Amanda organizes her life into significant events inside folders in her mind. One is designated “Childhood Memories,” where she files away images like the one of her father building her a doll house, waking up one Christmas morning in a panic because her favorite teddy was missing, and her mother’s voice cracking when she told Amanda about her parents’ divorce.Sometimes Amanda creates sub-folders, mainly of events where only snapshot images remain: sitting on the lawn, collecting handfuls of dandelions; kicking through the basement window when her cousin taunted her from inside; the strange feeling that her throat was closing the time she snuck a swig of vinegar straight from the bottle as a girl; and sneaking into her mother’s sewing basket to find scissors so she could chop off her own hair. She has to mentally tuck some memories into two categories: sitting cross-legged on her bed and yanking out her own hair because she’s failed at something qualifies as both a “Childhood Memory” and “Self-image Problems.” This method of organization helps her to make sense of the patterns of her life. It’s also a reminder not to dwell on the past. It’s always nearby, tucked away in those neat folders if she needs access.
Some memories are clearer than others. Some are so vivid that she feels as though she’s standing outside her body, watching herself go through the motions again like a rapt movie-goer.
Her most intense memory was the day she stumbled forward on a gritty concrete rooftop, leaning into the wind. Tangled red hair whipped across her face, connecting the dots of her freckles for a moment before lifting and then returning to assault her again. Only by holding her eyes nearly shut could she prevent strands of hair from slicing into their cobalt hearts. As wind plastered her too-thin cotton dress against her body one moment and billowed it the next, her shoulders shivered up. Finally reaching the waist-high wall at the edge of the roof, she leaned over it. Twenty-six stories below, the solids and prints of people’s clothing snailed along the sidewalk. She wondered how long it would take her to fall and where she might land. She wondered what death would feel like.
Amanda wishes she could lose the imprint of that day a year and a half ago with its piercing wind and her desperation. Sometimes, though, the events thrust their vicious claws out from her mind’s file. “Look,” a rapacious inner voice commands.
And sometimes she does.
Behind her that day a metallic thump sounded. The roaring wind captured a crunch of footsteps and carried it to her ears.
“Amanda,” an unfamiliar baritone said.
Her knuckles whitened with tension as she swiveled to see the intruder. In one hand, he held her purse, in the other, her wallet, opened to her driver’s license.
“P-put that down,” she said. “It’s not yours.”
“No, it’s not. It’s yours. Why don’t you come and get it?”
She pivoted away from him and leaned forward onto the wall, the six-inch boundary protecting her from oblivion. The wind let up for a moment, making it easier to plant her hands and swing a knee up toward final, blissful, horrible release. Behind, her flowered dress fluttered, wanting, waiting to fly.
“Amanda! Stop! Let me help you.” The man’s voice was closer now, much closer.
Who was he? She needed to know. She swung her head to see him, nearly losing her balance as she did.
He was little more than an arm’s length away. “Stop.” The dull command sounded as weak as she felt. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
“Stop.” Her voice was louder this time. “Stop saying my name! I don’t know you. Leave me alone!”
“All right. Okay. You’re right. You don’t know me. I’m here because an alarm sounded when you opened the rooftop door. You’re not supposed to be out here. The building manager was concerned, so he called me. I’m Dr. Buckley. I have an office in this building.”
“I don’t care. Leave me alone.” As she turned from him and lifted her other knee, Dr. Buckley lunged forward and grabbed her jacket. One of Amanda’s arms pulled out of its sleeve. She wasn’t thinking when she frantically threw her head backwards, away from the edge. Her body’s instinct to survive was, for a moment, stronger than her desire to escape the abyss of her life.
When the wind gusted anew, it jolted Amanda forward, wrenching away her fragile balance. Her eyes widened as she began the lean that would lead to forever. Or nothing. She didn’t know. She closed her eyes.
“Hnuh.” The heavy syllable joined a rough yank at her waist and she felt herself change direction and fall backwards, the doctor pulling her body against his. Her body changed position from a V to an L then to a fallen, defeated line while the gravel crunched, the man’s head thumped, and her skull thunked into his face.
