face is painted with wet streaks.
“I love you. More than anything and anyone I’ve ever loved or could love. And because of that, you can’t. I want you…” A wet sob is yanked out of her chest and I wrap my arms tighter around her. “I want you to remember me not like this, not here… I don’t want this to be your last memory of me, alright?”
The door swings open and I can see the fear enveloping her features. Surprise colours her dark eyes and, before I can say anything, the words dart out of her mouth:
“What are you doing here?” She crosses her arms above her chest, but it’s too late. Marks slither around her arms, scarlet lines that hang onto her pale skin, clinging and crawling higher and higher up to her elbows. She avoids my gaze and opens her mouth to ask me again, but I interrupt her.
“You didn’t answer your phone, you weren’t in the meeting this morning. I think it’s only natural I feel worried, right?” The tinge of annoyance colouring my words makes her eyebrows tumble together. She doesn’t give me an answer. “Can I come in?”
“It’s better you don’t.” Her words are hurried and, before I know it, the door is approaching my face. My palm crashes against the wood, the impact punctuated by a loud thud. Fear nestles in her gaze as I tower above her. My heart is pounding and I can feel the adrenaline racing through my veins, making my temples pulsate, throb with pain and euphoria.
“Why did you lie to me… Delilah?” My voice is seething, barely above a whisper and it makes her body jerk. She’s stiff now, her face no longer decorated by mellow smiles or dulcet smirks. She’s fully guarded and I can see it in her eyes - the need to escape, the desire to push the door again… She wants me gone. But before she does, she lets an empty chuckle float above her dry lips. Before she speaks, she bites the lower one, hard:
“I saw the articles about you. And I thought you’d help me. But then…” The world is caught in a vortex, the image of her face blurry. The prickling returns into my limbs and my breath is gone, stolen by the words that stick to the line of her mouth. “Then I met you and I told myself you couldn’t have done it. So there’s that.” She pauses and lets me stumble a few steps back, her eyes pinning me to the spot I’m frozen in. “Goodbye, David.”
The sound of the door, the clicks of the lock… They inundate the empty space beneath my skull and reverberate against the walls of my head. My fingers are digging into the soft skin of my palms and I can taste the blood in my mouth from where my teeth sank into my lip.
No, no, no…
My lungs scream and my breath is wheezing in and out, like a hurt animal. She can’t know.
The wine swirls around my brain and circles my thoughts, the alcohol coursing through my veins, reaching for my eyes and making them blurry.
We just have a few questions, Mr. Alby.
I’m heaving, searching for air and I can hear her voice saying ‘I love you’ - I drown the sounds in more red, I let the Merlot reach deep inside me, pool in my stomach and burn every feeling in my chest, I let it consume my thoughts and eat away at my fear, I let it settle my fragile nerves and dry away the tears that shakily fall down my cheeks.
This is a serious matter, David, and until all allegations are cleared I’m afraid… We’ll have to suspend you. I hope you understand.
The dark room aside from the single buzzing light above, the metal table and her smile - the rain crashing down on the windows, knocking on them as if to be let inside, as if to come to my rescue and wash away the memory of her in that cold, dark, empty, cold room…
You loved her more than anyone else and everybody here knows that. Today is about her and only her, alright?
I stumble into the kitchen, in search for it and I bring the bottle with both my hands up, suck into the wine, inhale it as if it was air, I make it into air as I engulf every drop, as every gulp of the liquid passes my throat and I usher my lungs to take it all in, to use it, please use it, I can’t breathe…
Did you do it?
I sob into the bottle as my teeth chatter against it, the sound of bone hitting glass filling the space beneath my skull, rushing, rushing away the images that have been haunting me for the past months - the lilies, her blue eyes, her big mouth curved in a sad smile, her voice saying her last goodbye…
You couldn’t have done it.
I yell and scream, my back against the fridge, my knees up to my chest, my arms holding onto them as if they are holding onto a lifesaver; I let the sounds pour out of my mouth as I kiss the bottle again and again, trying to push the cries back where they are climbing from, back into the dark, empty, cavernous rooms of my chest.
I love you, David. Thank you for doing this for me.
The suit lies stiffly against my body, my beard overgrown, my eyes lost within their sockets, bloodshot and still teary. I watch people move, walk by the casket and say their goodbyes to my beloved wife. And I stand there, watching them…
I wonder if they understand what pain has infiltrated my being and what desperation I hold in my chest, how many cries and yelps I want to liberate from my body. A hand lands on my shoulder - it’s warm, soothing. When I turn around, May has a gentle smile painted on her features. Her gaze ushers me to follow her outside the chapel. The winter sun is hidden behind a drape of thick, grey clouds, while the sky is sieving snowflakes. Big pieces of ice that float in the air, they dance and jumble, before settling into the plushy white blankets adorning the roads.
The cold is pinching my damp cheeks now, while a shiver runs along my back, grabbing my shoulders and pulling them upwards into a flinch. I hear May shuffling beside me as I take in a breath, the icy air travelling into my chest and filling it up before being released into the ether, an avalanche of mist gently cascading off my lips.
“How are you holding up?” A pause marked by pristine silence. “Is that a stupid question?” I turn to face her and she has the same smile donned - half worried, half encouraging.
“I don’t know what to tell you.” She nods, pretending to understand. Then her palm comes to rest on my back and she leans in, voice sombre, quiet, dulcet.
“I can’t tell you I know how it feels. Maybe if I lost Peter, maybe if I went through half the things you went through, I would be able to at least… Start to comprehend.” I can hear her taking in a breath, deeply, as if she’s holding back tears - I don’t hold back mine. “You loved her more than anyone else and everybody here knows that. Today is about her and only her, alright?”
I nod - she throws her arms around me and all I can do is fall apart in her embrace…
I wake up with the sun burning high into the sky, a white disk propped on the cerulean cupola, shoved between white clouds. Bucky is whimpering in the door, eyes demanding, worried. I try to get up, but the headache that is holding me down is dragging me further towards the pillow. I can’t remember how I got to my bed…
Anxiety is still plaguing the ends of my fried neurons and I try to make sense of the thoughts and words floating around the suffocating space in my head.
“I’m coming,” I stutter, words falling into each other, letters chasing each other as they stumble onto my damp pillow. I realise I’m sweating, my clothes sticking to my hot skin. I peel myself off the bed, feeling the world move with me or around me - at this point, I’m not entirely sure. My lips are parched and sickness bubbles in my throat. I push it back down and make my way towards the kitchen. The light grey walls of the hallway hold me as I palm them for support, anything to keep me upright.
Two empty bottles of wine salute me from their place on the kitchen island as I enter the room. I open the backdoor and gesture towards Bucky. He shuffles into the back garden, before his pace picks up, his direction being the cherry tree at the end of the yard. Rover lifts his head, eyes me from his seat in his bed. I ignore the look as I amble towards the sink. I let the water run as I pick up a tumbler, then I let it tumble into the glass, foaming and swirling around in it.
I down the water while holding my breath, my dry mouth welcoming the liquid with a satisfied groan. My palms come to rest on either side of the sink, the cold marble sending jolts up my arms that join into a shiver as they reach my shoulders. My phone buzzes, screams for attention from the kitchen island and I turn around. I can barely distinguish the letters as they align on the screen.
Hey, buddy, just checking in on you. Haven’t heard from you in a while. Let me know if you want to grab a meal sometime?
Peter’s picture stands next to the nicely worded message. I lock the screen and the man staring back at me takes me aback. The anger settled onto the lines of his face, the hair thrown in different directions, the eyes bulging, whites red and irises overtaken by wide pupils… My muscles are now trembling under my skin, my knuckles white around the phone as my hold tightens.
And I want to hear her voice saying it’s normal… I don’t.
