Why Wait? Why Bother?
Stephanie Kamkowski had been screening carry-on at Kennedy Airport for three years when someone said that an Arab guy had come onto the day shift. Sitting in the Houlihan’s before work, she thought she had him pegged: a dark-haired, dark-complexioned middle-aged man of slender build, standing at the breakfast buffet wearing a Yankees cap. He frowned at the chafing dishes of ham, bacon, and eggs, and placed an orange and a yogurt on his plastic tray. Later, she saw him in the break room, and at the boarding security line for Delta, observing. He ate by himself and disappeared after each shift. Freddie Novak the shift supervisor called him Eee-mad, but the rest of them called him “the Arab guy.”
He was different, no doubt about it. She hadn’t known any Arabs before. It put you on your guard, and at the same time, she felt bad because as far as she knew, he was just a normal guy.
She was a robust if slightly doughy forty-one, never married, never moved out of Greenpoint. She’d meant to do those things, but hadn’t. She’d gone with neighborhood boys over the years, serious Polish boys who were friends of the family. She saw through them all, their tough guy surface unable to hide how they’d been spoiled and wounded by their mothers, and each time the subject of marriage came up, she felt a noose tighten around her neck and backed out. Her own widowed mother had told her, “Any man is the right man. It’s not the guy, it’s what you make of him,” and people called her an old maid behind her back. When her mother got cancer, Stephanie took over the family hardware store and managed the doctors. She didn’t move in though, to cook pierogis and change linens, but instead hired a Jamaican nurse. That had also been cause for gossip. After her mother passed, there was the lack of a lack. She sold the hardware store to pay off the medical bills, but she had her mother’s place on Java Street free and clear, and no obvious need for a man.
At Sunday brunch in Coney Island with her cousin Stosh, his nine-year-old son asked if she didn’t have a husband because she was gay. She told Stosh, “I feel like I’m caught between why wait, and why bother? At least my days are my own.”
She needed a job, and Stosh had suggested the TSA, where he had friends. “Do something for America. Hey, if it wasn’t for Kosciusko, there wouldn’t be an America, right?”
Most TSA complained the job was boring, but for her it touched a secret streak of voyeurism. Mostly it was the same thing over and over, but there were surprises: the business man with bras and high heels in his roll-away; the famous fashion model traveling with a vibrator and romance novels. She liked to think about all these people going and coming, with lives you could probably never imagine.
Monday morning, they were outside drinking coffee in the March cold. “All right, who wants the Arab guy?” Freddie Novak eeny-meenied a thick finger over them like a schoolyard bully.
“I’ll take him,” she said.
Mid-morning, she saw a cosmetic bottle and told Emad, “Bag check.” She ran the belt to tee it up. The passenger was a steel-haired man in a Brooks Brothers suit who rolled his eyes as Emad unzipped his black leather overnight bag and felt around, until he pulled out a cut-glass bottle.
“That’s my aftershave. Jesus Christ, are you kidding me?”
“There is a limit of three ounces for any liquid container carried aboard the aircraft.”
“Fine, throw it out. My plane is leaving in ten minutes.”
“Please step around the belt and come over to the area behind me. I need to check your identification.”
The man dropped his head in disgust and did as he was told, but as he offered his passport, he said, “I want to know who checked you.”
Emad hesitated. “If you have a complaint, you can wait in the detention area until a supervisor is available.”
“No. I didn’t say anything. Please, just let me on my plane.” But after the man had gotten his shoes and belt back on, and was walking away from the security area, he said over his shoulder, “Unbelievable.”
It made you think about what Emad had to put up with. Afterwards, when Stephanie watched him drink tea in the break room, she clocked that he wasn’t bad looking. His eyes were soft and intelligent, though his shoulders stooped as if he were carrying something. Over the course of the next few weeks, she made small talk and learned that he lived alone in Astoria, could put on a Brooklyn accent, and was reading Gone with the Wind. She learned to pronounce his name ih-Mahd, and with a little prodding she got him to call her “Stephanie” instead of “Miss Kamkowski.”