Amanda doesn’t remember the sensation of lying atop a man who, for all she knew, was dead beneath her. She doesn’t remember peeling his arm from across her stomach, scrambling to the half wall she’d almost thrown herself from, or how long she spent huddled into herself, legs pulled up against her chest, forehead on knees, hands clenched around the back of her head.
The sinister gray that had descended upon her five weeks earlier now nearly suffocated her, deeper, darker, and deadlier than ever.
She does remember a word rasping against her eardrums. “Help.” Nearly imperceptibly, she shook her head from side to side.
“Lady.” Now it was louder.
Amanda lifted her face.
“I need help. Call 9…”
* * *
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it?” Laura says. The sun’s final, lingering rays light up the sky in whirls of pink and purple above a lake, where echoes of the writhing swirls combust orange and violet on the surface of the water.
From behind her, Sami Aziz slips his hands around her waist. “You’re spectacular.” Nuzzling his nose into her hair, he kisses the soft spot just beneath her ear.
“Tell me now,” he whispers, wrapping his arms around her.
She cocks her head and turns slightly. “Hmm?”
“I can’t wait.”
Silence. The kind of silence that strips away all doubt. That sounds like a slap and punctures hope.
He knows why she won’t commit. Though she’s never made him feel it, especially not like some have, he knows it’s because of who—what—he is.
He’s been hoping that Laura was different.
Sami has tried to blend in. He’s studied the way Americans dress and carry themselves. He’s adapted his behavior to match people around him. The one area that he hasn’t perfected is his speech. Though he’s mastered most irregular verbs, odd spellings, and English idioms, Sami knows that his pronunciation—or is it the way the words emanate from the back of his throat?—alerts any partner in conversation that he is other. This wasn’t a problem during grad school, where fellow students found his accent interesting. Charming, even. Beyond the walls of the university, though, and especially outside the borders of Philadelphia, he’s subject to suspicious gazes.
For many Americans, especially outside of big cities, different isn’t better; it’s not even neutral.
He’s a little ashamed of himself for lying about his origins, but he often tells strangers, “I’m from Tajikistan.” Too many people assume that someone with Middle Eastern looks is a terrorist plotting to hijack a plane. When quizzical eyes beg for an explanation, Sami says, “It’s in Central Asia.” The pang of conscience that comes from lying is more comfortable than the stares or inching steps backward he knows he’ll face if he tells the truth. Besides, by now he’s lied so often that he hardly feels guilty.
He didn’t think he’d have to deal with this kind of stuff with Laura. He doesn’t understand why she agreed to spending this weekend with him if she didn’t feel the same way he did. Men and women don’t do the kinds of things together they’ve done over the past two days if they don’t love each and want a deeper commitment. Even people as morally loose as Americans understand that.
After several moments, Laura jostles around to face Sami, struggling against his too-tight embrace.
She flashes him a coy smile, tugging gently on the lapels of his jacket, her eyes on his mouth. “Come on, Sami. I need more time to think about this.”
By now, the sun has sunk completely, leaving them under the blue-gray cast of the moon. Over the lake, shades of purple paint the horizon, inking the water stormy blue. “What’s there to think about?” He puts his hands on her head and pulls her into a hard, desperate kiss.
When she pushes against him, he doesn’t let go. His tongue invades her mouth, but she’s struggling against him, pressing his chest, moving her head from side to side.
“Stop it!” she says when he finally releases her. She thrusts hard against his shoulders and he huffs.
“Listen, Sami. I like you—”
His shoulders drop and his head wilts to the side. “Last night you said you loved me.”
“I know. I mean…” She looks at the ground, the road, everywhere else.
His brow bunches. “Laura. I love you. I want—” But he stops when her eyes finally meet his.
In full sun, her eyes sparkle. In their blue he finds silvery specks. Not now. In this light, they look gray, blending in with the gray of her face, her hair. Her disapproval.
“I know.” She says this quickly. “You told me. You’ve been telling me for the past week. This weekend has been great. We’ve had a lot of fun together.”
Fun? That’s what she calls it?
She looks away from him again. “I like you, Sami. I really do. It’s just… Like I told you. My family. They wouldn’t understand. They’re, well, old-fashioned.”
How would Google Translate render “old fashioned,” he wonders? Prejudiced? Racist?
“What does that mean? They don’t like foreigners?” Saying this aloud makes him feel sick.