I don’t hear it and my chest holds in the breath I just took. And I try to inhale further, but it doesn’t work and I can’t exhale… I’m holding onto the kitchen island as the buzzing returns to my ears, as it swarms around my head. No, I want to hear her…
“Please, please, please…” I croak, my voice a strangled whisper that dies on my dry lips. And I still can’t hear it…
I stumble back and I lose my balance, my body following the downwards motion, gravity pulling me close to the ground. My bones collide against the marble floor, a loud slapping noise. Pain shoots through my arms as my elbows meet the ground, I wince and growl…
“Julia! Julia?!” I try to scream, but my voice is once again the ghost of a sound, my throat tight, strangling the breaths I’m trying to take. My whole body is tickled by tingles and my mind floats somewhere between the alcohol fueled visions of last night and the reality of today…
I try to inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth. And repeat.
In the end, the only sounds I can perceive are the ones of my deep breath trying to calm down the panic ravaging my brain and Bucky’s worried barks in the distance. I open my mouth and, with tears flowing down onto my cheeks from beneath my closed lids, I whisper into the afternoon ether:
The sun is plunging beneath the line of the horizon, stretching its orange hued arms towards the azure and conferring some lonely clouds a purple nuance. Bucky is chasing the shadows that are engulfing the backyard, while Rover purrs silently in Julia’s lap. A cold beer sweats in my hand and I take a swig, feeling the bubbles rush down my throat. I can feel her warmth spread across my chest as the sun is spilling into the space around it, engulfing the horizon.
The mellow light settles into the soft features of her face while the hard angles of her jaw and nose are caressed by languorous shadows. I can feel her turning next to me and her gaze roams over my features for a moment, before settling on finding my eyes.
“What’s up, beautiful?” I ask, my voice slow and dulcet. A smile blossoms on her face and she leans in to place a kiss at the corner of my mouth, her lips grazing my skin.
“I know it will sound morbid but… What would you do if I were to die?” I have to take in a breath and swallow hard before my mind deciphers her question and makes sense of it. The thought makes a shiver gallop down my back, pinching at my spine.
“I don’t know.” Silence embraces us and her eyes remain trained on me, patient, waiting. “I really can’t tell you, Julia. I’d probably lose my mind, to be honest.” Quiet stretches between us and she hums under her breath. She shuffles away from me while she grabs a cigarette. She then places it between her lips and lets the flicker of the lighter eat away at the thin paper. Ashes scatter into her lap, all over Rover, carried away by the summer breeze.
“Me too. I don’t know what I would do if you weren’t here…” I usher her closer to me - I want to feel her warmth and her pulse whispering beneath her skin, I want to hear her breathe and feel… Feel all of her in this moment, with the sun dying afront us and our corner of the world still intact.
My breath is slow and heavy, the sound of the air traversing my trachea inundating my ears, mixing with the one of my own pulse. The door of the bar stands before me, patiently awaiting for me to push it. Before I do, I let my hand plunge into the pocket of my trousers where I find my phone. And I read for the fifth time the message, making sure the letters on the screen are not just a vision my mind made up.
They’re not. That settles the pace of my heart and pushes me to take the first step - then another. The door gives way to the now familiar image of the establishment. The copper adorning the lights, the hard surfaces, the dark greys. I let my blurry gaze navigate the room and then I find her - the far back of the bar, left side near the window, table for two. She has in front of her a glass of wine and her head is turned towards the window.
She only notices me when I’m a few feet away from her. She struggles to smile - I’m unsure whether she wants to or if it’s just a polite reflex. I settle into my seat and let the background noises fill the space between us.
“Hey,” she exhales, hands on the table, fingers holding onto each other.
“Hey.” My reply is strangled by my own breath as I try to inhale - I let the air rush into my lungs, fill them up. I hold it there for a moment, before letting it flow past my lips into the evening air. Once again, the warm light of the sunset envelopes her face - only this time she’s not wearing a charming grin. Her face is contorted under the power of what I can only guess is pain - or worry.
“I’m sorry. And thank you. I should start with thank you.” A chuckle is expelled out of her chest and she tries her best to meet my gaze. I avoid hers when she tries. “I actually don’t know where to start…”
“How about with why you lied to me?” My voice is hoarse, as if I’ve been screaming for the past few hours. It’s dark, moody and barely audible. I can see surprise adorning the lines on her face.
“I panicked, if you really want to know. Not my finest hour, I admit.” I let the sound of glasses clinking and the chatter around us engulf the tense silence draping over us. Then her hand shoots up and she extends it towards me. “My name is Delilah. Nice to meet you, David.”
I stare at her trembling fingers for a few long seconds. Then I take her cold fingers and let them warm up in my hold, my grip secure. Something inside me gives up as I do. I feel my breath travelling freely, my throat no longer strangling it. And I meet her dark eyes. There is so much fear and regret and sadness in them I get lost for a moment.
Then she retreats her palm and I am left holding the air.
“Why did you call me here?” My voice this time is softer, a gentle inflexion playing on the syllables that fly past my lips.
“I don’t want to get into it now, really…” My eyebrows collapse above my eyes, my stare intense and I can notice her flinch, the ghost of a smile dragging itself on her lips. “I called you here to tell you I’m leaving town. I need a change.”
The words pour into my mind one after another and I try to align them, decipher their meaning.
“Leave for good?” There’s genuine surprise in my tone as I question her.
“I can’t do this anymore, David…” Her dark eyes pin my gaze and tears envelop her irises. Her fingers are trembling on the table and sobs cascade out of her mouth as she tries to grasp for air. I reach for her hand and she jerks away, shaking her head vigorously. “No… I don’t deserve your kindness, really…”
“Please!” Her voice rises above its usually flat tone and she clears her throat as she looks around the bar, embarrassment making her a blush blossom in her cheeks. “I don’t deserve it after lying to you and… Hoping to use you.”
I nod and listen intently, while her gaze is focused on her fingers. She’s picking at a nail now, sucking in her bottom lip and trying to hold her tears back.
“I saw the articles they wrote about you. Prolific lawyer allegedly helps his wife commit suicide.” I take in a breath - so does she. Hearing her saying that… The words permeate every thought I have and, as I blink, Julia’s smile surfaces from the dark corners of my mind. Delilah pushes her wine glass forward and I wet my lips before letting the wine coat them.
“Thank you,” I murmur and lift my gaze to meet her wet one. A defeated smile stretches across her quivering lips.
“The first few months after Roger died I was… Stuck. More than stuck, I was regressing. I know it’s not an excuse but…” A puff of air is pushed through her lips and she lifts one of her long sleeves up. “I think you’ve noticed these already. I was bad… Really bad.” The thought chokes her, almost, and makes a big tear cross her cheek. Despite my best instincts, I lean in, let my fingers wrap around hers. This time, she doesn’t pull away.
We are two strangers, brought together and lost in the shadow death itself left in its passing.
“And then I saw those headlines and for some reason… I don’t know, my alcohol soaked brain thought you could help me. Like you did her…” I nod, breathless.
Thank you for doing this for me, David.
I close my eyes to erase the voice that haunts the chambers of my exhausted mind. When I open them, Delilah stares at me with gratitude flourishing hers.
“You saved me, David.”
The air is forced out of my lungs and I am surrounded by crickets, swarming around my head, buzzing… I feel tears coating my irises and I inhale through my nose, trying to calm the tremble that possessed my fingers.
“You saved me countless times. So thank you for that.” I try to open my mouth to say something, but the words aligned in my head can’t follow each other off my lips. I nod, slowly. I watch her as she tucks away a strand of hair.
“And when you came to my door that day and I said those words out loud… I mean, telling you I wished you helped me commit... “ She pushes a deep sigh out of her chest and holds onto my hand tighter. Tears cascade onto my cheeks as she struggles to pin the corners of her lips up in a smile. “I sounded crazy. So… I need to go. I need to find something to fill this void in my life. That’s why I’m moving out of town and… I don’t know, maybe that’s why I approached you that day at the meeting. I needed to fill this void with something, anything… I think you understand.”
