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For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her: A Short Story

December, 2018

What a dream I had, sitting exhausted, in the pouring rain, tired, frustrated, feeling every single one of my 49 years. My brothers were elsewhese in the graveyard, searching in the wreckage of a bombed out landscape in the heart of Damascus. I could hear my big brother Ahmad in the distance calling to our long gone mom, “Emily, wherefore art though Emily?” and my younger brother Abdul, following again, as always, “We walked on frosted fields of juniper and lamplight”. But it had been two hours and we couldn’t find our parent’s grave and I just knew we never would. I collapsed in the rain, surrounded by three blind Yamaniyah, looking shabby and tired, despite me handing over more and more money as we wandered in a maze of death, almost literally, ready to give up as the administrators must have.

The last time I’d been here was to bury Daddy next to Mom some seven years ago and then I went home and separated from my husband and three years later divorced my husband and ended two patriarchies for the price of one. It was so strange after having full houses for all those years to be alone and I decided to do things I didn’t do, hadn’t done. A bucket list for the bored, and near the midway part was visit my parents grave compounded by the anniversary of dad’s passing.

Ahmad was married and living in the midwest and Abdul was married and living in L.A.  Both were happy, Dad had been 72 when he died,  Mom had been 44. I felt like seeing my parents again, just to close it off. So I called Ahmad and he had zero intention of going to Syria, “Elham, why would you risk dying to go to a grave? You’re not religious, none of us are, what difference does it make?  Wherever Emily and Talal might be, they are definitely not hanging out at their grave waiting for visitors”.

I wasn’t having it, I wanted to see my brothers. I didn’t see them enough. There was a part of me that felt in the middle (which, of course, I was) and on the side also, the only girl, I think I am not being completely honest. I think I simply missed them. I got to town yesterday and I didn’t recognize the place anymore, it was such a beautiful city back in the 1980s. We were all staying at the Sheraton in the Embassy district, Ahmad had arrived a day earlier with his husband.”You look tired” Ahmad noted when we met in the lobby, and I thought it must have been extremely annoying not to be able to hug his husband in public. “You can hold hands,” I told him.

“I know that, I remember,” Ahmad replied with a smirk.

I was exhausted, I was missing something and I came here to find it, a move so stupid it could only be beaten into submission a day later at  a cemetery blown apart at the seams, a place of graves, and made graves, and crumbled graves, new graves and lost graves.Here was a place like a waking nightmare where  the bones were emerging up and the mud was descending down, and I, like the biggest moron on earth, didn’t even buy boots and my heels were ruined.

Damascus made me nervous. I hadn’t been here since Dad’s death and that was right at the beginning of the civil war. I wasn’t at all happy to lose Dad but if I had to lose him better before the civil war. At 72 years of age Dr. Trabulsi would have felt honor bound to help the casualties the way he had been doing in Beirut  during their civil war,  and he would have been just too old.  I watched Syria destroyed  from my safe Yankee home in New York, as my own family fell apart after 20 years of marriage: it took em that long to figure out I had no maternal instinct. Maybe not that, because I was more maternal to Abdul then I ever had been to my kids, so maybe just to prove that you can’t turn love on. A girl and a boy and if I thought my Mom was rough on me, you should have watched me look through them. At least Mom was recognizably in pain, I just couldn’t care less because I didn’t care less. For one birthday they had a tee-shirt made up that read “Ask Daddy”. There was that time from the late 80s to the mid 90s, when I felt free, and then He came along and I didn’t love him. Not really. I liked being loved and he wasn’t so demanding, he was a successful architect and I was a talented advertising woman. I fucked around enough in my years of freedom that I didn’t feel fidelity was a hardship. But I was bored and distraught. I had called Abdul early in my marriage and he though kids would change it, and I had a daughter, and you know how when you look at your daughter you are meant to feel this tsunami of love. Well, I didn’t feel much more or less than I did for a coworker, or the Principal at my kids High School. I didn’t with the boy, either. They knew. Of course, they knew.

I sat in the Sheraton bar, crossing and uncrossing my legs, looking really hot and ready and joking with my big brother and flirting with his husband. There was something that mixed the Western with the Middle Eastern at the Sheraton, as if it was a fortress of Internationalism in the midst of religious tribalism and realpolitik, or maybe that money had no borders. Some Arab guy, Lebanese was my bet , eyeballed me, assessing, moved in. He had a crisp English accent but one of those accents you knew got bottled in school. He stopped by near me, stood in front of my chair while Ahmad and his husband held hands, he smiled down, brown hair, brown eyes, slim, fit in the old fashioned meaning. He nodded to my brother and then to me, his voice, proper and English, public school boy stuff. “Hello, I heard you speaking with your friends, are you American?” Well, that was an invitation to a beheading so I replied in Arabic, “I am Syrian but immigrated during the war.”

He nodded his head, “I’m here on business.”

“I’m here to let the bored bury the dead…  what business is there to be done. I mean here and now?”