“No,” she says, sounding offended. “They like foreigners just fine. They just don’t like…”
Sami feels heat flushing his cheeks. “What? Muslims?” He notices that his voice is harder, louder. “Or is it Palestinians? Do they think we all go around with bombs strapped to our chests? Or are they afraid that I might take you hostage?”
“No! Geez, Sami,” she squeaks.
Oh shit, thinks Sami and he wraps her again in his arms. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you.” Holding her head against his shoulder, he bites back the words he’d say if she weren’t so upset, if he didn’t care about her so much: You’re so worried about what your family and friends would think of me; if you only knew what my family would think of you! Do you know what they’d say if they saw that rose tattoo on your shoulder and the shirts you wear to show it off in the summertime? Can you even fathom what people accustomed to seeing women dress modestly in burqas and headscarves would think about the miniskirts you wear to show off your perpetually tanned legs? Or the four piercings in each of your ears? Or the fact that your hair is shorter than mine?
But Sami won’t say that to Laura. He loves her. He loves her despite those things. He loves that, when she laughs—really laughs—her eyes crinkle up until they’re almost shut, she tilts forward and backward at the waist and claps her hands together. Sometimes she even stomps her foot—her right foot.
Laura, he’s sure, would drive his serene, undemonstrative mother into a fit of rage or maybe depression or, at the very least, bewilderment over what her son could possibly find attractive in Laura. His family desperately wants him to marry someone from there, from home. His mother doesn’t understand why he came to America in the first place, and especially why he didn’t return home after graduation. She’d certainly not understand what drew Sami to this alien female. She’d never comprehend the way Laura makes him feel. How he can stop thinking about conflict between his people and Israelis. Here in America, and especially when Lauran’s with him, Sami can relax. He’s never smiled and laughed and enjoyed himself as much as when he’s with her. This is surely how life is meant to be lived.
There is, however, a cost involved. He lives an ocean and culture away from his father and mother and little brother, Radi. But travel is not impossible. Sami can visit them. The benefits of life here outweigh the cost.
He’s sure of that.
But if things don’t work out with Laura? He’d rather not contemplate that, but now she’s making him wonder if they have a future together.
He leads her to the car and they drive home without words, listening to a recording artist of Laura’s choice who’s whining about love lost.
When oncoming traffic whizzes by, the blazing white light of summer at home flashes into Sami’s mind.
* * *
“I’ll only be gone for two weeks,” Jack says. He strokes Amanda’s hair as she leans into him, her cheek resting on his chest as they stand in their kitchen, where their ancient coffee maker is sputtering steam.
“I know.” Her throat constricts around the words. Jack—who was first her pastor, then friend, then husband and lover—doesn’t seem to notice the strangled desperation in her voice. She’s too upset to let this bother her.
As her stomach clenches, she berates herself. Stop it! Jack is not Ben and he hasn’t betrayed you by sleeping with your best friend. All he’s talking about is leading a tour to the Holy Land. Jeepers. Get a grip. This is a good thing. He’s a good man. Cut it out before he begins to think you’ve relapsed into that wreck who showed up at his church after your suicide attempt.
Amanda’s slow recovery from despair required the combined efforts of the therapist who discovered her on the rooftop, a local church, and Jack, the pastor of that congregation. As they all applied their ministrations to Amanda’s broken soul, she began again. Began to eat, to brush the tangles from her hair, to remember where she was, to talk. To live. One morning she noticed that the hollowness that had been consuming her had disappeared, replaced by a sense of calm. When Jack told her that he loved her, all she could do is stare at him, gape-mouthed, until he pulled her into a kiss. Only then did the nerve endings that she thought had died jolt back to life.
Now Amanda forces herself to calm down, fingering the corners of her eyes as surreptitiously as possible, before lifting her head and forcing a smile. “No. This is great,” she lies. “I mean, if my boss would give me the time off, I’d go with you.”
Jack pulls back slightly, his forehead wrinkled. “Listen, baby. I don’t have to do this. If you feel uncomfortable, just tell me.”
A noisy plunk and several hisses sound one after another like a disgruntled audience. Amanda and Jack glance at the coffee maker, venting its anger because she hasn’t replaced the carafe to resume its brewing.
