People do weird things when they think no one is watching. There’s a man on a bench, wearing blue shorts and a tank top. He’s been scratching his balls for the past thirty minutes. His free hand is holding a cigar and puffs of smoke dance around him. He probably doesn’t know that people within a 50-foot radius can smell it. He probably doesn’t care, actually. I mean, I’m sitting on a fire escape 80 feet above him and I can smell it. But I can’t really complain about it, I’m smoking my own cigarette.
It’s 7:30 in the morning and I haven’t slept yet. My anxiety has been at its highest in weeks and it has been fucking with my sleep. For the majority of the night, I’ve been sitting on the fire escape outside my window like some angst-ridden teenager who hates his parents. The alcohol I put in my coffee mug helps a little, as does the cigarettes, but the buzz disappears, the nicotine gives me the shakes, and I get a migraine by the time the sun peeks out over the trees. The park is busier than usual. There’s a group of older Chinese men and women stretching and doing Tai chi. They moved slowly, which was trippy when you’re sober, way worse when you’re high. I tried Tai chi once. One morning, I hopped down the park in hopes that it would help me calm myself. It didn’t.
The ball-scratcher left the bench that he was sitting on. That means that it’s getting close to 8 am. I need to get ready for work. People are creatures of habit and I sit on this fucking fire escape more than I should. I watch the same people come and go in this park all morning, every morning. I know when they arrive. I know when they leave. I shrug my shoulders. I flick the cigarette and it lands in the street. I nod at the perfect flick and down the rest of the whiskey-coffee in my mug and climb back into my room.
Two people committed suicide in my apartment. Well, before I moved in at least. It was, according to the landlord, a young white couple that were, in his words, “a bunch of fuckin’ junkies.” I asked the neighbors and they said the girl killed herself first, while her husband was at work and when he came home later that night, he offed himself. Apparently, he was so distraught at the death of his wife that he took his own. Classic Romeo and Juliet type of shit. But because of that, the landlord was forced to drop the rent price, but, even then, people still refused to move in after learning about the double suicide. Humans are inherently superstitious.
“So, legally, I’m supposed to tell you that this apartment was the scene of a double suicide,” the landlord said to me, while I was playing with the light fixtures. He was a wide older Italian man with impossibly black hair. “That’s why the rent is so low.”
“It was a double suicide? Like, Romeo and Juliet?” I asked.
“Yeah, some shit. Thank God they didn’t use guns to off themselves.” He was cleaning the lenses of his glasses with a dirty handkerchief that he then used to dab the layer of sweat on his forehead. “So, what do you think?”
“It’s okay.” I said.
The apartment is the smallest apartment the building has. It has a tiny bedroom, barely big enough to fit a twin mattress and a desk. The bathroom is just as small. If you sit down on the toilet you’ll touch the edge of the bathtub. It’s uncomfortable, but after a few weeks, I got used to it. I actually started feeling anxious using the bathroom at anyone else’s house if there wasn’t something to rest my left knee against. The kitchen and living room are just one long room, not separated by anything, which is nice. It’s spacious enough to put a couple of bookcases. I hung up a large flat-screen TV on the longer wall and a couch on the opposite for perfect viewing. It was a small used couch my brother had no use for, so when he told me to take it, I jumped at the chance. Hardly anyone ever comes over, so there’s no point in having a bigger couch or more chairs. I don’t own a dining-room table, since I never cook. The contents of my kitchen cabinets are: three coffee mugs, four large plates, four small plates, a couple of glass cups, and an assortment of knives, forks, and spoons in the drawers. All this stuff I got from one of those stoop sale next to my apartment. Older couple said they were moving to Florida. So, I took all their kitchen shit. The only time I turn on the stove is to heat up water for coffee or tea. My fridge, which was left by the old tenants, the ones that killed themselves, has hardly anything in there. Some condiments and old takeout from the Turkish place on the ground floor of my apartment building.
All in all, the apartment’s neither fancy nor trashy. It’s a small place to sleep and get some writing done.
After my shower, I throw on some work pants, a faded pair of black jeans, and a black t-shirt. It’s September, so it not freezing outside yet, but it isn’t exactly warm either. I throw on a zip-up hoodie, grab my backpack, and run out the door. I’m running late.
The streets outside my apartment building are quiet. Whoever had work early, had already gone. There’s an elementary school a block up, so there are a few mothers with strollers on the corner, talking about things mothers with strollers talk about. But for the most part, the sidewalks are empty and the storeowners are outside, enjoying the late summer sun, reading newspapers or drinking coffee in Styrofoam cups. I nod at one of the waiters of the Turkish restaurant. They aren’t open yet, but he’ll always come early and sit outside, before work, reading a Turkish newspaper.