The guy smiled snapped his finger and bought us a round and himself a scotch and soda. “There is a lot of business during a war. Life must go on, and it is tricky because of finance laws. You need to learn your way around.”

“But you aren’t Syrian and you’re not English…”

“You’re right…”

“You’re Lebanese,” I concluded.

And once I said that he sounded Lebanese when he spoke, his smile deepened. “I am.”

“I loved Beirut, I lived there till I was nine, I never felt as at home here.”

“I love my country, there is nowhere like it, nowhere. We come here to show our brothers how to conduct business…” Then he lowered his voice. “Hush, don’t let me say such words.”

Men aren’t complicated for me, indeed they are so simple they bore me. I road tested a coupla women over the years, and enjoyed it to a limited degree. But it wasn’t my scene, which left me bored, even seduction bored me. It bored me so much I was mostly faithful to my husband.

I laughed and I looked at him for the first time, I mean properly. Would I fuck him? Yeah, maybe, later… pop songs were pumped through the air ducts, “thank you, next…” The world was different from when I was a kid, when we first moved to Syria, it seemed to have its feet in both worlds in ways Beirut sure didn’t. Beirut was, on some level, really like a Western outback in the world of Arabs. Others tried for an international barnish, Lebanon had it. I hadn’t been to Beirut in a long time, it was a memory of something that wasn’t ever maybe, it was Christmas decorations on Hamra Street. The music changed to Fairuz and I was overwhelmed by nostalgia and shook the feeling off.

Ahmad never came out to Dad, Dad wouldn’t have cared much, he was a doctor and a scientist who spent the 70s fixing shot to pieces Lebanese and would have done the same during the ongoing Syrian civil, if that’s what he needed to do. I can’t remember Ahmad coming out to me and Abdul but we understood, the way you understand. Certainly I knew about it before Mom died and Ahmad once told me about Mom, a year away from the finish line,  and telling her about how he was in love with a man and he couldn’t fight it. Mom must have been really, really tired by then, but Ahmad was told in no uncertain terms that it just didn’t matter except for socially.

I was sixteen when Mom died, and 19 when I left to the US and we all left, none of us remained. We left Dad to his life. I’d come back every summer till he died, and Dad actually came to the States to give me away. I was 42 years old when Dad died and I came back with my brothers to bury him, that’s the first son’s job but we were all there. I didn’t bring  my kids along as well, bratty teens, who didn’t really care except for my daughter Selma -she is a real sweetheart, a very sweet girl… nothing like me… she cried, she missed him -the boy was a typical mishmash of deep affection and attention deficit disorder and I didn’t want to deal with it. The only thing that remains is my Auntie breaking down and me breaking down with her. I feel guilty about my kids and it is hard to admit but I guess their dad is a better person than I am, I am the outsider in her own life. Perhaps I am too like my Mom, there is just something impenetrable about me (except for sexually) I don’t do closeness. Poor kids, right.  I could see Daddy in my girl, he would peak out in odd kindnesses for no reason. Going through dad’s belongings I saw the brothers chuckling and hiding something from me…  apparently he had a secret file in his PC with pictures of naked college boys, as well as some phone numbers and costs. My dad had a secret life as well. When you die, your life comes up to be studied with no respect for your privacy. “Delete it,” I told them.

“Why? Ahmad asked. “Are you ashamed of him for having sex with men?”

“Don’t be a fool, this is the Middle East, it is part of the furniture. But he never told us and if Dad didn’t want us to know, why should we?”

I didn’t ignore the guy but I didn’t lead him on. The difference between the Sheraton in Damascus and the Sheraton in New York City was that the chance of being spied on in Damascus was much, much better. Undoubtedly, we had been noticed though Ahmad and I had both entered with our Syrian Passports. The thing about Damascus, I mean not today of course, earlier, was that it dwarfed Beirut in size so it had more room to play International garden of the rich and obscure. It always felt a little on its toes.

We kept the conversation on easy a,  what was the US under Trump leadership up to? Is Lebanon still so dangerous? How was his wife? The guy looked at my legs, which are sure worth glancing at, and steered all four of us out of dangerous waters, nodded briefly at a man playing tric trac, blowing on the dice for luck, I wondered if my suitor was secretly secret police but it was a dumb thought, of course he was.

Ahmad lit a cigarette and his husband  took it out of his fingers and sucked it down before returning it to him. “Still, no, eh, little sis?” he said with a half smirk teasing siblings smile. “I thought maybe the divorce might have you returning to some bad habits?”

“Nah, mostly I’ve been worrying about not worrying about the kids,  and  seeing younger than this one men,  to no real end…”

“Anybody interesting…”

“No, not really… ”

“Oedipal…”

“Whatever…” I didn’t take offense, I was nothing if not self-confident about my looks. I wasn’t always, my teen years  blurred into boys pursuing and me cowering. I didn’t have a date till I was seventeen, and didn’t lose my virginity till I was at NYU… But now, I’ve been around, I don’t feel that pressure, I am not in competition, I just like to feel good. “How is business?” I asked the guy.

