It’s a Thursday afternoon in late August. The year—I should mention this, shouldn’t I? The year is 1993. I’m sitting in the grass on Old Campus with my roommates Michael and Jake, waiting for First Year Orientation to begin. A cloudless day, painfully bright, smelling of mowed lawns and sweat; the sun burning the backs of our necks like an angry eye.
In the middle of one of those strange conversations freshmen have when they first meet—breathless confessions punctuated by abrupt, uncomfortable silences—I cast about for somewhere else to look and see a tall Hispanic boy standing a little distance from us, arms folded, scowling at Connecticut Hall through thick square glasses.
I’m not a gregarious person. I’ve never been especially social. But it’s the first week of freshman year and already I’m a little lonely, sensing that Michael and Jake will stop speaking to one another, and me, in a month. Hey, man, I say, leaning towards him on one elbow, trying to look relaxed. Are you in Trumbull? What’s your name?
He sits awkwardly, as if he doesn’t have much experience lowering himself to the ground. Despite the heat he has on a pair of stiff new jeans rolled up at the ankles and an untucked, long-sleeved dress shirt. Dark patches of sweat like Rorschach blots stand out against his collarbones. Rafael, he says, once he’s arranged himself with legs folded. His voice is nearly drowned out by the faint music blaring from a window on the other side of the quadrangle. I’m from Delaware, he says. Wilmington, Delaware.
Baltimore. Just down the road from you.
He doesn’t smile, or nod, or change his expression at all; his mouth hangs slightly open, waiting to see what I will do next. In the corner of my eye I can see Michael and Jake giving one another significant looks.
So what room are you in?
He turns and points to the window just above mine.
213. But there is a problem. I have to change.
What’s wrong with it?
We have only one bathroom.
There’s something strange about his way of speaking: he hesitates an instant too long after each phrase, as if mentally translating from another language. Not a Spanish accent—it seems Eastern European.
There are girls across the hall, he says. I have to share with them.
So what? Jake speaks this time. So do we. So does everyone. It’s Yale policy.
He folds his hands in his lap and stares down at the grass between us. I’m a Muslim, he says. It’s not proper.
Jake bites his lip, chews his lip, trying not to laugh.
Well, there must be something they can do, I say. They can find you a different room somewhere. Did you tell them that when you sent in your roommate forms?
His eyelids dip slowly and he fixes me with a sour look, an old man’s tired frown. Yes, he says impatiently.
Shouldn’t that be the end of the story? I’m here, his face says. Isn’t that enough for you? Do I have to explain myself again, every step of the way? Across the lawn a whistle shrieks and eight hundred of us stand all at once, trying not to appear too eager, tugging out the legs of our sweaty shorts. Rafael stays seated, and I next to him, in a half-crouch, a helper’s pose.
And then he stands up and dusts himself off and twists away.
We spend the next few days shuttling from one meeting and training session to another. We learn to recognize the signs of eating disorders and the signs of depression; to avoid sexual assault by travelling in groups; to understand that no means no; to squeeze the tip of the condom before rolling it on; to avoid muggings by travelling in groups; to give homeless people vouchers for food instead of money; to speak to our RAs if we feel angry, hurt, lost, anorexic, depressed or sexually assaulted; to avoid unpleasant encounters with roving townies by travelling in groups. Rafael isn’t anywhere to be seen, and his name never comes up in any conversation, not even the ones you might expect: This guy, across the hall? You wouldn’t believe it, he’s some kind of super-orthodox Muslim.
A week later, when I come upon him staring into a plate of green beans and baked fish in the Trumbull dining hall, I’ve forgotten him altogether. He raises his head just as I’m scanning the tables, looking for a familiar face, and our eyes meet. By accident. He’s sitting alone, and instantly I know—we both know—it would be unforgivably rude for me not to join him, though I’m in a hurry and the last thing I want is to get involved.
