The Passport Stamper

The Passport Stamper

by Haas H. Mroue


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462066544
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 12/09/2011
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.19(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Passport Stamper

By Haas H Mroue

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Haas Mroue Memorial Fund
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-6654-4

Chapter One

My parents died on a hazy afternoon outside Phoenix. They were heading west to San Diego on Christmas Eve when my father suffered a massive heart attack. Paralyzed with fear, my mother watched him lose control of the car, unable to do anything in the split seconds that followed after he cried out in pain but still kept his hands on the wheel and struggled to pull over. He'd always been in control of situations. All kinds of situations, and she thought he'd be able to stop in time. He couldn't. The car crossed the median and crashed head-on into a minivan going east. Both vehicles exploded instantly in tearing metal, tumbling and crashing and sending bits of wrapped Christmas presents flying. Then the fire began. The fire. The terrible fire.

I imagined what had happened. In fact, I couldn't get it out of my mind for a long time after I found out about the accident. Some of the facts I learned from the police. Others came from my mind, tortured with the pain of loss and grief. The police had said the accident happened at 3:40 p.m. At that precise moment, I was in a plane at thirty-seven thousand feet somewhere over Arizona on my way to my sister's house in San Diego, having embarked on the long flight from Athens many hours earlier. The pilot had announced our initial descent and warned of a bumpy ride for the next several minutes, activating the sign that told us to fasten our seat belts. I remember looking at my watch and seeing that it was 3:40 p.m. As a child, I believed that when you died your soul left your body and shot up into the sky like a rocket. I liked to think the turbulence we encountered over the desert was born of the souls of my parents zooming past the Boeing.

At 4:10 p.m., we touched down at Lindbergh Field. Christmas lights shone and twinkled everywhere. My sister, Cass, was waiting for me at the gate with her three-year-old son, Scottie. Cass and I hugged, and I kissed her tenderly on the cheek.

"Did you have a good flight, Jason?" she asked, smiling broadly at me.

"Can't complain."

"Uncle Jason, I wanna sit high up," Scottie said, pointing to my shoulders, as if not a day had passed since Labor Day, which was the last time he'd seen me. "Please," he said, shooting me a big smile.

I stooped down and hugged Scottie and then lifted him above my head. Scottie squealed with delight.

"I always forget how tall you are," Cass said as we all made our way to the baggage claim.

I usually didn't check luggage, but I'd packed some Christmas presents that wouldn't fit in my carry-on bag. I figured the hassle would be worth it, though, especially for Scottie.

"You're looking as handsome as ever," Cass said.

"Thanks, babe," I said. "You're looking great too."

It always stunned me how beautiful my sister was with her wide smile and easy manner. As usual, she was simply dressed with a touch of elegance. Her fair hair was held away from her face, and her eyes were shining with tenderness. Words seemed to flow out of her effortlessly and genuinely whenever we talked together. There was an honesty about her that had always impressed me and still did. I loved her. How gentle and warm she was. A good mixture of Mom and Dad.

We picked up my bag and headed to the parking lot. An old lady smiled at us as we rode down the escalator, deep in small talk and alive with happy anticipation about the evening the family would spend celebrating Christmas Eve together and after being apart for the past several months. The old lady must have thought we were a family. How differently people look at you when they assume you're straight. Something about a man, a woman, and a child being intimate puts people at ease. Two men together doesn't. I wondered what the woman would think if she knew I was eyeing the tanned legs of the young guy wearing shorts just in front of me. I imagined he might be attracted to a man like me—fit from working out regularly at the gym, tan from the Mediterranean sun, my blond hair short but not exactly neat cut like so many men at the embassy where I worked. I didn't care, really, but I still felt a strong desire to let her know that things were not as she imagined.

"Mom and Dad got a late start," Cass said. "They called at two forty-five, and they were just leaving Scottsdale."

"Did Mom have to run back to the hairstylist one last time?"

"No," Cass said, laughing easily. "It was something about her first batch of cookies burning."

Mom hated to cook or bake, but she always made an effort at Christmas to act motherly and bake us cookies.

A short time later, we were out of the parking lot and on the road in my sister's Volvo to Carmel Mountain, a pleasant community north of the city. The hills were green, and the sky was heavy with clouds and rain, unusual for Southern California. We played Christmas carols on the car stereo and sang along while Scottie eyed the bag of Christmas presents on the backseat with his endless, quiet refrain of "When can I open them? When can I open them?" Such a sweet boy. As a child, I would have probably been screaming in the backseat and petulantly tearing open those Christmas presents without a moment's hesitation.