I do. I’ve been trying to fill the empty space left by Julia in my life with anything I could. While she was still alive, I tried to fill it with work and caring for her and making her happy. But now that she’s gone… The cavernous space beneath my ribs had only been filled by panic and alcohol.
“I just hope… You’ll find peace.” Her words startle me awake, pull me away from the sensation of cold and emptiness spreading throughout my body. “Thank you, again.”
With that, her cold fingers leave my hold and she’s dragging herself out of her seat. I don’t know if she wants me to say anything. She waits, just for a moment. Her eyes meet mine. Her dark eyes - one of the first few things I noticed about her. They are now filled with tears - they glisten gently in the evening light filtered through the softly tinted glass of the window. And then her feet carry her a few steps away from me.
My body is jerked awake, purpose dictating my movements. I hear myself speak, but words seem distant, as if spoken by foreign lips:
“You were wrong. I did help her.” A sigh fills the silence. She turns towards me, her face embellished with pain and loss. And, before I can say anything else, her lips move again.
“You saved both of us, David.”
The car hums softly as I pull into the driveway. The house rears its head in front of the bleeding summer sunset and I can already hear the crickets. As I exit the car and start towards the door, my steps freeze on the pebble lined path.
I turn around towards the letter box and retrieve a few envelopes as I loosen the tie around my neck. I missed feeling tired because of work. The thought puts a smile on my face and, as I turn the key into the lock, I notice a familiar name sitting atop one of the letters.
The house welcomes me with a cool temperature and Bucky rushes down the hallway to greet me. I stumble to the floor to my knees, letting my fingers swim through the long fur of the Golden Retriever.
“Hey, boy, I missed you as well,” I laugh as the dog attempts to lick my face. When I pull myself back to my feet I can hear Rover meowing for my attention as he walks lazilly towards me.
“Are you hungry?” I ask my pet companions as they follow me into the kitchen. I get their food, then I help myself to a cold sparkling water from the fridge.
I escape into the backyard, letter still in hand - the stars are glinting, distant, in the evening sky. I let a sigh fly past my lips as I sit on the bench in the backyard and place the water bottle next to me. A few rips and the contents of the envelope are revealed to me - a postcard. I let my gaze trace the lines of the pictured canyon, taking in the red rock climbing against the azure sky.
On the back, in an orderly handwriting, stand a few letters. I let a smile settle on my lips as the words drip into my mind, being reminded of the woman who saved me.
I just wanted to let you know things are good. I heard about your reinstatement and I am so glad you’re back at work. Somebody’s gotta fuck those hot interns!
Me? I’m alright. I’ve been filling that void with more than alcohol and it’s going good. I hope you enjoy the sights of the Grand Canyon!
Your friend, eternally grateful,
Drinking and Dying
My boyfriend, Lyric and I came to a party. Lyric was the quarterback of the football team. We were in a field just a hundred yards away from the high school. It was supposed to be a bonfire to celebrate that we won the game. However, someone had brought alcohol, and Lyric was not the type to turn it away.
“Relax, babe. Have a drink,” Lyric said. Lyric’s laugh echoed in my ears.
“You promised me that you wouldn’t drink. You were supposed to take me home. Now how am I going to get home?” I asked.
“I’m fine. I can still drive.”
We began to gather a crowd due to our argument. We didn’t fight often. I turned to walk away from him, but Lyric caught my arm. His hand was so warm it made me shiver slightly.
“Would you stop being such a killjoy,” he sneered. “You’re embarrassing me.”
My pulse quickened. I arched my arm back and let my hand fly forward. The crowd fell silent. All that could be heard was my hand against Lyric’s cheek.
Lyric’s head snapped to the side from the blow. He placed his hand on his cheek. His eyes pierced mine.
Our friends let out a chorus of “Ooh’s.”
“I’m leaving,” I said. I turned away from Lyric and his drunk idiotic friends. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me as I stormed past the bonfire. The bonfire smoke filtered heavily through the fall air and made my nose wrinkle as I walked past.
It was late, and the street was dark. The dim streetlamps didn’t do much for light. Crickets chirped somewhere in the distance. My brown hair slapped me in the face as the wind blew. A shiver rolled down my spine, and I hugged myself. The thin fabric of my cheerleader uniform did nothing to keep me warm. I should have grabbed my jacket from Lyric’s car.
I made it about three blocks away from the high school where the unsupervised party had been before headlights flew around the corner. I spun around, and the car stopped beside me. It was my best friend, Miranda, Miranda’s boyfriend Liam, and Lyric.
“Come on, Nikki!” Miranda called to me over the roar of Lyric’s black Dodge Challenger.“The boys are fine. Let’s go.”
I shifted my weight uncomfortably. I didn’t want to get into the car, but it was cold, and I lived a few miles outside of town.
Lyric approached me as I debated it. Lyric walked as if he wasn’t at all drunk.
Maybe he could drive – I thought to myself.
Lyric’s face hovered over mine. His blond hair fell over his eyes. His blue eyes were apologetic. “Come on, baby. I’m fine.” Every word he spoke rung with promise. “I’m sorry.”
“Fine,” I said.
Lyric lowered his lips to mine and kissed me softly. There was a taste of cinnamon on his lips from the Fireball he consumed. He took my hand and pulled me toward the car.
I got in beside Miranda in the backseat and buckled up.
They all laughed at my concerned expression. None of them wore a seat belt.
However, I knew what could happen if you drank and drove–I saw it first hand. A drunk semi driver killed my mother. I could never bring myself to drink for that reason.
Lyric changed gears as we drove out of town. I would have offered to drive if I knew how to drive a manual.
My father was gone to see his brother in Illinois, so I agreed that we could all crash at my place.
As we neared a sharp corner, I gripped tightly onto the seat. “Slow down, Lyric,” I said.
Lyric took the corner twice as fast as he should have.
I squeezed my eyes shut. My breathing accelerated. When nothing happened, I opened one eye to peek.
Lyric turned around to look at me, and he smirked. “See, babe, I told you I was fine.” Lyric chuckled.
I looked past him toward the road. There were other headlights in the distance. There was a turn in the road that Lyric was about to miss.
“Lyric!” I screamed.
Lyric spun back around, but it was too late.
The car flew off the side of the steep hill. Lyric whipped the wheel, which caused the vehicle to start rolling. The glass shattered around us. Screaming from all four of us echoed through the car.
My head hit something, but I wasn’t sure what. I kept my eyes shut. The screaming faded. When the car came to a stop, it was upside down. A sharp pain seared through my right leg and the side of my head. I wasn’t unconscious, but I was petrified of opening my eyes.
I stayed still for several minutes before I heard voices and sirens in the distance.
“Help,” I said in a hoarse voice.
The voices grew closer.
When I finally opened my eyes, I could see a flashlight.
“Miss,” a deep voice said.
I groaned in pain and turned my head to find a pair of unfamiliar brown eyes.
“Can you move?” He asked.
“No,” I said. “I think my leg is broke.”
As I took in the scene of the car, I screamed in horror. Lyric and Liam were both gone. Miranda was somehow in the front seat. Her face was bloody and unrecognizable.
Tears rolled down my face blurring my vision.
A couple of more men appeared.
“You’re okay,” the men chanted to me as they pulled me free from the car.
The man with brown eyes, who was about the age of my father carried me up to the road. As they wheeled me away on a gurney, I saw the three black body bags that held what was left of Lyric, Liam, and Miranda.
“Oh, god.” I closed my eyes and started to sob.
Mr. S. Sundar Rajan is a Chartered Accountant and has established his independent consultancy. He is a published poet, writer and is in the editorial team of two anthologies. He has published his collection of poems titled " Beyond the Realms" and a couple of collection of short stories titled "Eternal Art" and "Spice of Life" which have been translated into four Indian regional languages. His stories in Tamil was broadcast over radio in the week ends. His poems and stories have varied themes and carry a message that readers will be able to relate to easily. He is a catalyst for social and environmental activities. His poems have been published in various Indian and International anthologies. His motto is Boundless Boundaries Beckon.