Alone at home on Saturday night, she watched Lawrence of Arabia on TV, and wondered if he had grown up in a place like that, with sand, minarets, head scarves, and camels. She guessed not. Probably, things were different now in that part of the world.
She ran into him in McCarren Park one Sunday afternoon. It was the first brilliant weekend of spring, with a high sun and dry warm air, and the park was a swarming ant colony of colored T-shirts that echoed with thumping hip-hop music. She was watching Stosh’s sons play Little League baseball when Emad appeared at the third base line in his Yankees cap, with a camera around his neck. She waved until she caught his attention, and he came over.
“Do you have a side to root for?” he asked.
“The ones in the green, the Mermaids.
“Mermaids is a name for a boys’ team?”
“Mermaids are an all-purpose mascot for Coney Island. There’s even a Mermaid Day parade. Don’t make fun of it—some of these guys get out of control. That’s my cousin over there, screaming at a ten-year-old.”
“Please. This is all so tame compared to football—to soccer. Here you say, ‘Kill the umpire.’ Where I come from, we do it.”
Their conversation was awkward, but not badly so. Watching the game occupied the pauses while they thought of things to say. She admired his heavy Nikon with its long lens, and he told her photography was a hobby. He’d been taking pictures of the domed Russian cathedral across from the park.
When the game was over, she introduced Emad to Stosh and his two sons. Stosh had the short, stocky build of so many sons of Poland in Brooklyn. He claimed it was because they were all descended from shipyard workers who had to be strong and work in cramped spaces. “He’s TSA. I just stumbled into him,” she said.
“Keeping those shampoo bombs off the planes?” Stosh flipped a baseball at Emad, who caught it by reflex. “There you go. You gotta earn that Yankee’s cap.”
After Stosh packed gloves, bats, and children into his minivan, she felt at loose ends. She didn’t want to go home, and she didn’t want to impose. Emad smiled and fiddled with the lens cap to his camera.
“Family is important to you,” he said. “That’s good.” They walked out of the park and headed down Bedford Avenue, under the shade of heavy sycamores with mottled trunks.
“These trees were old when I was a kid. We could probably find an S.K. hearts somebody carved on one of these things.”
“That must be nice, to have so much memory around you.”
“Dad’s old hardware store is down the street, but now that it’s not ours, I pretend it doesn’t exist.” As a kid, she’d run around on sawdust covered floors, hiding from her brothers behind the racks of open tin scoops spilling with nails, bolts, screws. Later, she’d liked being around the guys there and talking to the customers about bathroom tile and light fixtures. “It’s not like my dad is hiding somewhere in the back of the store and I get to talk to him again if I find him. If I thought about that stuff all the time, I’d drive myself nuts.”
“Yes, you would,” he said seriously.
They had an early dinner at a sandwich shop filled with twenty-somethings and their laptops. “What kind of food is this?” asked Emad, holding up his vegetarian panini. “Is it Italian?”
“It’s yuppie. Are there Arab yuppies?”
“I wouldn’t know, I’m not Arabic. I’m Egyptian,” he said, but his eyes were friendly and forgiving.
He’d been in America for fifteen years. His family was still in Egypt, including an ex-wife and two daughters, but he had no contact with them. He was, he said, a dime-store political exile. As a medical student in Cairo, he’d written an article critical of government health policy for a fringe journal. Luckily, he’d been at a conference in Boston when everyone connected with the journal was arrested. He’d been born in America—his father had worked for an oil company—so the INS couldn’t send him back. But it had been impossible to finish his studies and become a doctor here—he had no money, and his academic records were literally rotting in a prison. He had bussed tables, driven a taxi, done any number of things. In all that time, he hadn’t seen his children once and didn’t expect to again. As far as his wife’s family was concerned, he was dead. He and his wife had divorced at a distance, and she was remarried now. He said all this as if it were a sad but not particularly important story that had happened to someone else.
He insisted on paying for dinner, and she let him, and they walked back up Bedford, without discussing where they were going. He said he’d been doing all right for the last few years, working for a real estate broker, showing cheap apartments in Flushing to immigrants from the Middle East. Then the economy had gone south and he’d been let go. The TSA had been the best he could do.