When I sometimes looked back at those calm thirty minutes in the car before we'd found out about the tragic deaths of our parents, a thousand questions raced through my head. Why hadn't Cass brought her cell phone to the airport that afternoon? What if my parents had left on time—at noon as they'd planned? Would my father's heart attack have hit while we were all together in San Diego? And was it luck or just a convenient alignment of history that Cass and I were together when Cass's husband, Doug, gave us the bad news? We'd never know the answers, and I supposed ultimately it didn't matter. And during those calm thirty minutes, which remained etched on my mind as much as my somber imaginings of what had happened in the last tragic moments of my parents' lives, Cass told me that things weren't quite right between her and Doug.

"I've been seeing a therapist," she said. "I'm not sure how long I can take this."

She explained that he'd changed in the past year after turning thirty-five. She described very subtle shifts in their relationship—like how he avoided Sunday mornings in bed, a ritual they'd started from the first weekend they dated, and how he seemed to be constantly irritable with her and Scottie.

"He's just different in bed," she said, taking the off-ramp toward Carmel Mountain. "It's like he sleeps with me out of duty, not feeling. Our sex has become flat."

"Has he tried Viagra?" I asked, half-joking and half-serious.

"He's not flat, stupid," she said, slapping my thigh playfully. "That's not the problem."

I took her hand and squeezed it.

"Anyway," she said.

"Anyway," I said.

"How're things with you and Dimitri?"

"Dimitri," I said, lowering my voice and leaning toward Cass, "is a fucking liar.

He's dating women again just to please his father."

"Oh, God," Cass whispered. She took her eyes off the road for a second and looked at me.

"I'll tell you more later," I said, and I turned to talk with Scottie. "Hey, we're almost home. It's almost time to open presents!"

He giggled.

We were soon driving down Cass's street and pulling into the driveway. Doug was clutching a cell phone and pacing back and forth near the front door. As I got out of the car, I couldn't help but notice his genitals flopping around in his shorts, and I wondered why he chose to wear that particular pair of loose shorts without any underwear. Why was he wearing shorts at all on Christmas Eve? I also noticed that he wasn't smiling and that it was clear something was very wrong. He stopped pacing and just stood there, shifting his weight from foot to foot, keeping his eyes fixed on Cass as she got out of the car, freed Scottie from his car seat, kissed him on the top of his head, and placed him on the driveway. She turned around toward Doug and said, "What's wrong?" Her voice was somewhat impatient and heavy with concern. "What, Doug?"

Chapter Two

Doug just stood there for a long moment, looking at Cass and me. His face was pale, his eyes blank. He opened his mouth to speak and then shut it.

"Doug?" Cass asked.

Doug shook his head and loudly exhaled. "Honey, I'm so sorry. So sorry."

"What?" Cass stepped close to him. "What are you trying to say?"

"There's been an accident," he said. "Mom and Dad are dead."

And for a moment, I thought, "Poor Doug—his parents are dead." But in the millisecond it took me to remember his parents had died a long time ago, it hit me that he was talking about my mother and father—that he'd always called them Mom and Dad. I felt myself pull away from the moment and from myself, like I was a ship leaving port. I almost lost my balance as I heard the words: Police. Instantly. Fire. Doug's voice seemed to be coming from farther and farther away, and I felt my mind clouding over in a thick fog. My eyes were on fire. I stepped back so I could lean against the side of the car.

Cass screamed, "No, no, no!" She stretched her arms out in front of her like a blind person, as if she were trying to find her way through a dark room. She pushed Doug's hands away as he tried to hug her, but he kept coming toward her anyway, moving close to hold her tight. She collapsed against his chest and sobbed.

From the corner of my eyes, I could see Scottie dragging the bag of Christmas presents from the car and tearing into them, a look of triumph on his face. And he sat there among the mess of torn wrapping paper and scattered bows. He sat there on the cold concrete of the driveway in front of his suburban home, oblivious to the tragedy, lost in the sublime innocence of a three-year-old enjoying presents. We all stood for what seemed like hours, Cass sobbing into Doug's T-shirt, the Volvo doors open, the soft insistent ring of the warning chime ting-ting-tinging, alerting us that the key was still in the ignition. I felt sick to my stomach. The earth around me seemed to be roiling like the ocean in an angry and violent storm. The bougainvillea sprawled over the front porch railing, and the intoxicating smell of honeysuckle and orange blossoms filled the air. All I could see was the world swirling, the lights of passing cars dancing, and open water in front of me with no land in sight. Silent words repeated over and over in my mind like a tennis ball being hit back and forth, back and forth, relentlessly back and forth on a clay court—dead, dead, accident, dead, crash, dead. My bladder throbbed, but my body would not move toward a bathroom. We all stood rooted in place, frozen like ice sculptures, until Cass let go of her husband and came to me. She held me tightly and pressed her face against my chest. Her tears soaked through the thin material of my shirt, dampening my skin.

"Shit, Jason! Oh, shit!"

