by Nava Renek (USA)
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I’d driven myself to the airport before, but when it came time to pick up Mamoud, I was nervous, worried about the traffic, the parking, finding the right terminal and gate. We hadn’t seen each other in over twenty-five years–since I was twenty and we’d met at university in France where he was studying chemistry and I was, supposedly, furthering my fluency in French, but really hoping to soak up the culture in the land of Sagan, Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir, writers who’d been seeding my dreams since I was an adolescent.
It didn’t matter that the last time I’d heard from him was nearly two decades earlier on a crackly overseas phone call which ended with his request that I fill out a visa application to sponsor him to come to America. He never arrived, as I knew he wouldn’t. Possibly the application had been denied because of my meager income, working seasonally as a waitress, or else he’d wanted something completely different. It’d been a number of years since I’d spoken French, so I had no idea what I might have mistakenly understood him to say.
A quarter century later when I heard his voice again, he spoke English with a heavy accent and explained that he wished to come to New York. I didn’t think he meant the next week, so I said, “of course,” believing that like the last time, he’d never arrive.
Crazy things were happening in my life: I’d fallen in love with a man I wasn’t married to, although my husband and I were still struggling to hold onto the only life we knew. How does one summon the courage to dislodge from the docking station and fly unencumbered through space? Neither my husband, nor I had claimed that mastery yet, so we clung to each other, both aware that it was only a matter of time before one of us let go. Bringing an old boyfriend into the mix couldn’t make things much worse, I reasoned. Besides, the timing worked well. My husband was going on a business trip a few days before Mamoud was due to arrive.
After parking, I made my way to Terminal 3, prepared for a long wait. We were only a few years past 9/11, and the INS was scrutinizing anyone who looked vaguely Arabic, so I figured Mamoud would seem a likely candidate. I also understood how vulnerable his dark brooding looks made him. Twenty-five years before, when we hitchhiked around France, I experienced first hand the racism inherent in that country. I’m sure Mamoud knew better than I what it meant to travel along the French autoroutes and twisting country lanes with a Caucasian woman, but he must have ignored his trepidations to humor me, his naive romantic girlfriend who was caught up in some post-bohemian time warp.
Nineteen seventy-nine France was still teetering between the radical ‘60’s and the more conservative 80’s and ‘90’s. Back then, one could still travel “en stop,” sleep beneath bridges and in fields, and live on a diet of bread, cheese, and a bottle of Vin de Table. Europe on $20 a Day, the popular travel book at the time, seemed ridiculously bourgeois to me.
If I’d been traveling with another European or fair skinned American like myself, I don’t think the police would’ve taken much notice. But with Mamoud, I found myself straightening each time a patrol car appeared on the horizon, knowing the car would inevitably stop in front of us, and then “les flics” would demand to see Mamoud’s papers. My American passport with gold eagle embossed on a thick blue cover was all they needed to wave me on, while Mamoud’s worn Carte d’Identitie along with his passport and student visa that he’d been wise enough to bring along, was always scrutinized, then shoved back at him with threatening gestures that I interpreted to mean: even though your papers are in order, we’ll get you out of our country yet! Mamoud never seemed to mind and would put on a cynical smile as he went through the motions, determined that the hassle the police created was not going to stop him from roaming freely around their land.
The cavernous waiting area at Terminal 3 swelled with the usual chaos as throngs of travelers surged in and out. Neon signs advertising the various food stalls flickered and the chicory aroma of burnt coffee blended with the metallic odor of processed food. Groups of Pakistani men wearing winter parkas, their wives wrapped in colorful saris covered by pastel snow jackets, hovered nervously near the Custom’s exit, a door that automatically slid open and shut as each group of arrivals took their first steps into the New World.
Who was Mamoud now? How would I recognize him? In our brief phone conversations just days before, I hadn’t asked him for a description of himself or a recent photo, as he hadn’t asked one from me. From my own travels, I’d learned to accept unpredictability and have faith in chance and the conflation of circumstances, knowing that things would usually turn out all right, even if I wasn’t always privy to the blueprint beforehand.
My friends had looked at me strangely when I told them I was meeting an old boyfriend, a man I’d known for about six months twenty-five years ago when we’d carried on a relationship stymied by my lack of French and his total unfamiliarity with the English language. How was a nineteen year old, possessing only an intermediate level of French able to pull off an intimate relationship, succeeding in something most people had difficultly doing in their native tongues? Or maybe we’d sustained our connection on the unrequited feelings of not being able to fully express ourselves, when for all other reasons, our attraction should have flagged?
Why was Mamoud coming to America, anyway? I thought it must be to obtain a Green Card. Why else would someone from North Africa come here? Perhaps he was planning to find work in the States, but if my French was somewhat accurate, I believed he said he had a good job in a hospital, although I couldn’t remember if he’d used the present or past tense when he told me this. I also thought he’d mentioned something about a wife, two boys, and a new born baby girl, but at our age, everyone I knew was going through some sort of crisis, and maybe this trip was going to play a part in his?