She shakes her head quickly. Don’t make him feel bad for doing his job, she scolds herself. For doing the thing he loves. “Stupid machine,” she mutters, stepping away from Jack. She snatches up the coffee pot from the table and nests it back into the machine.
He squints slightly. “So?” His voice is soft, gentle. “Are you okay?”
Amanda forces her mouth into a smile, trying, really trying, to make her eyes match. “I want to sit down with my handsome husband for a cup of coffee before he leaves me bereaved for another entire Saturday afternoon so he can prepare his message for church tomorrow.”
Jack grins, grabbing a short stack of brochures he’s laid on the counter. “Take a look at these. Do you know how long I’ve been wanting to lead a tour of Jerusalem? Of course, I’m going to have to brush up on my facts and presentation.” And he’s off.
* * *
May 5, 1990.
Serious, genuine, ambitious? Yes.
Aggressive, dominant, and irritable? No—not usually, anyway.
Vivacious, outspoken, opinionated? “Are they serious?” Sami mutters. “Are there people out there looking for partners who’d want someone like that?” He shakes his head before advancing to the next page of Perfect for You dating service’s personality quiz. Here he’s supposed to list his interests.
What do you like to do during your free time? His brow scrunches. That’s a stupid question. He likes to pend time with friends, read, watch a good movie, eat good food. Falafels, mahshi, tabbouleh, baklava, things like that. Doesn’t everyone like to spend their free time that way?
Sami leans back on his home office chair, which squeaks noisily as he shifts his weight. Rubbing his face first with his fingertips and then with his palms, he sighs.
He can’t quite believe that he’s stuck at home on a weekend, filling out a questionnaire to find a date. When he was in grad school, he had no time for dating. Now, at work, the only women around are too old, too ugly, too in-your-face, or too desperate.
Meeting Laura at the coffee shop he frequented gave him hope.
“Mmm, you’re yummy-looking, Sami,” Laura said that last weekend they were together. Since then, she’s given him excuse after excuse for why she can’t see him again. Then last week she begged him to leave her alone.
He thought it was funny, back then, that she would call him “yummy.”
“Isn’t food ‘yummy’?” he asked her.
“Well, yeah,” and she traced her finger over his cheeks and then his lips. “But so are you, with your smoldering dark eyes. And so is your hair after you run your hand through it.”
“Like this?” he said, leaning back and raking his fingers through it.
“Mmm. Yeah. I like it that way, all tousled and sexy. And your lips are yummy, too.” And she’d kissed him in a way he suspected no young woman back in Palestine would ever kiss him. “You’re good enough to eat, Sami.”
Filling out this stupid survey has done one thing: it’s made him realize that he’s—oh, what do the Americans call it?—a catch. Yeah, like a big fish. He flops back in his chair and catches his reflection on the computer screen, surprised to see himself grimacing. He intensifies the look, cocking his head to the side and lifting his upper lip up into a sneer while his eyes narrow.
The next moment, he squinches his lips to one side for a heartbeat before he breaks into a smile. He really isn’t bad-looking. Turning his head from one side to the other while keeping his eyes on the screen, he mouths the word “yummy.” He puffs out a laugh and then refocuses on the content on the monitor.
He’s at the part about his education and job status. He earned a master’s degree at an Ivy League school; he landed a job in a top accounting firm; and his income tops $70,000 a year. Damn. He shouldn’t need an online dating service to find a suitable partner.
After completing the survey, he clicks the “submit” button. All he can do now is wait. He exhales a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, slaps his knees and rises, hungry.
What he wouldn’t do for a falafel-stuffed pita.
* * *
The day Radi dies starts out pleasantly in Jerusalem. The air has shaken off its winter chill and the sun promises the warmth of early April. Competing for the attention of passersby are pink almond tree blossoms that scent the air and poppies that gloriously redeem unused lots and the strips of earth between traffic lanes. Natives bustle, their step a trifle lighter than it was a week ago. Tourists, some anxious to “walk where Jesus walked,” slow at whiffs of pungent za’tar. Above them, the sun’s glare warps the gleam from the golden Dome of the Rock. Around them, syllables in Yiddish, Hebrew, French, Russian, and Arabic comingle in a modern Babel. Some visitors stop, searching for a means of containing this world, this experience.
