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“Sojourn,” Part Three, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on June 1, 2016 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.


The resort was running a limited dining service, the disturbances having left the establishment nearly vacant. The front desk directed them to a small restaurant called Neena’s, within walking distance. The path from the beach house curved along the back of the hotel compound, then past a fading parking lot to a dusty road lined with towering, spindly palm trees, their reed-like motion in the sea breeze at once resilient and unsteady.

Neena’s was located a half mile down the highway, barely in town, which wasn’t much—a few miles of low-flung limestone homes and stores, narrow roads. The restaurant was a clean, modest affair; a small dining area led into a dimly lit bar. There Joanne chose a table by the bar and ordered a mango juice. Nabil ordered a Stella, the local beer for more than a century. The bartender drifted between the dining area and bar, straightening out the wrinkles on the tablecloths, and making subtle adjustments to the seating, in no apparent hurry to get their drinks. The decor was simple, mostly paintings of ancient Cairo and Alexandria during the Abbasid period depicting men in turbans and flowing gowns gathered around crowded market-places, or camped in clusters in an expanse of desert outside the Citadel. Scratchy music played overhead.

“That’s the singer Umm Khalthoum,” Nabil said. “I grew up on this. She was my father’s favorite. In New Jersey after we first arrived in America it was all he listened to. Every night when he thought I was asleep. He would sit there in the living room in the dark with the same record playing night after night, filling the place with cigarette smoke.”

“More actual detail about him than you have ever shared, Nabil,” said Joanne.

At home, they lived two hours apart. He saw Joanne on weekends. She was a financial analyst at a firm in San Francisco. He lived outside Sacramento, a technical writer at a civil engineering company. They shared a fondness for books and movies, restaurants, wine. He loved her apartment in the Marina district, the flood of sunlight from the expansive bay window, overlooking the Pacific and a slice of the Golden Gate Bridge.  He would drive to San Francisco most Friday nights, head back home late Sunday.  The distance kept them together, they always said. The pregnancy an accident, both of them momentarily unhinged, relying just this once on a timely withdrawal. Coitus interruptus interrupted.

Their drinks came. “What is she saying?” asked Joanne.

“Love. Despair. A little more love. A touch more despair.”

“Of course he was thinking of your mother.”

“Maybe,” said Nabil.

“What does that mean? His young wife drowns on vacation. Leaves him with a small boy to raise alone. He is devastated. Escapes to America. A new life.”

Nabil sipped his beer. “My mother hated it here. Did I tell you that?”

Joanne shook her head, regarded him. “No. As I recall the official line is you don’t much remember anything about her.”

Nabil looked away, eyed the array of liquor bottles along the glass shelves above the bar. He had kept reminiscence of his time here as a child at a distance, even to himself. Joanne, at one point frustrated by his resistance, had eventually abandoned her forays into the topic. Still, but for Joanne, there would have been no trip here. “You get on a plane,” she had said, and meant that he spare her the drama. She’d been right, and now that they were here, it felt absurd not to allow himself the freedom to give more form and substance to his memories, share more with her.

When his beer was finished, Nabil tried to catch the bartender’s attention, but the man was in the dining area, his back to them. Nabil sighed and leaned back in his seat. “She was from Alexandria, a city girl, private school, French sprinkled in with the Arabic at home. Piano lessons. Marble foyer with ridiculous plaster busts of Beethoven and Mozart. All the pretenses. My father tormented her for it. ‘Why Merci? What’s wrong with Shokran?’ Here he reclaimed his place. Returned to his roots. I’d feel it. Everything harder. Coarser. His language changing. His laugh.”

Joanne said, “All you ever told me is that you came to the U.S. with him. That you picked up and moved every few years after that.”

“We were not close and we rarely spoke of her or of this place.

“You said he never married again, but there must have been someone, another woman sometime along the way?”

“No. Not that I saw. And we never stayed in one place for long.  New Jersey, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis. He avoided everyone.”

“Even other Arabs?” Joanne said. She played with an edge of her napkin, looked up at Nabil.

Especially other Arabs. He kept to himself. Listened to Umm Khalthoum.  He drove a cab, worked night shift as a janitor, manned convenience stores. Anything.”

“Such a depressing childhood, Nabil,” she said. “I thought mine was bad enough.”

Nabil shrugged.  “He was not a bad father. He provided everything I needed. But yes, what I remember most are gray skies, cold winters, run down apartments in random cities.”

A young waitress, hair in a pony tail, dressed in a simple tan skirt and green blouse brought over quarters of pita bread in a basket and small saucers of hummus and tahini and olives. Nabil handed her his empty beer glass and ordered a scotch, but the girl didn’t seem to understand what a scotch was.  He pointed to the bottles of liquor behind the bar, tried again, the girl listening carefully.  “Ah,” she said, nodding quickly before seeking out the bartender who had just come in from the dining room.

Joanne leaned back in her seat, she was wearing jeans and a white button down that left her arms bare. “It’s so peaceful here,” she said. “Was there truly nothing your mother liked about this place?”

Nabil shook his head. “She loathed the summers. Long months of nothing but desert and sea, and the three of us alone.  Even as a kid I’d sense it as she prepared for the trip out here. Each piece of clothing ironed and folded and neatly packed in suitcases. Like she was putting some part of herself in storage.”

Joanna crossed her arms, hugged herself, rubbed her arms gently with each hand.

“Are you cold?” Nabil asked. “I can have them lower the air conditioning.”

Joanna shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Just trying to imagine things, that’s all.” She scooped up a dollop of hummus with the pita bread and offered it to Nabil. He waved it away, and she plopped it into her mouth.

“There was one time I do remember clearly. She was holding my hand, looking back at him.”  His father in the sun and haze, white shirt, sleeves rolled half way up his arms, black trousers. “I was pulling back from her, and she kept holding onto me, tugging, cajoling me to cross the highway with her until she finally just gave up. And we stood there at the edge of the road and watched him approach.”

The bartender brought over Nabil’s scotch. Nabil thanked him, gestured at the empty bar and asked, “Where are your customers?”

The bartender waved in the general direction of the hotel. “People try to go away,” he said. “But airport shut down.”

To be continued…


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