Once I realized that he was actually arriving, I’d made a private pact with myself that I’d do nothing to help him find work or get residency papers. My life was so far off course, I didn’t have the energy to right my own boat, then save one more soul. So I rehearsed what I’d say when, inevitably, the INS called me into their airport office with its duplicitous two-way mirrors and detainees chained to waiting room chairs. It didn’t really matter to me if the agents put Mamoud right back on the next plane to France. It would’ve been a slight inconvenience having driven all the way out to Queens, but since I hadn’t seen him in so many years, another twenty-five wouldn’t really matter.
Even back when we were together there was a lot I didn’t know about him. Where had he gotten the little money he had? He didn’t work. He claimed he had a French “benefactor,” an old Frenchman who’d fought in the Algerian War, but I couldn’t imagine what would motivate that man to take a young Algerian under his wing and install him in a small garret in an otherwise luxurious three story mansion in an ancient provincial city in central France? Who owned that house? How many other immigrants lived in the small rectangular rooms on the top floor where I shared Mamoud’s single bed? It wasn’t that I hadn’t asked him these questions; it was just that I didn’t understand his sly smiles, slight shrugs, and what I took as vaguely different answers each time he replied.
Everyday at university he’d greet me at the vending machines, eager to tell me a quick story of some adventure he’d had the night before or arrange our next rendezvous. I was his “American Girlfriend,” and I think we both knew what that meant. Luckily for the female foreign students, most of the staid French women had left their darker skinned classmates for us. I was perfectly happy with this arrangement. For me at least, the Moroccans, Algerians, and Senegalese possessed a depth of sincerity that made the insipid French men seem extremely unappealing.
I’d brought a magazine to the airport to read, believing that if I wasn’t called in for interrogation, at least I’d have something to do while enduring the long wait as Mamoud was grilled by my government’s representatives, but instead of sitting down, I found myself drawn into the midst of the East Asian crowd, remembering the year-long trip I’d taken to India with my husband fifteen years before. It’d been a frivolous time in our lives: no children, no jobs or commitments other than staying on the road, a stark contrast to most of the struggling inhabitants of the developing countries we traveled to. Back then, we had no monumental disagreements about the divergent courses of our lives. Only the bumpy path mined with the normal responsibilities of adulthood had brought us to that end. With all our carefully crafted distractions, we’d been ill equipped to deal with the mundane problems that befell us once we returned home.
Before long, I felt a presence behind me and turned to find Mamoud beaming as if it were twenty-five years before and we were meeting in front of the coffee machine at school again. “Bonjour,” I greeted him.
“Ca va?” He asked, kissing me on both cheeks.
Then, with an ease I could only have dreamed of, we turned and
walked quickly out the door to fade into the international landscape, a nameless couple meeting at an international airport in any country in the world–no G-men pulling me aside, no suspicious looks from Arab compatriots, no plain clothes police arresting me for harboring a terrorist.
As we walked to the car, I checked Mamoud out as I’m sure he examined me. He wore Levis, a stylish ski jacket, and a white turtle neck under a heavy wool sweater, all signs that financially, at least, he was doing well. His hair was short, cropped close to his head, thinning slightly in the middle of his scalp. He appeared a little heavier around the jowls, but I was no longer a nineteen year old beauty myself, having never completely lost the weight I’d put on during my pregnancy a decade before. Despite the years, his eyes still twinkled as amused as ever when we talked.
It’d taken only a minute for me to determine that his broken English was much worse than my rusty French, so we quickly switched over to the language we’d conducted our original romance in. I don’t know what magic brought those foreign words back to me. It could’ve been some kind of physiological reaction where just by being with him triggered a mimetic response, dredging up grammar and vocabulary that I hadn’t used in years, but by the time we reached my home, we were chatting like old friends. Even my son sensed the warmth between us and took to Mamoud as if he’d known him all his life.
It quickly became apparent that Mamoud hadn’t come to the U.S. to stay, and I laughed at my assumption as he took out a small photo album filled with pictures of his wife and young family posing in front of their two story house in a small town near the Swiss border. Again, I wondered why he’d come to visit? What kind of wife would allow her husband to take off to another continent only three months after their daughter had been born? Or, I thought mistrustfully, the “vacation” was really a cover for more nefarious acts, and I was just a pawn in an international game that had already brought death and destruction to my city? But as I scrutinized Mamoud, no matter how I looked at it, he seemed to be a middle class, middle aged man, taking a week’s vacation in the United States.
I’ve never really liked to think about how badly things ended between us. It had nothing to do with the fact that the new semester was soon starting and I’d bought a plane ticket to return to the States. I’d easily have given up my studies to stay in France if it meant moving to Montparnasse or the Riviera, but the truth was, I hadn’t really liked the conservative French countryside where I found the people reserved and condescending. This negative attitude was partially my fault. The only real interactions I had with the French were in the local boulangeries and chacuteries where I bought my lunch, or in the Jardin de Mail where horny men sat on benches tossing lust-filled notes at my feet as I paged through Collette in the afternoon sun.
