Once in a Promised Land A Novel
By Laila Halaby
Beacon Press Copyright © 2007 Laila Halaby
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8070-8390-1
One minute before Jassim Haddad's alarm was scheduled to hammer through the quiet morning, his eyes opened, and he lay awake in darkened silence for a few seconds before his naked arm stretched out to turn off the buzzer. Four days a week he woke up at this time, usually a minute or two before the alarm, so he could drive to the Fitness Bar, swim, come home, and still be able to spend morning time with his wife, Salwa.
Jassim delighted in the stillness the morning offered, a time before emotions were awake, a time for contemplation. This day was no exception as he got up, washed his face, brushed his teeth, and relieved himself, the beginning of a morning ritual as close to prayer as he could allow. His thoughts hovered over the internal elements of self and world rather than the external. Jassim did not believe in God, but he did believe in Balance. At five o'clock, with the day still veiled, Jassim found Balance.
He went to his bedroom once more to look at Salwa and to pick up the duffel bag he had packed the night before.
"Have a good swim, Father of Water Preservation," whispered Salwa.
"Thank you. Have a good sleep, Miss Pajamas." Sometimes he walked to the side of the bed and kissed her forehead, but usually he did not. Today he did not.
Outside, the darkness was almost warm, the desert's refusal to accept autumn. Though they had a garage, Jassim often parked his Mercedes sedan in the driveway, under an acacia tree, so that he could step out into the day before he got into his car. Radio off, he took a couple of deep swimming breaths before pulling off his property and looping down the hills in a silent nine minutes. Driving alone in the dark, alone anywhere, anytime, filled Jassim with peace and pleasure; driving was a secret drug, a secret god.
In a blink he arrived at the end of the road where the Fitness Bar was lodged, at the edge of a wash, a few breaths from the mountains. He parked in the bright-for-safety lot, amazed as always by how many cars were already there.
ID approved by Diane, the early morning clerk, he entered, smiling politely, though believing that it was within decorum not to greet people at this time of day.
His goal was the outdoor Olympic-length pool at the heart of the gym; the building was U-shaped and the pool nestled within its inner walls. The east lanes were used by the faster and more serious swimmers (ex-competitors, he imagined, judging by the way they flipped when they came to each end), so while the west lanes were more apt to be subject to doubling, Jassim usually chose one of them.
Jassim put his duffel bag down at the end of lane #2. First he warmed up in his T-shirt and shorts: ten push-ups, ten sit-ups, twenty jumping jacks, which was just enough to start his blood pumping and get him ready for the water. He got out his goggles and towel and stripped down to his Speedo (So deep, he thought, liking the way the word broke down symmetrically).
Salwa hated his Speedo. "Why do you have to wear that? It's dreadful. Makes you look like clay."
"It's more comfortable to swim in. Besides, why would you mind? No one sees me in it."
"What do you mean no one sees you? You always talk about how full the gym is when you go."
"I mean no one we know. The only people there are people who are exercising, and people who exercise wear exercising clothes."
Goggles dipped in the water to avoid steaming, shaken out to make them clear, elastic strap stretched once before wrapping around his head, he was ready. Sitting on the lip of the pool with his legs dangling in the water, he breathed two swimming breaths, and then he was in.
The cold rush that surrounded his body stole his breath, forced his heart to speed up as his strokes sliced through the water. He stopped at the wall of the far end to catch his breath and then began to swim at a normal pace, as he had done for years and years. The crawl, breast stroke, backstroke, and crawl again, for a total of forty minutes.
Today, a day that changed everything, Jassim cleared his mind, forced away thoughts of work, of preoccupations, and relaxed for the last time for many years to come, letting his thoughts go where they wished.
* * *
After his final lap, Jassim stood in the water and breathed heavily with his arms outstretched. Eyes closed, fingers reaching, palms facing the sky, head left, head right, slight rotation with each arm, and another deep breath to elongate his spine, face, and chest tilted toward the heavens. The city would now be waking up, but Jassim was drenched in that delightful contented state that exercise gives the body. He stood another moment, noting the swimmers in each adjacent lane, keeping in mind that he had less than five minutes to get out before his blood slowed down and he wouldn't be able to shake the cold. He had attained equilibrium.
Today, as on each day, he embraced his routine: climbed out of the pool, took off his goggles, shook them out, dropped them in his duffel bag, and dried his face with a thick hand towel, never having come around to using the giant towels that Americans loved. "They are as large as bedcovers," he had told Salwa when she bought a set for the first time.
"They are luxurious," she had countered.
And therein lay their differences.
He slipped into his shower shoes.
