See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
February 5, 2010
The Anwars had three children. Dalya, the eldest, was a dentist. She lived in the Bay Area, from what I heard. Mina, the middle child, was a health and safety inspector for IBM, and had moved to New York. Neither of the two girls, I suspected, wanted to be near their mother, who was always trying to micromanage the lives of everyone around her.
The youngest, Tarek, was on another career path, to put it kindly. After he dropped out of high school he went through jobs like tissue papers, doing everything from sales at a used car lot to solar panel installer to selling perfume oils at the swap meet. He was never religious and at some point took up drinking and smoking, and possibly drugs as well. At the age of eighteen he moved in with a non-Muslim girl named Angie. She was five years older than him. The Anwars disowned him, but relented and repaired the relationship when Angie bore a child. That child was Anna.
When I was a kid, Tarek and I were two out of a group of five inseparable friends. The other three were a boy named Amiri Sulawesi, a Palestinian-American like myself named Aziz, and a non-Muslim called Titus Palumbo. We all met as little kids way back at West Caulfield elementary, where we were all on the school soccer team. In our second year of play the funding for the soccer program was cut, so instead we began studying Kali privately under Amiri’s father. Every day after school he spent an hour teaching us this little-known knife and stick fighting style from the southern Philippines. From the first moment the sticks were placed in my hands, I fell in love with the art and never looked back.
We five became fast friends. We hiked in the Sierras, pooled our money to buy a dirt bike that we raced in empty lots, climbed over locked fences on the weekends to swim in the high school pool, fished in the San Joaquin River, defended one another against bullies, and generally got into all kinds of trouble. Aziz’s mother liked to call us the Five Musketeers. Aziz and I did well in school but the other three struggled. In the end Titus ended up a cop, Amiri a criminal, and Tarek went from one thing to another, tetherless, not seeming to have any plan or to care what the next day might bring.
I studied the photo. It looked like a school photo. Fourth grade, maybe? Anna would be nine years old now, if I remembered correctly. Her dark brown skin was complemented by her long and straight brown hair. In the picture she wore a blue jumper over a white collared shirt, blue stretch pants, and a pair of white Adidas sneakers. She was thin and unsmiling. I’d met Anna twice, both times at Eid gatherings. I remembered her as a serious and reticent child.
No matter what I thought of the Anwars, their son Tarek – though we didn’t talk much anymore – was my friend. Even if that had not been the case, the child was an innocent.
I looked up at Dr. Ehab Anwar. “I’ve done a couple of missing persons cases, but it’s not my speciality. I usually handle insurance fraud jobs. I’m telling you this so you don’t feel misled in any way. A bigger agency might have a better chance of finding her.”
Dr. Ehab tipped his head in acknowledgement. “I understand. We want you.”
“Alright.” I nodded slowly. “I’ll take the case. My rate is five hundred dollars per day plus expenses. I’ll take this” – I indicated the envelope full of cash – “as a non-refundable retainer.”
“I will pay fifty thousand if you find her.”
“You said that,” I replied, aware that my tone bordered on harsh. I had little patience with people who thought they could motivate me by throwing money around. “My rate, however, is $500 per day. If you choose to pay a bonus, that’s up to you. Now tell me everything you can. When was she last seen? Who might have taken her? What do the police have?”
“We know who took her,” Dr. Ehab replied. “It was Angie, her mother.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she disappeared. Her apartment is abandoned. Her personal effects are gone.”
“What do the police say?”
“They cannot help. She’s the mother, and Tarek… well, he is unavailable.”
“Why, where is he?”
He hesitated. “He is… in Palm Springs. He has a job there.”
That was good to hear. Maybe Tarek had straightened his life out. I considered. “I don’t see a crime here,” I said at length. “Angie moved away. She doesn’t have to tell you her whereabouts. You don’t have any rights over her.”
“I understand,” Dr. Ehab replied calmly. “But she is a drug user. I only want to know that my granddaughter is safe. If you locate Anna and everything is fine, then alhamdulillah, thanks to God. At least I will have peace of mind.”