“It is… difficult. I do business all over the Middle East but Syria, it can be difficult, difficult to get your money… just…”  I eyebrowed him, definitely fuckable enough for me to wonder quite what his story was. The suit was gorgeous, the tie Windsor knotted, the shirt tailor made and the shoes polished and new. “”Italian,” I asked him.

“The shoes?”

“The suit…”

He  laughed but less laughed than allowed his face to crease. “Both, actually. I was on vacation in Italy earlier this year.”

“Working holiday?”

“A little, importing suits like this to the Middle East.”

“How did that work out?”

He shrugged but didn’t frown. “I got screwed on the price, I hadn’t realized they had a Middle Eastern distributer but…”

“But?”

“They couldn’t crack the Syrian market, so I lost a coupla dozen grand but they let me take over the Syrian market…”

“Next stop, Yemen…”

“That is, actually, a good idea. I owe you commission.”

“Is it scary working in war zones?”

He thought for a moment and then looked at me more closely. Men were so easy, ask questions and cross your legs and wait.”If you are not there you think it is all war all the time, it isn’t. There is an upper middle class, there are people with money who didn’t leave and won’t leave. Like Lebanon… I would never live anywhere else.”

I would, I had, and so I ignored the remark and  ordered another drink and my brother was holding hands again, innocent of course, Arab men held hands… I never quite felt at home in Syria, I’d live here for ten years, then went to New York for college and stayed with my Grandparents, I was always Westernized to a degree, when your Mom is a Yank you are never all in anywhere. Elham Traboulsi… what sort of name is that for Miss America? Didn’t hurt with the guys of course, I explained a little to the guy in my neither nor lilt, he spoke and I shrugged. The guy couldn’t read me, but I know myself and I knew if I drunk much more I would let him fuck me. Ahmad gave me a worried look but I just shook my head,  I said goodnight and the guy walked me to my the elevator, we kissed and kissed again and I went to his room. A coupla hours later I left and went to my bedroom, . Kicked off my heels, unzipped my skirt, a little wobbly, aiming for something to steady me and missing, I tripped and felt myself falling in slow motion but not to the ground, to the bed. My eyes were becoming acclimatized to the dark with the moon peeking through the curtains and reflecting off the pool beneath me. I crawled into my bed and put the sheets over my head, and rubbed myself off thinking about men, one, two, three, tying me up and fucking me. Then I fell asleep

 

July, 1979

The thing is, I get sea sick when I sit in the middle, and Ahmad is always causing trouble, and Abdul is cowering, and I am in the middle like a ping pong ball. The trip should take two to three hours Mommy said, but maybe longer. Mom was uneasy and Dad was very concentrated the way he could be sometimes. I was uneasy as well, I’d been having nightmares ever since my best friend, Ghada disappeared two months ago. It was so strange because one day she was there and the next she was gone, and they just… it is not like there she was dead or alive, she was neither… just gone, gone, gone. Her parents were crying and so were her sisters and brothers, Ghada came from a large family and she used to tell me how she felt like she didn’t matter. We would sit together, listening to songs on the stereo, the soundtrack to “Grease,” we’d seen the movie at Christmas (her Christmas, not mine, though Mom said I can choose -I figure it all came down to the presents), We went to see it, Daddy dropped us off and picked us up… I love my Daddy, my Daddy did it but Ghada’s Daddy was too busy, I think that’s what happened. Ghada had a fight and ran away but where?  We were on Christmas break and we bought our ticket for Saturday’s 3pm show and then we walked back to my apartment and we already owned the soundtrack and we just played it and played. Acted out, sometimes I was Sandy and sometimes I was John Travolta, and sometimes we just switched around with the songs. I love John Travolta. I’m not ashamed to say it. And I’m lousy with virginity which means I am under sixteen, I know that for certain because Ghada told me Jesus’s  Mom was a virgin which means she was fifteen years old. .

Ghada and me, we had been best friends since kindergarten, she was the sister I didn’t have and we confided in each other, we were… lying in bed late at night during a sleepover, whispering to each other, telling secrets about some future over there. Boys, the mystery of love, which we just didn’t know or understand, how sometimes boys who we thought liked us would hit us and sometimes they wouldn’t. They were smelly and yucky but also amazingly different to us. After we watched “Grease,” eating popcorn and drinking Pepsi, holding hands in the very first front row and looking at Olivia Newton-John, would we look like that? Back home, we were singing on the top of our voices along with the album, and daddy was watching from the door and smiling. I ran up and hugged him and he sang “gotta lotta love for you-who-who…”