The sky darkened, the air grew cool, and wind blew discarded picnic plates down the street. She turned left on Manhattan Avenue, and for a while they didn’t talk. Then he stopped in the shadow of a hanging pawnbroker sign and said, “I didn’t mean to show you this, but I feel wrong about it.” He turned the camera on, clicked through its menu, and showed her the screen. It was a picture of her in the park. Even in the display she could see he was a good photographer—he had caught her in fine focus, the background blurred, her face suspended in a halo of colored light. He advanced the camera. There were more of her, all shot in the same clarity that lifted her out of the crowd. They had been taken before she spotted him. “At first, I thought I’d snap one and hand a print to you at work, for a joke. Then I took more, and before I knew it, I was embarrassed. Now I’m afraid you’ll be angry.”
He walked her to her apartment, and she wordlessly unlocked the door and held it open. He hesitated, both surprise and desire apparent in his face. There was something else too: a sadness, a sense of resignation. She turned and went up the stairs, and after a moment, heard him follow.
Later, they went up on her roof with a blanket and cigarettes. They sat holding hands, their backs against the parapet, under a moonless sky buzzing with activity. Low clouds rushed east, their bellies yellowed from the city’s glow. To the south, a blimp floated past the Willamsburgh Savings Bank tower, flashing green and red, as searchlights below reached up toward it from some event in Prospect Park. Behind them a jetliner rumbled in descent towards LaGuardia. Another was coming over their heads the other way, arcing up into the sky on a slow turn to the north.
“I’ve never done that before,” he said. “Not that, I mean . . .”
“Not so soon?”
“My wife and I were married first.”
“I don’t usually do this either.”
“No?” His voice was neutral, unconvinced, and she was suddenly afraid, unsure what he might think of her—she didn’t know what value he placed on sex. Weren’t Arabs—Egyptians—conservative about those things? In Greenpoint there were men who felt they owned you once you slept with them and could treat you however they liked—a quick trip from princess to waitress. There were others who froze up afterwards, as if they’d seen a Medusa.
“Have you seen many women? I mean, since you . . . came here?” She was suddenly afraid of being rude.
“I see them on the street, on the subway, on TV. No. Not many. I thought I would marry an Egyptian woman here, but without a proper job . . . For a while, with the real estate business, I thought something was possible. Or did you mean, are you the first American woman I’ve slept with? What do you say? Close enough. Anyway, neither of us can say we’re any worse than the other.” His shoulders slumped as if the weight on them had grown.
She said, with some heat, “Didn’t you like it?”
“Yes. Very much.”
“In America, if both people want to, it’s nobody else’s business.”
“I won’t argue with you.” He laced fingers with her.
Her building was high enough to catch a partial view of the Manhattan skyline, an uneven glittering set of spikes strung above the dark housetops in front of them, a luminous bar code for the entire continent. The commotion in the sky picked up as helicopters joined the blimp. Another plane crooned down the river. She remembered what the view was like from up there: the horizon-wide net of orange-yellow glitter. She and he were tiny dark figures in the sprawling mass of electrified boxes, surrounded by millions like them, to say nothing of others hurtling through the sky towards or away from them, bound across an unthinkably large sphere speckled with other cities. All these people had feelings and lives just like hers, but who could tally so much heartache, affection, resentment, confusion, boredom, and pleasure? You were forever cut off from knowing more than the thinnest paring of such an enormous fruit. In the face of that exhausting mass and energy, all of it bound to live on past what anyone could know, to believe that your own life had weight required an act of faith. What would it mean to be yourself, if no one noticed?
A few months later, they were engaged.
The turning point had been a visit to Stosh and his family out at Coney Island. They lived in one of those massive old brown brick apartment buildings near Astroland. Stosh’s plump wife Tekla filled them full of meat and pastry and gave Stephanie the unconsciously pitying look she always did, the one that said though she was ten years Stephanie’s junior she was already three children ahead. Afterwards, Tekla stayed home with the baby and the rest of them went out along the boardwalk under a sun fit for a lobster bake. The air was ripe with the odor of hot dogs. She glanced west out of childhood reflex, and that old part of her mind was yet again surprised not to see the Twin Towers.