“And if everything is not fine?”
“Then bring Anna home to us. We will raise her.”
“I can’t simply take a child from her mother. There are legal procedures to be followed.”
Dr. Ehab sighed. “I understand. Just find her, law samaht. Allah yardaa alayk. God be pleased with you, Zaid. Find her first, then we can assess the situation.”
I continued to question Dr. Ehab, but found myself growing frustrated. The man had nothing useful to tell me. He didn’t know how long Angie had been missing, but the last time he’d seen her was two weeks ago when she asked the Anwars to babysit Anna for a few hours. He didn’t know Angie’s family, and didn’t know where she might have gone.
“Do you have a photo of Angie as well?” I asked. I’d met Angie and knew what she looked like – she was a short, naturally muscular Afro-Latina with long, braided hair – but I needed a photo to show around.
He did not.
“Give me Angie’s address and phone number.”
“She does not answer her phone,” Dr. Ehab replied. “And I told you, her apartment is deserted.”
“Give them to me anyway.” He gave them to me.
“Where does Angie work?”
He shook his head. “She does not. She collects welfare. We help her out sometimes.”
“Alright.” I picked up a pencil and tapped it on my desk. “What about Tarek’s phone number?”
“It is inactive. The service was turned off.”
“Why,” I put it to him, “didn’t you pay his phone bill? You can certainly afford it.”
Dr. Ehab’s expression was solemn. “Tarek must stand by his own feet. It is the only way.”
When I had no more questions to ask – I wasn’t getting answers anyway – I told Dr. Ehab that I would check in with him daily, and to call me if he had any more information.
When Dr. Ehab was gone, I picked up the envelope full of cash and stared at it. Ten thousand dollars. It was mostly hundred dollar bills, with what looked like five hundred in twenties. It was heavy in my hand.
I’d had all these ideas for what I could do with this much money. Now, however, there was no time for any of that. In a missing persons case, time was critical. The longer the person was missing, the colder the trail got.
I moved three hundred dollars into my wallet, and stuffed the fat envelope into my front pants pocket. I clipped my pocket knife onto my other front pocket, then removed my gun from beneath the desk, slipped it into a holster, and strapped it around my ankle, underneath my pants leg. Technically I was breaking the law by doing so. I did not have a CCW or Carry Concealed Weapon license. I’d applied for one with the Fresno PD and – as a licensed private detective – should have received it by all rights. I’d been denied, however, with no reason given. Maybe it was my Arabic name, or maybe the FPD knew of my criminal conviction and didn’t care that I’d been pardoned.
This was one law I would have to break. Ninety nine percent of the time I did not need my gun to do my job. It was the other one percent I worried about.
Opening the locked drawer in my desk, I removed my camera, handheld camcorder, binoculars, flashlight, and digital voice recorder, and stuffed them all in a threadbare school backpack. I added a few pairs of socks and underwear and a change of clothes.
Lastly, I donned the fedora that hung from a hook next to the door. The hat was made of black wool felt and sported a two and a half inch brim, with a gray ribbon and bow around the crown. It was an ancient thing, made before World War II and given to me as a gift by an old private eye named Langston “Lonnie” Brown, with whom I apprenticed for a year before going into business on my own.
I didn’t come out of prison intending to be a private detective. Truthfully, I didn’t know what I wanted to do aside from marry Safaa and earn a decent living. I drove a taxi for a few years, until one day I ferried an elderly, square-bodied African American man who wore shades, a golden-brown suit and a fedora. We got to talking, and I learned he was Muslim and owned his own private detective agency. He kept apart from the Muslim community. I gathered he’d come out of the Nation of Islam and while he’d made a nominal transition to Sunni Islam, he was in reality stuck in the middle, often waxing nostalgic for the good old days in the Nation.
I confessed to Lonnie that I was desperate to do something more fulfilling than cabbing. He in turn told me that he needed someone young to run the legwork that he was too old and tired to manage. A week later I was thrilled to call myself an apprentice private eye.