After Ghada disappeared near the end of the school year, I was really scared -I was scared for her and me… who had her? Where was she? What…. I can’t believe we went to the movies alone, I’ll never, ever do that again I promise. I was sad and scared and usually, like with two brothers you either hold your own or get eaten alive, so I was a toughie, when Ahmad hit Abdul, I would hit Ahmad,  I didn’t back down because that’s not the way because I was going to be strong. Then I wasn’t and it will never be the same again. I was lying on my bed and I couldn’t listen to “Grease” anymore -it was too sad and I’d cry, so I would listen to my other favorite, “Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits” which was, actually and in fact SADDER,” I don’t know how long but after people had stopped really  talking about Ghada, I was lying on my bed with my orange portable record player on the table near my night light, and the speaker beside me and I played “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and I felt like I was in a dream, I don’t think I was thinking about Ghada really, maybe Mommy because I didn’t understand her and her name was Emily,  more just a general sort of scared aloneness, like I had a great big secret and nobody knew it or understood it, I knew something I shouldn’t know and not that boys had willies and what they looked like but something even worse: that I couldn’t be protected from life. add it up: there Ghada was, singing with me, leaves the house, and that’s it: gone, just completely elsewhere.  My Mommy came in and sat on the bed next toe me, “Move over,” she said and she was next to me, and she held me close and we were quiet and then I asked her, “Mom, what if I die?”

Mommy said, “You aren’t going to die.”

“You can’t say that, look at Ghada, look att all the people you hear dying every day, I could die.”

“I promise you, you are not going to go to heaven for a long, long time, I’ll be there long before you and I’ll make sure everything is perfect for you, I promise.”

I was quiet some more. “But Mom, what if I do die before you?”

“Then I’ll kill myself and join you so you won’t be lonely and scared.”

Sometimes Mom was a cool customer but I never loved her more than I did at the second. That’s what I wanted to be.

Where was Ghada? She disappeared in May and it was late June, and we were going on vacation (though that raised another questions? Why couldn’t we bring Tom and Jerry -our cats, we’ve had them as long as I can remember, why leave them with someone else?). I missed her, I hadn’t forgotten her, before we left Mommy and I dropped by her parent’s house and all t of us cried but really, maybe she was somewhere safe? Maybe? It is such a bad city, Mommy says most places aren’t like Beirut. It’s just strange and scary all the time. We had a woman who cleaned the house and she came in one day crying and crying, her two teenage sons had died in the fighting. Like, they were with God so that was OK but even so it was traumatic.

We were driving through the mountains towards Damascus, and “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” came on the cassette player, and then “The Boxer,” and then… and I asked this aloud, “Daddy, what’s a 59th street bridge?” and everybody began to laugh, even Abdul even though he was a clueless as I was, more clueless, and I felt like  thumping him but we couldn’t both hit Abdul, he was so cute, and small,

We were stuck in a long line to get into Syria… like a long, long, long line, we hadn’t moved in a lifetime and I was thirsty and daddy got out with me and he took a hose that people used for water and he put the water in his palms and I lapped the water  out of his palms, and he both chuckled and he looked at me with so much love I felt safe and I wasn’t scared… like I was and I wasn’t. I asked daddy if I could sit by the window and he had said no  to keep the boys separated and me in the middle but it drove me crazy because Ahmad would go to knock Abdul on the head FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER, and I would get hit as well. Ugh. Then Abdul would try and hit back but he couldn’t because he was too small. I felt bad but Mom and Dad were singing along and Ahmad said “You’ve heard of Simon And Garfunkel, now meet Emily and Tarif…”  We inched slowly along, Dad’s hand on the gearshift, Mom’s hand on his. Daddy would tell us how difficult it was for him to court Mommy, how every guy was after her, and he was even shorter than her and she swore she’d never date someone smaller than her, and that he was patient and he won her through love.

Sometimes my parents weren’t so close and Ahmad had once called us into a meeting because they had been fighting a lot. I don’t know what it was. Everyone was nervous, and I was nervous. What would I do if they divorced? Could they, would Mom, I knew it was Mom because Mom was always a little like sad, people say I am just like her. when we went to Connecticut to see Mom’s half of the family, that was last summer, everyone said I was just like her. But I wasn’t because I loved everybody and when I was sad I was sad alone, but Mommy needed the world to know it had let her down. She did have a favorite and it wasn’t me, it was Ahmad. Ahmad could change her mood, could kid her out of it. When they got together the house was so happy. I was Daddy’s favorite because he got to love me and Mom wouldn’t let him love her.

Maybe it was the war, Mom was sick of Lebanon and Dad, who had brought her over from college when he studied in the US, and married her, and she said yes but now she wishes she wasn’t in Lebanon. I don’t know why we were going to Damascus for a vacation, I would have rather gone back to Connecticut… best television anywhere. A week before we kids got together in my room.

“They’d getting divorced,” Ahmad said with finality, and Abdul started to cry. “Why are you crying?” Ahmad asked, impatiently.

“We’re going to die.”

