We meet every morning in the coffee shop next door to the hotel. There’s Zia, with his three shots of espresso and who knows how many packets of sugar. Ali takes his coffee with plenty of cream. Aqmed orders one of those fancy drinks with an Italian name I wouldn’t dare try to pronounce. Every day something different. “What is it today?” Zia always asks Aqmed, as if there’s something a bit too girlish about Aqmed, a man who doesn’t drink his coffee black and strong. Then, of course, there is me. Omar. I am a tea man.
At this time of the morning, the light is low in the coffee shop, and most of the customers are busy with their newspapers and their laptops. We gather at the edge of a small area filled with round wooden tables and a few comfortable chairs such as you would find in someone’s living room. Since Zia, Ali, Aqmed and I are only here briefly before the duties of the day call, we don’t bother to take seats.
This day I am eager to tell you about began like all the rest. And may I say, there is a certain sameness and predictability to my life that I never expected when I was a boy. My mother, though she certainly wanted the best in life for me, also taught that a life without pleasures was not a life worth living at all. I suppose that is why every morning with my tea, I eat one small perfect butter cookie. Madeline, they call it here at this coffee shop. When I say that name, I smile, because instead of a butter cookie, I am imagining a beautiful woman with long, dark flowing hair.
To get back to my story, the days begin always the same. You must understand that unlike back home, this is a rainy place. I awake in the dark and I lie in bed for a moment under the sheet and two or three layers of blankets, because at night we turn off the heat, and I listen. Rain. There is the sound. Sometimes it is a light pitter-pat. Other days, it’s a flood. The worst is when the wind flings buckets of it against the house and I pray the window glass will hold.
My wife gets up first to prepare breakfast for me and the two children still with us. We are mostly silent. What is there to say, after all? Another day. We are alive. The rain is falling down.
I keep the car in the garage. Once I am done with my breakfast, I run a soft cloth over the sides to shine them up. My wife says to me, “Why shine the car, Omar? In this weather, it will only get wet and dull and full of mud.” I do not respond.
Instead, I hear my father’s voice. As he liked to tell me all the time, A man should be proud of his work, Omar, no matter what he does. Work must be performed with dignity. The street sweeper who does his job well is a man to be respected.
The car is large and barely fits all the way into the garage. A town car is what it is called, and every morning in the dark, I drive the black, immaculately shined town car through the rain, the windshield wipers clearing a quarter moon of glass for me to see out of. I listen to the news as I cross town, past the nice neighborhoods with their old trees and beautiful lawns, and up to the bridge and over the river that’s reflecting light from the tall office buildings, and into downtown. I hear about the latest bombing back home and my heart hardens a little more.
A hundred yards south of the hotel, I pull into my spot. Zia has been here longest, so he gets to park closest to the door. We are all drivers, Zia having been our first explorer in this unknown land. It is Zia we all have to thank for this opportunity.
You might wonder why a man such as myself would choose a word like opportunity to describe what others might see as a tragic fate. Let me say this. I am alive. My wife, a little fat, yes, and bossy, certainly, snores each night by my side. My children are here and there across the globe and I am blessed with seven healthy grandchildren. A man with such gifts cannot but feel as if God has shined his light straight down into his heart.
I see now that you are shaking your head because in telling my story, I have only confused you more. Let me also say this. I was once a medical doctor. And a fine one, I might add. I am a Christian as well, though my wife says for a man whose feet have become so unfamiliar with the church steps, God would be ashamed to hear me say that.
But let me step back and tell you about that particular day, because isn’t that why we are here now, not simply to hear about my normally routine and dull life. I must explain that my exquisite town car sits one parking space north of the corner and waits for me every morning while I sip tea and listen to the others talk. At some point, Zia will look at me and ask, “And you, Omar? What do you think? Are you planning to go back?”
I like to give the question time, as it is not such a simple one to answer. Some nights, I dream that I am home. The wind is dry and warm. I talk to my patients. My father sits in the courtyard and stares at pots filled with flowers.
“I have no plans,” I say to Zia, then look around at the other men. We are standing around a tall round table, not bothering to sit on the high wooden chairs. We lean our elbows and forearms against the table as we talk.
“Do you mean that you expect to die here?” Zia prods.
“None of us choose where or when we will die,” I respond.
“Ah. Said by Doctor Omar,” Zia adds, as a sort of complement.
What little is left of my tea has grown cold and the Madeline is probably finished being digested in my stomach. I say my goodbyes and step outside for a quick smoke.