I learned almost everything I know about private sleuthing from Lonnie. He knew I was an ex-con and didn’t care. He’d been way up and way down in his day, living through times so rough that the best he could hope for on any given day was a hungry belly and a set of bruised knuckles.
I think he saw himself in me. When he died of a heart attack while sweeping leaves in his driveway on a winter morning, I was informed by his attorney that Lonnie had left me ten thousand dollars, all his surveillance equipment, and his treasured brown fedora.
Lonnie used to love to quote “Mother to Son,” a poem written by his namesake, Langston Hughes. In the poem, the mother tells her son that her life has not been a crystal stair. It’s been rough, with tacks and splinters, and boards torn up – but all along, she’s kept on climbing, even in the dark, when she couldn’t see what lay ahead.
Lonnie would recite lines from the poem, and say, “Keep on climbing, Zaid. You have far to go my brother, but you will get there one day.”
Whenever I wore the old hat, I could almost hear him looking over my shoulder, saying, “Keep climbing, Zaid, and don’t let anyone stop you.” Remembering those words I’d get choked up and feel tears come to my eyes, but no matter the challenge my resolve would firm, and I’d know that the odds against me didn’t matter – I would keep moving forward.
People sometimes made fun of my hat, and a few Muslims had told me I should wear a kufi instead – but I wouldn’t part with my fedora for all the oranges in California.
With the beloved hat firmly on my head, I proceeded to lock up my office – a time consuming process that involved locking the window bars and triple-locking the door – then headed to my car, very conscious of the nearly brick-sized pile of loot bulging in my pocket.
Clouds were moving in. A chilly breeze swept down from the north, stirring the litter in the parking lot. Sadly, I doubted it would rain. My car could have used a wash. But California was in the midst of a multi-year drought. Rain was as rare as a Muslim at a Vatican sausage roast.
My car, an olive green 1969 Dodge Dart GTS that I’d purchased a few years back, didn’t have an automatic door opener. I was about to slip the key into the door lock when I was assaulted by a powerful stench. I’d smelled this particular eau-de-body-odor before. I began to turn, but a hand seized my shoulder. At the same time, I felt something cold and sharp press against my neck.
“Gimme all your money mister private defective,” the homeless man growled. It was the same man who’d come to my office earlier, trying to sell solar garden lamps. “I seen people goin’ in and out o’ your place,” he continued. “I know you gots to have some dinero. And gimme that backpack too. And that hat!”
Little did he know that with that last demand he’d made a fatal mistake. Even if I’d been inclined to give up the ten thousand dollars in my pocket, not to mention the surveillance equipment in my pack, there was no way this side of the grave I would surrender the hat.
But perhaps I could find a solution less severe than either getting robbed or dying.
“It’s better than that, brother!” I exclaimed, filling my voice with feigned enthusiasm. “Remember how you told me to defect the Powerball number and cut you in?”
“Yeah,” he replied slowly. “Whatchu sayin’?”
“I did it, man! I totally defected it. We won! Not the big one though, one of the smaller ones.” I had to keep it believable, after all. “Half a million bucks. I’m on my way to cash in the ticket. I think we should split it fifty fifty, what do you say partner?”
“Oh, dude!” The pressure of the hand on my shoulder lessened. “Are you serious?”
“As a cardiac arrest.”
“A heart attack.”
“Oh. So this is for real?”
“Would you put away the knife?”
“Oh, yeah o’ course.” The knife was withdrawn, as was the hand on my shoulder. I turned to see Ghost Rider, the homeless man in the jeans and dirty yellow sweatshirt. His face was beaded with sweat in spite of the cool weather. As I watched, a shudder ran through his entire body, starting at the greasy locks atop his head and flowing to his feet. He grimaced in pain, then recovered and grinned at me, exposing several missing teeth.