Ahmad rolled his eyes at that and then laughed and I began to laugh too. “No, we’re not going to die…”

“Then who will feed me?”  Abdul worried and I gave him a hug because he was my favorite and  I was like another Mom to him, and if he needed cradling, I’d cradle him  and if he needed protecting I’d protect hm. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with us, I’d heard Mom and Dad discussing us and he said “I’m not worried about Ahmad, and Elham will have the world round her little finger, but Abdul I’m not so sure about.” I think I loved Abdul so much at that second, I loved him with all my heart because I knew that he needed my love and Ahmad didn’t, wouldn’t ever

 

December, 2018

I woke up to a banging on my bedroom door. Bang, bang, fucking bang bang. And I felt sick enough, and tired and this was the last thing I needed. “Go away,” I shouted, if shouted is the word I want. I was sick as a dog, sicker. I staggered to the door and looked out the peephole. It was Abdul. I grabbed a towel, put it round me, opened the door to let Abdul in, and ran to the bathroom and threw up in the toilet. I could hear Abdul chuckling. “You OK, big sister?” I wasn’t OK and today was the day we were going to pray at our parents grave, so it was a bad idea to feel this ill. Why did I do it? Why? Why?

I’m not my Mom. I wasn’t gonna remain married when I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t gonna marry right out of college, and I was in New York city for the last great indie rocks scene and I was part of that -all mollies and dangerous sex, and a gentrified Brooklyn.I had the girl in 1998 and the boy in 2000 and was done with children. I  can’t explain my neutrality towards my family, I tried not to show it but all three of them kept me in a constant state of irritation.  I got a job as an AE in an advertising agency, and Billy -well, Billy made a lot of money doing something he really loved: he was an architect and it fit him -art and commerce so mingled up it was hard to see where one began and the other ended. I didn’t love him, maybe I never had. I was such a disappointment and at first he’d try and breakthrough, but it was never going to happen. . I don’t know why that tiny thing that makes real love possible doesn’t for me. I don’t hate my kids, don’t wish them well, but I haven’t seen them in two years and I don’t miss them.  I wonder how Mom and I would have worked out if she hadn’t died, if Mom had learnt to love me would I have learnt to love them?  Towards the end, just about from the moment we reached Syria… like as soon as we got to Damascus she was feeling tired and not herself, and then six months in they found the cancer in her pancreas and she got even more and more withdrawn. I was maybe thirteen, and just confused and sad and sitting in the living room reading, I don’t know what, and the house was so quiet, and I could hear Mom breathing from here, drugged, alone, completely alone the way only the dying can be alone, and I went up and sat by her bed. I don’t know what I expected, I just wanted her to love me… she wasn’t going to love me. She was beyond love and instead of that was a mix of indignation and intense anger at the fates. We sat there, and I didn’t say anything. Then she turned to me and the look on her face, Furious. Like hatred. And when she spoke it was completely cold as she could be. “What? What do you want? There is nothing to be seen here, get out. Leave me alone.” She didn’t shout, she seethed, and she looked dead already but it would be three more years.

“Mommy,” I replied, switching to Arabic, “It will be great, it will be fine. Don’t be scared, Mom. It is just a matter of when.”

“It could be hereditary .” Mom replied. “from Emly to Elham, a going away gift. A short life.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, I wanted to cry. I wanted to hit back. What I said haunted me later. “What a shitty person you are, Mom. Nobody will miss you, nbody will even remember you…” And I stormed out and that was the end of my relationship with my Mommy. Now, I understand a little better what happened. The truth of the matter is, you can’t force love on people who can’t love. With my kids, I hid it better and yet they knew. After my divorce, the kids were, what? The girls was 20,, my son was 18, and we gave them the option, and neither of  them wanted to stay with me. Coming here, to honor my parens, their Grandparents. I invited them but they didn’t want to come. I don’t blame them, really. Really —I don’t care.

I opened the bathroom door and staggered out. Abdul was lying on my bed, studying his iPhone, and sucking his thumb, Always my kid brother, everything I learnt about raising my son I learnt from dealing with Abdul in Syria and failed to apply, as Mom drifted away and dad just worked all the time, Ahmad was out with the bioys all day and every day, it was just me an Abdul. He grew up good looking, and despite some run ins with drugs, has managed a seriously happy family life.  He has  kids of his own, and a wife that loves him, and when I called and said come to Damascus he left them and came to me.

I got in my bed with him and put my head on his shoulder. “Ugh,” I said. He laughed again. “Ahmad warned me,” he smiled.

“I need a drink.”

“Who was the guy you hooked up with?”

“Ahmad is a bit of a loudmouth., isn’t he? Some guy…”

“Well, good. We’ve fallen out of touch in the past four years.”

“Not really….”

“I’ve missed you, my life is always better when you’re in it?” he said. I snuggled closer, and sighed in his ear. “You just go and there is no getting you back, is there?” Abdul continued. “Maureen thinks I’m in love with you…” I yawned. “You jerk.” he snapped.

“I’m sick….”

“Just don’t. Remember those first years here, ”

“I sure do, I’ve never felt less Arabic in my life.”

“Mom seemed to disappear before our eyes, that’s how long illness works, she disappears in full sight of all us. You were like a Mom, you know. You were who I turned to. You and Ahmad, but Ahmad was too tough, too rough, too boyish…  and dad…”

“Why are we going through this…?”