* * *

Doug and I got on the road as quickly as possible, heading for Phoenix. Cass said she just couldn't bear going with us to identify the bodies. "You go, Jason," she said, her voice dull and as heavy as lead. "I'll just stay here with Scottie. I'll just stay here." I knew she was in shock, and so was I. But I said okay. I said I'd handle things. Doug had tried to book a flight, but there were no seats available because of the holiday. Everywhere in America, people were traveling to visit their relatives. Families were uniting to celebrate Christmas while our family was being ripped apart. For us, death arrived on Christmas Eve. It seemed unfair, in a way.

* * *

We drove to Phoenix right away. What could I say about those six hours in the car? What could you do or say on such an occasion? Heading east into the darkness on US Route 8, pressing on over the mountains and down into the endless desert of Arizona, represented a sort of buffer time, a time when I stopped thinking about my parents in the present tense. After that drive, I always referred to them in the past tense, as was to be expected but certainly not easily accepted.

Doug had hastily thrown a shirt and suit on the backseat, but he had not bothered to change. I hadn't changed either. I stayed in jeans. Whenever Doug changed gears, I was aware of his powerful leg pressing down on the pedal, his quad muscles contracting slightly, and the fine hairs on his skin glistening with the lights of every passing car. We'd never spoken much, Doug and I. It was as if he sensed something in me from the start that he didn't want to associate with, and I knew what it was. He kept his distance, maintaining his I-played-football-in-college macho routine. An ex-marine and now a stockbroker, Doug was tough and so utterly masculine that the word feeling had probably never crossed his lips, and I regarded him as simply one of so many men who went through life pretending they had no feelings at all.

It was precisely Doug's outwardly male persona that had attracted Cass to him. That and his nonchalant jokiness. She'd always been a loner and quite frail, a smart kid who excelled in everything but who didn't have much passion for anything. But when she'd met Doug eight years earlier, I saw the desire for him in her eyes. She'd finally found the passion that had been missing all her life. He was the type of man that young women swooned over. Whether in his marine uniform or in one of his sleek Armani suits, Doug was Sports Illustrated, Men's Fitness, and the Wall Street Journal rolled into one.

I'd always suspected Doug was the type who bored easily and wouldn't think twice about getting laid elsewhere—a secretary perhaps, or just a call girl from an escort service during his many trips to London, Las Vegas, or some other big city. He was usually a man of few words, but now he needed to talk to kill the distance between San Diego and Phoenix and to alleviate what I supposed was his anxiety over my potential meltdown when the shock of what had happened really sunk in. We talked quietly about accidents. About my parents. About what we had to do with their home, their mortgage, their belongings. He didn't say anything about how Cass must have been feeling, and that struck me as odd. And yet, it was consistent with what Cass had told me earlier about him shutting down emotionally.

Then Doug went silent. With his right hand, he fished a pack of Marlboros out of the car compartment, expertly tapped a cigarette from the pack, and lit it with a Bic. I said nothing, though I was surprised. I hadn't known that Doug was a smoker. We drove on through the night. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, he said, "You know, you being gay and all? That's cool with me."

He kept his eyes glued to the road. He did not glance over at me.

"Yeah, thanks," I said. "I'll keep that in mind."

Then we fell silent again as we approached the outskirts of the city. I still couldn't cry. I wasn't feeling much at all except fatigue. I had been traveling for over twenty-four hours, having flown from Athens to Frankfurt, from Frankfurt to Chicago, and from Chicago to San Diego. I was now driving to Phoenix, all in one grueling and tragic day. I was exhausted, and the thought of spending all night filling out forms at a police station daunted me. The idea of going to the morgue was unimaginable. I didn't want to have to look at my parents. They'd been badly burned and mangled in the accident. The coroner had said as much to the police, who had said as much to me when I'd called. I dreaded having to see Mom and Dad—two burned sticks. I felt literally sick about it.

In the silence within the car, my thoughts wandered back to the past to another sad time in my life and in the lives of everyone I loved. I remembered my brother, Gary, who had died in a skateboarding accident long ago. I remembered my mother's denial, her abject grief, the fact that even though my brother wasn't disfigured in the accident, she refused to allow an open casket. "We're going to remember him the way he was," she'd said. "The way he always was racing down the street on his skateboard—not laid out in some ugly coffin." And I now wanted to remember my parents as I had last seen them, waving good-bye to me from their patio in Scottsdale on Labor Day, my father brown from the sun and happy in his white tennis shorts and my mother smiling, her recently dyed blonde hair luminescent in the late afternoon sunlight.

More time passed, but then we arrived. Doug parked in front of the police precinct. "I guess we're here," he said, his voice sounding far away and thick with fatigue.

"Yeah, I guess we are," I said. I felt dead inside. I felt numb and unable to think. "I suppose we should go in."

Doug looked over at me. "Yeah, I suppose we should."


Excerpted from The Passport Stamper by Haas H Mroue Copyright © 2011 by Haas Mroue Memorial Fund. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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