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Vol. 6, No. 2

In-Country
by Rabih Alameddine

Waiting for my father, I stood by the banister and stared at the living room below. A spherical crystal chandelier hung from the cathedral ceiling down to the lower level. Two-story floor-to-ceiling windows dominated the lower room. Their layers of drapes, as dense and heavy as a theater curtain, the same colors and pattern as the wallpaper, gold with stylized metallic gray-blue paisley peacocks. The wall-to-wall carpeting was inches deep and
avocado green.
     I walked into the first room, the same avocado carpet and wallpaper in dark rose with a large white floral pattern, matching the bed and curtains. The bellboy had placed my bags in this room. The bathroom was cream and yellow ochre with two doors, each opening to one of the upstairs rooms. I walked through the bathroom to the second room, which I assumed to be my father’s. It was just as lush and bright, lime green, with the same carpet.
     I was not sure what tipped me off, but my recognition that this was not my father’s room was instantaneous. The watch on the nightstand was a Patek Philipe, rather than one of the Baume et Mercier he wore. The cologne was the black Paco Rabane, definitely too strong for my father. It must be Uncle Joseph’s.
     I descended the stairs to the living room and master bedroom. I had a strong urge to touch everything, my hands sweeping over marble, mahogany, satin, and velvet. In the bedroom, I rubbed the wallpaper, my hand grazing the soft fabric in wide sweeps. I sat on the bed, caressed the pillow, lay my head down. I usually loved smelling the scents of my parents on their bed, but something here was peculiar. I smelled foreign cologne. I stood back up, looked around, and saw one of my father’s watches. It was his room all right.
     I ran up the winding stairs, grabbed a washcloth from the bathroom, dropped my jeans, jumped onto my bed, and humped the soft fabric of the bedcover. Soft, rich, lush, it did not take long. I barely managed to cover my penis with the washcloth.

~

Having not eaten on the long flight, I called room service and ordered a cheeseburger and fries. They asked me what kind of cheese, running down a list: American, cheddar, jack, blue, Swiss. “Just regular cheese,” I said. My first meal in America.
     I had expected my father and Uncle Joseph, his best friend and business partner, to be waiting for me. Uncle Joseph, who was unmarried, always traveled with my father. They had both wanted to try gambling in Las Vegas. It was only after this trip was planned that they decided I should meet them in Los Angeles, where I could look for a school to attend. Beirut was becoming more harrowing.
     I went out to my room’s balcony and smoked a cigarette, figuring my father would never come out there and catch me. I checked the view. I saw Beverly Hills and America, the parade of cars along an endless boulevard. Dusk. The clouds in the sky had grown more ominous, pewter colored. I was excited, about to see my first-ever summer storm. A neon sign on the building across the street said seventy-eight degrees in bright red. In Celsius, 25.555 into infinity, I thought. I had forgotten that America used the English system. I unpacked my calculator, an HP 41cv, and programmed all the conversion formulas, metric to English and vice versa. The Hewlett-Packard’s Reverse Polish Notation made programming simpler.
     I waited.
     I wished I had brought my guitar, but I could not risk immigration officials figuring out I was not here for a short tourist visit. In any case, I hoped to buy a better guitar for my new life in America.
     I waited.
     The Los Angeles Times of Wednesday, August 17, 1977, announced that Elvis was dead. Below the main headline, NEW FLOODS BATTER DESERT—THE RARE SUMMER STORMS CAUSING HAVOC, stood a smaller one, ELVIS PRESLEY DIES AT 42; LEGEND OF ROCK ’N’ ROLL ERA. “Swivel-hipped singer,” the paper called him. He had a heart attack, fell off the toilet, and was found dead on the carpet of his bathroom, his green pajama bottoms around his ankles. His mother had died at forty-two as well, both of them younger than my father.

~

I heard the turning key downstairs, made sure the balcony doors were closed, and descended the carpeted winding stairs to greet my dad. Uncle Joseph was pouring drinks at the bar—typical, since he and my dad drank every night after eight and already it was eleven-thirty.
     “Hey, there, big guy,” Uncle Joseph said, smiling. “How was your trip?” He topped his tall Scotch with water and managed to take a sip before I got close to him.
     “It was fine. Long, but OK.” I stood on my toes to kiss his cheek. He was not particularly tall, but at five feet four, I had to stretch to kiss practically anybody. He smiled, jolly creases appearing on his chubby face. He looked dapper in a blue suit, jacket unbuttoned, showing a stomach distended as if he had swallowed a basketball. I heard my dad moving about in his room, probably undressing, his usual task upon returning home.
     “Want me to make you a drink, Ziad?” Uncle Joseph asked.
     “You know I don’t like Scotch,” I said, walking toward my father’s room.
     “I can make you something else, gin, vodka. Anything your heart desires. We’ve got everything and more here.”
     “I’ll take a Coke.”
     A young blond woman stood in front of my father’s mirror applying lipstick, burgundy red on full lips. I gasped involuntarily. She smiled, put her lipstick in the handbag on the dresser. “Hello,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Melanie.” My father came out of the bathroom, zipping his pants.
     I felt Uncle Joseph’s hand on my shoulder. “Here’s your Coke,” he said.