I know you, he says, when I introduce myself again. We met the first day. On the grass. He doesn’t smile, but gives me a tiny nod, a slight inclining of the head. Isaac is a very interesting name, he says. Not everyone would choose that name.
Yeah. A little too Biblical. I went through a stage of trying to get people to call me Zack, but there were two other Zacks in my class.
A slight tightening at the corners of his eyes, as if I’ve slipped out of focus.
And the funny thing, I say, is that my town is mostly Jewish, and my high school was mostly Jewish, but I’m the one named Isaac.
He cuts a chunk of scrod with his fork and lifts it up, picking away the bones carefully. I assume you know the story of Ibrahim and the sacrifice, he says. The Jewish-Christian version. He unfolds his napkin carefully, as if it were an old document, a tattered map from the glove box, and uses one corner of it to wipe his mouth. But you haven’t heard the Muslim version.
Pushing his plate aside, he makes a V with his hands on the tabletop. Ibrahim has two sons, he says. Isaac and Ismail. So God—Allah—asks him to make this sacrifice, and when Ibrahim agrees, Allah says, This son, who you were willing to sacrifice, he will be the father of the chosen people.
And the sons of the other are the outcasts. The sons of Ishmael.
Right. A broad smile. Only Ismail is the chosen one, and Isaac is the outcast.
Well, that’s only one way of looking at it, right? It doesn’t necessarily have to be about winners and losers.
Let me guess, he says, expressionless, spearing beans with his fork. Your parents must be Episcopalians.
And one of them is a doctor. At least.
I follow his eyes to my backpack, sitting in the chair next to me, printed with a lime-green logo: zocor™ philotelenol hydrozolate.
My mother’s a dermatologist. And?
As if satisfied, in some obscure way, he looks up at the rafters of the dining hall, at the shields with heraldic crests and Latin mottoes underneath the leaded-glass windows, and nods distractedly. Give me a straight answer, I want to say to him. I’ve already picked my way through my own plate of overcooked fettuccine and too-sweet tomato sauce; and it’s time for me to consider the other options: the salad bar, the bagel bar, another peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, a merciful quick escape to the library.
So you see, he says, the winners have many options. They can choose to feel about themselves however they want. They can even choose not to be winners any more.
Isn’t it a little too implausible that I would hear a knock at my door two days later, at an hour when Jake and Michael happen to be out, and find Rafael standing there? Or that I would invite him in? I myself find it hard to believe. He looks helpless and bewildered, clutching a textbook and a ragged notebook under his arm, in a long white T-shirt and the same jeans as before. The outfit reminds me, uncomfortably, of a movie I’ve seen about Mexican-American gangsters in prison.
I’m sorry to bother you, he says. You’re in my psychology class. Are you studying for the test tomorrow? I’m having a hard time with it.
You’re in Salovey’s class? I’ve never seen you there.
Yeah. I sit up in the balcony.
In our common room—a futon, a halogen lamp, a stack of milk crates for bookshelves, a Dinosaur Jr poster, a Rothko print, a stereo sitting precariously on its own box—he looks awkwardly from side to side, unsure of where to sit, twitching with discomfort. Finally I point him to the futon and move my desk chair to face him.
It’s this influence stuff, he says, opening the textbook across his knees. This part:
The human mind has an overwhelming craving for stability and symmetry, particularly in social relationships with strangers. Schloss (1967) demonstrated that adult subjects who feel an obligation imposed on them (even one they did not choose themselves) will make every effort to fulfill it, and report feeling unsettled and anxious if prevented from doing so. The same logic applies to all free-giveaway programs and one-on-one selling techniques.
Okay, I say. This is easy. Think of the example he gave in lecture. The Hare Krishna guy comes up to you in the airport and gives you a sticker that says ‘Smile!’ without asking you for permission first. Even if you don’t want the sticker, he won’t take it back, and you can’t throw it away in front of him—that would be rude. So you have to talk to him for thirty seconds. That gives him time to make the pitch for his children’s charity, or whatever he’s trying to collect money for. Again, because he initiated the relationship with a gift, you still feel indebted, so you might wind up giving him a dollar or two or five—even though you know better.