“BECAUSE YOU NEVER TALK TO ME. I live in LA, you live in New York, Ahmad is  in Nebraska, and the entire worl is round the corner and you won’t let us near. You have just not been part of it since the divorce…”

“I know but you don’t need me, if you did OK. You needed me when you were  eleven but you don’t at 47…”

Abdul sat up in bed and looked at me. “How can you say that? You call and say come to Damascus, and Ahmad and his husband come all the way from the mid-west and I come even further and why? I leave my family and job and come here and why? Why, Elham. Why did we stop our lives and come running to you?”

“I don’t know, why did you?”

“Oh Elham, you know why: you are our history, our childhood, our middle. You are why we are.” I felt myself choking up but I said nothing. “Why did you let him take the kids?”

“Well, they aren’t kids for one thing and the other thing is they want to be with him.”

“He’s playing Dad to your Mom…”

“I’m not as bad as Mom. Did you ever understand her?”

“Psychological, she was a type. She was really gorgeous you know.”

“Not at the end…”

“No, not at the end.’

We sat in silence, thinking about Mom and Dad, thinking about families, thinking about mothers and fathers. My kids, both of them, loved my Dad. For the same reason I did I did, I guess. Because he made sure they felt loved, and he was silly and giddy. I have this image, this memory, of Dad holding me and singing as we twirled, “I’m the wanderer… I wander around, around, around…”

“Are you alright, alone?” Abdul asked.

“Yeah, it’s been four years, I’m fine. I date around, but nothing serious, and I spend a lot of time working and I like that.”

“Why don’t you move to L.A.? Be near my lot…”

“Because it’s L.A.”

Abdul sat up in bed, “Cmon girl, stop it. You’re not the moping sort what’s bothering you?”

“Mom..” I said.

“Mom was difficult always and impossible once she got cancer. She hated you, she hated me, she hated life and hated death more. Only Ahmad mattered to her. But that was because she was either drugged out of her mind or else in excruciating pain…”

“I’m a bad mother, I just seem to missing some form of maternal love, it isn’t there though I want it to be… and now it’s too late…”

“And you blame Mom?”

“At least for the DNA…”

I texted Ahmad and we met for breakfast. I wasn’t hungry so I had a coupla Bloody Marys and then another, and we discussed how to get to the cemetary and what to expect. I looked out the window to the swimming pool and the relentless rain splashing in the pool and thought about buying rain boots, and I closed my eyes and just stopped for a minute. When I used to bring the family to visit Daddy we would argue so much, we wanted to stay at a hotel and he wanted us in his home. We compromised, We got hotel rooms and stayed with him, escaping when we wanted to be alone.

Ahmad’s husband was still sleeping and so we just sat together, remembering when we were younger, and wondering how to get to the cemetery… and just happy to be there and together and our Auntie Maram was among us and she wasn’t pleased…

 

July, 1979

Mom and Dad disagreed on many things and the one thing they agreed upon more than anything was Simon And Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. As long as I can remember that album was playing in the background. To all the big things, there it was. And when Mom and Dad were happy together I could tell because daddy would sing “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” on this top of his voice and if Mommy is really, really happy? She would scream the last line on the top of her voice and as we sat and waited patiently to get through customs, Mom and daddy were acting giddy and silly, and Mom started to sing along with the 8 Track: “I kissed your honey hair with my grateful tears, Oh, I love you,..” She paused before changing the sex, “boy… I LOVE YOU”.

I love my parents when they are happy together, I love when they love each other. It makes me feel so safe, especially after Ghada’s death. Ghada’s death always seems to be just there, just round the corner…. it seems to stare me down. I fidgeted in the car and hugged Abdul, Held him close like he was my doll. And  listened to my parents being happy. I always wished I was Ghada, I wish I had a happy family. The sun was blazing down seeming to duck round Ahmad’s head and come tumbling over to me. I closed my eyes and imagined I was a Mom, how could I be one. I don’t know, but I know I wouldn’t ever let them feel unloved, I would want my children to be loved all the time. I rummaged through my bag and emerged with a Raggedy Anne. I kissed her once, and then twice, and began to tell her off,  “Can’t you see I have a headache?” I said, and my Mom turned around, I went to thought mode: “I do everything for you,” I thought, “And I don’t ask for your love. If you want o give it you may, if not so be it. But I demand your respect and I will…” Up to there I was just doing Mom, but I felt a thread of anger rising, and I slapped the doll, “I will feed you to the men who took Ghada, and they will hurt you. Crying won’t help. Crying didn’t help Ghada. What happened to Ghada? They ate her alive, they made her into food and ate her and then her Mommy couldn’t find her because the was just bones.” That made me choke up and I switched it off. “But that won’t happen to you if you’re a good girl because I will protect you.”

Ahmad started to laugh. “Mom, Elham is talking to herself….”

“I AM NOT…”

“Alright: Mom, Elham is talking to a doll and expects it to answer.”

I punched Ahmad as hard as I could, so hard it made my knuckles hurt, and he laughed and laughed, “Mom, now she is trying to kill me.”