~

“Elvis is dead,” my father blurted out in Arabic. He sat on the large sofa, sipping his Scotch. He had changed into brown shorts and a green Lacoste shirt, a concession to the stranger between us. Had she not been here, he would be in boxer shorts and a T-shirt. I could not imagine my father wearing shorts in Lebanon. I had not been allowed to wear them in public since I was twelve.
     “I know,” I replied hesitantly. “I read it in the paper.”
     Even in Western getup, my father did not look American; too short, too dark, too dumpy. When I was younger, my father always asked me to watch wrestling on television with him. Before the match began, he would pick one wrestler to cheer for, and I was left with the other. I could neither pick first nor choose the same wrestler he did. His man always won. “Pick the one who looks like a decent man,” he would say. “Decent men never lose.” Since I got stuck rooting for the eventual loser, I passed the time comparing my father, in boxers and T-shirt, to the wrestlers in swim trunks. My father had the loose calves of a sedentary man.
     “I thought you’d be more upset,” he said. I could see a slight smirk on his face. “Rock and roll is dead and all that.”
     “I’m not upset.” My voice rose higher. “I don’t care if Elvis is dead. I don’t like him. He was old and fat and stupid. It’s about time he died.” I wished I had my mother’s patience, that I could meet his relentless jabs and jeers with dogged silence.
     My father snorted. He looked at Uncle Joseph, who did not seem to share the joke. “We have an appointment tomorrow with the dean of engineering at UCLA,” my father said. He still spoke in Arabic, completely ignoring Melanie, who sat on the other side of the room reading a magazine called Los Angeles, her lips silently mouthing the words. “He says that admission is closed for this semester, but he heard about your grades. He wants to meet with us.”
     “OK. I’m ready.”
     “Are you sure?” my father asked. “This is not a child’s game. It’s an interview that will determine your future. Do you understand that?”
     “Yes, yes. I’m ready. I’ve been practicing my interviewing skills: how to shake hands, how to sit down, the greetings. I read all about them. It’s extremely important to make a good first impression. I know a lot now.”
     “What are you talking about?”
     “Oh, Dad, you’ll see,” I said dismissively. “It’s really easy. Trust me.”
     “Well, the appointment is tomorrow afternoon at three,” he said, picking up the newspaper, a signal ending the conversation.
     Melanie sat serenely in her chair. She looked young, could not be more than twenty-three, but she had a confident manner. She was like a prettier Nancy Sinatra, with large breasts that were about to burst forth from her décolleté black dress. Her big bleached-blonde hair fell below her shoulders. Her eyebrows were plucked. I wanted to go closer to find out if they had been completely shaved and drawn in with brown pencil. Her nose was dainty, her chin tiny. The most prominent aspect of her face was the makeup. Her lipstick was too dark against her skin, the burgundy thickly applied. Her eyeliner seemed to cover most of her eyelids, and the eye shadow was three-toned: mauve, purple, and light blue. She was unlike my mother, who applied her makeup judiciously. I knew Melanie was measuring me as much as I her, yet she was more subtle about it. I smiled, careful not to show my crooked teeth.
     Uncle Joseph was nursing his drink. He still wore his suit, his tie only slightly askew. He winked. “Why engineering?” he asked me. “I thought you wanted to study math.”
     I loved Uncle Joseph. He talked to me as an adult, not necessarily in what he said as much as in the tone he used; he did not change it to speak to me. I looked at the dents and ridges of his bald head. Sweat collected in them, forming miniature pools that tipped every time he moved his head. Every few minutes he ran his handkerchief over his scalp, momentarily reducing the sheen. Whenever he and my dad went gambling, my dad kissed the top of Uncle Joseph’s head for good luck.
     “I like math, Uncle. It’s what I’m good at. Engineering is applied math, basically. I don’t know what kind of engineering, though.”
     “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
     “Of course he is,” my father interrupted from behind the paper. “He can’t make a living with a math degree.”
     Uncle Joseph arched his left eyebrow, then winked again. “I think you should start calling me Joseph,” he said. “You’re sixteen, a young man.”

~

In the large bed, with the lights out, I lay thinking. My father had gone into his room with her, closing the door.
     The night was humid.

