You can read the other parts of Pieces of a Dream here:
Louis and Kadija sat in the crowded waiting room at Highland Hospital. The room smelled faintly of bleach. It was packed with dozens of people suffering from minor injuries and illnesses. The waiting sufferers coughed and shuffled and moaned quietly. Doctors and nurses moved in double time as a steady stream of trauma victims were rushed in through the ambulance bay.
Gunshot victims, auto accidents, and one man on a gurney who had what looked like a metal fence post rammed through his upper thigh.
“Sorry,” Kadija said. “I didn't know it would be so crazy. I've never actually been here, just seen it passing by. Maybe we could go to a different hospital.”
“Nah,” Louis said. “Friday night in Oaktown, it's gonna be crazy anywhere. And I don't have insurance, so this is the right place to be. Since we have the time,” he continued, “why don't you tell me about your brother?”
“Alright.” Kadija sat back in her seat and looked up at the ceiling. “It's hard to know where to start.”
“Start at the end,” Louis said. “A lot of story writers do that.”
“Okay.” Kadija took a deep breath then let it out in a puff.
“My brother got back from Iraq two years ago, then killed himself last year.” She looked at Louis with her lips slightly pursed. “He was always aggressive in a playful kind of way – he was the youngest of us three, me and my older brother and him, and we used to pick on him mercilessly when he was a kid, so he grew up thick skinned. So when he came back from Iraq and he was very aggressive, getting angry and picking fights, we didn't notice the difference right away; and by the time we did, it was too late. He shot himself with a gun we didn't know he had. He bought it at Walmart, of all places. He left a note saying that he couldn't live with the things he'd done. He'd never spoken about it. I still don't know what he was talking about.”
Louis reached for Kadija's hand, but she pulled away. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I know I put my hand on your shoulder in the cab. It was just an impulse, but I'm a Muslim woman and I'm not supposed to have any physical contact with a strange man.”
“Am I strange?” Louis said.
“Strange in this context only means that you're not my husband or my relative,” Kadija explained.
“I'm very sorry about your brother,” Louis said softly. “I've known others who did the same. It's terrible.”
Kadija gave a small shrug. “I wish we had known then what we know now. We would have been on the lookout. Unpredictable anger, self-loathing, self-destructive behavior. They say it's common in vets who have seen a lot of combat.” Kadija looked at Louis pointedly.
Louis looked down at the white tiled floor. An empty sandwich wrapper lay near his foot. “You knew I was lying?” he said.
“Not for sure until tonight,” Kadija replied. “But you faced down two guys with weapons, and you won. And I was watching from the window when you came down the sidewalk. I never would have guessed you were injured. You moved like an animal.”
Louis's jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed. “What's that supposed to mean?” he said.
“Oh, Louis!” Kadija's eyes got round and she put her hand on her heart. “No, I didn't mean it that way! I just meant that you walked with a kind of grace and power, and I suddenly thought of a jungle cat as I watched you.”
Louis grunted wordlessly.
Kadija nodded her head and raised her eyebrows. “Okay?” she said.
“Yeah, okay.” Louis assented.
They sat in silence for a while. A middle aged couple walked in, and the woman, who looked quite conservative and normal otherwise, promptly laid down on the floor and gestured for her husband to explain her problem to the admitting nurse. The husband began stammering about his wife's back pain, as the wife's gestures became increasingly agitated.
Louis and Kadija exchanged a glance. Louis covered his mouth with his hand, and tried not to laugh.
“Kadija,” Louis said. “You know how you said you had to avoid contact with me because I'm not your husband?”
“Yeeeees,” Kadija said, drawing the word out with a questioning tone.
“Well, hypothetically speaking, if you and I got to know each other and you found that you liked me… you know…”
“I can't marry a non-Muslim man, Louis, if that's what you're asking.”
“Well, I wasn't proposing marriage or anything.” Louis laughed. “But why can't you, anyway?”
“It's not allowed in Islam.”
“Why is that? I mean, isn't love more important than rules? Isn't God a God of love? Why should He want to keep people apart?”
Kadija smiled and arched her eyebrows. “Are you saying you love me?”
Louis felt his face get hot. He looked at the sandwich wrapper on the floor. “Well… I don't know,” he said. “There's something about you. I knew it the first time I met you. I do think about you.”
“What do you think about me?” Kadija asked.
Louis glanced at Kadija's face, then back at the floor.
