An excerpt from a novella
Photograph via Flickr by Jordan Lackey
The year we went to the Camps, my sister Leila was eighteen years old and had just begun her secret affair with Sammy. Sammy was the pizza delivery guy from across the street and Baba hated him even though he didn’t know that they were dating. Every time he brought home a veggie pizza (we weren’t allowed to eat meat unless it was cooked at home) he would curse at the Assimilationists across the way. At the time, Mama explained that it meant “people who think they came to this country by choice.” She said that Sammy’s family had been in the U.S. for so long they’d forgotten who they were. Sammy’s grandfather used to sell buttons and cloth door to door and his father bought a pizza place where Sammy now worked. I wondered why anyone would have to sell buttons door to door.
That year, we ate a lot of pizza because Mama was working in a department store and at her brother’s liquor store. Baba was a history professor but only found work at gas stations and my uncle’s liquor store. It was always a big deal when we were all home for dinner. I would volunteer to get the pizza with Baba. I liked holding his big mushy hand and going into the tiny store with white counters lined with red pasta sauces. One night, Baba stopped and spoke with the man who played guitar on the steps of our apartment building. It was raining and Baba took a long time talking. My hair got soaked as I jumped the flights of stairs. The guitar man wanted to know everything about “Mesopotamian stringed instruments” and Baba loved to talk about that stuff.
On our way inside Baba said, “Make sure you don’t lose your roots.” I imagined pulling out Mama’s spidery lavender that Baba planted for her because they smelled like the mountains above Beirut and misplacing them, just like Baba forgetting where he put his glasses.
I imagined the rest of our stuff: green sofa, empty picture frames and an orange lamp drifting along the Atlantic making their way towards the Pacific Ocean. Leila said they were probably stolen by no-good Syrians.
At home, Mama scolded Baba for letting me play in the rain and I had to spend that whole night with a towel wrapped around me. Baba continued to mumble about Sammy’s family bringing us all down. Mama laughed and reminded him that his cousin was the CEO of a bulldozer company that was running over houses in Palestine. Baba shuffled between the kitchen and dining room praying for the eternal damnation of his cousin, his wife, and the entire lineage. The clinks and clanks of heavy silverware served as our dinner bell.
I helped set the table just so I could pick off all the onions with Baba. Leila stopped writing in her journal and hobbled into the kitchen holding icepacks against her bruised soccer legs. We ate on one of the few pieces of furniture that didn’t get lost, a plastic table with a scratched-up white surface. I imagined the rest of our stuff: green sofa, empty picture frames, and an orange lamp drifting along the Atlantic making their way towards the Pacific Ocean. Leila said they were probably stolen by no-good Syrians.
During dinner Leila slipped me bits of sliced-off crust. “Did he have a note for me? Were there any girls in the store? Was he wearing the black pants, ripped on the bottom?” she whispered. I ignored her the entire time because Baba kept sending us The Serious Eye, found in wrinkled center of his forehead.
Before we fell asleep, Leila would whisper about the way Sammy’s wrists smelled like mozzarella. Underneath her covers, she spread out hundreds of napkins with scribbled poems stained with pepperoni, like reddened half-moons.
Leila and Sammy went to the same community college and most of their relationship took place during school hours. In the bookstore, the cafeteria, empty classrooms. Leila took a lot of night classes and Baba would tell her he was proud that she was not taking her education for granted. She was beginning a degree in international relations.
Before we fell asleep, Leila would whisper about the way Sammy’s wrists smelled like mozzarella. Underneath her covers, she spread out hundreds of napkins with scribbled poems stained with pepperoni, like reddened half moons. Her favorite were lines he took from a Ted Hughes poem that he read in his general ed English class.
Their heads fell apart into sleep like the two halves
Of a lopped melon, but love is hard to stop.
Sammy and Leila only had one picture together, a Halloween party. She was dressed as Cleopatra, the same black nylon wig she had since she was seven. He was a Sheikh, his thin body barely visible under a huge white sheet. I asked if they dressed up that way to prove who they were. Leila answered that they were just costumes. The next day, I asked Mama if I could wear one of her gold necklaces to school so I could look like an Arabian princess. Mama said that there was no such thing. She told me that my smart mouth was enough to let people know where I came from.
Leila and Baba continued their arguments. On the nights that they were both home, Leila would sit in the corner chair facing him as he flipped through heavy books and old newspapers.
“Arab history is a myth, Baba, get over it.”
“What do you mean?”
“It just keeps us in the past. “
“This country is making you turn against yourself.” I imagined my sister standing in front of our bedroom mirror looking at her thick black hair and smart mouth and turning away.
The worst fight happened the night she told him she had been thinking and she hated politics so she wanted to move out of the house and go study art in France. I was reading an Asterix comic book next to Baba on the couch when she made her announcement.
“My daughter will live at home!” Baba declared. I saw red stop signs spring up like poppies.
“You don’t know anything about me,” Leila rolled her eyes. I was sure that this was when she going to tell him about Sammy.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He got up from the couch and flailed his arms as if trying to fly.
“I need freedom!” Her voice got louder with each syllable like she was belching some nationalistic song.
“Why was I cursed with such a stubborn daughter?” Baba’s voice reverberated as if his lungs were hollowed out like playground slides. “You have all the freedom in the world! What you forget is that your family is most important.”
I sat straight up not wanting to miss anything.