~

“Fifteen thousand people showed up at his funeral,” my dad read from the paper, sitting at the breakfast table in boxer shorts and T-shirt. I poured myself a glass of fresh grapefruit juice. “Fifteen thousand people with nothing better to do.”
     Melanie was already dressed in a light-green summer suit. She looked out the tall windows. “Looks like it’s letting up,” she said. “Might turn out to be a nice day. We can probably walk.”
     “Where are we going?” I asked.
     “Shopping,” my father said. “I should try and get your mother something.”
     My father went to his room to get dressed and I sat down and called my mother. I had forgotten to call when I first arrived as I had promised. She wanted to talk. “I miss you already.” I grunted acknowledgment. “Will you make sure to take care of yourself?” I looked around the room. “You will call me once a week.” I watched Melanie light a filtered Kool cigarette and drink her coffee. I used the word “Mama” to make sure she knew who I was talking to. Melanie turned around in her chair, crossed her legs. “I don’t care how old you are, you’ll always be my baby.” A lipstick stain appeared on the filter. Melanie used her forefinger to dramatically flick the ash. “I don’t know what I’ll do without you here.” Smoke curled out of her mouth. She turned her head a little and grinned. The lipstick was pink this morning. “You’re your mother’s only son.”

~

Melanie smiled at me sheepishly. “Aren’t you a little young to be going to college?” she asked.
     “I’m terribly smart.”
     “I can see that.” Her laugh included an unattractive snort.

~

My father wanted to take our rental Cadillac to Rodeo Drive. Uncle Joseph wanted to walk since it was only across the street from the hotel. The doorman suggested we take the hotel’s car.
     The car dropped us off at Giorgio’s, two blocks away. We must have appeared quite a tableau to passersby, the four of us, a hodgepodge family of sorts.
     The salesman zeroed in on my father, ignoring the rest of us. It must have been the Brioni suit. He started telling the salesman what he wanted.
     “Look at the way the salesman stands,” Melanie whispered to me. The salesman, an attractive young man, looked normal below the belt. His torso, however, leaned back at an almost unnatural angle, his left arm draped across it, and his right hand seemed to tweak a nonexistent string of pearls. All of a sudden, both forefingers pointed at my father. “I have something that may be just perfect,” he said and scampered across the floor, disappearing from sight.
     “He’s funny,” I said.
     The salesman came back with bundles of cloth in delectable colors, reds, layers of greens that appeared variegated, yellows, from lemon to ochre. He placed them on the counter and spread one out. “Cashmere shawls,” he said. “No woman can resist.” His hand spread over the fabric in a wide arc.
     “You think she’ll like it?” my father asked.
     “She’ll love it,” the salesman said. “Guaranteed. You just have to pick the color.”
     “What do you think?” my father asked, looking back. I wasn’t sure which of us he was asking, Melanie or me.
     I came forward, touching the fabric in the same wide arc. “This is beautiful,” I said.
     “I think it’s beautiful, too,” Melanie added.
     My father went through the pile, picked a deep-sienna shawl. “You think your mom will like this?” I nodded. He handed the shawl to the salesman. My father kept looking, picked up a blue-green, lifted it up and held it next to Melanie’s eyes. “And this one too,” he told the salesman. Melanie blushed.
     “I want you to know something,” he said quietly in Arabic. “She’s not a prostitute.”
     I stammered something unintelligible, not knowing what to say.
     “We met in Las Vegas. I’m not paying her.” He talked to me while staring at a far corner in the store.
     “OK.” I stared at the other corner.
     “She wants to be a singer.”
     “I see.”
     “I can’t tell if she’s any good. I don’t understand this music. She sings a lot, so listen and tell me.”
     “OK.”
     It began to rain softly. Uncle Joseph picked out a bottle of cologne and whistled a Lebanese tune. He tried on a loud yellow scarf, flicked one end over his left shoulder, examining the effect in a full-length mirror. Melanie looked at a dress on a hanger, fingered the material. “Why don’t you try it on?” my father asked.