“Why are you wearing a Yankees hat?” Abe, the nine-year-old wanted to know. He had recently taken to eyeing Stephanie’s breasts in a way that made her uncomfortable. “How can you be a Yankee?”
“Don’t be rude,” Stosh said, swatting him on the back of the head.
Stosh owned a quarter-share in a boardwalk attraction, a museum of oddities. Abe and the six-year-old Willy dragged them into the hall of horrors, peopled with wax figures of people like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and Charles Manson. “This one’s new,” Stosh pointed to the bust of Osama bin Laden.
Emad studied it for a moment. “Very nice. When do you get George Bush?”
“Funny guy,” Stosh said.
There was also an old-fashioned funhouse, with one mirror that made you fat and another that made you skinny. There was also a device, a series of prisms and mirrors, that showed two people’s faces as a composite. She and Emad placed their chins on the felt rests, and looked into the glass that showed a dark-skinned androgynous elf with blonde hair and violet eyes. Emad was amused: “Is this me as beautiful or you as ugly?”
Emad had brought a new soccer ball, and on the beach he took charge of the boys and started drilling them with it. He could keep the ball in the air almost endlessly, and Abe and Willy were hypnotized as he showed off, tapping it from his knee to his forehead and back.
While she and Stosh watched, she told him Emad’s history in as much detail as she could, but the act of retelling brought home what an awful story it was. Emad could joke about what had happened—she could not. He’d lost his children forever because he’d told the truth. There was nothing funny about that.
“I get it, he’s Nelson Mandela,” Stosh said. “He still throws underhand. Remember I threw him a ball and he threw it back underhand?”
“We throw overhand in this country. I got nothing against him, I’m just saying, before you get all sweet on him, remember he’s not a regular guy, that’s all.”
She realized then that that was the point: she hadn’t wanted any of the regular guys—hadn’t wanted what she was supposed to want, and hadn’t wanted to become a Tekla.
“There goes money,” Stosh said. “Now I’m going to have to buy them a soccer ball and shin pads.” But the ball, of course, was a gift from Emad to the boys.
He proposed in the fall and suggested a year’s engagement. That was perceptive of him. It would give people like Stosh time to get used to the idea. And as it turned out, engagement was a surprisingly enjoyable state, something worth savoring. People in the neighborhood said she looked ten years younger, and that was exactly how it felt to her.
One evening in January when she came home from grocery shopping, the TV was on and he stood directly in front of it, his body in a state of hypnotic arrest. He didn’t acknowledge her at first, then, when she pointedly said hello, he broke out of his trance, turned to her and said, “There’s going to be a revolution.”
They watched the news together that night, and many other nights following, hands held between them, watched the satellite-relayed images of people throwing rocks, police beating protesters with black batons, fires, smoke, tear gas. At first she asked him to explain each new development, but soon they watched in a silence punctuated only by his occasional remark: “That’s near the hospital,” or “I passed by there every day on my way to school,” spoken more for himself than for her. Finally the military came with tanks and trucks, and then there were cheering crowds waving white banners.
It had to be stressful for him, overwhelming. She couldn’t even imagine what a parallel might be in her own life, and she quickly gave up the idea that there was anything she could do or say, beyond accepting that he was in turmoil. As he grew quieter and more distant, she left him more room to withdraw into. He spent long hours online, in contact with people he hadn’t heard from in over a decade. At night, he would lie next to her for a half an hour, perhaps until he thought she was asleep, and then get up and go to the computer to message with his Cairo friends, who were, of course, in the middle of their day. Sometimes he just paced in the darkness. Sitting up in bed, she could look down the hall to see his shadow pass and repass the living room window like a slow pendulum.