I walk into the little deli next to the Turkish restaurant and walk to the back where the drinks are. I grab one of the Red Bulls from the back of the fridge, because those are always the coldest. I walk back to the counter and ask the clerk for a pack of cigarettes.
“We only have the 100s, right now, brother,” he says. He had two types of cigarettes, like most small delis often do. The first type were the ones he bought legally and paid the taxes for. They had official state stamps and cost twelve dollars a pack. The second type were the ones he bought from someone who brought the cigarettes from a state where the taxes were cheaper. These cigarettes either had a different state stamp or no stamp at all. I usually opted for these packs, because he gave them to me for eight dollars. But, I wasn’t going to smoke 100s, so I buy the normal twelve-dollar pack.
“Ah, no worries, brother, just give me the normal pack, then.” I put fourteen dollars in crumpled up singles on the counter and take the pack of cigarettes and Red Bull. “Alright man, have a good one.”
I open the pack and take a cigarette. Placing it to my lips, I light it with the white lighter I always carry with me. White lighters are considered bad luck. Apparently, a bunch of singers who died terrible deaths were all in possession of a white lighter. Some even say they were all dead by 27 years old. I’m not a musician, so I figure I’ll be okay. Plus, I’m pushing 30.
The train comes as soon as I walk down the stairs. I barely manage to slide in as the doors are closing. The car is full, so I stand in the middle of the subway car. There’s an older woman sitting down in front of me, knitting. She smiles. I smile back. A younger black woman is holding a sleeping baby. Her own eyes closed, but she’s not sleeping. Her hand is gently rubbing the baby’s back. A white man with long hair stands at the doors, leaning against them. I close my eyes and listen to the soft click-clack of the train tracks, as we speed along underground.
My father’s a big, happy man. He always has a cigarette perched on his lips, like a lone bird sitting on a tree branch. That’s how I picture him most of the time. He works a lot; fifteen-hour days, six days a week. He took me on my first train ride. I was five or six at the time. His car broke down and he was running late so we jumped on the train. I remember crawling under the turnstile and getting excited when the train came into the station. I held my father’s hand and jumped up and down. My father’s face lit up and he smiled. He had a toothy smile that extended from ear-to-ear. I can’t recall where we were going or why I was going with him, since I spent most of my childhood with my mother. But, whenever I think of my father, I think of this moment. The smells of the train station. The sound of the train rushing through the station. My father’s warm hands. His fat fingers pointing out buildings as we rode over the bridge into the city. It puts me at ease, especially when my anxiety begins to flare up.
My father came to the United States in the late 70s and wore bell-bottom pants well into the 80s. He was a man who truly assimilated into American culture. He saved up enough money to buy a baby shit yellow Cadillac Deville. During the day, he made sandwiches and sold cigarettes at a deli in the city. But at night, he rubbed elbows with the same yuppies he made sandwiches for at Studio 54. He drank gin and tonics and smoked indoors with Wall Streeters. He cut all that shit out of his life, however, when he met my mother in the spring of 1982. When they got married, those things were no longer part of his life. They were just faded memories, he would tell me in fits of dementia.
The train bolted out of the underground tunnel and raced over the bridge, going into Manhattan. The morning sun crashed into the subway car, waking people up from their underground doze. Bells, rings, beeps, and recorded songs began to play like a symphony. Cellphone ringtones are the new soundtrack to Subway commuting. People take out their phones from their pockets, purses, and bags. There’s a low rumble of conversation intermixed with the sounds of the train’s metal wheels against the metal tracks. I pull my own phone out as well. There’s a twitter notification. A text message from my mother. I slip the phone back into my pocket. I’ll text her later, I think to myself. Moments later, the train entered the darkness and everyone’s silent again.
I step onto 28rd St. and Broadway in Manhattan and immediately take out a cigarette and light it. Smoking cigarettes was a habit, more than an addiction. Wake up, smoke. Eat, smoke. Shit, smoke. Walk to the train, smoke. Exit the train, smoke. It’s 9:45 in the morning and I already killed half a pack of cigarettes, which is why I always carry two packs. I place the cigarette on the edge of a window and walk into the little deli. It’s quiet. The clerk, a Yemeni guy, is speaking to someone on the phone. I give him three dollars for a red bull and he handed me fifty cents, without ending his conversation. I started walking down 28th st. towards 1st Avenue. The sun is hidden behind the skyscrapers and the temperature in their shadows has dropped. I pull my hood over my head and smoke my cigarette.