~

Rows and rows of guitars covered the walls of the Guitar Center. I was overwhelmed. I strolled the aisles, looking up and down, gawking, touching, feeling, until a nasty salesman showed up and told me they would rather I did not touch anything without help. I needed help, I said.
     “What can I do for you?” He stood over six feet and looked down at me. I wondered whether I had interrupted his lunch.
     “I’d like to look at a guitar,” I said politely.
     “Well, you obviously came to the right place.” He gestured to include the whole store. “Do you know what kind of guitar you’d like to see?”
     “An acoustic guitar, please.”
     “That narrows it down,” he said condescendingly. He looked up to the ceiling then back down. “Perhaps we can narrow it down further.” He had long blond hair, an ugly trace of a mustache. “Nylon or metal?” His voice was nasal with a long drawl. “Let’s do it this way. What kind of music do you want to play?”
     No one spoke to my dad or Uncle Joseph that way. “I want to look at a Gibson J200,” I said, calmly, my voice measured. I paused, took a deep breath, and followed with, “Do you think you can handle that?”
     His manner changed perceptibly. “The J200 is not cheap,” he said, his voice showing a little more respect.
     “Neither am I,” I said.
     “I’ll be right back.” He returned with the guitar in less than ten seconds. I heard three separate riffs of “Smoke on the Water” wafting from different sections of the store.
     I took the Gibson, sat on a stool, and, for a moment, simply admired the instrument’s beauty. I ran my hand over the top curve, felt its voluptuousness. I took out a pick from my pocket, hit a C. Its sound was luscious, but it needed tuning.
     “It’s already tuned,” the salesman said.
     “Maybe for amateurs,” I said. “I have perfect pitch.” I tuned the guitar quickly, played a fast scale to limber my fingers, and went directly into Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” just to shut the idiot up. My fingers were flying, the guitar felt wonderful, and as I repeated the second bridge, I noticed two other guys watching. I took “Bumblebee” down to a riff that Joe Pass had played on a recording with Art Tatum, short and sweet, except I played it faster since I was not restricted by beat. I had only two minor slips. Without a break, I moved smoothly into the solo from George Benson’s “This Masquerade,” and ended with the opening of “Stairway to Heaven.” All the major food groups.
     I cracked the fingers of my left hand.
     “That kicked ass,” a voice said. There were five guys now.
     “How much?” I asked, all businesslike.
     “Elvis played a J200,” the salesman said.
     “Elvis is dead,” I said quietly.
     “The J200 is twelve hundred dollars,” the salesman said, obsequious now.
     I stood up, handed him the guitar without looking at him, and began to walk away. He followed me step by step.
     “We might be able to get you a better deal,” he said, almost begging. He tilted his head to indicate a disapproving older man. “My manager here will approve it.”
     “Let me think about it.”
     “Just ask for me the next time you come in.” He handed me his card. I nodded at the manager as I strolled out of the store, a bit taller, I thought. I lit a cigarette.

~

We sat at the burnt-orange dinette set, my father, Melanie, and I, waiting for Uncle Joseph to finish his shower. My father smoked and drank his coffee. “Why don’t you two go out dancing tomorrow night?” he asked.
     “What do you mean?”
     “You two should go to a club and dance and have fun. What’s the name of the place you told us about?”
     “My Place,” Melanie said. “It’s the in dance club.”
     “You want us to go dancing?” I asked my dad, repeating to make sure I understood correctly.
     “Yes,” he said. “Go out and have fun. I don’t want to go to a dance club. My ears won’t be able to handle it. You two kids like music.”
     Uncle Joseph came down, whistling a polka, his feet keeping beat on the stairs. My father stood up. “Let’s go,” he said. “We don’t want to be late to the interview.”

~

Melanie sang on the way to UCLA. She drove the rental car, my father next to her. I sat in the back with Uncle Joseph. My father looked back at me a couple of times, hoping I would notice. She sang soprano, a James Taylor song. Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on. It was too high for my taste, but at least she sang on key. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I could picture her breathing passionately into a microphone. My father looked back again, his eyes questioning.
     “She can sing,” I said in Arabic. “Not sure how good, since I don’t like that kind of music, but she’s not bad.”
     “Does she have a future?” he asked.
     “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
     Melanie stopped singing.