He takes off his glasses and wipes them on the long hem of his T-shirt. It’s a warm night, still now in mid-September, and the creases in his forehead are shiny with sweat. Without his glasses, and slightly flushed by the heat, he looks naked, defenceless as an overgrown newborn. Except, I notice now, he has a small white scar at the left corner of his mouth, a cut badly healed.
Only an idiot would act that way, he says. Doesn’t it just seem like nonsense to you? All this manipulation, all these tricks?
I shrug. These are unconscious tendencies, I say. Some people are more strongly influenced by them than others.
That assumes that everybody has the same unconscious. And why should that be? Think about it. Why should some professor know what my unconscious is like?
Well, you know, the studies are all supposed to be multi-ethnic, so they factor that part in.
He laughs, the one and only time I will ever hear him laugh, a deep guffaw out of the belly that is also like a suppressed groan. Bullshit they do, he says. All these studies are done on college campuses, so who do you expect they’re going to find?
Then why take psychology? If you’ve already decided you don’t believe in it, why take it?
Leaning back, he tilts his head up to stare at the ceiling, and lets his hands fall uselessly on the textbook’s open page, fingers curling skyward. The futon creaks underneath him. Everyone has to learn a skill, he says tonelessly, as if repeating a line learned in childhood. The Movement doesn’t need illiterates. It needs doctors, lawyers, engineers. People with degrees. The new nation depends on those people.
Without looking at me, he digs into the pocket of his jeans and thrusts a battered yellow pamphlet in my direction: ‘Jihad in the Cause of God, Young Muslims United, Toronto, CANADA, for free distribution’. The paper is tissue-thin, the type a reprint of an older edition, printed on an inferior press, hardly legible in places. In my hands it falls open to a paragraph highlighted in orange:
This religion is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men and from servitude to his own desires, which is also a form of human servitude; it is a declaration that sovereignty belongs to God alone and that He is the Lord of all the worlds. It means a challenge to all kinds and forms of systems which are based on the concept of the sovereignty of man; in other words, where man has usurped the Divine attribute.
Each page contains more of the same—long paragraphs in tiny print, studded with quotations:
There are many practical obstacles in establishing God’s rule on earth, such as the power of the state, the social system and traditions and, in general, the whole human environment. Islam uses force only to remove these obstacles so that there may not remain any wall between Islam and individual human beings, so that it may address their hearts and minds after releasing them from these material obstacles, and then leave them free to choose to accept or reject it.
What does this part mean? The whole human environment?
He lifts his head and looks at me curiously.
Why? What do you think it is?
Well, what else is there? God’s environment?
That’s a circular argument. If you define God as everything not human and yet say that we’re supposed to destroy our own environment and accept God’s—
Shut up and listen for a second. Tiny drops of sweat trickle down his forehead, and he wipes them away with the back of his hand. This isn’t just philosophy, he says. It’s a programme. The first people going down are the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It’s all about reclaiming the Islamic world and making it real. Not just a copy of the West. Those countries have their laws, and we have shari’a. We don’t want to force anybody to become Muslims, but we want Muslims to be allowed to be Muslims.
As he speaks he squares his shoulders and leans forward, elbows on his knees, watching me, watching the room. Projecting. Did he learn that in theatre class, I’m wondering, and if so, can he tell I have a trick of my own, pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth to keep from smiling?
I know what you’re thinking. He flicks his fingers dismissively. Yeah, I was a Catholic. I went to Catholic school through eighth grade. Does that make you happy? You want to hear about how my mother waded across the Rio Grande with only her shoes in a plastic bag?
Look, you have to admit it’s a little incongruous. Who’s to say you won’t decide to give it up in another year?
And who’s to say you won’t be a Muslim yourself in another year?
He stands and walks over to my desk, arms crossed, peering at the CDs piled along the windowsill, reading the posters and postcards I’ve taped to the wall above.