MY QUARTER DOLLARS
‘Hi Ganny! You needn’t have to knock,” I said as I stood up to welcome him. I walked round the table and gave him a warm hug, as I ushered him to a chair.
“Your flight was on time?”
“Yes, of course. But as usual, the baggage clearance at the airport took some time.”
“Has Annie come along too?”
“Look buddy. That’s the style in US. Not with you. To you, we are Ganpathy and Anandhi,” he said with a smile and continued, “There's a wedding in the family this week. So Anandhi and I have come down. Our children couldn’t make it since it is in the middle of their term. For me too, it’s work from home,” he sighed.
Ganapathy then pulled out a cover and handed it over to me. “I have got you the quarter dollar coins you had asked me,” he said.
“You mean for all the States of the Union!?” I exclaimed in disbelief.
Without answering, he posed me a question. “Why this sudden interest in quarter dollars?”
“While chatting with a friend of mine, he casually remarked that the US mint had released commemorative statehood series of quarter dollar coins. Each state had selected a design that signifies their commemorating history, people and traditions. I found this to be unique and it kindled my interest. You know of my interest in coin collection. I wanted to have this as an embellishment among my other collections.”
“When I met some friends and relatives from US who had come down to India, I relieved them of any quarter dollars they had on hand and I was able to collect coins of 25 of the States. As a routine, I sounded you out too, when I spoke to you a few days back.”
I eagerly removed the gift wrapper and a big surprise was in store for me.
A folded hardbound album greeted me. On the top were the words “United States Commemorative Statehood Quarters Collector’s Album”.
Excitedly, I opened the album to the left and right. There were three compartments inside with circular cavities in a sequence of five in each line with the name of each state printed in
the sequence in which each commemorative state quarter was released by the US Mint, starting with Delaware and totalling in all to 50.
I looked up at the beaming face in front of me, amazed. “Thanks a lot, buddy.”
Curious, I quickly opened the other album. I found that it was partially filled up. I looked up at Ganapathy, quizzically.
Ganapathy soon reeled out the sequence of events in the US before his departure.
'Let’s not have any last minute shopping, Ganny. Let’s take it cool,” Annie was saying when your call came through.
After answering your call, I turned to Annie. “Have something interesting my friend Vikas is looking out for from India. I do not want to disappoint him. Anyway, I have to go to the garage at Downers Grove to bring the car. I will finish off this shopping too.”
I boarded a bus from my house at Bolingbrook to Downers Grove, collected my car and started to scout round for a coins shop.
I dropped into a nearby bank and enquired at the counter. “Do you have a bundle of quarter dollar coins of all the States in the Union, please?”
“Nope. I doubt it, sir”, replied the girl at the counter, with a smile. “In general, we can give you the quarter of Illinois with may be the coins of a few other states.”
A bit disappointed, as I turned to leave the bank, the girl at the counter called out cheerfully, “You can try at any coins shop. Good luck to you, sir. Have a nice day.”
I searched the Internet and located a popular store “Distinctive Coins Company of America” in Darien. I drove down to Darien, a small village from Downers Grove and easily located the shop.
“Good morning, can I help you?” asked a very spirited owner of the shop.
“I am looking for the 50 State commemorative quarters.”
“Yes. It comes as a Collector’s Album,” he paused, took out a bound album and opened it for me. It had a brief note on how the commemorative quarters were introduced and also the relevant release dates of the coins. This costs $25, sir. Along with this, you can also take an empty Collector’s Album for $15.”
“Since I have this album with the coins of all the States, why do I need to buy this empty album,” I asked.
“You can start filling up the relevant pouches of the various states from the coins you have on hand. You will start looking out for the coins of the remaining states to make the album complete. This will be a very interesting exercise."
His suave talk made me buy the empty album too.
I brought this home and showed it to Annie and my two cousins. They got really excited and said, “Let’s start filling it up with the coins we have on hand.”
All of us gathered together at the dining table and emptied our purses. We started segregating the quarter dollar coins and kept them separately on the table. Each one of us took it in turns to pick out a coin from their collection and call it out. The others would check if they had the coin in their collection and hand it over to the caller. The caller checked if the details in the coin matched with the commemorative date.
If the date matched, we exchanged high fives and a loud cheer went up.
It the date did not match the release date, a uniform groan came out.
There was excitement around the table, our eyes were totally glued to the coins on the table and the album.
“All coins are now exhausted and we have covered 23 states only,” I called out.
Annie suddenly left the table and went into the kitchen. She soon returned with a box, and a big grin on her face.
“When I return from shopping, I put the small change away in this box in my kitchen. I had completely forgotten about it till now.”
She rummaged through the coins and finally said, “I have located coins for two more states. That makes it 25 states in all.”
“We are at least at the half way mark,” spoke everyone in chorus.
We exchanged high fives for the absorbing entertainment which took us back to our childhood days.
Ganapathy’s face lit up as he finished his narrative.
“That’s really awesome, buddy,” I said. "In today’s fast world, with everyone glued to TVs, videos, mobiles and other gadgets with no time to spare for any conversation, you have spent quality time together, like we used to when we were young. You have learnt to enjoy the little things in life that makes you happy. It generates a bonding that is infectious."
Richard Thieme is an author/professional speaker who addresses challenges posed by new technologies, how to redesign ourselves to meet these challenges, and creativity in response to radical change. His speaking addresses “the human in the machine,” technology-related security and intelligence issues as they come home to our humanity. He has published hundreds of articles, dozens of short stories, six books, and delivered hundreds of speeches.
Many speeches address technology-related security and intelligence issues. He has keynoted security conferences in 14 countries and clients range from GE, Microsoft, Medtronic, Bank of America, and Johnson Controls to the NSA, FBI, US Dept of the Treasury. Los Alamos Lab, and the US Secret Service.
The Good Man
Everyone knew Tom Olafsen (his given name was Eggert Thomas Olafsen but they called him Tommy, or Tom, a few called him Eggert, or Eggo, his childhood name based on his breakfast preference when he was ten. What they called him was not important, nor was it anyone's business, what a family did at home. Everyone in town knew Anna, his wife of thirty-nine years. They called her Anna, naturally. She was not the kind of woman given to clever nicknames.
His beloved helpmeet's name had been Anna Koskinen, which gave rise to jokes about "mixed race marriages" for a dozen years after they married. She was sometimes called Asta but she corrected the mistake politely; she was no divine beauty as one might think her translated name implied, but no one cared--looks were not as important as character and mien, bearing and appearance, attitude and behavior, as Anna would have said in fewer words than I just used, plainer words, shorter words. Anna was a plainspoken woman with a face that seemed to have been chiseled from timbers by a man who knew how to wield an axe, and she never used makeup of any kind, not even lipstick. She dressed throughout her life with moderation and propriety and frowned on inappropriate language and behavior. She sometimes repeated what her father Fredrik often said, referring to Finns who balanced diplomacy and bravery during "the war:" "You live between the Russians and the Germans, you learn a thing or two."
Fredrik was born in Toivola, up north, not far from Meadowlands and only a little further to shopping in Duluth, where his parents had moved from the Torne Valley, or Meanmaa as they called it, distinguishing it from the Lapplander valley, over a good ways. Norwegians and Finns were sometimes hard to tell apart. Fredrik and his siblings and his parents and grandparents before them had lived in the valley until they decided to move. Conditions change over time and you wait for them to change back but they never do, so you make a decision based on reality, when you realize reality has once again won. They decided to go to America. In the new country they tried their hand at reindeer farming which the family had done back home--people tend to do what they know how to do and not strike out in new directions unless compelled to do so, which is what happened, I believe, to Tom Olafsen. He was compelled to adapt a different strategy. Things changed and Tom changed too.