~

The UCLA campus was as big as a whole city. School had not started yet, but the campus was busy nonetheless. My father gave Melanie a couple of hundred dollars to shop at the student store.
     The Engineering Department took up an entire building. The size of the dean of engineering was proportional. He was at least six feet six and round. A ruffle of double chins draped over his starched white collar. He introduced himself as “Dean Johnson, but call me Fred.”
     My father had trouble shaking his hand. As usual when encountering a man much taller than himself, my father was unable to look at him directly, only sideways. He turned around, his side facing the taller man and his head tilted sideways. He moved almost like a sand crab. I believe he felt that this way he was not looking up to another man. Unfortunately, it made shaking hands awkward since he was not facing straight on. He was only able to relax once we sat down.
     “I understand that you’re quite the intelligent young man,” Fred finally said to me. He seemed pleasant, a nice person with a cheerful, impish expression on his fleshy face.
     “I test well.” That was my standard modest reply, which was also true. I had the right instincts for multiple-choice questions.
     “Have you taken the SATs yet?” He leaned back into his chair. My father watched me intently.
     “Yes, I have. Everything is in this folder. I scored sixteen hundred.”
     I watched his face register the information. He moved forward quickly, opened the folder and perused the papers. “Sixteen hundred?” he asked, rhetorically I presumed. “You took a math A level? I was told you only took O levels.”
     “I took double math, not just one. Both pure and applied.”
     “We had to have him take the GCEs with the British Council,” my father said. “We were unsure there would be any baccalaureates this year because of the war.”
     “This is very impressive,” Fred said, shaking his head. “I wish you had come to me a little earlier. Classes start in less than a week. Admissions have been closed for a while. I don’t know how to pass this through them.”
     He kept looking at all my scores. I hoped my father would keep quiet because it was obvious that the dean was amazed. “Are you considering any other schools?” he asked, not moving his eyes from my papers.
     “We’re considering USC,” my father said. That was news to me.
     “I don’t want to go to USC,” I said. I stared down at the floor, not wanting to face my father’s glare. I was sure he was livid. “USC is a school for spoiled brats.”
     Fred burst out laughing. “Hold that thought for a minute. Let me make a phone call.” He stood up and exited his office. I shrank down in my seat, waiting for my father’s outrage.
     “I can’t believe you said that.” His voice was not loud, but he was seething.
     “It’s OK,” Uncle Joseph said. “It worked out. The dean likes him.” He stood up, walked toward my father, and bent his head. “Now, kiss. For luck.”
     “He should not have contradicted me.”
     “That’s right. You shouldn’t have contradicted him, Ziad. That wasn’t a good move.”
     I remained quiet, still staring at the floor. I heard the sound of my father’s lips meeting Uncle Joseph’s head.
     The dean reentered the office obviously excited. He leaned on his desk right in front of me. “I may have been able to do something, but I have to ask you some questions.”
     “OK,” I said, feeling confident.
     “Are you sure UCLA is the right school for you? Have you thought about what we have to offer?”
     “Yes. I like the school. I like Los Angeles.”
     “And there is a war back in your country, right?”
     “Yes,” I replied, unsure where that question was leading.
     “And UCLA is your only chance right now for an uninterrupted education, right? UCLA will provide you a peaceful setting where you can pursue a degree and continue your record of academic excellence. Isn’t that so?” I nodded. “Good. Then that’s settled.” He laughed heartily. “Here’s what I need you to do, young man. I’d like you to fill out an application for admission to the university. It has to be done right away so I can take it to the admissions office before they close. That also includes an essay. Do you think you can do that now?”
     “Of course.”
     “That’s good. Josephine outside will put you in an empty office and you can get to work. I’ll talk to your dad here about logistics.”
     “Can I also take music classes?” I asked. I heard my father sigh. The dean looked at me quizzically.
     “It’s not the norm for engineering students to take music classes.”
     “I think it should be,” I said. “In the Middle Ages, the music and mathematics departments were one and the same. You could not study one without the other. They are complements, really. It remained that way until the last century. The separation of music from mathematics has only been done recently.”
     “You don’t need to study music,” my father said sternly. “You’ve already studied enough music.”
     “Filling out the application might take some time,” the dean told my father. “I hope you don’t mind waiting. Or I can send him to the hotel by taxi, whichever is more convenient.”
     “Are you sure you can get him in?” my father asked.
     “No, I’m not sure. The dean of admissions is willing to look at his records. That’s a very good sign. I’ll find out soon. In any case, here’s the application.” He handed me the forms. “Just take it outside to Josephine and she’ll find you a quiet place to fill it out.”
     I took the application, thanked him, and got up to leave.
     “Just remember,” he said. “Write down everything we talked about in the essay. And don’t mention the music and math theory. OK?”
     As I closed the door, I heard my father say quietly, “He’s just a little immature sometimes. Not always.”
     Before she led me to the office, I asked Josephine where the men’s room was. I went in, peed, masturbated, and sneaked a couple of puffs from a cigarette. The essay I wrote elaborated on my ideas of combining math and music.

~

I had just gotten out of the shower when Uncle Joseph opened his side of the bathroom door. I covered my privates with the towel. I was getting to hate the idea of a bathroom with doors connecting two rooms. “It’s not like I haven’t seen you naked before,” he said jokingly. I wrapped the towel around my waist as he washed his hands at the sink.
     “I think the dean really wants you.” He talked to my image in the mirror.
     “Yes. I think I’m in.” I dried myself with another towel. “My father wants me to take Melanie dancing tomorrow night,” I said.
     “He told me. I think it’s a good idea. He thinks you spend too much time studying and reading. Also Melanie will have fun. It’ll be good for you.”
     “He should take her dancing.”
     “He’s not the dancing type.”
     He stared at my chest, wondering why I had not filled out yet. I walked into my room and put a UCLA T-shirt on. Melanie had bought it for me.
     “Where did they meet?” I asked.
     “At the baccarat table.”
     “Did he stop to think she’s almost as young as my sister?”
     “Hey,” he said sternly, shaking an admonishing finger, “I don’t want you to say anything like that. You can’t even think that.” He stood before me, in my room, his face flushed with color.
     “I have to get dressed now,” I said.