Cat Stevens is a Muslim. You like Cat Stevens, don’t you?
I turn around in my chair to face him, as he bends over my desk, scanning the papers and open books curiously, dispassionately, as if looking at a museum display under glass.
Is that how you recruit new members? Cat Stevens?
He closes his eyes.
Islam has nothing to do with violence, he says. If you try it—if you pray, if you read the Qur’an, if you come to the masjid, you’ll understand. And I really think you should, Isaac. Because I can tell that you’re not happy. You may think you belong here, but you don’t. Not really. No more than I do.
I have a curious tickling feeling at the back of my throat, as if I’ve swallowed something dry and scratchy by accident; I cough, once, twice, but it doesn’t change.
What makes you so sure of that?
His smile lifts up only one corner of his mouth, at once wistful and patronizing. Why else would you be sitting here talking to me for so long? he says. Shouldn’t you have somewhere else to be? He picks up his textbook and the pamphlet, tucks them under his arm, and pauses for a moment, his head lifted, reading another poster I’ve tacked to my closet door. A sepia-toned picture of Rilke, and a quotation from Letters to a Young Poet:
The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Have you read Rilke? I’ll lend you his books if you want.
He shakes his head in a kind of spasm, as if coming out of a momentary trance.
It’s not so hard, he says, giving me a sly, sideways smile. Why should you have to wait so long?
The next day, Thursday, I wake up late, having missed my nine o’clock English class, with a headache and a mouth that feels stuffed with cotton batting. The sky is the colour of wet cement and the air has a faint metallic chill, a fall feeling, for the first time. All day, following familiar paths across campus, I have a slight sense of drift, of not quite following a straight path from point A to point B. The cries of the woman who stands at the corner of York and Elm—A flower for a dollar! Please, sir, a flower for a dollar!—follow me down the block. In my philosophy class, describing Socrates’ final words in the Phaedo, the professor, who walks with a limp and seems nearly eighty, turns his face to the blackboard for a full minute, as if looking over his shoulder at someone, and then returns to his lecture.
That night, at dinner, I strike up a conversation with two guys I’ve never met before, sophomores, and afterwards we go up to their room to listen to a live Coltrane date from 1966, and smoke pot, three bowls, until the lights in the room take on a bluish tinge and the music thickens into a single vibrating pulse. After midnight, walking back alone across Old Campus, I see a light still on in a second-floor window, just above mine.
Sovereignty is God’s alone, and he is the ruler of all the worlds.
Without having quite meant to, I’ve veered off the stone walkway and come to a halt on the grass. A faint breeze ruffles the leaves of an oak tree off to the right. No one else is around; a long uninterrupted row of discs of light stretches underneath the security lamps, like a line of white coins. Inside these buildings there are 1,000-odd seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, sleeping, smoking, fucking, leaning out of windows, mastering Russian grammar and particle physics, writing first novels, playing erotic games of Scrabble. But how many of them know, and know they know, the truth?
Is truth what we’re paying for?
Sovereignty is God’s alone, and he is the ruler of all the worlds.
He doesn’t look surprised when he opens the door. Come in, he says. His accent thicker than the day before. I was just cleaning up. Have a seat.
The room has no furniture to speak of. A mattress in one corner, a plastic milk crate upended for a desk, a line of books against the wall, white T-shirts and dark jeans piled on top of a suitcase. Even the glass ceiling lamp has been removed, and the bare bulb gives off a yellowish glare. On the wall above the bed a calendar with a picture of a sunrise and Arabic writing across it. He’s not staying long, I tell myself immediately, involuntarily. This is an encampment.
I talked to one of the maintenance guys, he says. I told him if he took away everything he could sell it if he wanted to.
I sit down on the edge of the mattress, clasping my knees together. My mouth has gone dry and the harsh light makes my eyes ache. I’ve forgotten whatever it was I planned to say.
