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
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
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
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
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 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.
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
“Are you sure that’s what you
“Of course he is,” my father interrupted from
behind the paper. “He can’t make a living with a math
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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 can’t tell if she’s any good. I
don’t understand this music. She sings a lot, so listen and tell
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
“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
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
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
“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
“How much?” I asked, all businesslike.
“Elvis played a J200,” the salesman
“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?”
“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
“She can sing,” I said in Arabic. “Not sure
how good, since I don’t like that kind of music, but she’s not
“Does she have a future?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I really
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“And there is a war back in your country,
“Yes,” I replied, unsure where that question was
“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’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
“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
“Are you sure you can get him in?” my father
“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
“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
“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
“Where did they meet?” I asked.
“At the baccarat table.”
“Did he stop to think she’s almost as young as my
“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
“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
“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
“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.
“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
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
“Do you ever think of my mother?” I
“I don’t know your mother.”
I looked at the clear sky, a much different blue than in
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
“You’re looking at a UCLA student,” I
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
“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
“Did you call your mother?”
“Yes, I told her. We have to pay the tuition on Monday,
“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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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.”