I always thought what he did was consistent with who he had been, what he had done, all his life. He knew what was happening but kept his own counsel. Because he seemed to be the same old Tom he had always been, everyone thought he would live and die as they expected, doing what he had always done.
Fredrik had grown up with his wife, sweet hardworking Lotta, who was the first to suggest that raising reindeer wasn't a good idea. He nodded and thought about it for a few years and then sold the herd and they went south to a settlement west of the Cities. They did not like the milder climate. Warm breezes did not develop character the way the cold up north did, making a man a man, and that too might explain the character of the man Tom trusted with his hard-earned money. Tom thought Norgaard was like most people in town.
It might sound like I think what Tom did was right, but understanding and excusing a man are two different things. I leave judgement to Almighty God. It's way above my pay grade.
Anyway, Fredrik opened a general store that prospered for a good while. He managed to stay open during the depression, living close to the bone but serving his customers with minimal margins. That earned him a reputation as something of a local saint. He carried debts for months and often forgave them entirely. That good reputation stuck to Anna too and she wore it with gracious modesty. The value of their good name was so deeply ingrained she did not give it a thought. People gave her a lot of room to be herself because of that and I never heard a critical remark about her, ever.
Tom worked as a boy in Fredrik's store, stocking shelves and making deliveries, learning the value of a hard-earned dollar, and that's how he and Anna met. She used to come into the store to "help out," because, she said, times were hard, but I think she did it to be around Tom.
Anna was, with her kind heart and character, a contributor to the general good. She was always ready to help, but seldom first in line like Agnes Petersen, who practically pushed people out of the way to be first to a place of bereavement or misery. But soon enough, after the calamity had settled down as they all did, Anna was there to help. She never fought big blazes, so to speak, the kinds of conflagrations that razed a person's life to the very ground, but came in time to stamp out remaining fires in the brush. When there was a sad affair of whatever kind, she trembled inside where others couldn't see because it shook her beliefs and she needed to gather herself together. Anna would inhale deeply and hold her breath for a long time until she could let it out slowly as she grasped the harsh reality, that such a thing could happen in God's creation, because she believed that the Lord's hand was on every event and that was hard to understand, what with the indiscriminate destruction of so many innocent human lives. She sought refuge in sayings like "well, it was meant to be" or "the Lord will bring good out of this, you just watch" or "the ways of God are beyond our ken." She said all of those things after Tom had acted until she gave up and said nothing at all because the familiar words were inadequate to the task. Her considerable powers of rationalization, already hinted at, always damped down her anxiety eventually. The modern world was a real challenge so no one blamed her for needing time to realign her belief in the Lord's goodness with random evil deeds. There was so much pain in the world these days. Bad things had always happened but not so often to good people. So everyone understood that Anna's temperament, her need for a day or two of quiet prayer and reading the scriptures and some busy work, catching up with darning that needed to be done, for example, until the realities of life on a dangerous planet had been reconciled with her belief in an all-powerful God who acted in a general way everywhere but also in a local way right there in Minnekona Lake where they lived. Then she could quietly arrive at the home of the distraught with a suitable expression of sorrow, betokening empathy.
That challenge, in one way, is what this story is about. It is about the good woman's soul and what was required when a tornado hit the town (as it were) and scored a direct hit on their house and tossed it and a bunch of other homes around like toothpicks and survivors were left sobbing among the debris, searching for keepsakes. After everyone learned what Norgaard had done, there was plenty of crying, believe you me.
In another way, the tale is about Tommy and why he did what he did, which once you know the whole story, will mostly make sense. Once you understand the ins and the outs of a situation, you can as a rule understand the whys and wherefores. When you grasp why a person did what they did, you can see that you might have done the same thing, had you been them. If there's a lesson in this story, maybe it's that, but lessons are hard to pin down when things get complex.
So everyone thought they understood Tommy and Anna and one another. They had all grown up together and gone to school together and attended one another's weddings and if they went away for a job in the Cities, they often returned, even for less money, because "you can't put a price on a town where everyone looks out for one another and you don't have to lock your doors." They wanted their kids to go to the schools in town, attend one of the Lutheran churches, and learn the value of a dollar and a good work ethic. Most people who grew up in the state never left or came back right away if they did. Only Louisiana had more like that, and that would be the Cajun influence--where else could a Cajun live, after all? Those good Minnesotans made up the heart and soul of the community and they tried to stick together in the face of an onslaught of "others" from outside. Newcomers came in droves, buying up houses and talking about how cheap they were, which was insensitive and offensive. The surge of young people from the Metro shortened the comfortable distance between the cities and the town, once a buffer zone they had thought would always hold like the levees before Katrina. Newcomers made it a "bedroom suburb," a clone of so many others, a landscape dreamed up by developers with the same stores and restaurants that you found when you got off the interstate anywhere. Even worse, there were growing numbers of misbehaving kids from broken homes, some with only one parent in the house. The standards by which everyone had always lived were turned inside out.
The erosion of identity paradoxically intensified the need to hold tightly to prior norms. Their touchstones never had to be stated--everyone knew the rules by which decent people lived. Only when they were challenged did they say them aloud to one another, usually by way of critiquing those who didn't know any better. They fought the good fight against the ex-pats. "What do you expect from someone from Chicago?" they would say. (The ones from the Dakotas were excused because they were more like cousins.)
But I don't want to get ahead of myself. I was saying, people were grateful when Anna appeared at a scene of sadness or loss, wearing the oven mitts her mother gave her when she married Eggert (her mother looked him up and down and said, this one is going to need a lot of feeding, Anna, you better let me copy all my recipes, and she did, bless her heart, by hand, on index cards in ink, which Anna still used)--bearing in those stained old gloves her well-known and much-admired tater tot hot dish.
Minnekona Lake was still by modern standards a small town. When Tom and Anna were growing up, it was thought to be a fine place to raise children, and the older generation could remember when there were stars in the sky and the glow from the city lights did not white them out. There were a number of Lutheran churches so you could pick the one that suited, based on habit, above all, then the pastor, and whether or not a building fund was in progress, and for the theologically inclined, a doctrinal nit or two. About forty different Lutheran denominations had spread like Darwin's finches and the ones that lasted were islands defined by doctrinal distinctions. There was a Catholic Church too, and Father Bonnard was liked and respected by Lutherans until it came out, what he had done, how often, and with indifference to what it did to the children. Child rape was frowned upon by the church so Father Bonnard went into rehab for three months and when he was cleared, he was sent to another diocese and never heard from again.
The ones moving in seemed to be getting younger and younger. If someone asked, which they did not, because it was not polite, why they moved to Minnekona, they would have said, "we like it here," but they showed their affection in strange ways. They criticized the schools and tried to change them by electing people like themselves to the school board; they didn't like the way the town council managed affairs and challenged the mayor, old Norm Anderson, who was only trying to do right by all interested parties; they avoided the Main Street Diner and dined instead on vegan fare and bubble tea at that new place downtown where the dollar store had been. In the last election they ran a lesbian for an empty seat on the town council. She didn't win, but she came frighteningly close.
The ex-pats complained quite a bit, that is, about the town to which they had chosen to live. They didn't see it as a town, is what dawned on the older folks, nor a community at all, but as an extension of their lives in the Cities. If cartoon balloons showed the thoughts of old-timers, they would say: "you don't like it here, why don't you go back where you came from?" It would have been rude to say that, so it was expressed in conversational stance, the angle at which one stood when speaking, so anyone with a clue (i.e. anyone who grew up there) understood completely.
So things were changing, but not for the better: the prices of houses were rising, strip malls and big box stores put Main Street stores out of business, and crime was rising. These changes injected anxiety and fear into the community which gave the communal state of mind an angrier vibe. The vanishing past was idealized, memorialized, and celebrated, It was like a Ponzi scheme, borrowing from a non-existent past to buy an impossible future. And like all Ponzi schemes, it was only a matter of time until the fraud became apparent.