~

I had slept late. I heard nothing downstairs. I drew open the curtains on a glorious day, the light even, clear, and merciless. I put on shorts and sunglasses, went out on the balcony for my morning smoke. I lay back on the chair, soaking in the sunlight, and hummed “California Dreaming.”
     “All the leaves are brown.”
     A cold gust of panic. I jumped out of my seat and hid my cigarette behind my back. Melanie stood at the balcony door, in shorts, her sunglasses hooked into her bikini bra, carrying a tray with a coffeepot and two cups. “Sorry about startling you,” she said, “but I thought you might want a cup of coffee up here. They’ve both gone for a walk.” She had a touch of spittle to her smile. “You can take the cigarette out of your butt.”
     I had to smile.
     She sat down, poured us coffee. Her bikini top covered nothing but her nipples. “We don’t have to go dancing if you don’t want. We can go to a movie and tell them we went dancing.”
     “It’s just that I hate disco,” I said. “I never go to dance clubs.”
     “That’s settled then.” She lit her cigarette. “What do you like to do? What did you do in Beirut on Friday nights?”
     “Planted explosives, shot at pedestrians from balconies, that sort of thing.” She almost choked on her coffee, with her weird laugh. “Mostly sat at home or hung out with a friend,” I said. “Played music. Got stoned.”
     “You want to get high tonight?” She looked at me quizzically, measuring me.
     “Absolutely.”
     “I have a friend in town we can go see. He’s got a great record collection and killer weed. We’ll spend the evening there. He’s the most honest dealer in town. Every college student needs one.”
     I laughed. I settled back in my chair, drank the coffee. I looked at her hands, perfectly manicured. She wore much less makeup. I admired her attractive profile, the chin small yet angular, the non-Semitic nose, small and pointing upward. My mother could not compete with that nose; hers was thin, but long and curved, like a bird’s beak. My mother was known for her beauty, but it was of an altogether different kind. Mother’s was classy.
     “Do you ever think of my mother?” I asked.
     “I don’t know your mother.”
     I looked at the clear sky, a much different blue than in Lebanon.

~

When my father and Uncle Joseph walked into the living room, Melanie almost spoiled the surprise. She flitted about, unable to keep the smile off her face. She wore black hot pants and a sleeveless denim jacket that reached her calves. I sat on the big sofa, facing the door, my right foot across my left knee, looking all too important. My father guessed that something was up.
     “You’re looking at a UCLA student,” I announced.
     My father’s face broke out in unadulterated joy. He leaped across the room, picked me up, and hauled me over his shoulders. I squealed, unable to control my delight. I saw Melanie jump up and down. She was about to embrace Uncle Joseph, but pulled back at the last moment.
     “I’m so proud of you,” my father said from below.
     “Well, put me down,” I said, giggling. He did, but with a bear hug. I had to push him away because I could not breathe. “Dean Johnson called. They want me. I can check into the dorms on Monday and school starts on Wednesday. I have the highest SAT score of the entire incoming class.”
     “Did you call your mother?”
     “Yes, I told her. We have to pay the tuition on Monday, Dad.”
     “OK. Let’s go open up a bank account for you. In any case, I wanted to wait before giving you this, but here it is.” He took an American Express card with my name on it out of his wallet and gave it to me. “This is a company account. Use it only in case of an emergency. Do you understand that?”
     “The accountant reports to me,” Uncle Joseph added. “I’ll know what you’re using the card for.”
     “And I’ll deposit a monthly stipend. I want you to write down every expense you incur. I want to see a monthly expense report. Every single penny.”
     I hesitated, but thought it was the best time possible to broach the subject. “I want to buy a guitar, Dad.”
     “No, absolutely not. No more guitars or guitar lessons. I told you that in Beirut. You’re here to study. I don’t want to hear about guitars anymore. Find yourself another hobby.”
     “But Dad, I’m really good. I need to practice.”
     “No whining, and no guitar.”

~

I woke up from an afternoon nap feeling the heat of eyes staring. I saw Uncle Joseph leaning on the bathroom-door frame, gazing intently at me. “Remember,” he said. “I’m the one who’ll find out what you’re using the credit card for. In case of an emergency, that is.” I closed my eyes, reopened them. He was gone.