Mom didn’t answer, she was speaking to dad in a soft voice, “They better not think they can butt in, Tarif.”

“My family aren’t-” he started to reply but Mom interrupted him, “Your sister is just like that and I won’t put up with it. I really won’t.” Daddy just smiled, I couldn’t see him smile but I knew he was doing just that. “I don’t even know Damascus, at least Beirut was international, Syria is the really Arab world.”

“No, you’re wrong, Syria has its upper middle class… there is a huge Yank contingent, you will have so many friends you’ll want to kill them all.”

I couldn’t tell what Mom thought but there was something in the air, a sort of change from the affection. I wasn’t worried because dad could deal with her, it was like he had a way of calming her so she felt OK about things. Abdul was similar, but Ahmad and me, we made her tired, so we banded together and I was the mother, like Raggedly Ann’s. I was that Mom. I knew my Uncle And Auntie, they usually visited us like once a year, and I knew my cousins but I didn’t really like them. They had an Arabic creepiness that put me off. Because I’m not Arabic, I’m Lebanese, Phoenician, except dad was Syrian and I was born in Connecticut,  so American and also not Arabic, like Ghada wasn’t Arabic, we didn’t have that thing that makes us Arabic. In my family, only Daddy has it. Ghada sort of was 100% Lebanese but she and me, we were different than those kind of kids.

We waited and waited and I didn’t understand though Ahmad did. He had gotten quiet and he was looking out the window while other cars went past us but we waited patiently. Then Dad and Mom left the car and went inside with sme officers and Ahmad nodded his head knowingkly and turned to Abdul and me and made an announcement: “We’re moving here”. I didn’t understand, “What do you mean? There is a home here? Where?” I asked and Abdul looked even more confused than I was.

“Not HERE, you idiots: here, Damascus. We aren’t going back home. This is our new home.”

I didn’t like the sound of that at all. I love my home, my friends, my school… What was in Damascus?

I didn’t say anything, I just sat there thinking how messed up it was nobody warned us.

When Mom and Dad got back in the car we pulled away from the border into Syria and I asked, right away. “Are we moving here?” I asked to no one in particular. And no one in particular answered so I asked again. The third time I shouted it, and Mom turned round and slapped me hard across the face.” My face stung and I was shocked and I was in pain, and I screamed: “I am not yours, I have a right to know what you’re doing with me. ARE WE MOVING HERE” and I screamed this and Mom went for me again but Dad stopped her, he kept one eye on the road and the other eye on  mom, and he lifted his arm between us and blocked Mom completely. So Mom hit dad and Dad didn’t respond at all, he just kept her away from me. I hate her and she hates me, And I started to cry, she hates me and I hate her, and I shouted: “It’s not fair, it’s not fair. I want to go home.”

Daddy drove into a gas station cum parking lot and told Mommy, “You stop it right this minute, are you crazy? She is nine years old.” Mom calmed down. slumped down into her seat, and Dad came round and pulled me over Ahmad and picked me up and cradled me in his arms. “Yes, Elham,” he said. “In a sense we are moving, our home is too dangerous and we need a new one. But in another sense, as long as we are together, where are we moving to?”

 

December, 2018

There is no two ways about it, we despised Dad’s side of the family. We never much liked em, probably taking our lead from Mom, but once we moved to Damascus they were horrible to us: you know the country mice who move to the city? We were the city mice who moved to the country. I don’t know why, really. True, Mom made sure we were all born in the States and we all went to the American Community School, open only to Americans. So I guess we considered ourselves more American than we were, but they considered us way more American than we were. Auntie Maram and Uncle Said, and the brood of cousins, second cousins, and family friends we called cousins were endless and when we first got to Damascus they made us feel stupid. For some weird reason they decided we didn’t speak Arabic, when, obviously, we did, and insulted us to our face. And as much as an insult as it was to us, it was worse to Mom. And yet…

Our Uncle and Auntie stood by our table glowering, “You came to Damascus and didn’t tell us? Your cousin was in the hotel last night and saw you. How can you disrespect your father like that, how can you disrespect us…”

Abdul shrugged and I waited and was about to reply then I glanced over at Ahmad, and I knew that look, it was going to get ugly. I wanted to stop it immediately, I wanted to stop it here. What the boys didn’t grasp and what I entirely understood, was that Maram loved her brother very much. The only time my Auntie and I  were even close to close was when Daddy died, her heartbreak and mine fed off each other, it was the only comfort I felt during that terrible month of mourning. I was alone, my husband had said he’d come with me but I wasn’t up to it, we were on the verge of a divorce and would be separated before the following  summer, I didn’t need him but I needed someone, and I guess it was Auntie Maram. “I am very sorry, Auntie. It is the seven year anniversary of daddy’s passing and we literally arrived yesterday and are leaving tomorrow. We just wanted to remember our parents a little.”