So when the story I am trying to tell began to unfold, there was no playbook.
I had better begin that story now or you'll stop reading right here.
The real story, however, does have a backstory so indulge me a little more while I spell it out. Without understanding how the context changed, what Tom did will not entirely make sense, as much sense as it can make, given what he did.
As the metro swallowed the town like an anaconda swallowing a pig, the sense of a shared history which even if mythical was true, the way myths are, that sense of identity was like something glimpsed through waves of heat on a summer day. Identities, it turned out, were written in disappearing ink, and the moral structure, the bedrock of their confidence in life and God Himself, went along for the bumpy ride. The shaking of the ground under their feet made them doubt even the the tenets of their faith. The benchmarks of right and wrong were not as secure as everyone had thought.
The outwardly visible sign of that profound shift was the explosive growth of a huge non-denominational church, the Church of the Living Waters, out on the edge of town on Purgatory Creek. A small band of Evangelical Bible-believing Christians from a shrinking branch of the Christian Missionary Alliance formed a posse one Sunday afternoon in the living room of Ansel Tull and decided to build a "real church" on the site of the old Schwinn factory. The rapid inroads the megachurch made into traditional churches was stunning. The enterprise was a combination of a modern jazzy style and folksy sermons that delivered three simple lessons a person could remember, programs for the children, and counseling as needed. The package was delivered through all the new media. A church that relied on a newsletter printed once a month and mailed out did not stand a chance.
Traditional churches did not grasp what was happening until congregations and budgets shrank. Their frantic attempts to imitate what they did not understand about marketing and communications exposed their lack of savvy. A competitive marketplace in which young families "shopped for a church" precipitated their demise.
The first to fill the modern chairs (not hard wooden uncomfortable pews) were the unchurched. As the excitement grew, the buzz spread by word-of-mouth and older people began migrating from Lutheran churches. Tom and Anna ignored the call of the growing enterprise until they couldn't ignore it any longer because it was everywhere on people's lips and on the radio every week. Still they resisted until someone they trusted brought the message home. That was Jack Haupman, who told Tom at a Lion's Club lunch about the excitement, the energy, the great message on Sunday morning. Even Gretchen, he said, loves going to church there. Now, nothing against Pastor Norquist, the much older clergyman who had baptized and married and buried so many. But, you know, Tom--Jack paused and picked off and studied a tater tot from the top of the hot dish they were eating in a private room in the Park Lane bowling alley--I mean, you do get tired, hearing about all the ways you're sinning, while at the Waters--his face brightened like a new light bulb screwed securely into its socket--they have a team of preachers and they speak about real life. There's not one that isn't way above Pastor Norquist, not a one. And the sermons are much shorter, too. It's like they read my mind, Gretchen says, like they're talking just to me! Why don't you let us pick up you and Anna on Sunday and take you there so you can see for yourself?
So the Olafsens went because the Haupmans were old friends and they were surprised how many other old friends were there. It almost felt familiar, despite the lack of trappings to make them think they were in a church. Pastor Bob talked about the real pressures in their lives and he told stories anyone could recognize. The music and clapping and spirit of joy was infectious and by the time they went past all the brochures and announcements in the lobby to have a glass of juice, they had to admit, it did lift their spirits.
Tom and Anna returned to their old church the next week but that just made the contrast sharper. Pastor Norquist had three academic degrees but he talked in ways that no one understood. They were impressed by his language but had to take the value of his messages on faith. It seemed to be getting worse, too. Every time they thought the sermon was ending, he started a new paragraph, and he did that three times. It was like the more he sensed the unhappiness of the graying flock, the more he poured it on, as if more verbiage was a cure. Parishioners twitched on the hardwood pews and looked at their watches a lot. So the Olafsens returned to the Waters and pretty much went there after that.
Pastor Bob preached a lot about money, He called it "treasure." God wants you to manage your treasure right, he said, because hard times are coming and you need to build a future on the rock of secure investments. He said how much it cost to put a loved one into one of those facilities. He didn't say right out, not at first, what a good Christian ought to do with their money but after a month or so he got specific. He introduced a lay pastor, Carlson Norgaard, who he let preach on Sunday. Then he gave him the reins of the radio show. Pastor Carl preached a gospel of prosperity and said that those who were faithful would be rewarded, not only in the next life, but in this one as well.
That made sense. If God was the God of everything, it meant he was the God of money too, and who would God want to bless, if not the faithful sheep who heard the voice of their shepherd and followed his call?
Pastor Bob spoke warmly of his confidence in Pastor Carl. In one of his own sermons, he told how Norgaard made millions in a company he started, He explained that Norgaard hated to give so much of his hard-earned wealth to the left-leaning government--you know what they do with your money, don't you?-- making everybody laugh, no need to spell it out. They were all on the same page. He said Norgaard traded currencies and figured out how to beat the odds. He had a computer program that let him trade seconds before the rest. Those few second made him a rich man.
Norgaard, he said, wanted to share his success with fellow Christians. He has a fund that promises a return much bigger than a bank. The money you make is kept in a separate account so no one else can touch it.
Like an alter call, the tag team of the Two Pastors invited them to invest, not in a fund, but in their families and the future.
Tom and Anna listened to Norgaard week after week after week. His repetition made his message penetrate. They started hearing from friends how much money was amassing in their accounts. They received documents each month showing the transactions. All the details were there in black and white, certified by accountants. And if anyone needed cash, they could get it out the same day.
Those who stayed with traditional churches didn't understand how people like Tom and Anna had fallen under the spell of the Church of the Living Waters. Why had they given up the easy parking in a small half-filled lot to drive in a long line of cars from the highway into the huge lot at the Waters, where men with walkie-talkies directed traffic from the roof? Didn't they miss the organ? Didn't they miss the comfort of doing what they had always done?
Tom had no answer for them when they inquired politely over coffee at the Main Street Diner, why he made the change. Tom was a quiet man, sort of withdrawn, a man of few words who like many of the men in town was like a totem pole, tall and solemn and silent, so you had to read the signs with a practiced eye to know what was going on inside. The men who had known Tom for years knew when not to press. They respected his silence as a full stop.
Outwardly he was the same old Tom. He would not have been successful in selling wares in the family store and expanding lines of goods at the right time had he lacked a good practical down-to-earth brain. He was thrifty and he chose not to adorn his modest home with things he knew he didn't need. He and Anna were practical people. They saved at Old Reliable, ten per cent of what came in, deposited every Friday. He went there in person to give the money to Hilda, the teller, and to chat about this and that. His father taught him to move his money at a certain point into a CD. Then leave it there and let it grow. "Put it into a guaranteed account and forget it, Eggo," he said, "and when you turn around one day, you'll be a wealthy man." Tommy followed that counsel, and in his late fifties, almost sixty and aware of what it might cost, up ahead, if they needed long term care or expensive medicine, while he was a wealthy man by his own standards, he was not rich by the standards of the truly rich in the big houses on the lake with their spacious lawns and docks or the mega-rich he read about. He didn't feel rich, and he had no idea, really, what he might need if things got bad.
So Tom had a nest egg, more than he thought he would ever have, what with his retirement account and CDs protected by the government and a liquid money market account at Old Reliable. But he felt more anxious and insecure than ever. Aging does funny things to a man. The emotions, not just the body, go through a phase change. Energy declines and so does one's faith in one's recuperative powers. One doesn't bounce back so quickly after a bad patch. So he began to think, below the surface at first, then in words in the silence of his mind, I might not have enough. He had to protect his wife, he had to protect himself, because what if the bankers destroyed the economy again and everything collapsed? Or what if he or Anna had Alzheimer's or ALS and everything gets spent on drugs and then you go on medicaid and have to live in a nursing home for the last years of your life? The Olafsens had no children, no one to rely on, and what if--God forbid--one of them should die? All that worked on him. He could not fall asleep, thinking about it all, and he woke up in the night and looked at the glowing numbers on the clock and despaired at the early hour. He had done things right, he had done as he was taught, so why was he so anxious? Why were the "golden years" so tarnished by his fears?