~

Melanie’s friend Mike opened the door, wearing gray swim trunks, a blue T-shirt, and red flip-flops. He stood tall and muscular, with wavy black hair, a heavy mustache, long, wiry sideburns, and small, yellow wire-frames on top of a predatory nose. “You must be Ziad,” he said. His voice was twice the size of mine. “Melanie has told me a lot about you.”
     The apartment had green carpet, a cheaper version of the hotel’s. An elaborately framed Patrick Nagel print hung on one wall. I sat on a yellow-green Herculon sofa next to Melanie. A silent Happy Days was on the television. Small talk ensued.
     How did I find America?
     Land of the big and tall and perfect teeth.
     Am I looking forward to living in Los Angeles?
     Better than spending every evening in the bomb shelters of Beirut.
     His veneer of polite curiosity wore thin after the fifth consecutive question. Melanie opened a shoe box that was on the cable-spool coffee table. “Smell,” she said, placing a bud of marijuana under my nose. “It’s great stuff.”
     “It smells great, but I’m sure it’s not as good as hash. In Lebanon, we throw this out. Hash is the pollen.” I sat back and almost knocked over a chrome lamp.
     “I don’t think I want to throw out this grass,” Mike said jokingly as he walked over to his entertainment center. “I understand you play guitar. You have to listen to this.”
     “That’s Al Dimeola,” I said, lighting a cigarette. “He used to play with Chick Corea and Return to Forever.”
     “That’s fucking incredible,” Mike exclaimed, taking off his spectacles and placing them on the table. “You figured that out from just a couple of notes.”
     “Name that tune,” Melanie cried out. She rolled a joint using a contraption with a Stars-and-Stripes motif. She lit the joint and passed it to me. “This is good shit.” The first hit went straight to my head.
      I took another hit, feeling high yet slightly unsettled. I noticed bright loose change nestled in the sofa. Mike poured out a bag of tortilla chips into a blue crystal bowl, my first taste of Mexican food.
     “Were you living in Beirut itself?” Mike asked in between tokes. “In the middle of the war?”
     “Yes. I was even shot at a couple of times. It’s crazy. Unless you’ve been through that, you can’t imagine what it’s like.”
     He smiled to himself as he rolled another joint. “I can imagine,” he said. “I had three tours in Vietnam.”
     I was unsure whether I heard him correctly. I was already stoned. “Did you say you were drafted three times?”
     I noticed Melanie looking at me with a shit-eating grin. She passed me the second joint, stood up, and danced seductively to the music.
     “No, drafted only once.” He lay back on the chair, legs wide apart, showing a sizable bulge. “I re-upped a couple of times.” He looked as stoned as I felt. I noticed he had beautifully muscled calves.
     “Why did you do that?” I slurred my question.
     “I don’t know, really,” he said. He put his glasses back on, took them off, breathed on his lenses and polished them assiduously with the bottom of his T-shirt.
     Melanie walked through the beaded curtain into the kitchen and reappeared with a beer in one hand and a Coke in the other, showing me both. I pointed at the Coke. Mike took the beer.
     “Who knows why we choose what we choose,” he said, smiling. He reached over and opened my can of Coke. “Maybe because life in-country seemed to be more real than what it was like back in the world.” He mussed my hair. “You doing OK? You need anything?”
     “I’m just great.”
     I realized “Tubular Bells” was playing but I could not figure out when the music had changed. Mike was saying something that sounded like “Plei Me Special Forces Camp.” His left hand held my neck because my head was teetering. “Battle of Ia Drang.” His hand even massaged my neck. “Beirut must have been horrifying, too,” he said. Miniscule creases appeared on his forehead. “Sex and death, death and sex or vice versa.” He held another joint up to my lips with his right hand and I took more drags. “M-60 machine guns gung ho.” I started seeing Linda Blair’s head rotating and I could not stop giggling. I tried to apologize to Mike, but was unable to stifle my laughter.
     The Nagel print was ugly. I wondered if anybody in the world had a Nagel original. I took a sip from my Coke and stuffed my face with tortilla chips. One of the throw pillows had a honeycomb pattern that made me dizzy. I kept trying to figure out whether it was a black pattern on a white background or vice versa. I laid my head back on the chair, elongating my neck, looked up at the cottage-cheese ceiling. I snapped my head back quickly. “I just thought of Hendrix and got scared,” I said loudly.
     I was alone in the room.
     “Tubular Bells” repeated itself. Crumbs of tortilla remained in the crystal bowl. I pushed the bowl until it fell off the table and cracked.

~

Melanie emerged from the room adjusting her skirt, hobbling on one shoe, the other in her hand. “It’s midnight,” she said cheerfully. “We don’t want to be too late.” Mike followed her out, wearing only boxer shorts.
     I stood up while Melanie applied her lipstick, fixed her hair at the mirror. “It was nice meeting you,” Mike said. I walked out the door without replying.
     Melanie drove the Cadillac back to the hotel. I pulled down the visor and looked at myself in the mirror. “Are you OK?” she asked.
     “I’m fine,” I lied. “Do you think I have ugly teeth?”
     “No, they’re not ugly. If you think they are, they can be fixed. I think they’re cute, sexy even.”
     “Not sexy enough for you to have sex with me,” I said, staring straight ahead. I felt her hesitation. Various noises escaped her throat trying to free her voice.
     “Don’t worry,” I said. “I don’t want to have sex with you anyway.”
     “I know,” she said calmly. “I didn’t think you did.”
     Before we arrived at the hotel, she touched my hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said.