One time she awoke and he wasn’t in the apartment. She found him on the roof. It was raining lightly, and he had no umbrella or raincoat. The view was shrouded by mist that glowed a sulfuric yellow from the street lamps. It was oddly still: the only sounds were the rushing plash of a car passing down Java Street and the quiet hollow plinking of raindrops on the glass skylight over the stairwell. He was soaked.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you too.” She hoped he might have something else to share, but he didn’t.
Toward the end of a long, eventless, and exhausting day at work, she saw her mother’s head in a suitcase. She leered at Stephanie in vindication, as if to say, “You should have taken your chances when you could.” Stephanie stared back until her mother turned back into a Styrofoam wig display in the Samsonite case of an overweight salesman.
Emad took her out to dinner in Manhattan, to an expensive place in Union Square with high ceilings and white plaster columns. Perhaps he didn’t want to be alone with her if she made a scene, or perhaps it was to soften what he was about to say.
Even as they were dressing to go out, he chattered nervously, talking about the election, the movies, and the baseball season. She wore one of her oldest good dresses, a green silk one she was fond of because it was soft and comfortable, and she always felt at her best in it, and she wanted to look good, like some queen in an old period movie arranging her hair before going to the block. She was about to say let’s forget the charade and just have it out here and now, but he came up behind her in the mirror in his black suit and blue shirt, and his eyes were full of her and he stopped talking. The mirror showed, she thought, that they had already begun to grow like each other.
In the end, they deliberately enjoyed the evening. They made small talk about their day or were quiet and comfortable with silence. They took pleasure in their meal. Finally, after the carpaccio, and the rock cod, and the cappuccino, he took a long pause and said, “I bought a ticket for Cairo. I’m not sure when I’m coming back.” They were begging for him in Egypt. They wanted him as an educated man—they wanted him for his medical training, no matter how old it was. There were many ways he could help without being an actual doctor. In fact they needed administrators more than doctors—anyone who wasn’t compromised politically suddenly was in desperate demand. He was amazed and humbled to be wanted, but at the same time deeply pained and ashamed to be leaving her, even temporarily, and he stressed that it was just temporary. He would come back and marry her, but he couldn’t say when. He didn’t expect her to like it. She had every right to be angry. She could see, though, couldn’t she, that he had to go?
She pointed out that he wasn’t going to change the country much by himself, and that it might be dangerous. She was afraid for a moment that he was going to say something awful about it being no time for fear, but he frankly admitted that it certainly was dangerous and that he was afraid.
“Then why do it?”
“My wife’s family—they’re not so well-connected now. I think there is a good chance I will see my children.”
She had been waiting for that. She had played this moment out in her head over the preceding weeks, and in her scenarios, at this point, there were always tears. But it wasn’t like that at all. Something hard and distant came into his eyes when he mentioned his children. She had always expected that someday he would share that part of himself with her. Now she understood that section of his life was cut off from hers, and there was a part of him she would never see.
At home, they undressed in silence. While he was brushing his teeth, she pushed the covers off the bed, lit a candle, and lay naked waiting for him. He came out of the bathroom without his robe, his body golden in the candlelight. Later, she said, “Stay inside me.” She gripped his body tightly with her legs to make sure, but clearly he had the same impulse. They’d been using the rhythm method. They both knew she was ovulating. It was deliberate and mutual.
Afterward they lay side-by-side, close, but not touching. Soon, he was asleep. The candle flickered on his sensitive thin nose and long forehead, and she pictured those features blending with her own. She’d imagined this moment too, and thought, if it ever came, it would be a wordless rapture, a kind of dream. But she’d never been more awake. She considered the future. He would come back, or he wouldn’t. She would get pregnant, or she wouldn’t. Of the four lives that implied, three were welcome. She could have the child, or him, or both, or none. She thought again of the size of the world and all the people on it, some lives swept away by events, others spent trying to alter them. How much control did anyone have?
His breathing was slow and even. His eyes fluttered under their lids. He was dreaming. She reached across his hip, took him in her hand, and squeezed until she felt an answering pulse. He startled awake and looked at her with such an odd expression that she could not tell if he was pleased, embarrassed, or guilty. Perhaps it was all of them. From a practical point of view though, it didn’t matter. After a moment, he raised up and covered her again.