The Psychiatric hospital looks like what one would think a psychiatric hospital looks like. A rusty metal gate meeting you in the front. An old brick façade that looked like it hadn’t been touched in a century with dead vines crawling up the face of the building, like an old woman’s fingers. I pass through the side entrance into the garden walkway. Unlike the building, the garden is pristine. The gardener was a man of precision. Nothing’s out of place. There are rows and rows of flowers in perfect rows according to colors, which were numerous. The trees that line the walkway perfectly trimmed. Not a single branch is out of place. As are the hedges, which are all exactly the same height.
I notice the gardener ripping out some weeds that were infesting a corner of the garden, close to the edge of the building. I walk over and watch him, as he is scrapping the roots of the weeds out with a tiny shovel.
“Your garden is really nice,” I say.
My voice startles him and he jumps up. He’s a Mexican man, probably in his late 40s. His brown hair is sprinkled with white, like there was a small snowstorm over his head. “Thank you,” he said. When he smiles, I notice that one of his front teeth are missing.
“I hope they’re paying a lot.” I say.
He smiles again. “Mucho trabajo, Poco dinero.”
I laugh and tell him I know the feeling. He stands up. He’s shorter than I expected. He takes off one of his gloves and shakes my hand. “Thank you. Garden like my child.” He takes out his wallet and showed me a picture of his daughter. “She go to good school. Scholarship.” He’s beaming.
“Garden like her. I take good care of Garden. I water every day. I talk to flowers. I… que es…” He made a cutting motion with his fingers.
“Prune.” I say.
“Yes, yes. Prune. Everything I do, for garden. Like my daughter. She is very smart.”
Again, we shake hands and he thanks me for complimenting his garden and I tell him to demand a raise. He goes back to pulling weeds and I continue walking into the hospital.
The air conditioning is on full blast and a chill creeps up my spine. The inside of the hospital is in stark contrast to the outside. Recently remodeled, the inside looks more modern. Bright lights, clean floors, flat screen T.V.’s playing CNN, with subtitles crawling at the bottom of the screen. There are nurses, doctors, and administration officials walking around in the hurried way people walk in hospitals. Like they’re looking for something important, but they can’t remember what it is. There are visitors waiting in the lobby a mother with her teenage son, who’s on his phone. An elderly black woman, nodding off. A man, who looks a couple years older than me, is sitting on a chair looking through his phone. He looks annoyed. There was a strong smell of floor cleaner. I walked to the front desk.
“Hi. I’m here to see my father,” I say, to the receptionist. She has a black hijab on.
“Khalid, right?” That’s my father.
“Yeah, Khalid Assaf.”
“Okay, give me a second.” Her fingers dance against the keyboards. “Alright. Khalid Assaf. Mr. Assaf…”
“Huh, oh yes. That’s me.” She laughs.
“Yes it is. Your father’s in his room right now. It’s lunch and he doesn’t take his dinner with the others anymore.”
“He said they were stealing his food like the Israelis.”
I laughed, uncomfortably. “Yeah, that sounds like my father.”
“That’s awesome. Me too! I thought your father was Egyptian, because of his Arabic accent.”
“Oh, that’s not my father. That’s Abdel Halim. The singer.”
“Your father thinks he’s Abdel Halim?”
“He thinks Abdel Halim Hafez, the singer that’s been dead for almost 4 decades, is trying to sleep with his wife.” I shrugged. My father began having full conversations with “Abdel Halim” about fifteen years ago. That’s when his psychosis began to manifest. At first, everyone thought he was joking. He was doing it for fun. But once, I caught him in his room arguing with himself and crying. It was unnerving. He was bleeding from his scalp. He tried to play it off when he caught me watching him. Said something about him falling and cutting his head, but I knew what I saw. He begged me not to tell anyone. My father was a proud man. I promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone.
“Hmm, that’s interesting,” the Muslim clerk said.
“Yeah, something like that. So, he’s in his room?”
“Yup, but he’s not in his usual room. We moved him.”
“Let me guess, the Israelis?”
“No, actually. He said his roommate was masturbating too loud and demanded we put him in a room by himself. He’s in the solitary wing, Room 398.”
“First time it wasn’t his fault, alright. Thank you.”
I took the elevator to the third floor. Alone, I watch the numbers above the doors tick over. The elevator stopped and I walk out into the hallway. The silence hurts my ears. There’s no one on this floor, it seems. I walk around looking for my father’s room. It’s at the very end of the hall. I knock on the door.
“Come in,” he growls. I walk in and close the door behind me.