It’s cool. You’ve got a lot more space this way. It’s very monastic.
All that shit is unnecessary, he says. It glorifies the body. Allah wants us to make palaces in his name and live in tents outside them. On tiptoe, he stretches out his arm and almost touches the ceiling. All this construction, he says, all this money. I mean, Okay, it’s a cold climate, you can’t live outside all the time, the way they do in Arabia. But they could have had some humility, you know what I mean? This is a student dormitory, not a fucking castle. You went on the tour, didn’t you? All these buildings were put up in the 1930s, but they wanted to make them look old. So they poured acid on the roof tiles and broke the glass in the windows so it’d look all funky and crooked. Man, if that’s not a symbol of a civilization in decline, I don’t know what is. A bunch of pathetic white geezers who have all this money and so little to show for it that they have to make an imitation of something that’s 600 years old.
He bends his knees and jumps in place, landing on his heels with a bang, as if to test the strength of the floor.
America is the most self-hating society the world has ever seen. Why else would all these rich folks decide that they’re going to take the people they’ve chained, whipped, shat upon and murdered for the last 400 years, select the best ones and give them all the tools they need to take over? Sure, they get a few lapdogs here and there. Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby. But over time they’re signing their own death warrant, and they know it. If those people really knew how to run a society they would have listened to Henry Ford back in the 1930s.
He was Hitler’s biggest fan. Didn’t you study any of this shit? He was the only one of them who was willing to tell the truth. A society based on money is a society based on murder. That’s rule number one. Money creates envy on one side and fear on the other. And where does the urge to murder come from? Envy or fear. It’s that basic. Hatred is the gas in the engine. The problem is, how do you use it? That’s what Hitler understood. People like us, we need to kill. We have to hate somebody. It’s in our blood. You can sublimate it, you can ignore it, you can hand out scholarships and welfare and what-all, but that only lasts so long. Hatred is power. It has to be channelled.
He speaks with his eyes locked on the ceiling, resting his hands on his hips or dropping them at his sides, fingers splayed. Ignoring me for dramatic purposes. As if we’ve both agreed, somehow, to pretend that this is a rehearsal, a preparation, instead of the main event.
There are four kinds of hatred. There’s hatred that expresses itself as such, openly. That’s the best kind. There’s hatred that becomes self-pity. Extremely useful if dealt with correctly. There’s hatred that gets channelled into other forms of aggression. Very wasteful and counterproductive, very difficult to change. And then there’s hatred that turns into guilt and then into smothering kindness. It identifies with its opposite. That’s almost impossible to manage.
The sticky haze of the pot is beginning to clear; each time I blink I see the room more clearly, its bright surfaces and hard-edged shadows. It isn’t that I’ve never heard these things before. Baltimore has its share of street-corner prophets: vendors of The Spartacist and Revolutionary Worker and The Final Call. All the rusting Eastern cities do. If you’re a curious fifteen-year-old out walking the streets for the first time, playing at independence, little more than bus fare in your pockets, you stop and listen to them. You take the pamphlet extolling the virtues of the Shining Path and the FMLN button and sign the petitions to free political prisoners you’ve never heard of. And you never, ever respond, because they don’t want questions; it’s a performance, not a dialogue. They have bright tubercular eyes, they are incapable of embarrassment and they never tire.
But you can’t do it, I’m thinking. You can’t be a shoeless prophet in the Berkeley College Dining Hall, underneath the chandeliers and the mounted ibex. It’s there in invisible ink, in all the pages you sign. You take on that mantle of shame. The gate you don’t see is the gate that closes behind you. It’s the smell of the steam vents, the boiled food, the carving of Confucius over the library door. You relinquish the right to scrabble around in the entrails of birds. You refuse to call the president a blue-eyed devil, until you can prove it in a chemical equation, or refer to it, in passing, in a devastating parenthetical. You take on the humiliation of belonging.