During the rush of early evening at the bus stop, no one expects the bomb strapped to Radi’s chest to explode and rock their world into kingdom come.
Four others enter the hereafter with Radi.
* * *
“You’re leaving?” Sami’s boss says, eyeing him over half-frame readers. The oversized office chair looks small under Mr. Thompson’s bulk.
“Yes,” Sami says, standing straight, realizing that he’s never spoken more than a few sentences to the man. “This is my three week notice.”
His boss looks at the paper, then back at Sami.
It’s uncomfortable looking at Mr. Thompson. His shirt stretches tightly over rolls of fat and his lips glisten with a saliva film. On most days, tiny patches of stubble remain on one or more of the man’s multiple chins. His breathing is noisy.
Mr. Thompson is nice enough, though, and has always been considerate to Sami. He pulls his glasses off and tilts his head to the side. “I’m sorry to hear this, Sami. You’ve been a good worker and an asset to our team. May I ask what’s taking you from us?”
Before Sami can think of a way to phrase his answer, Mr. Thompson adds, “I know you just returned to work after a death in your family. Your brother, right?”
Sami sucks in a breath, swallows, and looks at the floor. “Yes.” Pause. “Yes.” Now he lifts his eyes. “My little brother Radi.”
“Well, if you need more time—to visit your family or whatever—I’m sure we can arrange something. I hate to see you go.”
How can Sami tell this man why he’s leaving? Sami hasn’t figured it out himself. Not exactly. Not completely.
When his uncle called Sami to tell him that Radi had died in a suicide bombing, Sami first thought that his brother had been the victim. Though Palestinians were not normally the targets of such attacks, he knew that sometimes their blood and guts and bones were found commixed with that of Israelis’.
“No, no, no, Sami,” Uncle Zafir said. “Radi himself was the sacred explosion. He has been training for this moment for many years.”
Radi, his baby brother, was a suicide bomber? “What?”
“Yes, of course. Did he never speak to you of such things?”
Sami was too embarrassed to admit his ignorance. “Go on please.”
“Your parents, though sorrowful at their loss, are proud of Radi’s act of sacrifice and courage. You must return home immediately to extol his memory with them. Your brother made all the arrangements for this memorial. The group that trained him has gifted your parents many shekels to compensate for their loss. Come. Come home.”
After Sami returned, the sight of Radi’s face—older than Sami remembered it—on posters and in newspapers shook him. Hundreds came to congratulate Sami and his parents. Throughout the day of remembrance, Sami felt as though he were wandering alone in a deep cave, abandoned and clueless, looking for but never finding a way out.
As he lay in bed that night, Sami strained to make sense of Radi’s death. His brother had trained to kill other people. Kill them. What kind of person does such a thing? How could his brother possess such hatred? And perhaps more puzzling: how could others rejoice in the act?
Sami, of course, understood the injustices against his people, perpetrated by Israel. He knew of the long-standing disagreement about how Palestine should respond to Israel and the threats from both sides of the conflict. He knew of the misery and hatred that constantly bubbled just below the surface. It had been for all those reasons that Sami had chosen to leave his homeland and family—including a brother who by then had only just entered his teenage years—to study and then live in the United States.
Sami spoke little to his parents for the five days of his stay. What could he say? What kind of people would not only condone, but instead celebrate a suicide bombing?
In the airport on his return to his life and job, a stranger shoved a book into Sami’s hand: Selma Dabbagh’s Out of It, a novel about the Gaza conflict. The long trip afforded Sami time to read far into the book. Back in his own apartment, he finished it the next day. The words of one character refused to leave him: “We can’t just run away. It’s our land. Our people. We have a duty.” Was it wrong that Sami had left?
He had thought that earning his MBA and working at a notable firm was a good thing. He sent money home regularly. He tried to live responsibly. He sometimes even gave to charity.
Dabbagh’s words grabbed Sami’s self-assurance by the throat, thrashed it in its jaws, and spat it out.
Sami had run away.
What about the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?, he demanded of himself. That territory is your land. Palestinians are your people. You have a duty. You have no right to live in the comfort of your Philadelphia apartment while your people struggle to hold on to that which is rightfully theirs.