“I’m going anyway.” Leila headed towards the door. She had no shoes on and was in flannel pajamas with orange ducks pecking their beaks at each other.
Mama had the power to freeze everything. Leila took the comic book out my hand and sat back down in the chair. Baba flipped the pages really loudly for the rest of the night.
Now I was sure that this was when Leila would run across the street and move in with Sammy’s family and become the new girl at the counter until she saved enough money to go to France. Baba and I would still get pizza there and he’d pretend that he didn’t know her and I would sneak her journals, clean soccer uniform, maybe some of Mama’s meringues.
But just as Leila swung open the door, Mama came in the room with a commanding: “Enough!”
Mama had the power to freeze everything. Leila took the comic book out my hand and sat back down in the chair. Baba flipped the pages really loudly for the rest of the night. I fell asleep next to him.
Summer came soon after that and I went on my only date with Leila and Sammy. I was her excuse to leave the house in the afternoon. On the way out the door, Mama stopped Leila and pulled down one side of her shirt, plucking her strap like a guitar string. Leila screeched that her life was falling apart and went back inside to take off her bikini and put on her full-piece black bathing suit. I learned early on that backpacks are much more effective for sneaking out clothes. My bikini was folded between the pages of my American history book. Leila said she was going to walk me to the public pool. On our way out, Baba warned us about boys in swimming pools. “They’re just waiting for you to jump in,” he said. I imagined a pack of sharks in baggy shorts.
We walked a block and stood in the doorway of an apartment building. Sammy pulled up in a small car with a huge fluorescent sign on top that read: HADDAD PIZZA just as I started to press the silver buttons trying to decode a way inside. Sammy and Leila kissed and his hand slipped under her skirt while he drove. I found packets of hot pepper in the back seat. I ripped one open, sniffed it, and started sneezing. They didn’t notice.
We got to the park and sat near high school boys drinking beer out of paper bags as a group of girls competed as to who could swing the highest.
Leila sent me to swim.
I jumped in the pool. It smelled like the bathroom in the winter when it’s too cold to open a window. I swam its length three times then spread out on my towel in the sun. Joseph, a boy from school, came by and asked me why I had so much hair on my belly. I decided this would be the last time I wore a bikini. I wrapped the towel around myself and walked back towards Sammy and Leila. She was sitting on his lap, her legs dangling. I wondered if he was more comfortable than the bench.
“Alexa, what are you doing back so soon?”
“I was bored.”
“Well, you came right in time to settle an argument.”
She didn’t even get up to give me a kiss on the forehead or rub my back like she always did when she saw me. She just sat there and Sammy barely looked over at me, his mouth was buried in her neck.
I sat on the bench across from them, feeling cold now that I was in the shade.
“I think that in the future Sammy and I should build a house in the mountains back home,” she announced. His big hands covered her naked thighs. I couldn’t believe Mama didn’t notice that she went out of the house in a miniskirt.
“But I think we should stay here. Right, Alexa?” Sammy said. This was the first time he had looked at me all day. Leila stood up, her bare feet in the wet grass.
“I don’t want to live in this country forever!” she screamed. And I thought for sure she was going to kick him.
Sammy grabbed her waist with his giant hands and smiled.
She moved back a little, gathering momentum. I couldn’t wait until she kicked him hard, in the shins, just like she did during her best soccer games. Instead, Leila leaned over and kissed him.
“Okay, we’ll argue about this later,” she conceded.
I couldn’t understand why she only agreed with Baba when he wasn’t around.
“I think you should stay here,” I said. But by that point I was talking to myself. They were too busy making out; my sister’s tongue slurping Sammy’s like it was chocolate ice cream.
Sammy dropped us off on the same corner and drove away. We picked up pizza for dinner because Mama and Baba were both working. Sammy’s dad asked if we had seen him, he was late for his shift. “No, Mr. Haddad,” my sister said and she smiled her most innocent smile. Sammy’s dad looked her up and down as if he knew that his son’s hands had been all over her.
That was the last time I saw Sammy. I don’t know what happened to him or to Haddad Pizza. He may still be with Leila. Maybe she disappeared so that they could escape like the young lovers Panacea and Tragicomix, who are sent to the lions by the Romans and are saved just in time thanks to Asterix’s magic potion.
I often dream that they got married. Family flies in from all the corners of the world. They arrive with dry skin, paper tickets sticking out of suits, and boxes of gelatinous sweets. They eat all the roasted lamb, grape leaves soaked in lemon juice, and honey pistachio seven-layer cake. Baba isn’t there. He had a heart attack when another war started. He never recovered and died during the first few years when they only took The Men. For Leila’s wedding, Mama and I wear long black dresses. Mama has a black straw hat for shade. During the vows, Leila accidentally says Baba’s name instead of Sammy’s.
Youmna Chlala is a writer and an artist born in Beirut and currently based in New York. She is the founding editor of Eleven Eleven Journal of Literature and Art. She is a recipient of the 2009 Joseph Henry Jackson Award and was nominated for a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Her writing has appeared in the MIT Journal for Middle Eastern Studies, XCP: Journal of Cross Cultural Poetics, Arab and Arab American Feminisms, and for the NPR Project for the 2008 Whitney Biennial. She has received residencies at Hedgebrook, Headlands Center for the Arts, CAMAC: Center for Art and Technology, Can Serrat, as well as a Walker Fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.