I had just turned twenty, hardly a responsible adult, and I must’ve gotten tired of carrying on an increasingly complicated relationship in a language I hadn’t really mastered. Still, that was no reason for letting another person down, but as my semester wound to a close, I started to align myself with other Americans in my program, and together we made plans to travel through Europe by train, a luxury I knew Mamoud could hardly afford. Suddenly, the idea of speaking English with people who understood my jokes, seemed more enjoyable than say, going to Algiers, a journey Mamoud had suggested, a trip as a Jewish woman, I didn’t know how to come to terms with–a choice I’ve regretted for years.
So tearfully, I told Mamoud about my plans, but as a consolation, I offered to meet him several weeks later at a vague address in one of the working class towns in southern France where his relatives lived. Then, relieved at unburdening myself, I boarded a train headed to Amsterdam.
The first night Mamoud was in Brooklyn, I couldn’t sleep. Possibly, I was plagued by my capricious betrayal of him so many years ago, but mainly my heart was racing, excited by what I took to be my amazing feat of language retention. Had all those foreign films somehow seeped into my psyche? Had my attempts at reading obscure French philosophy actually paid off? How could it be that a language I thought I’d completely forgotten had just been lying dormant for all that time?
The next day passed easily. My son and I accompanied Mamoud on what I took to be the necessary first excursion when sightseeing in New York City: a ride on the Circle Line to circumnavigate the entire island so Mamoud could get a good idea of the miracle that was Manhattan–how one tiny piece of land only thirteen miles long could be home to so many different cultures. To compliment the boat ride, our next activity would be a walking tour of a few of the neighborhoods where he could experience just how easy it was for New Yorkers to slip in and out of each other’s lives, in contrast to what I found to be the rigid race and class barriers in France.
I’d packed some drinks and sandwiches which I doled out during the three hour boat ride. Anyone witnessing us might’ve mistakenly thought we were just another blended family. We laughed at each other’s jokes, pointed to landmarks, took photographs, and ducked inside the cabin to sip hot chocolate while speaking French the entire time. Secretly, I was giving myself invisible pats on the back when I made another unbidden remark and felt warmed by Mamoud, who seemed to appreciate my school girl giddiness. Perhaps he was just humoring me and I was really only barely comprehensible, but he made me feel as if he understood every word.
That evening, I arranged for my son to sleep over at a friend’s house so I could take Mamoud to some of my favorite local bars. We drank Pernod before dinner and a bottle of wine during the meal, then explored my neighborhood hangouts while catching up on the years that had passed. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. In fact, I felt quite normal, just as sightseeing and cooking dinner with him had felt effortless too. Because of my personal situation, I’d been thinking a lot about the fickle nature of love and the impossibility of sustaining a passionate romance for a long period of time, but now I was wondering if perhaps there was something to be said for having a rondeau of lovers that could sustain a sense of excitement, something that seemed to be missing from my married life?
When I look back at it now, I still have no idea why Mamoud came to visit. I know he didn’t come to get a Green Card or to carry out a terrorist act, or play out some revenge fantasy for having been dumped years ago, nor do I think he arrived believing he was still in love with me, but we ended up sleeping together that second night and the six nights that followed, with me always listening for my son’s footsteps, ready to jump back to my bedroom so he would find his mom where he expected her to be. Even in that tumultuous year, just as endorphins mask the body’s real pain, my child, seeped in innocence and naiveté that could only come from years of stability and comfort, seemed oblivious to the disquiet that would soon split his family apart.
I enjoyed having Mamoud around that week. He was someone I came home to after work, chatted with in the kitchen, and snuggled up against in bed at night. My husband had been that someone, but once our marriage became impossible, we only knew how to exacerbate our problems. In those few days with Mamoud, I regained a fleeting sense of what it was like to be loved again, although I was certain our situation was only temporary.
One night while lying beside him, I asked: “Pourquoi?” letting the rest of the question hang in the air.
He didn’t need much time to figure out what I meant and quickly replied: “Tu es folle, et moi, je suis fou.”
That was an answer I thought I understood. I was crazy, and he was crazy too, but what exactly was he referring to? Was it our months together back in ‘79 when we developed a relationship that was based on intuition and not the literal word? Was it the fact that after twenty-five years, he’d called me out of the blue wanting to visit, and I’d matched his folly by agreeing that he should come? Was it that we both still possessed that sense of insidious romanticism, believing that after so many years desire could be reignited? Or maybe his trip was just a simple act of defiance against the confines of his marriage, the racist slights he felt even as he lived successfully in France, or my own country’s post 9/11 jingoistic taunts?
I never got a chance to ask him. After spending a week together, he used the last few hours to buy presents for his family while I stayed home wondering how I’d feel once he was gone. He was going home to his wife and children, and I’d be left to pick up the pieces in my own home, but I also felt that already the excitement of our relationship was waning and our time together had become strained. I’d forgotten about his short temper and how irritable he became when things weren’t just the way he wanted, like my French accent, or my limited vocabulary which forced me to always ask him how to say more complicated things.
I thought at least he’d write, but I never heard from him again. Possibly he couldn’t keep our secret to himself and had blurted out his guilty conscience the moment he’d stepped off the plane? Or else, he’d done just what he’d set out to do: visited an old girlfriend who he hadn’t quite forgotten.
385 E. 18th Street 5J
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11226