Footsteps followed him into the building.
"Have a good swim?"
Jassim turned and found an older man, perhaps sixty, with graying hair cut a quarter of an inch from his scalp, a young face, and an exceptionally lean, tan body. He too was wearing a Speedo, but unlike Jassim, he was dripping wet and had a white towel over his shoulder.
"Yes, thanks," said Jassim. "You?"
"Always. Don't know how people who don't swim manage."
Jassim nodded. They walked silently side by side until they got to the shower room.
"Name's Jack Franks," said the man, extending his hand.
"Jassim Haddad," replied Jassim, returning the strong grip.
He pushed open the red door whose white letters announced they were entering the men's locker (rock semen, l remainder), gestured for Jack Franks to precede him, and hoped that their conversation would end. Jassim liked to start the day with silence, required silence to cement the balance he had achieved by swimming. The shower stalls were lined up on one side, with benches in front of them. On the other side were lockers. Farther back were toilets and sinks. He dropped his duffel on a bench, got out a bottle of shampoo, which he placed on the shelf in the shower, and hung the slightly damp hand towel on a peg within arm's reach. Jack Franks had no bag, just hung his towel over a peg and got into the shower next to his.
Jassim stepped into the shower and pulled the curtain.
"You Iranian?" Jack Franks asked over the sound of water. He pronounced the word I-ray-nee-in.
Jassim turned the water on and stood under it, willing Jack Franks to be quiet.
"No, I'm from Jordan."
A hot five-minute shower after swimming was one of the few excesses that Jassim allowed himself, giving his muscles a chance to relax and his mind a chance to ready itself for the day. Not for the first time, Jassim wished that the gym offered outdoor shower closets that were open at the top so that he could bathe in silence and semidarkness, complete his morning routine, his meditation, his time for being in touch with the elements of the world, in peace, with no other stimulus.
"Jordanian? I went to Jordan once."
Jassim wondered if he could pretend he didn't hear. It wouldn't have made a difference, because Jack Franks kept talking.
"Followed my daughter there. She married a Jordanian. Not one like you, though. This one was from the sticks-or the sand, as the case was."
"I hope she was happy there," said Jassim, forcing his voice above the sound of the water and grasping for the uncontroversial.
"Hard to say. She converted. She's an Arab now. Probably still lives there. Don't know. Haven't talked to her for years. That's another story."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Jassim stripped off his Speedo and rinsed it out.
"Don't be sorry. It's not your fault. You have an American wife?" Though the room bubbled with the noise of the two showers and the hum of the cooler, Jack Franks's voice easily carried above it.
"No, my wife is not American." He pushed the soap dispenser twice, rubbed his hands together, and spread the lather from his neck down to his feet.
"She's from there, then?"
"No." Jassim poured a dollop of shampoo into his hand and lathered his head vigorously, then rinsed it out with his fingers rubbing at his scalp.
"Is she beautiful?"
This question went too far, and Jack Franks seemed to sense it.
"No offense intended. I'm just amazed by the beauty of the women there. Incredible. The hair, the eyes. No wonder you fellas cover them up. There's a woman at my bank, First Fidelity, who's from Jordan. Absolutely beautiful. Eyes like magic, the clearest, lightest brown you've ever seen, and thick, thick hair that never seems to move. Never seen anyone like her. Can never remember her name. Starts with an S and sounds like Sally, I think. You know her?"
Jassim let the water pound on his chest and stared at the tile wall in front of him, his serenity scratched. Salwa had a fan club. He didn't like that, didn't want to hear another man talking about his wife. Wished this man would go away and had an unpleasant feeling about him. Why had he never seen him before? "No, I don't think so," he finally answered, though it was not his custom to lie.
Jack had finished his shower and was drying off. Jassim tilted the showerhead up and closed his eyes, let the water pound at his face.
"Jassim, nice to meet you. You have a good day."
Jassim moved his head out of the water and watched through the gap in the shower curtain as Jack walked off, still wearing his Speedo, with his towel over his shoulder again. "Take care, Jack." Where would he be going, dressed like that? The sauna? But then why had he taken a shower first? Jassim wondered. In all the years he'd been going to this gym, Jassim had never been buttonholed like that. People rarely tried to have conversations at this time of day, and certainly not people who ran into each other for the first time. That was something Jassim admired about Americans, something he had done his best to absorb for himself: they didn't allow social constraints to get in the way of the day's plan. If you came to exercise, you exercised, and you never let someone keep you from it.
Water off, Speedo wrung out and deposited in the plastic bag he always carried, his damp hand towel drying him from top to bottom, bottom to top, he dressed again in his shorts and shirt. Then he picked up his bag, held on to his keys, and headed out past the front desk to the parking lot.