With the confidence only a college freshman can have, I look up, I hold his gaze, his unblinking eyes rimmed with baby fat, and say in a hoarse whisper, Rafael, give it up. You know I don’t hate you.
He squats in front of me, angling his face to one side, so that I see it in profile. See this scar? he asks, pointing. You know how I got it? A rat bit me while I was sleeping. When I was three. We were in some welfare hotel in South Carolina, and they evicted us, and it was raining, so we slept in the back, in the shed where they kept the dumpsters. When my mom took me to the hospital they refused to give me rabies shots because she couldn’t provide any ID. If that isn’t hate, then what is? Those people wanted me dead.
And you can say that it’s not fair, he says, you can say that I can’t extrapolate, you know, that I can’t tar you with the same brush, or whatever. But here’s the truth. I do. We do. We’re hard-wired to. And don’t give me this nature-or-nurture, humanistic, free-will asinine liberal bullshit about individual worth and dignity. That’s the biggest lie of all. As if anything in this world was really about individuals.
Hold on. I stick a finger out at him, as if to say, Enough. I respect your right to say, Based on my experience, I believe—almost anything. But you can’t tell me that I hate you. Step back for a minute. The world is more complicated than that.
He turns partway towards me and grips the back of his neck with both hands, covering his ears with his wrists. You don’t get it at all, he says, closing his eyes. Not that I’d really expect you to. But it’s sad. It’s really fucking sad. Because the point of all of this, the reason for my saying this, is that the only solution is total submission to God. Once you admit to yourself that you’ve spent your life worshipping false idols, and your heart is full of confusion and darkness and buried rage and guilt and lust, only then can you allow Allah into your heart. I’m talking about peace and serenity like nothing you’ve ever known. And you, Isaac, I thought you would understand this. Everybody can see it in your face, man. You’re lost. You don’t know what to believe. You’re a wide-open door. You’ve got all this power and privilege, but that’s not enough. You’re sick of this dream country.
Outside, in the entryway, shuffling steps on the stairs, and a loud girl’s voice. I can’t believe you’ve never had jello shots before, she’s saying. You have to take it slow. They put a ton of vodka in them, didn’t you know that? Watch it! Hold the rail.
I don’t have any power, I want to tell him. I’m not special. Why did you have to choose me? Who do you think I am?
And what if you’re right? What then?
I’ve still got my scholarship cheques. He starts to sway back and forth, ducking, bobbing his head, and then begins to dance like a boxer, on the balls of his feet, whipping his arms out in careless punches. The bursar’s office is after me. They’ve been banging on my door every day since I got here. If I go now I’ll still have enough for a one-way ticket to Karachi. He spins, hammering at the air; he throws a roundhouse kick over my head. I met this guy in Jersey City who gave me the number of his mosque. He said they’re always looking for Americans. You can go to school there for free; they’ll teach you Arabic, the Qur’an, everything you need to know. It’s all paid for by charity. That’s the thing, man. It’s a system. It’s a new way to live. They’re taking lost people from everywhere, people like us, and giving them a new life. All you have to do is show up.
He pulls up the hem of his T-shirt and wipes his face with it. Underneath his torso is the colour of putty. As if he never takes his shirt off, as if he’s never been outside bare-chested, not once, not in a swimming pool or on a beach.
You can get the money, he says. The ticket’s about fifteen hundred. Your parents probably gave you that much to start your bank account, didn’t they?
Rafael, I say, smiling, shaking my head. Don’t be an idiot.
Why not? he asks. Am I wrong? I haven’t heard you arguing. Do you disagree with my analysis? Then tell me what you think. Don’t just fucking sit there.
I respect your opinion. That’s as far as I’ll go. I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.
Oh, Jesus, he says, what a classic liberal evasion, man, that’s the way to defuse any argument, isn’t it? They teach you that shit in the womb, don’t they? Let’s agree to disagree. Fuck that! He slaps his palm against the wall. Come on, articulate something! Why shouldn’t I go to Pakistan? Now’s your chance, Isaac. You’ve got thirty seconds.
