Valentine Wheeler © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Faris’s suitcase wheel caught in a rut between the carpets, so he yanked it harder, cursing under his breath. The woman turning the next switchback of the long, snaking check-in line gave him a dirty look from under her hijab. Faris glared back as she turned the corner out of view behind a large, loud family. Frustration simmered in his stomach after a few minutes in the airport. He wasn’t looking forward to the day of travel ahead of him.
He pulled his T-shirt away from his chest, grimacing at the sweaty feel of the cotton. Beirut was too warm in November. Not Charleston-summer hot, sticky and burning like a slap to the face with a wet towel. It wasn’t steamy or boiling or anything so extreme. No, Beirut was a comfortable sixty-eight degrees on November 19th, and Faris hated it. He missed the pinprick pain of ice peppering his face, the driving Boston wind, the coats and scarves and hats that would be starting to layer everyone, making them all the same size and shape and color against the reds and golds of the fall foliage.
When Faris was young, they flew to Lebanon every spring to his parents’ hometown, landing in the early morning and finding Teta at the arrivals sign ready for the drive up the long, steep highway to her house on the outskirts of Aley. At least up in the mountains, it was a little cooler than in Beirut. If he closed his eyes now, he could imagine it was one of those trips. The airport sounded the same. It even smelled the same, scuffed carpet and sweat and allspice and tahini—
Faris’s stomach growled, reminding him he hadn’t had much breakfast. He opened his eyes and caught sight of the source of the smell: the man he was passing now across the stanchion belt was digging into a plastic container of rice and meat. Faris looked away before the man could catch him staring, and instead, caught the eye of the airline employee directing the line. The uniformed man waved him forward impatiently, and Faris grimaced and muttered an apology for holding up the line.
Faris handed his suitcase to the agent behind the desk, watching the familiar battered, red leather case disappear through the slot in the wall. She handed him his boarding pass, then shooed him politely along to follow the crowd to security.
He was ready for his home, his bed, and to be away from the crush of people he’d been stuck in for what felt like months. Coming to Lebanon without Teta waiting for him in her immaculate old Renault hadn’t felt right.
And Teta was gone, interred a week before he’d made it to Aley. Such an incredible force in his life, even from across the Atlantic—the only driving force of the family, really—and she was gone. His great aunts—the ones who were still strictly observant, not pragmatically secular like Teta had been—reassured him through tears that she was already in a new life, already reborn. The whole time he’d been there trying to clean and divide possessions, the house had been full of crying great-aunts and pushy second cousins and town biddies who wanted to know how he was holding up. He’d finally had to kick them out when the realtor came by with the papers, moving the whole group next door to Aunt Farida’s. There, they’d sat around platters of meat pies and fatayers and reminded him over and over death isn’t the end, isn’t even sad, but maybe they thought he was such a terrible agnostic that he was planning to make some sort of great sobbing scene. He wasn’t. He was fine. He was done. He wasn’t going to speak to another human for the next twelve hours.
Faris collected his backpack from the X-ray machine and slung it over his shoulder before pushing through the crowd. For a moment he thought this must be Thanksgiving crowds before remembering nobody here was going home to an inflatable lawn turkey like his dad’s, because Thanksgiving was something nobody here cared about. These were just people going wherever they were going on a Tuesday: no group exodus home like he’d be seeing when he landed at Logan. He stopped in front of the monitor listing arrivals and departures and scanned for his flight. “Copenhagen, Copenhagen,” he muttered, squinting at the tiny letters. A pang of guilt tried to rise in his gut as he skimmed past the Arabic script to read the English translation instead, but he ignored it. He’d been living in English for twenty-two years. Three weeks in Lebanon wasn’t going to make him switch back to favoring the tongue he barely used anymore.
There it was, his first flight of the journey, at the very bottom of the screen. He was early; one of those overly personal second cousins, Najib—Teta’s sister Farida’s grandson—had dropped him off on the way to work, hours before he needed to arrive. He didn’t mind having a few hours at the airport, though. He had needed to get out of Teta’s house. No one’s house, now, he supposed. His dad’s house for the next few hours until the sale went through. At least it would give his dad a little wiggle room financially, let him pay off a bit more of their house in the States. That was maybe the one good thing coming out of this trip.
The listing for his flight flashed twice, then turned red abruptly. It took him a moment to refocus—his eyes had gotten worse since his last pair of glasses. With all the confusion around Teta’s death, he’d had to cancel his ophthalmologist appointment, and now he was stuck with this old pair until he could get back and reschedule. The headaches and blurry vision weren’t improving his mood.
“Oh no,” he whispered as the new status came into focus. “Canceled? What?”
It couldn’t be canceled. He couldn’t stay here any longer. He couldn’t go back to Aley. He wouldn’t be allowed in Teta’s house, anyway, not now that it was technically under contract. He certainly wasn’t going to go to Najib’s place, either, or Aunt Farida’s. He didn’t mind his cousin—he was family and all that—but his four roommates were a lot to take for a few hours, let alone a whole night. And his aunt already had three adult grandkids living with her. He’d be on the couch in the living room there.