So Eggert was ripe for the picking. He had company, sure, they all took that crazy ride, but this is his story, not theirs, or Anna's story, I am not sure which. But in the end, I think it might be hers.
It mattered to those in the trance induced by the music and rites on Sunday morning that Pastor Bob presented Norgaard as a worker in the vineyard of the Lord, a good Christian man from a good family that went way back. The stories of how he grew up were repeated so often, people believed them and nobody thought to check. Norgaard's powerful sermons were intermittent reinforcement for his pitches. His confidence and conviction carried his words into their hearts. He did it, he told them, to help them achieve peace of mind. He guaranteed 10-12% return at the very least.
If you were paying attention, you were thinking, that sounds pretty good. Norgaard quoted texts from the Bible and intertwined his promises with promises from God Himself. When he finished, people even applauded, and Pastor Bob came out from the wings to give him a big hug, the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
Tom and Anna listened every week to the same message on Wednesday nights when the Sunday morning show was repeated. "That man knows what he is talking about," Tom said to Anna, and Anna nodded over her knitting, either in agreement or to cover the fact that she couldn't hear what he said. That was happening more and more. He inferred that her silence meant consent. "Let's do what Pastor Bob and Pastor Carl say. Everyone we know is making a lot of money." When she didn't object, he called to make an appointment to see Carlson Norgaard.
Norgaard had purchased the Van Der Graf Mansion downtown about thirty miles away, not a bad drive if the traffic wasn't too bad, but one which Tom seldom made, being content as he was with what was around the town. The grand old place looked like a castle. It was built of pink Sioux quartzite brought in from Luverne. The roof and turrets were covered with Maine slate and one soaring slender turret was topped with a copper finial. Tom stood on the walk and looked up with appropriate awe before he went through the heavy wooden front door and paused to admire a beautiful tile mosaic. He wandered the downstairs rooms, where there were French, Tudor, Romanesque and Elizabethan styles all mixed together, before he saw the sign directing him to a receptionist upstairs. He climbed a grand staircase, impressed by the carved woodwork, and was met by a woman who was young and rather comely and welcomed him warmly. She rang a bell with a soft chime and he noticed an earpiece from which she must have heard an instruction because she said, "Mister Norgaard will see you now." She rose from behind her massive desk and led him toward a door in front of one of ten fireplaces, wood piled neatly in it but not yet set ablaze. "Would you like coffee or something else to drink?"
He said no thanks and entered the investment manager's office when she opened the door with a bright smile. Norgaard rose and came around the desk to shake his hand and welcome Tom to the luxurious office. Tom had never been in such a beautiful office, designed to communicate wealth and success.
As was the pitch presented by the smiling friendly man. He emphasized safeguards and guarantees, showed Tom the printout he would receive every month, repeated that cash could be withdrawn at any time. His proprietary software and electronic network, Norgaard said, allowed trades to be made three nanos faster than traditional means. That fraction of time meant a fraction of a penny saved which made a huge difference when one was managing millions and millions of dollars.
Are you ready to open an account? Do you have a check with you?
Yes, said Tom.
Tom had transferred all of his accounts into a checking account. Norgaard looked over the desk as Tom entered the amount of everything in his CDs, IRA, and savings account. "Just make it out to Caribbean Global Investments," he said. "That's the holding company that handles all of our transactions. They get the lowest fees for currency trading because they're based in a nation that favors free trade."
They shook hands and Olafsen left the office feeling as if he was walking on air. All of his fears for their health and well-being had vanished. The sun was shining, birds were singing, and the glory of the Lord shone all around.
Norgaard scanned the check and sent it off at once.
Tom was a man of character and expected the same of others. He was loyal and true, and he seldom called attention to himself or his modest achievements, thinking that the brash young people moving to town who talked of themselves and their activities and interests were nothing but walking billboards for their egos, proclaiming how smart and successful they were. Had he any idea of their constant self-promotion on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and the rest, he would have been aghast. A man who made his way in life successfully did not need to be always telling everyone what he had done. He did not need the applause of others to shore himself up. That he ignored such behavior by Pastors Bob and Carl was simply one of the inconsistencies that make humans interesting.
Tom was a good man, he was trusting and generous and took his religion seriously. He would sit in his comfortable chair, Anna rocking and listening to the radio with him, his head wreathed in great blue-gray clouds of fragrant smoke from a blend he mixed himself for his pipe, and listen to Norgaard reassure not only himself but many others. They never dreamed that what happened might ever happen, but it did, and that's the rest of the story.
I am sure you guessed by now what took place. It took a long time for the unraveling of the clever well-wrought design to reveal itself, but even with the best dikes, it's hard to keep out the sea. Reality seeps tin, makes bigger inroads, then pours through. There were hints and rumors, whispers and accusations, all denied by Norgaard and, on his behalf, by Pastor Bob, who was never charged with a crime himself, but admitted to "poor judgement" in channeling contributions from the Caribbean Holding Company, an entity that Norgaard owned behind layers of shells and off-shore accounts, into a discretionary fund. The fund was to help the poor and needy, and it did, but it also enabled Pastor Bob to build a large beautiful home in Arizona. The charges were all leveled against Norgaard and despite the best lawyers money could buy, he was found guilty on all counts of fraud and a Ponzi scheme that took in two hundred million dollars. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
I won't waste your time with the details of how the Ponzi scheme was done and undone. They all seem to fall apart in the same way. Someone tries to get their money back and it isn' t there, and the word goes around, and then there's a run and there isn't any money anywhere at all, it's all gone, it is all gone.
The first few who did get their money back had to return it to an account for salving the pain of the investors, so it didn't matter than Tom was late in requesting the return of his investment. After a decade of hard work, following trails through layers of shells around the world, a team of lawyers recovered about ten million dollars which was distributed after taxes and their fees to those who were still alive. The rest had vanished.
Tom and Anna were still alive but they weren't the Tom and Anna of old. They were destitute, having lost everything, and above all, they lost faith in their fellow man and the church in which they had believed uncritically. On top of that, Anna had been consumed by crippling anxiety and lapses in memory which they attributed to aging but it turned out, she was showing signs of Alzheimer's disease. She did, as I said earlier, need time to gather herself together when some traumatic shock shook her belief in the benevolence of the Lord, and this was the biggest one yet. She simply could not get her mind around the enormity of Norgaard's crimes and their impact on so many people and, most importantly, on herself. She slept-walked in denial as they sold their home and tried to survive. She never did get herself together again in a way that would enable her to praise the Lord with whole-hearted sincerity, nor could she deal realistically with her anger at Tom, because she could not allow herself to think that he might have been at fault for the tumble they had taken, on top of which, anger was not something she liked to think she felt.
Losing the money was one thing, but the shattering of their beliefs was far worse. The onset of Alzheimer's was, some said, a blessing in disguise, because (1) they still believed in blessings, disguised or not, and (2) her deteriorating brain was unable to grasp in the most elemental terms what had taken place and the complicity of her husband in their downfall.
Tom had his own issues to deal with on top of losing everything and then losing Anna. He monitored the sentencing of Norgaard to incarceration in a hospital prison because of age and infirmities. Night after night he sat in his chair and smoked his pipe and thought of that injustice. Anna was in a nursing home on medicaid and Tom was in the drafty shack that replaced their home, alone. Anna's influence for the good was gone. The house was cold and so was his heart. Both grew colder and colder. The words of the scriptures--"Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay!"--sounded like an empty promise. The Lord was conspicuously silent throughout the catastrophe, as he seemed to be everywhere in a world beset with miseries, as had been his habit since Biblical days when he spoke in unmistakeable ways.