He stares at me with such intensity that I have to look away; a biological reaction, probably, going back to our days in the trees. All animals know that eye contact is hostile, that meeting an angry gaze is open warfare. I have to force myself to look up again, to see him. And when I do, of course, I know how afraid he is. His forehead creases; his eyelids perform little spasms, narrowing and widening, as if he’s waiting for me to jump up and attack.
I can’t tell you anything new. You’ve worked it out to your own satisfaction. It’s useless for me to say that I don’t believe that Henry Ford was right. You know that already. And you know that I’m not going with you, either. You’re afraid of leaving without somebody knowing why.
You’re underestimating me.
The problem, I say, ignoring him, is that I don’t think you really believe in this stuff. You’ve talked yourself into a corner and you can’t get out, but that’s not the same thing as a conversion. Islam is all about God’s love, right? You don’t have any fucking love. You need a shrink, not a new religion. So I’m not going to be your witness, all right? You can’t put me in that position. Go do what you want, but don’t ask me to legitimize it. As far as you’re concerned, I was never here. I never listened to this.
He gives me a knowing grin, his lips pulled back against the teeth. You can be cruel, he says. But I guess I should have expected that. That’s the badge of the do-gooder class, ain’t it? My way or the highway.
You asked for my opinion.
I asked for an argument, not a psychiatric evaluation. He opens the door a few inches. You can go now. That’s what you want, right?
I stand up unsteadily; my legs have gone to sleep, and I have to bend over and massage them before I can walk. As I approach the door, he stands with his arms at his sides, like a sentry, half-blocking my way, so that I’ll have to push past him to get by.
When you get sick of this place, he says, when you realize I’m right, come join me. I’ll still be there. I’m not coming back.
I believe you.
Don’t believe me. Believe God.
Lunging forward, he takes my right hand and presses the palm against his face. He hasn’t shaved; he doesn’t shave. Soft skin, oily, rubbery. Human skin. I haven’t been touched in nearly a month. Not a hug, not a caress, not an arm over my shoulder. College students don’t shake hands.
This body is just a shell, he says, it’s a tool in God’s hands, for him to use and throw away. Don’t listen to my voice. Trust God speaking through me. Look at the movie, not the screen. This is the life you want. This is the call. It won’t come again.
I pull my hand away and move into the gap between his shoulder and the doorjamb, and he turns with me, one body to another, like a dancer, and presses his mouth for a moment against mine. And what is it, what can I call it, inertia, or terror, or are they one and the same, keeps me moving, unclasping from his embrace like a hand releasing from a handshake. If I could speak I would say, It’s not enough. I wish it was. It’s not enough. At the bottom of the stairs, wiping my mouth, I hear his door slam.
In ten years I only thought about Rafael Mendes once. It was at a party in Cambridge, in the summer, on someone’s back porch. We were sitting in a semicircle of chairs drinking sangria—a few friends from graduate school, wives, boyfriends, neighbours. The woman next to me was named Erin; she lived up the street and, as it turned out, she was a forensic pathologist at Brigham and Women’s, a researcher who specialized in scars, wounds, abscesses—the icky stuff, she said. She had slender white legs and little explosions of red freckles all over her face and shoulders, and she wasn’t above sticking her fingers into her glass to retrieve the grapes.
I had a friend in college with a scar on his face from a rat bite, I told her.
I’m not sure why. I said it lightly, casually, as a bit of polite conversation; I hardly even remembered who it was I was referring to. Don’t we all do that sometimes, just for the sake of having something to say? I described it, how it stood out against the skin, and used my pinkie to indicate the size.
She frowned and shook her head.
I hate to tell you this, she said, but your friend was making that up. Rat bites aren’t that big, to begin with. And they gouge, they don’t slice. To me that sounds more like a knife wound. Probably he cut himself playing when he was a kid. She bit into a chunk of apple. Points for creativity, though, she said. A rat bite? Only kids in the projects get those. He wasn’t Puerto Rican, was he?