It’s a small room. There’s a large window on the opposite wall from the door. A small desk and desk chair occupy the wall to the left. There’s a small TV set on the far side of the desk, closer to the window than the door. The bed and a single black couch cover the other wall. There’s a small bathroom near the door that leads out to the hallway. The room reminds me of a room in some dingy hotel in a small city in a flyover state. The kind of hotel room the airport gives you if there’s an overnight delay. My father is sitting on the chair, smoking a cigarette and looking out of the window. The curtains are closed.
“Asalamu alaykum,” I say when I see my father.
He mutters a response. I walk over to the window and pull open the curtains. The window look out to buildings that are behind the hospital and if you stand up, as I am, you can see the East River.
“Why were the curtains closed?” I ask him.
He shrugs. “I like the color.”
“Okay, but you need some fresh air, it smells like cigarettes.” I open a window. “Are you even allowed to smoke in here?”
“They don’t say anything to me. They know better,” He says, spewing out a mouthful of smoke as he speaks. It reminds me of the scene of in “Alice in Wonderland” with the Caterpillar blowing smoke into words and pictures. “Did your mother tell you to come here?”
“No, she didn’t. I haven’t spoken to her today. Why? Has she come to visit?”
“You know she doesn’t visit.”
It was true. The last time my mother saw my father was the day he was committed. I forced her to come with me, to drop him off. She didn’t want to go. She couldn’t believe he was mentally ill. Maybe she knew all along, but she refused to acknowledge it. She cried for three days after it was all said and done.
I sit down on the edge of the bed and just watch my father stare out of the window. He’s having one of his good days. He’s calm and his eyes are focused. He knows who I am and he’s not talking to himself. I’m glad. It’s hard to see him on his bad days. It’s hard to see the man I admired so vulnerable.
“How is she? Your mother?” He asks, his head turned down. He felt ashamed. He was in this place, away from her. He was supposed to be a man and take care of her, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even take care of himself. “Is she okay?”
“She’s hanging in there. Jenin helps her a lot. I try to stop by every day, usually after work.” I answer. I lied. I hardly ever go to their house. Not because I hate going. I have my own issues. I have my own things to be ashamed of.
“Good..good.” He trails off.
The silence in the room is thick. My father pulls another cigarette from his pocket and lights it. He takes a long drag and lets it out. It floats around the quiet room like all of his regrets. I am dying for a cigarette, but I have never smoked in front of my father. I was going to start now. I get up and open the window.
“You can smoke, if you want,” He says, like he’s reading my mind.
“It’s okay, I just wanna open the window.” I lie. I wasn’t okay, but I wasn’t going to stay long. The end table close to the chair he’s sitting on had a copy of Haruki Marakumi’s Sputnik Sweetheart. I pick it up and flipped through it. “When did you start reading Marakumi?”
“A few days ago. This kid here, probably your age, let me borrow it. Says I might like it. Hatchi.”
“You don’t like it?”
“It’s weird. He writes weird. He seems like the type of guy that would sit on broken swings or something.”
“What does that even mean,” I asked him.
“I just feel like he sits on broken swings because they make him feel important.” He takes a drag from his cigarette, exhales, and then crushes the cigarette into the already full ashtray. “Is your mother still talking to Abdel-Halim?”
He catches me off guard with the question. He was doing so well, I didn’t know if he was kidding or not. So, I just ignore the question. “You should read his other work, they’re pretty good.”
He ignores me and asks his question again. I look at his hand and he’s shaking. Lightly. Hardly noticeable, but I know him too well. I know this was the beginning of an episode.
“She never talked to him, you know that.”
“You’ve always lied for her. Traitor. That’s why she doesn’t come, right? Because she’s with him.”
“He’s been dead for a very long time, baba. And he was a celebrity.”
“I know what he is. He used to sing to your mother. He made records for her and she’d play them all the time.” He’s shaking more now and is muttering quietly to himself. I lost him. Again.
“Baba, just try to relax. Please. Have you taken your medicine?” I’m looking for the button to call the nurse.
“The medicine that the Zionists give me to keep me stupid? Never!” He’s full-blown now. I need help.
I run out of the room and find an older nurse sitting at a desk, talking on the phone. “I have a problem, my father’s having an episode and I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself!”
She puts the phone down. “Who’s your father?”
I give her the name. “He said he hasn’t taken his medication.”
She taps on her computer’s keyboard then dials a number on the phone. “Yeah, patient in Room 398 hasn’t been taking his medication today and he’s having an episode…yes, he might be violent, he was the last time.” This made me nervous.
I run back into the room. He is not there. I stand there, looking at the window. The wind blows in and pushes the curtains, making them dance.
Image Credit: L’ulo by Bruno Di Maio