“I think you are beautiful,” he said. “And you're calm in a way that I need. I think… uhhh… I think you could save me.”
Kadija sat back in her chair and let out a breath. “Wow,” she said. “I'll tell you the truth, Louis, I think you are special too. And yes, I feel something. If you were Muslim, who knows? But what you said about love being more important than rules, that would be true if I worshiped love. If love were my god, then yes, I'd do anything for it, I'd break any rule, make any sacrifice, fight anyone. But it's not. God is my God, and it's for Him that I will do anything, and make any sacrifice. I'm on a journey, and I don't mean this move to San Francisco.” She smiled. “A bigger trip. And the end of it is Paradise inshā'Allāh, and I can't let anything derail me from that. That's the bottom line for me, Louis. And as far as saving you, I think you give me too much credit. I think you're seeing something in me that is bigger than me, and that's what you're reaching for, not me. A person has to believe in something, Louis, or what are we doing here?”
“I used to believe in things,” Louis said. “But it's hard to go on believing when you've seen what I've seen.”
“I don't doubt that's true,” Kadija said. “But you have to try. Maybe you can't be the person you wanted to be before, or believe in the things you believed back then. But you can find a new dream. You're a good man, an honorable man. I see it in you. Your journey is just beginning, and you have far to go, I'm sure of it.”
From the grassy dome of Bernal Heights Park, Louis could see everything from Noe Valley to Berkeley. He could even see the Golden Gate Bridge in the far distance, glowing in the late morning sunshine. The wind was gusting, carrying the scent of salt, and in spite of the sunlight that warmed the good side of his face, Louis was glad for his pea coat. A red-tailed hawk cruised by not twenty feet over Louis' head, circled the radio tower that topped the hill, and settled in one of the scattered trees around the tower.
The sun had already been up over Oakland by the time they'd gotten out of the hospital. Louis' shoulder had still been numb from the anesthetic. They'd both called in sick. Kadija was exhausted, but Louis had insisted on a quick detour to the hardware store in Emeryville, where he bought a high-security deadbolt and a few tools. Back at the apartment, Kadija had busied herself wiping the blood from the floor and picking up the mess, as Louis installed the deadbolt, being careful not to move his injured arm too much..
“I've kicked in my share of doors,” Louis had said when he was done. “This thing will hold up. The actual deadbolts are unbreakable on all these locks, but a lot of the strike plates are flimsy. This one has a high-security box strike instead. It's kick proof and drill proof.”
Kadija smiled. “I have no idea what you just said,” she remarked. “But I trust your judgment.”
Before leaving, Louis had paused in the doorway. The apartment had cleaned up nicely. It was small, but cozy. Kadija had put the wall hangings back up, and had tacked the poster up without the shattered frame. It was an amazing image of an ancient mosque with birds flying overhead. The small sofa was back in place, and all the books were back on the bookshelf. Louis felt very peaceful in this place. It felt like home in a way that his own apartment never had, which was strange. Was it possible for your home to be not a place, but a person?
“It's alright, Louis,” Kadija had said to him before he left. “It'll be alright.”
Back in San Francisco, Louis had stopped at a Chinese bakery in the Mission and bought a coconut bun – a soft, sesame-sprinkled roll filled with sugar, butter and coconut. He'd stuffed it in his pocket, then parked in the Heights and jogged to the top of the hill.
Louis had noticed that the families who came here to picnic, and the singles who came to walk their dogs, always gazed north to the Mission and downtown, or west to Noe Valley, or further to the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin. But Louis turned now to the east, shading his eyes against the sun. He let his eyes travel past the warehouses along the Third Street corridor, to the San Francisco docks, and then the bay.
Across the bay, in the distance, the flatlands of Oakland merged into a blue shadow, backed by the emerald wall of the East Bay hills. Somewhere within that blue shadow, Kadija was probably sleeping. Quite a bit further east, Louis knew, was Iraq, where people were still fighting and dying. But the thought seemed far away, as remote as Baghdad itself.
He took the roll out of his pocket and bit into it. It was warm, chewy and indescribably delicious. Louis felt alive and powerful. He felt on the edge of something real. Unstuck, he thought. I'm unstuck. Maybe once night fell and he was alone in his apartment, the feeling would be lost, and he'd find himself squeezing his head between his palms again.
But he didn't think so.
With a last, longing look to the east, Louis turned and walked home.
If you'd like to read more about Louis and Kadija, see the next story in this series: The Deal.