He might have been. I never asked.
Well, she said, I grew up in New York, and the Puerto Rican kids at my school always used to say that if you ratted out your friends to the teachers or the cops you’d get cut like that on the side of your mouth. They called it the chismo. Or sometimes la rata. Maybe he was being poetic. It’s not the kind of thing you’d want to admit, is it? Even years later. You should look him up and see what he says now.
She crossed her legs and smoothed the front of her sundress nervously, as if afraid she’d said too much. Like so many women my age, I thought, apologizing for her expertise, hesitating to be an authority.
And you, she said, what do you do? You haven’t said a word about yourself.
It’s all right, I said. My friend, the one I was talking about? He used to say that individuals don’t really matter.
Her lips formed a vague smile, a place holder, while she looked around the room for an explanation. What is it with you people? she asked finally. Why do you insist on telling jokes no one else gets?
From the Washington Post, October 7, 2003:
American Jihadist Reported Killed in Cairo Bombing
Rafael Mendes, a 28-year-old Delaware resident reported missing ten years ago, was reported to have been killed Friday in a failed suicide bombing near the British embassy in Cairo, according to news reports in the Egyptian press over the weekend.
Mendes, who disappeared shortly after enrolling at Yale University as a freshman in 1993, apparently had spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and at some point changed his name to Mustafa Ali, according to a report in Al-Ahram Newsweekly, which quoted an anonymous member of the radical group he was associated with.
Mendes appears to have been the sole occupant of a truck filled with explosives which exploded after striking a low overpass about a mile from the British embassy. The overpass collapsed in the explosion, killing a bicycle rider and injuring twenty motorists.
His parents, Marco and Rosa Mendes, of Wilmington, were notified by the State Department yesterday. In an interview with a local television crew, Mr Mendes said they had heard from Rafael only once, in 1995, in a postcard sent from Islamabad, in which he wished them well and advised them to build a bomb shelter underneath their house in order to ‘avoid the coming holocaust’.
It’s the first week in November. I’m sitting cross-legged, alone, on a bench on the Green, reading the Oresteia. It’s too cold to be sitting outside, but I’ve gone there to avoid my roommates’ furious glances across the common room. I’ve pulled the sleeves of my jacket down over my hands, leaving only the knuckles exposed. On the opposite side of the path, about twenty feet away, a homeless man or woman is asleep under a pile of newspapers and dirty clothes, his head—or hers—hidden under a torn piece of blue carpet.
For we are strong and skilled;
we have authority; we hold
memory of evil; we are stern
nor can men’s pleadings bend us. We
drive through our duties, spurned, outcast
from gods, driven apart to stand in light
not of the sun.
As I look up the pale autumn sun dips behind the Taft, and all at once I am gripped by a heart-wringing sadness. The three churches on the Green stand deserted, like decorations, placed there as an afterthought. Most of the storefronts along Chapel Street are empty and dark. The cold is soaking into my bones. I ought to go over to the figure lying on the ground and shake him, and say, It’s too cold to stay out, you need to get to a shelter, but you don’t do that here; too many of them are paranoid, or drunk, or high, and you could get stabbed, or worse. Human beings freeze to death in this city from time to time. You learn to live with it, and with the police sirens racing past your window every night, and the faint pops in the distance that might or might not be gunshots.
Rafael, I think, this broken world will never be mended.
My face is turning numb. I stand up stiffly and shake out my arms, trying to get the blood flowing. I’m witnessing something; I know that much. Say that for a moment it’s possible to cut the fabric of our days and expose the fulcrum, the glistening gears, the smell of grease. I ought to lie down on the ground myself. I should hail a cab for the airport and buy a ticket to Karachi and find a way to bring him back.
In a better world our wishes would have the force of law.
If I could find a way to walk out of this story, I would. Instead, I turn and walk back towards Phelps Gate, towards the dark battlements lying in shadow, because I have nowhere else to go.