Another listing flashed, then another. The speakers crackled overhead, garbled Arabic piping through. Faris strained to hear it over the din of other travelers, fighting to translate the unfamiliar accent.
“Due to weather conditions, flights to Northern Europe, including Hamburg, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Gothenburg, may be impacted. Please see a gate agent for more information.”
“What?” He scanned the board again. “All of them?” He stumbled as a crowd of people began shoving past, flinching at their invasion of his personal space. He pushed up on his toes to look over the mass of people to try to locate the gate he’d been originally scheduled for. The booth at A-2 was dark, empty, and he groaned and squinted over the masses of travelers to find the information desk for Atlantic Air.
It was a few hundred feet down the terminal, and it was mobbed with people. He groaned and started toward it, settling himself at the end of the massive line that had formed from the people he’d let pass.
“Excuse me?” said a voice behind him in mangled Arabic. The accent—so thick it was barely intelligible—sounded American, so against his better judgment, Faris turned to look at the speaker. “This is where to wait to change tickets?”
The man was tall and slim, with a long, pale face freckled across his nose and below hazel eyes, and with hair so dark it was nearly black, standing up in uncontrolled tufts. He clutched a ticket in one hand and a cell phone in the other. His muscular arms were smooth and pale, with a hint of sunburn. He was cute—really cute, not in that bulky way Faris usually liked his men, but attractive as heck—and he looked exhausted.
“Yeah, I’m the end of the line,” said Faris in English, and the man’s face relaxed, breaking into a relieved smile.
“Oh! Thank fuck,” he said, then winced. “Sorry. It’s been a long day, and my brain is all out of Arabic, to tell you the truth.”
“Yeah, though it looks like I’m not making it back anytime soon,” said the man with a frazzled smile. He blinked, focusing on Faris. “Hey, your English is awesome.”
Faris grimaced. “That’s good since I’m from Boston.”
The man blanched. “Oh, sorry, man. I assumed—well, sorry, anyway. You speak Arabic, though?”
Faris nodded. “I was born here,” he said, giving the guy a break. “Your flight canceled too?”
“Through Hamburg, yeah.” He sighed, running a hand through his disaster of a hairstyle. Faris was intrigued to see it popped right back up into the same disarray.
I’m just missing Grindr, he told himself firmly. And he’s probably straight, anyway. I’m not going to pick up a dude in the airport. That’s too cliché.
“I’m Charlie,” said the man, holding out a broad hand. “Thanks for the help, and sorry I’m a dipshit. It’s been a long day.”
“Faris.” He took his hand. “And it’s fine.” He shook it, then turned back to the line. He could barely see the gate agent up ahead, a tall man in a jubbah waving his hands dramatically as the man behind the desk shook his head impassively.
The line moved forward inch by inch.
Something behind him crinkled loudly, and he glanced back at Charlie, who was digging through his bag. He pulled out a half-crushed box of pistachio marzipan and opened it, picking out a piece and popping it in his mouth. Faris tried not to think about the baklava his aunt Adele had offered to send with him the night before. He should have taken her up on it. He focused on the women in front of him, trying to pick out the few Hindi words he knew from their conversation, instead of paying attention to the sweets. He’d get something in the terminal as soon as his flights were sorted out.
“Hey,” said Charlie, holding out the box and offering it to Faris. “Want some? I don’t think they’re going to let me take it through security.”
Faris turned back toward him. “What?”
“The candy,” said Charlie patiently. “Would you like some?”
“Why?” Faris stared at him. “They’re not going to confiscate it. It’s allowed in the terminal.”
Charlie shrugged and picked up another piece, inspecting it. “Hey, your loss, man. Apparently this is the same kind my grandparents used to buy, so I figured I had to try some. It’s delicious.”
“Your grandparents?” asked Faris, then cursed silently. He wasn’t curious about what this American was doing in Beirut. And he didn’t want to get into a conversation with him. “Do they live around here?”
But apparently he did want to know about this guy’s life, and he couldn’t help smiling a little when Charlie lit up at the question. “No, but they were born here and lived most of their lives nearby. I never met them, so I’m here doing some research,” he said.
“What, for a book or something?”
Charlie shook his head. “I wish. No, I had a bunch of time off saved up and I’ve always wanted to come out here. My dad’s parents came to the US right before he was born, and I never met them. I wanted to see where they were from and maybe learn something about their lives.”
Charlie sighed, deflating a bit. “Man, I don’t know.” He glanced forward. “Hey, the line’s moving.” He turned back to Faris. “You sure you don’t want a piece?”
Faris sighed. It did look appealing. What the hell.
Charlie grinned, hazel eyes sparkling, as Faris took a particularly sweet-looking piece and popped it in his mouth, trying not to moan at how good it was. “See?” said Charlie, “I told you it was good.”
Faris didn’t fight his answering smile this time.