You can never get inside the mind or soul of another human being, and Eggert Thomas Olafsen is a case in point. All one saw if one peeked through the window of his shack in the woods was a man sitting alone. One sometimes saw him visiting his Anna and sitting by her bedside for hours waiting and hoping for recognition from his wife. Once in a great while the fog seemed to clear and he could swear she knew who he was and why he was there, his devotion having become a long-ingrained habit. But one could not see inside him to the process by which he decided that if vengeance was not being taken by the Lord, someone should do it for Him. He read and reread the Book of Judith in which the elders said, after Judith had killed their enemy, "God saved us," but it was pretty clear that Judith had done it.
At some point, he decided to act.
The people up at the hospital prison all knew Tom. They had known him for many years. They added him to the list of allowed visitors for Carlson Norgaard because he told them he wanted to forgive the man and say so to his face. That was consistent with the Tom they had always known, so they bought in. That was Tom's scam, in its own way. What he really wanted to do was kill the son of a bitch.
But just as the investments did not work out as hoped, neither did his simple scheme to visit Norgaard, proclaim the justice of the Lord, and take a knife out and plunge it into the neck and then the heart of the evil man. He got as far as getting it into the neck but not, alas, severing an artery, when they grabbed him from behind.
Now, the criminal justice system is imperfect, as all things are in God's creation. If humans can mess things up, they will. Tom pled guilty to a lesser count and was sentenced in his declining years to the very same prison hospital in which Norgaard spent his last days. Tom died there too, a year after Norgaard, having the satisfaction only of knowing that Norgaard preceded him in that sad march to the grave.
But this is Anna's story too, or maybe mostly. Anna is the emblem of how hard it is for humans to reconcile reality with naive beliefs. The enormity of the destruction visited by Norgaard on everything in which she believed was too much. She could never again appear at the scene of a tragedy with a hot dish in her hands because she was the scene. She was never "herself," again, if she ever had been.
But there were moments in which the fog seemed to lift and Anna was back, the light of the old Anna in her eyes. She was accessible for those few moments. In Anna's case, that happened when Rosita, the nursing home aide, was cleaning her tray after her meal had been partially consumed but mostly scattered on the tray, Anna was eating less and less, and that would take her away soon.
Anna spoke. She definitely said something. Rosita paused in her task, looking at the drawn pale face of the sick woman, and said, "Que? Que dice, Anna?"
She said again as Rosita leaned in close to hear: "He is a good man."
Rosita leaned around to look into her eyes but they were already returning to where they spent their time, deep in the darkening woods of her soul. The loud speakers in the hallways outside the door suddenly blared: "Juliet, call the desk. Juliet, call the desk." and that set off Margaret Lundstrom who had been asleep in bed in their shared room and began shouting, "Stop it! Stop it, Harold, you bastard!" which interfered with Rosita's concentration.
"Quien es?" she said. "Who is a good man?"
The grid of time and space in Anna's brain was variable and fluid, so Rosita never learned if Anna meant Tom--Anna might have been thinking of his courageous attempt to right wrongs, to serve justice and mercy and walk humbly with his God, and she might have forgiven Tom and held him once more in her warm embrace--or she might have meant Norgaard, whose promises she still believed, locked in the treasure box of her hopeful heart. All we know is what Rosita told the duty nurse who mentioned it to her grown child Clarence who repeated the story in the Main Street Diner so it got around that Anna came back for a brief visit--she must have done, we have to believe, because she said, Rosita was nearly certain, "He is a good man."
And once more, in the stillness of the night, with no one there to hear:
"He is a good man."
# # #
FIRST PUBLISHED IN REVIEW AMERICANA
The echo challenged her. The seafoam that converged at the tip of each dark and murky wave melted into circular and crescent shapes. The image of a face was left behind as if the spirit of the ocean had drifted up to personally laugh at her. A deep-seated burn gradually filled Kaila’s chest, the nails of her fingers clawing into the clammy palms of her hands, and eventually that taunting, challenging sound of the ocean, faded with the drumming of her heart against her chest.
“Just do it,” she said, repeating the words to pacify her heartbeat.
It formed into a mantra, and with a single breathe she did it. She jumped. The plunge felt like it existed to thrill her; however, the water seemed to exist to terrorize her. When Kaila hit the billowing wave, she felt the unforgiving thrust of frozen needles into her skin. Her hands groped in the water for a source of safety, and when failing to find any her legs thrashed in a desperate attempt to make her resurface and swallow a gallon of air. It only took a second for the tide to drag her back under. Her sudden panic granted the salty sea access into her mouth which left her tongue to shrivel up as she was greeted by the surface once more, her hands gripping tightly onto one of the rocks at the base of the cliff. The waves jerked her around, slamming her ribs against the jagged edges of the rock that forced a cry of pain from her lips.
Suddenly, Kaila was reminded of why she avoided the ocean.
Just past the edge of the cliff, Kaila could see the twinkle of a bonfire on the beach, the flame occasionally shrouded by the silhouette of one of her friends. She knew that right now she could have been with them. She could be enduring whatever cheesy ghost stories Gabriel had to tell her and the others, and then laugh when he insisted that each fable was as true as his eyes were green. If she had chosen that option, she would have been safe. Instead, she had tears pouring down across her cheeks while her fingers clung to a rock.
“Help,” she said, screaming over the waves. “Gabriel! Mason! Adaline!”
Kaila waited a few moments, but she wasn’t sure if she even received an answer. She screamed again, and again she couldn’t hear an answer. For how long she continued to scream she didn’t know, but it was long enough to make her throat burn. Pressing her forehead to the rock, Kaila found her grip beginning to slip. Her fingers were moments from surrendering to the ocean’s wrath when the image of that oversized jacket filled her head, and a thought struck her. If she gave up, would she be able to see him again? Would she see the owner of that jacket, her brother, who too found himself powerless to the sea three years ago?
The water that brushed over her hands suddenly felt warm, like a hand welcoming her and coaxing her to let go willingly. Slowly Kaila obeyed, her fingers uncurling themselves from the rock as she turned to reach her hand back into the black churning sea.
“Kaila, is that you?”
She froze at the sound of her name. That feminine voice that drifted out into the night belonged to Adaline, she was sure of it. Out on the pier of the beach, she could see two figures, one much shorter than the other waving a hand above her head.
“Addie!” Kaila said.
“Hold on, Mason will be there soon!”
The taller figure jumped off the pier and disappeared into the water, but even as hopeful as it looked, Kaila still felt her fingers slipping away. The fear of being sucked under jolted through her body once more.
“I can’t do it,” she said, whispering to herself.
Hold on. You can do it. At that moment she wasn’t sure if that voice she heard was her last shred of hope or something else that urged her, but as the water slipped back over her hand she dug her fingers tighter into the rock and squeezed with all her strength until she found Mason by her side. His arm enveloped her, pulling her across the ocean’s surface and back towards the sturdy sand of the beach. Adaline spared little time in running down from the pier towards them, and from behind another pair of footsteps approached them. Gabriel’s concerned expression could be seen from the corner of her eye as he draped that bulky jacket over her shoulders.
“Kaila, are you okay?” Adaline asked.
“What were you thinking?” Mason asked, scolding her.
Their questions fell on deaf ears. Kaila pulled her phone from the pocket of her brother’s swim team jacket. The screen insisted that it was midnight and that a new day had washed over her. Peeling her gaze away from the artificial light of her device, Kaila found the reflection of the moon in the now amiable lull of the shifting tide — Its tormenting behavior now submissive under the watchful lunar gaze. Staring at it made her smile, and she nodded to it believing that the voice she heard was his and that even now when she spoke, he would hear her from the water.
ABDULLAH "A.H." ERAKAT
ANITA G. GORMAN
DEBRA J. WHITE
DR. BLAKE DANIEL PRESCOTT
MR. S. SUNDAR RAJAN
S. MUBASHIR NOOR