I must have seemed lost or incongruous, like a puppy on a plane, sitting alone in the second row of a crowded bus going to the airport. It seems quaint now to think about the Palestinian refugees in the camps on Aleppo’s outskirts (no one seems to remember them), two of whom turned from the front seat to talk to me: “What is your name? Where are you from? Where are you going?”
They spoke better English than I spoke Arabic—though that’s not saying much. But I understood they were visiting family, and they invited me to join them. They understood I couldn’t because I was flying home to see my father who was dying in a Florida hospital. I had come straight from work, and they were a combination of horrified and sad for me that I had no gift to bring him.
It was December 1998, before Assad senior had died, before 9/11, before the civil war. But it was Syria. There were security measures. Now I am sure the Aleppo bus stop has been erased, the Homs depot likely abandoned, and the road to Damascus airport divided and blasted.
They said, “Wait,” when the bus pulled into the airport parking lot—we had been chatting in broken languages for most of the three-hour ride. A State Department car appeared alongside the bus, the driver with my KLM airline tickets calling for me to get in the car. But I waited for the two young Palestinians to find their bags and hand me a package, a box covered in wrapping paper. They wished me well in the Arabic I can no longer form or pronounce. I stuffed the gift in my bag, got into the State Department car, and was driven to the gate, where I stood in line to check in.
When I finally got to the ticket agent confirming my last minute seat to Amsterdam, with a change of plane to Miami, she asked, as agents did then, “Has your luggage been in your possession the entire time? Did you pack everything yourself? Has anyone, any stranger, given you anything?”
“No.” “No.” “No.” I had forgotten. I was tired. I was fixed on the emergency flight home, on my complicated relationship with my father, on my classes just concluded at the University of Aleppo.
My brother picked me up at Miami airport, and we went straight to the hospital in Fort Lauderdale. My father was still alive. I told him the story about the gift. He had a tube down his throat. But his watery blue eyes glistened. He half smiled. He was the only person who had expressed relief when my Fulbright Award was switched from Sri Lanka to Syria. He’d been to Sri Lanka. He said Syria was safer, nicer, too.
When I showed him the still wrapped present, the nurses who had half-listened to the story, scattered, whether out of fear and to get security or as part of their usual routine, I don’t know. But by the time they returned, I had torn the paper from the box and opened it to reveal a lamp, hand painted with the words, “I love you.”
It was something I would never have said. My father laughed. I don’t remember him choking. He would die twenty-four hours later. That’s more than I know about the bus driver, the State Department driver, the young Palestinians, and countless former students.
There was nothing notable about the swimming pool that was part of my mother’s apartment complex in Dunedin, Florida, a place she had moved to in the last months of her life at the urging of my brother who lived nearby: with binoculars, his dock could be seen from her picture window, though we were sure we could squint and see it. My mother, by the way, hated Florida, and would never use binoculars, but she loved her kids, even though her way of showing it made them—especially her son—feel otherwise.
She also didn’t approve of places reserved for the old—though that’s where she ended up, a building restricted to those 55 and older. After turning down his offer to live with him, it was the nicest place my brother could find for her; he had decided that the view would make up for the residents, none of whom my mother was likely to meet. It overlooked the bay that leads into the Gulf of Mexico, and it had a decent sized pool. She probably wouldn’t have moved from New York if she wasn’t sure she was dying. But she never said that. Instead, she talked about her memory going.
One thing she remembered, though, were my compulsions. I had to run or swim or do something, pretty much no matter where I was. It was a way my brother and I could escape the house when we were young. He ran then; I swam. So, that’s what I did whenever I visited my mother in the months when she said she didn’t feel well, was ultimately diagnosed with cancer, and opted for home hospice rather than medical interventions that would have deferred the inevitable.
It was rare for anyone to be in the apartment pool, so I usually had it to myself. There were no lifeguards, which may have made the residents nervous to do more than sit on the steps with their feet in the water.
When my sister and her daughter visited from Japan, I swam with my niece, who, at nearly four, was fearless and capable in the pool. I was a dragon. She was the princess. And she had to escape the dragon, which she did with short strokes and strenuous kicking.
Most of the time, though, I swam alone. I was on sabbatical, so I had more time than I might otherwise have had to visit. The high humidity and heat made swimming far more attractive than running, though soon running would become my sport of choice.
One day when I went to swim in what I thought of as my mother’s pool, there was a middle-aged man sitting in one of the lounge chairs. How old, I couldn’t say. As a visitor, he didn’t have to be 55. Later, though, I would learn he lived with his mother in the complex. Now, looking back, I can’t recall his face—thinning dark hair comes to mind, paunchy, pale, not exactly the makings for a positive ID in a line up. No one else was in or around the pool.
So, I did what I had done nearly every day of my visit, I dropped my towel on a chair, walked to the closest end, and began swimming, back and forth, back and forth. I counted lengths, though I don’t know why: no one seemed to know the dimensions of the pool. Sometimes I made a mental note of the time that I got in and out—a huge clock affixed to the small fitness building faced the shallow end.
At some point, I noticed someone in the pool. It was the middle-aged, pale, paunchy man who had been lounging. He was standing in the shallow end, his baggy trunks lightly billowing. The notable detail was the pink, swollen dick floating as a three dimensional decoration that might have been part of the bathing suit material.
I couldn’t really believe it. I thought maybe I’d imagined the floating penis. It’s not as if I hadn’t seen men expose themselves before, though both times they were in cars, one in Florida even. Still in a state of denial, I simply made my usual turn and swam another lap. This time I’d pay attention. But there was no mistaking that ugly tumescence.
At 12, my friend Jean and I had run home to tell our parents about the man in the car. My mother called the police, and we were actually taken to the station to try to identify him from a line up.
When I returned to my mother’s room, I didn’t mention the prick in the pool. And she didn’t ask, “How was your swim?”
I sat by her bed, the television patter a distraction from our silence. Whatever we felt we kept to ourselves. Her pain exceeded mine. And I had no palliative.