"Bye, Diane. Have a good day."
Jassim thought, as he often did when he passed the front gate, that Diane wanted sex-not necessarily from him, rather that she stood there in a state of wanting. Her obvious willingness disturbed him and in no way appealed to him. So skinny, and still she poured herself into pants that were stretched to capacity. Pale and blond with a too-sweet smile, she was not a beauty, nor a turn-on, nor did she seem interesting; her most outstanding feature was that she exuded availability.
He glanced at the clock on his way out. Five minutes after six. On time, on schedule. Twelve minutes in the car and he would be home (his return route added one stoplight and three minutes to his drive). He got in his car, his high-performance machine, and sat for a moment on the cool leather seat, enjoying the quiet.
Radio on, volume low, he headed home, not paying much attention to the news, his mind stuck on Jack Franks.
* * *
For four days Salwa had looked at the tiny pills bubbled in their credit card-like container. She stared. They stared back. Tiny eyes. Tiny mints. Harmless-looking dots that could stop a baby in its tracks, keep it from ever greeting the world, keep it from ever being.
Women's tongues spat stories in Arabic and English of distracted women and absentminded mothers who had forgotten to take their pills, sometimes missing a day or two. True, a few weeks down the road often found them pregnant, which was usually the reason for the story to be told in the first place.
The first day Salwa pretended to herself that she forgot.
On the second day she couldn't forget, or pretend to forget. If Jassim were to look, which he wouldn't, but if he were to look, he would never believe that she had missed two days. One, maybe. Two, impossible. It was not her style. If she decided not to take the pill, she would have to throw it away and make it look like she had taken it on schedule. In other words, she would have to lie a Big Lie. And not a necessary lie that barely even counted.
This pill business was different. To tell Jassim that she took her pills when she had flushed them down the toilet was an out-and-out lie, the kind that slips into the waist of your clothes and slowly, slowly expands until you are so uncomfortable you think you might pop.
Lies of that nature rearranged entire lives, plunked people down where they didn't belong and left others out in the cold with no coat on. Lies like "I am going to visit my mother," the underbelly of which was "I am having coffee with a woman far more beautiful than you."
The interesting thing about lies was that if you found one, could pick out the one phrase that seemed too harmless and plain, and if you lifted it up by the corner, you would see its spectacular tummy with a rainbow of stories stitched in. You had to be an expert, had to be able to dissect conversation like a coroner or, better, like a surgeon, since you wanted everyone to be alive at the end.
Salwa's friend Randa was especially skilled at fishing out the lie, the one sentence that didn't quite fit. She would jerk up her fishing pole in just such a way-"Oh, I didn't see you buying cakes, and I was there all morning" (which might be another lie)-that you could see it for what it was, a brilliant creature dangling in the air, the kind that spent its day under rocks or in the deepest depths of the sea and hid its luster until it made a kill.
Salwa's Lie covered a glorious underbelly. It was not I didn't take my birth control pill but instead a much more colorful For a few years now I've felt that I've been missing something in my life. That's why I got a real estate license. It wasn't enough, though. I think having a child will fill that void. I am going to try to get pregnant, even though Jassim says he doesn't want a child.
But even Salwa didn't look at it that way, couldn't see its truth, could see only a vague hint of red as she succumbed to the frantic desire struggling within her.
Finish. She popped out the second pill that she was not going to take, held it between her fingers, and then dropped it down the sink's drain, which gave her an immediate truth if the subject came up: "I forgot one, and the next day's fell down the drain."
She then swore to herself out loud that she would take the next one.
It is as easy to lie to the Self as it is to Another. Twice tomorrow came and went, and no pills were swallowed.
Today, the fifth day, Salwa woke up with guilt at her throat. Sweetness and quiet usually filled the morning, but today deception soured the air. What have I done, what have I done? Salwa asked herself in Arabic, her language of thought and intimacy.
She lay staring at the guilty darkness as it pinned her down, kept her flat and immobile. In a sudden burst, she pushed it off and sat up. Sweet-smelling feet worked their way into satin slippers and slid across thick carpet to the bathroom. Without a thought, she pressed out a tiny tablet with her thumb. She dropped it in her mouth and ensured its destination in her stomach with a handful of water.
In another spectacular lie to the Self, she swore that there was no way she could have gotten pregnant in those four days. No way. It was done now. Four days that could change the shape of the world, not with war or torrential floods but by inaction.
Excerpted from Once in a Promised Land by Laila Halaby Copyright © 2007 by Laila Halaby. Excerpted by permission.
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