~

Uncle Joseph did not answer my knock on the locked bathroom door. I walked around to his room, still groggy, not seeing clearly that early in the morning. He was not in his room. I knocked on his room’s bathroom door, then tried it. It was unlocked. Uncle Joseph sat on the toilet, his pajama pants around his ankles, his head slumped, his eyes staring at a spot on the carpet. The bathroom smelled of shit.
     I stifled an urge to scream. I rushed over, shook him by the shoulder. His skin felt cold. I recoiled. I bent down to look at his face. His eyes were lifeless. I searched for a pulse on his wrist. None.
     I walked out of the bathroom, into the orange corridor, held on to the metal railing for support. Dad sat at the dinette table, drinking his coffee and reading the paper. Melanie sat opposite, already dressed and made-up.
     “Dad,” I said, “Uncle Joseph is dead in the bathroom.”
     He looked up at me disbelievingly. I watched his face gradually change, his eyes widen, grow whiter, his jaw drop. He ran up the stairs, followed by Melanie. I let them pass me. I heard my father wail.
     I had never seen my father cry before, never seen him that distraught. He knelt on the floor and rocked Uncle Joseph in his arms. I could not understand a word my father said. I leaned against the doorjamb in shock.
     My father would not stop. He wept, the bathroom reverberating with a strange, haunting echo. In between sobs, my father repeatedly kissed Uncle Joseph’s bald head. Melanie, tears flowing down her face, tried unsuccessfully to calm him. I no longer recognized the man in front of me.
     I called my mother.
     “Listen to me,” she said, in complete control. “Put your father on the phone and I’ll talk to him. You go to his room and get his travel pack. In it, you’ll find a pillbox. Take out a Valium and give it to him. Do you follow that?”
     In the bathroom, Melanie was holding my father, who held Uncle Joseph. I gave my father the bathroom phone and watched as his face began to calm down. I ran down the stairs and came back up with the tranquilizer. I watched him nod in acquiescence to my mother’s instructions. He handed me the phone. My mother told me to put him in bed and she would call me in ten minutes, after she called the hotel management.
     Melanie and I helped my father down the stairs, his arms draped over both of us. I put him in bed, under the covers. Melanie drew the curtains, darkening the room. I stroked his head, just as I had seen my mother do numerous times before. He promptly drifted into sleep.
     I walked back up to check on Uncle Joseph. I did not want anybody to see him naked with his pajama bottoms down. When I entered the bathroom, I held my nose and flushed the toilet.
     “Do you want to carry him to his bed?” Melanie asked.
     I nodded. I began pulling his pants back up when I realized his bottom was soiled. I wiped his behind with a damp washcloth. My stomach felt queasy again.
     I tried lifting Uncle Joseph by his shoulders and Melanie picked him up by his feet, but he was too heavy. We ended up dragging him slowly. The carpet kept pulling his pajama pants down, exposing his genitals. I would stop, pull his pants up, and start dragging him again, only to have him re-exposed. By the time we got him onto the bed, I was dripping sweat. I covered him with the comforter and closed his eyes. His skin already felt leathery. I sat on the bed, stroked his head, and cried silently.
     My mother called. Just as she told me someone from the hotel would be coming to the room, I heard the knock on the door. She was talking to Air France, booking my father on a flight to Beirut. Melanie led three men in suits to Uncle Joseph’s room.
     “All I want from you is to put your father on the flight this afternoon,” my mother said. “That’s all. Everything will be taken care of. Once he’s on the flight, Air France will make sure he gets here, but I need you to get him on the flight. Once the doctor and coroner do their work, the hotel will ship the body to Beirut. Just take care of your father. You can stay in the room till you go to the dorms. It’s taken care of.”
     “I’ll get him on the plane,” I promised. I watched more men walk into Uncle Joseph’s room.
     “One more thing,” she said. “Make sure she’s gone. I don’t want her using the suite after your father’s left. Don’t let your father know that I know. But remember, after your father leaves, she’s gone. I don’t want her with you.”

~

I folded Uncle Joseph’s clothes and placed them in his suitcase. I went over his room inch by inch, making sure I forgot nothing.
Melanie and I packed my dad’s things while he sat cataleptically in the corner. I knelt before him, held his hand. It took him a while to look at me.
     “I have to get you dressed,” I said. “You’re going home.”
     I could only get a nod out of him.
     I made sure he wore a light cotton shirt. I debated whether I should dress him in his favorite wingtips or in moccasins since the latter were easier to take off during the flight. I chose the wingtips, appearance being paramount to my father. He had his best tie on, double-knotted.
     “You know where to get ahold of me,” Melanie said. “All you have to do is call Mike. He’ll always know where to reach me. If you ever need anything...” Her voice trailed off.
     I took my father to the airport in the hotel’s limousine. I waited till an Air France representative arrived to escort him. When she tried to walk him through the metal detector, he refused to let go of my hand.
     “I want to come along,” I said. “Until he gets on the plane.”
     When a stewardess came out to escort him to the plane, I stood up and hugged him. He did not respond.
     The jumbo jet lifted into the shimmering air, taking my father home.

~

I went to the Guitar Center before returning to my suite at the Beverly Wilshire. My salesman was at the counter. I placed my new American Express card before him. “I want the J200 and I want a great deal. It’s an emergency.”

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