“I’m sorry about this-” he waggled the knife, and I saw that it was just a standard dinner knife, barely sharp enough to cut a brick of cheese. “Nothin’ personal.” He tipped his head to one side, his eyes pleading. “I’m jonesin’ man, you know? I’m sick. I need a fix real bad. You know what that feels like, right?”
I wanted to say, “Does it feel anything like this?” – then slam a hard roundhouse kick into his inner thigh. Though I’d play-acted to get him to lower the knife, in truth I was filled with rage. I had offered the man the last bite of food I had, and here he was holding a knife to my neck! The rage roared up inside me like lava in a volcano. I expanded internally, growing hot, breathing hard. My hands twitched and my vision narrowed. All I saw was the man standing in front of me, holding the knife.
I would put my hips into the kick, so that the it would nearly lift him off the ground, then I’d come down with a vicious slap to the back of his neck. The back of the neck is a knockout point and potentially worse. A sufficiently hard blow could cause permanent spinal cord injury and even death. If that didn’t do it, I would deliver an elbow strike to the jaw, reap one of his legs, stomp the back of the knee to drive him to the ground, and then stomp on the ankle to crush the bones there. I would leave him broken on the ground. It would be easy.
But no. The man standing before me swayed as he squinted at the graying sky. He looked like he might collapse at any moment. The knife in his hand wasn’t even sharp. He wasn’t going to hurt me. I could lie to the police and say I was defending myself, but I couldn’t lie to Allah or to myself. Sincerity with Allah, sincerity with myself. That was my motto. It had served as my guide through difficult days, allowing me to walk forward with my head held high, even when my stomach was empty.
I pushed the rage down, forcing it into my belly and screwing the lid on tight. I shuddered as I brought my breathing under control. My hands stopped twitching and my jaw relaxed. It scared me how much effort this took. For a minute it was very close.
“Listen,” I breathed. “I’m not a hundred percent sure about the Powerball thing. I might have the number wrong. Take this for now.” I withdrew my wallet and gave him $40. “Get something to eat, alright? Seriously. I know you’re going to get high, but get some food too. You need it.”
“Aww, thanks brother.” The man seemed genuinely touched. “You a hell of a dude.” He didn’t seem terribly disappointed that the Powerball might not pan out. It seemed the $40 in his hand was worth more than a half million in the bush.
Sitting in the car, my body felt as heavy as stone. I’d been a hair’s breadth from destroying the homeless man. I’d been out of prison for five years, and still had trouble controlling the violent impulses that had seeped into me during my incarceration.
I went to prison at the age of nineteen and was released at twenty five, so in many ways I came of age in lockup. I learned what it was to be a man from men whose only response to conflict was to kill.
Five years after my release, I still had nightmares. I couldn’t walk five paces without turning to look behind me, and I experienced surges of nearly uncontrollable rage whenever someone violated my personal space, whether by threatening me or simply standing too close behind me in line at the grocery store.
I balled my fist and struck the dashboard of the car. This wasn’t me. I cared about homeless people. I helped them when I could. I knew that but for Allah’s grace, that could be me. Ghost Rider had been driven to a desperate act by his addiction, but he wasn’t evil.
I didn’t want to be a walking pressure cooker. My greatest role model, my hero, was the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, a man who was the living embodiment of gentleness and compassion. I wanted to be worthy of him. I wanted to be someone my wife and child could trust. I wanted to be able to trust myself.
But how? What steps should I take to change? How could I get rid of all this rage?
* * *
Six years of daily humiliations by guards, living under threat of assault and fighting for my basic human rights had changed me.
Even though that six year stay in prison represented only a fifth of my life to date, it felt like much more. There was something about the nature of prison life – the unique combination of tedium and sudden, ferocious intensity – that burned itself into one’s memory. I could remember every day of those six years, every book I read, every friend I made, every khutbah I gave during my time as a convict Imam, every killing I witnessed – and some were horrific – and every act of violence I was forced to commit. I carried it with me every day. I’d eat a meal and find myself comparing it to prison food. I’d see a certain shade of color in the sky and remember a similar day on the prison yard.