Sami still finds the act that ended Radi’s and innocent victims’ lives abhorrent. But perhaps he can commemorate Radi’s selflessness and dedication by finding a way—another, better, more effective way—to help his fellow Palestinians. For that, Sami has decided to return home.
Fortunately, he doesn’t have to convince anyone to go with him. He hasn’t spoken to Laura for months. And the online dating service has still failed to find a compatible mate for him.
How can he explain all this to Mr. Thompson?
“I appreciate your kind words,” Sami says, again meeting his boss’s eyes. “But I’ve been away from my land and people for too long. I’d like to find some way to help.”
Mr. Thompson struggles to his feet and sticks out his hand. “I wish you the best, Sami.”
Mr. Thompson has no idea what he’s wishing for.
“Thank you,” Sami says.
* * *
A sudden gust catches the hair, lifting the riot of burnished red strands high for the sun to stroke into shades of gold, copper, and chestnut. The grit at her feet loosens and skitters through and around her legs.
“No! Stop!” the voice orders. “Come back.”
The girl turns, her chubby toes digging into the sand. “I want to swim, Mommy.” Amanda kneels on one of the beach towels she’s spread. “You can swim, sweetheart. That’s why we came. First, though, we need to spread this goop all over you so you won’t burn.” Her four-year-old scampers back.
“Okay,” Amanda says as she squeezes a mound of SPF 30 into her palm, “do you remember the rule?”
“Don’t…” Vicky looks at her mother as she briskly rubs the girl’s arms.
Amanda’s hands still. “Don’t wander off or go deeper than your knees unless I’m with you,” she says, though her daughter would have to wade out over a hundred yards on this stretch of beach before hitting deeper water.
“Okay!” Vicky says when her mother’s done. She scurries back toward the water, stopping near the edge to let the waves curl over her toes.
As Amanda slathers on sunblock, her struggle at reaching her back propels her brain to peek again into the folder in her mind labeled “Jack.” Her husband. Her dead husband, who would have gladly smeared sunscreen on her.
Her memories of Jack are filed away in one large folder: “the great stuff” and another, smaller one: “the really hard stuff.”
The memories she likes to visit are ones she’s written down in a cloth-covered journal she keeps in her nightstand drawer. Like the time a few months after her suicide attempt. There, in Jack’s office at church, he poured healing words over her.
“You need to let go of your anger and hate, Amanda. You need to forgive them.”
“But they cheated on me, betrayed me,” she bit back. “My best friend and my fiancé.” “Who do you think your anger and hatred is hurting?” His words were soft, gentle.
Me, she thought. Only me. The knot in her throat made it hard to answer, hard to even breathe.
“You don’t really understand God’s forgiveness if you can’t forgive them.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “Torturing yourself this way will only prolong your pain.”
He was right. But then, Jack was usually right. When she did let go of her anger and desire to mentally punish Ben and Christy, she felt as though her heart had broken loose from a steel trap.
Sometime after they stopped meeting together for counseling, Jack asked her on a date. Next he told her that she was wonderful, that he loved her flaming hair, her cobalt eyes, and her gentle spirit. He loved her.
And she risked loving him back.
She carries one snapshot memory of Jack kneeling at her feet to propose by the edge of a lake. Another is the wonder in his face when she told him she was pregnant.
Unfortunately, her memory files are linked and, even if she determines to focus solely on good recollections, the hard ones that sometimes take her breath and courage and joy away flood back and engulf her. Like the way she felt when he said he’d be going to Israel. Without her. And worst of all—the very worst memory of her life—when someone from the tour group phoned to tell her that Jack had lost his life in a suicide bombing.
She refuses to recall her shock and grief afterwards. In fact, she can’t. Without a conscious decision on her part, her mind suppressed those memories, smudging and smearing them.
Instead, she remembers coming out of the dusk of those days convinced that she could go on living. She recalls the friends at church who were there for her. Just there.
And she remembers choosing to forgive the young man named Radi Aziz. Again and again and again, because once was not enough.
With her gaze directed at her shoulders, Amanda doesn’t see the squirmy wet body before it bounces into—nearly toppling—her.
“Come in with me, Mommy. I’m lonesome without you.”
Amanda rises and takes her daughter’s hand.
This moment will go into an easy-to-access folder.
– Previously published in: The Alligator v9, June 2014 –