Daylight had just begun to push through the dark when he walked up to my car. I was leaning against the passenger side door, taking a few last quick puffs.
“Are you a driver?” he said to me.
He had black hair that was too long, tan-shaded skin and large oval, nearly black eyes. With his loose worn jeans and dark blue hooded sweatshirt, he did not look like my usual customer.
“Yes,” I said. “Do you need a ride to the airport?”
“Yes,” he answered.
I glanced around the sidewalk for his bags. A dark blue backpack dangled from his right shoulder.
“Are you meeting someone there? I can wait for you but security regulations require me to keep circling around.”
“I am not meeting anyone,” he said.
A doctor needs to pay attention to what people here in America call intuition. Certainly, we in the medical profession act as if we know it all. It would not be acceptable to stand in front of a patient and say, “I think you are not going to live much longer.”
The truth of the matter is that as a doctor, I diagnosed patients with all the knowledge and skill I brought to my profession. And also with my gut.
You will understand that as a driver, I had, shall we say, intuitions about my passengers. Some, I could tell, were nervous. Others hated their jobs. Still others – and these were the exceptions – had just scored some deal and felt, at that moment, on top of the world.
This young man, I knew right off, was trouble.
“Where are you from?” I asked. I had noticed his accent – a mixture of my part of the world with, perhaps, England.
He did not respond, so I took a different tack.
“I am from Iraq,” I said. “And you, my friend?”
“Europe,” was all he said.
“So what has brought you here? And so far without luggage?”
“I am a tourist,” he said too quickly.
“You have chosen a bad time to visit. Didn’t anyone tell you that this time of year all it does is rain?”
I lifted my eyes to the rearview mirror. He was trying to look out the window. He appeared to have forgotten to shave, as a dark patch of hair darkened his cheek under the bone. I thought to myself, I know what you are up to. Every day in my country, little shits like you set off bombs that blow people’s arms and legs clear across the intersection, onto the sidewalk.
“I have been in this country for six years,” I said.
I looked in the rearview mirror. He refused to turn and look in my direction.
A doctor has the somewhat enviable job of saving lives. Like most everything else in this world, a physician’s work has another less appealing aspect. There are people who cannot be cured. In my former profession, I sometimes had the task of telling a patient or his family that there was nothing else I could do.
As you might imagine, the decision to inform a person that his days are numbered is the most difficult of all. The patient and his family have come to you because you are a healer. And now you must say those terrible words, as if, suddenly, you had become God.
“Do you know why I left Iraq?” I asked the young man now. Not a sound came out of his mouth, which made me ask the question another time. “I say, do you know why I left Iraq?”
I checked the rearview mirror in between watching the traffic in front. He turned his head away from the window and almost in a whisper answered, “No.”
“So many killings. So much violence. And then my brother was murdered.”
I checked the rearview mirror but he had dropped his head down.
“His left arm was blown off. His right leg too. We found his leg but not the arm. His wife screamed and cried. Do you know one of the hardest things for her was that we couldn’t find his arm? It ripped her heart out that she couldn’t bury her husband with his wedding ring on.
“My brother was on his way to the store when the bomb went off. His children kept asking their mother when their father was coming home.
“Do you know what I say about suicide bombers? They are all cowards.”
I looked up into the rearview mirror. He was staring straight at the back of my head.
“A real man fights with another, man to man. Mama’s boys. Cowards. They blow themselves up and innocent people with them.”
I checked the rearview mirror another time and saw that he had not turned back to the window. While he had been staring at my head, I had carefully turned the car around.
A driver, like a doctor, sometimes has life and death decisions to make. We men from Iraq made a pact early on, in our days here in America. We promised, always, to help one another out.
Zia was the one who gave us the code.
“’My wife,’ you should say, ‘is making lamb.’”
I picked up my cell and pressed the button for Zia’s phone.
“My wife is making lamb,” I said.
Zia asked me if I was heading back to the coffee shop.
“Yes,” I said, glancing up into the rearview mirror.
“How much longer before you get here?” he asked.
And I answered, “Seven.”
After the police drove off with my passenger, Zia invited me in for another cup of tea. The rain was coming down hard now and my black coat was slick and shiny with it.
Zia shook his head back and forth.
“Sometimes,” he said, choosing to speak in Arabic, as if he had a secret to impart, “I wonder how we can go on.”
I wrapped my teabag tightly around a spoon, strangling it until the last drop of brown liquid bled out.
“One cup of tea at a time,” I said.
Then I raised my cup to this honorable man and took a sip of tea so hot it nearly scalded my tongue.
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