On the other hand, my life from before prison felt distant and nebulous. Whenever I ran into Aziz or Titus and they began waxing about the old days, I found that I could hardly remember.
Sitting in the car that morning, I considered that until I could shake my prison behaviors, until I could leave that life behind me and become someone new, I was still in chains.
I knew I could never go back to being the carefree young man I had been. But could I just come to a point of emotional stability? Could I stop being a walking landmine?
* * *
I activated the secret compartment in my car. It was built for me by a former client, a sound system installer named Alfredo. His shop was broken into, and valuable speaker components stolen. The insurance company denied his claim and the police charged him with fraud. I was hired by Alfredo’s defense attorney. I normally worked for the insurance companies, so that was a turnaround, but I investigated and was able to prove Alfredo’s innocence. Turned out it was his nephew who had done it.
Aside from his stereo installations, Alfredo had a thriving cash-only business building hidden compartments, which he called traps. He couldn’t pay my full fee, so he offered to build me a trap.
As he explained it, modern traps tap into a car’s internal electrical system. They are connected to relays, which are electromagnetic switches that allow low-power circuits to control high-power circuits. A car’s ignition is one example. Alfredo had figured out how to wire a car so that a specific set of electric circuits had to be activated to open the trap.
In my case, the trap was built into the space where the passenger-side airbag would go. Except that there was no airbag. To open the trap, I had to follow four steps. One, close all the doors. This meant that the trap would almost certainly not be discovered by the police, since they tended to leave the doors open when they searched a car. Two, there had to be someone sitting in the driver’s seat (the pressure sensor beneath the seat was part of the circuit). Three, start the car and activate the rear defroster. Step four involved a credit-card sized magnet that Alfredo had given me. I had to swipe this card across the airbag compartment. This would cause a hidden magnet to disengage, and the trap would spring open. If any one of the steps was ignored, the trap would remain hidden.
Yes, Alfredo was a genius. Sadly, I didn’t see a good future for him. Most of his clients were drug smugglers. The government wouldn’t stop looking for a way to lock him up. I tried to warn him that he should stick to stereo installations and quit building compartments, but when it comes to money, the lure is too strong for some men to resist. Like the Prophet said, if a man had a valley full of gold he would want two, and nothing fills the mouth of a man but the dust of the grave.
I followed the steps to open my compartment, looked around carefully to make sure no one was watching, then deposited the bulk of the cash in it, along with my gun.
I’d hardly driven the car in days because I was almost out of gas. I drove to the Arco station down the street and filled the tank. I had a feeling this case wouldn’t be as simple as finding someone who’d changed addresses or moved from one city to another. It felt like I was being given only a small part of the picture.
That wouldn’t stop me. For better or worse, once I began something I did not stop until I finished it.
* * *
The address Dr. Ehab had given me for Angie was an upper floor apartment in a dilapidated complex near 9th and Ventura.
I made a quick pass through a fast food drive-through and ordered a fish sandwich, large fries, mini apple pie and diet soda. No, I’m not on a diet, but I’d seen in an article that a single can of regular soda contains the equivalent of ten cubes of sugar. That’s crazy. If I wanted to destroy my body’s ability to process sugar, I could just stab myself in the pancreas.
Usually fast food sits in my belly like an anchor, leaving me bloated and disgusted with myself. This time, though, I nearly rolled my eyes in pleasure with every bite. Of course this food couldn’t approach the deliciousness of Safaa’s home cooking, but hunger is the best spice, and I was as hungry as I’d ever been.
By the time I arrived at my destination ten minutes later, the food was history.
This was a rough neighborhood. I considered taking my gun out of the trap, but chucked the idea. The gun was for emergencies. Hands, heart and knife, that was all I needed ninety nine percent of the time.
The packed earth between the buildings – there was no grass – was littered with fast food wrappers, broken children’s toys, a punctured inner tube and a discarded watering can. The balconies were mostly empty or cluttered with junk, though a few had been turned into tiny outdoor gardens. In one I saw a rusted bathtub. The overall effect was grim.