Uncle Said was in his late 70s and happy to nod off on his feet and say nothing, Maram was five years younger and not too old to knock disrespectful nieces into shape. She  stared at me, angry at first and then her eyes clouded over with tears. She snapped her fingers and two more seats were added to table. She just sat there and seemed to slump before my eyes, to grow older and older. “Your daddy was a great man, he gave to everyone. When he became head surgeon you know, he still went to the camps and doctored those without money. I would laugh with him, the way he just didn’t care about money, he was just so loving, he loved what he loved and there was no right and…” Suddenly Maram began to cry. “We couldn’t be close, before your Mom died, she wouldn’t let it, after she died, you wouldn’t let it. There could be no forgiveness…”

Almost from the moment we reached Syria things weren’t right anymore. And within a year Mom had been diagnosed with cancer and was in and out of dad’s hospital where he kept guardianship. Mom just wasn’t the right person for that sort of malingering illness, she was given to moods, to depression, and brought a pallor to the family even daddy couldn’t lift. She would sit in a corner of our house, looking out of the window at the world passing by , and wanted nothing to do with anyone, At first we tried to bring her out of it, but she was bitter and brittle. A beautiful woman, head and shoulders taller than dad, she used her height as a distancing effect.

I don’t know where Mom got it, and I know I have it but the difference between Mom and me is that with her it was a form of egotism and self-love, and for me it was difficulty with empathy and trust. Also, till Mom got sick, Dad could bring her out of herself, whereas my husband mistook love for power and was happy to keep me apart from the kids. The kids are too American, they mistake sentiment for compassion.

All three of us went to the Damascus Community College, and were really quite happy there. Anything to get away from the consistent oppression of our home life. I was very shy, even as a teen I was still working it out, but Ahmad had one boy crush after another, and was soon quite content in his sexuality, Abdul was so close to me I was like his real mother in those years. And Damascus, Damascus is now lost in time the way Beirut was. I’ve been divorced for four years now and sometimes, at night, I close my eyes and pretend I am a teenager in Damascus again, with my brothers, playing soccer, laughing with my girlfriends, daddy taking us to the movies… playing with our Yank friends. I want to go back again.

And then Mom appears like a boogie man, rising from her bed, or her grave, and just totally rejecting me, hating me. My Grandparents weren’t like that. Her brothers and sisters weren’t like that. Just me and her. How horrible, right? To become the person you hate most.

I tuned Auntie Maram back on, “So you see you can’t go there. It is too dangerous.”

“Where?”

“The cemetery”

Abdul began to answer, “That’s fine, thanks for the warning, we won’t go.” I replied, giving Abdul a swift kick.

“Come to lunch then,” she replied.

“We haven’t seen each other in a long time, I think we will just catch up,” I replied.

And they were gone.

 

July, 1979

Auntie Maram was waiting for us outside an apartment building near the hospital. Welcome to your new home” she shouted as we drew up, a dragged out looking bunch of kids if wever there was one. I could see Mom’s scowl steadying in and deeper, but Ahmad almost jumped out the car and began running in circles and Abdul looked to me and I just moved my shoulders and got out. Daddy gave his sister a tight hug, and Auntie Maram keopt her arm around him as she hugged us one armedly and nodded to Mom.

 

December, 2018

“Oh Emily, Oh Talal.” I shouted into the rain and sat on a piece of rock soaked to the skin.

 

July, 1979

“Don’t worry, Mom, it will be OK” I said to her as we went into our new home.

“You sound like your father,” she snapped.

Later that night I was in my new bedroom thinking about Ghada, and about Mom, and about feeling safe and Mom dropped by and sat on the side of my bed. She put her hand in my hair and untangled my hair, not saying anything at all. She had a far away look in her eye, as though she wasn’t there quite but then she shook herself and climbed onto the bed. “Will we be happy here?” I asked her.

“Yes, Elham, we will be happy here. You’ll make us happy through your love.”

 

December, 2018

“Ahmad, Abdullah, where are you?”

I heard Ahmad singing, “Just kicking down the cobble stones…” from somewhere I the distance.

Then Abdul, “Hello darkness my old friend…”

My brothers were coming closer and closer and I sat there and waited and tried to hide my phone from the weather. The three blind Yamaniyah had disappeared, and somewhere I could hear gunfire as a skirmish broke out. They appeared out of the rain, like a haunting vision from the past, and sat besides me in the rain. “I can’t find Emily” I said and tears mixed with the rain. “They aren’t here anymore.”

Ahmad nodded his head, even fresh graves are blown apart, Auntie was right. And suddenly like a vision I saw a childhood friend who had died during the civil war, appear to rise from the rubble of the cemetery, always nine years old, always innocent, and I could feel her smile and I was drawn all the way back to her, listening to “Grease,” discussing which of us would marry John Travolta and she was gone and Abdul was talking into the scolding rain: “How can it be?” Abdul asked. then he sang:

“Pressed in organdy
Clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy
Softer than the rain
I wandered empty streets
Down past the shop displays
I heard cathedral bells
Tripping down the alley ways
As I walked on”

 

-END-

 

 

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