Three Latino gangbangers loitered in the shadow of one of the buildings. They were decked out in red and white, and one was shirtless. One wore a red bandana pulled low over his eyes. The shirtless one bore a large chest tattoo that said, “Fresno” in gothic script, and another tattoo of a bulldog’s face on his shoulder. The third was swollen with muscle and had a pencil mustache and neck tattoos. They eyed me balefully.
They were members of a local gang called the Bulldogs, I knew. This was also the name of our local university football team. The gang was named after the team – much to the university’s consternation – and wore team colors and jerseys.
I let my gaze sweep across them and beyond, not meeting their eyes but not ignoring them either. I walked with shoulders back and chin raised, my expression deadpan, my arms loose. I looked ready to take on an army. Prison swagger 101. My unspoken message was, “I acknowledge and respect your existence but I’m unafraid and possibly crazy.” Which I was.
The young toughs watched me pass but made no move. Their career choices might be crappy, but they weren’t entirely devoid of common sense. I would have either torn them to shreds or died myself. That was always the choice with me, and sometimes I wasn’t sure I cared which way it went.
I found Angie’s apartment and knocked. No answer. I looked around. No one was watching. I took a small lock-picking set from my pocket, and, shielding my actions with my body, quickly jimmied the front door lock. This was a skill I’d learned many years ago from Malik Sulawesi, Amiri’s dad. That’s another story.
Slipping in, I flicked the light switch. Nothing. There was no power. I slanted the blinds to let in sunlight. The apartment stank of mildew and sour milk. The yellowed vinyl flooring was littered with the scattered debris of a life that had been shed like a snakeskin. Dirty dishes in the sink. Worn and stained furniture. A few items of discarded clothing: socks, a child’s t-shirt, an old shoe. Aside from that, it was empty. Nothing in the closets, no silverware, no TV or computer, nothing of value.
In the bathroom I found empty bottles of cough syrup and ibuprofen, along with a burnt spoon and a scorched piece of a car antenna. So Angie was a junkie after all. Drug addicts downed cough syrup and ibuprofen when they didn’t have money for dope. The spoon was held above a flame to cook down heroin. And the car antenna, I suspected, was a makeshift crack pipe.
This was bad. Little Anna could be in any kind of danger. I had to find this child.
In the movies, the detective continues searching the crime scene determinedly, even when everyone else has given up. “There’s always something,” he mutters to himself. “There’s always a clue.” And of course he finds something in the end.
In real life it’s not always like that. I searched from one end to the other, but found nothing that would tell me where Angie and Anna had gone. No photographs or mementos, no receipts or letters. And I didn’t have a television CSI team to come in here and analyze the soil on the carpet, and tell me that it came from the northern shore of Shaver Lake, where Angie must undoubtedly have a hideout, or some such nonsense.
I sighed. Alright. Where would Angie go? Maybe to stay with parents or a sibling. I knew nothing about her family. The most likely person to supply the information was Tarek, but I had no idea where to find him. His father was clearly holding something back.
I decided to pay a visit to Tarek’s sister Dalya. I hadn’t seen her in eleven years, and all I knew about her was that she was a dentist, had a couple of kids and was divorced. I did a quick internet search and her website came up right away. She owned her own dental practice, called Lovely Smile, in Merced – a medium sized city sixty miles to the north. Closer than I’d thought. Good.
* * *
I hopped onto 180 west then merged onto 99 north, driving exactly at the speed limit. As I drove, I practiced drawing my knife with one hand while I steered the car with the other. I mean, I wasn’t practicing steering the car. I knew how to do that. It was the knife draw I was working on.
There are many people who carry knives but never practice the draw. One day they are mugged or attacked and find themselves fumbling for the knife, trying to open it with trembling hands – if they remember it at all.
This particular knife was a small Kershaw folder with an extremely sharp three-inch blade. The handle was an innocent-looking sky-blue. Switchblades and other automatically opening knives are illegal in California, but this was what is called an assisted open. You use a thumb stud to start the process of opening it, then an internal spring takes over and snaps it open.
I did this often when driving long distance. I clipped the knife low on the seat belt to simulate it being in my pocket. I drew and opened it with my right hand, then – still using only one hand, and doing it all by feel, without looking – depressed the lock-release lever and closed it. I clipped it back onto the seat belt and repeated the process. In the course of ten minutes, I drew the knife a hundred times.
Kali and its sister art Eskrima are popularly known as stick arts. The heart of Kali, however, is the knife. Even the stick is considered only a training substitute for a sword or machete. The techniques range from basic to highly complex. We train empty hands versus knife, knife versus knife, forward and reverse grip knife, and even double knife. I have been doing this since I was seven years old.
We do have some purely empty hand techniques in Kali but they are only a small part of the art. Put me in a ring against a journeyman boxer and I give myself even odds. But put a knife in my hand and I’m as deadly as a rattlesnake in a phone booth, even against other knife fighters.
After a few wrong turns, I found Dalya Anwar’s office in Merced. The receptionist, a young Latina dressed all in black and wearing a trace of glitter on her eyelids, told me I had to make an appointment.
“I’m here on a personal visit,” I explained. “I’m an old friend. Tell her Zaid Al-Husayni is here to see her.”
My full name is Zaid Karim Al-Husayni, but when I became a private eye I made a choice to use my father’s name, Karim, as my last name. I felt that “Karim” was more easily understood and remembered by Americans, and less alienating. I know it’s a cop-out, but it’s my livelihood, and I need whatever edge I can get.
Dalya would know me by my proper last name. The last time I saw her, we were both nineteen years old.
Dalya and I had a history. I remembered her as a small-boned girl with wavy brown hair, thick glasses and a serious demeanor. When we used to have community get-togethers and the other kids were playing volleyball or chatting about music, she’d be off in a corner somewhere, reading. I made it a point to always talk to her, at first because I felt sorry for her. Dalya had little interest in movies or music. She was more interested in trends in sustainable energy, preserving the rainforest, or the life cycle of a cicada. She read biology textbooks the way other kids read Superman comics. Other kids thought her nerdy, but I found her interesting, and knew she would do well in life.
As for me, the assumption was that I would become either a doctor or an engineer. I wasn’t terribly interested in either of those professions, though I did find biological drawings fascinating. But everyone thought I had a bright future, and our families began to discuss a possible match between Dalya and I once we finished college.
Some kids rebel at the thought of arranged marriages, but at the time I didn’t mind. Like I said, I found Dalya intriguing, and she was certainly cute beneath those soda-bottle glasses.
Then I went to prison, and all of that ended. And when I got out I married Safaa, and never regretted it, even when she broke my heart by splitting up with me.
The side door opened, interrupting my reminiscences, and Dalya Anwar emerged wearing a white medical coat, black slacks and soft-soled black shoes. I would have recognized her instantly, even without the nametag on her coat. She no longer wore glasses – no doubt she’d upgraded to contacts – but aside from that she’d hardly changed. She was still tiny, with large brown eyes and delicate hands, though frown lines marked her forehead now.
I’d heard that she was divorced, but a large diamond ring glittered on her right hand. Maybe I was mistaken.
“Zaid?” She squinted at me as if I were a puzzle she was trying to figure out. “Stick Man Zaid?”
Aziz and I used to sometimes practice our Kali at community picnics and Iftars. The other kids gave us mocking nicknames. Mine was Stick Man, as much for my skinny frame as for my talent with a stick. Even though the name was intended to tease, I liked it. What martial artist wouldn’t want be named after a weapon?
Later, though, “Stick” became my criminal nickname, and now I detested it as a reminder of a foolish and painful past. But I knew Dalya didn’t mean anything by it.
I gave her a genuine smile. “It’s me.”
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