Dad comes home early from work, says he’s taking us out to dinner—not to our usual spot, but to one of those places where they bring you a box of tissues and a bottle of mineral water without asking—to celebrate his visa to America. His friend from Damascus will find him a job in Detroit.
We get dressed, take a cab, Mom sandwiched between my sister and me in the back saying what a great opportunity this is for all of us. Dad already has a job—he’s an architect working for the City of Lattakia—but Mom says that he does but doesn’t make enough money (enough for what, I don’t ask) and explains how we’re going to be fine with this transitory situation, living without Dad while he settles in and finds a job first. Transitory is Mom’s word, not mine, and I don’t know why she doesn’t just say, “It’s only going to be a few days,” like she does when we’re late on the bill and the utility company shuts off our electricity.
At school, it’s not a big deal to not have a dad. Not anymore. More than a few boys have fathers who were drafted by the army and didn’t come back or came back short a limb or two or came back in a hearse. The bodies that are too mutilated get dumped in the North River by radicals, which is something they don’t tell us in school, but we know—we’re twelve, we know things. Like we know that if your father isn’t dead, it’s generally not a good thing that he isn’t here; fathers who have asylum visas take their families with them, but fathers who risk their lives on rickety boats to Europe don’t.
My situation is different, though—my dad went to America, not some small European country—and I brag about it in school. I tell my classmates I’m going to America soon, I’m going to have a Cadillac and hang out with famous rappers and rock stars. Some kids say that my dad is probably washing dishes at McDonald’s. I don’t know if they’re wrong.
The next time Dad calls—he used to call every day and ask the same questions about my sister and me, sometimes about school, or if we’re kind to Mom, makes sure to remind me to step up and be the man of the house now (like I needed reminding), but now Dad only calls once or twice a week and says, “It’s the time zone difference”—I ask him if he washes dishes at McDonald’s. “It’s okay if you do,” I say, but he laughs and says McDonald’s doesn’t have dishes, only paper boxes and plastic utensils. So I ask him what he does, and he says, “This and that, it’s transitory,” using Mom’s word. I guess transitory means more than a few days until dad’s paycheck clears, and they reconnect our electricity. It’s some situation that’s relatively short term. Relative to what, I don’t know.
When my sister asks me about Dad—when is he coming back, why doesn’t he visit?—I don’t tell her that I don’t know, that maybe they don’t trust me with that kind of information. I make stuff up, things I’ve heard adults say like, “The green card application takes longer sometimes,” and it must have worked because she hasn’t asked about him for a few weeks now.
And at school, I tell the boys they’re stupid; McDonald’s doesn’t have dishes to wash, but one boy says, “He cleans toilets then,” and laughs while his friend says, “They do have toilets there, don’t they?” So, I push him, and I guess I pushed him pretty hard or hard enough that the principal calls Mom, says they can’t keep up with me, says this isn’t the first time, says it isn’t even the second or third this has happened. But Mom isn’t having it—she blames them for it, all of them: the news people for showing violence on TV, the other boys for picking on me, even the principal for not teaching us better.
My entire class must have heard her yell at the principal before she excused me from class and took me home. She’s working two jobs—three really: a second-grade teacher during the day, a private tutor in the evening, and a mother at night—so when she gets home she slouches on the couch, slides herself down, feet stretched over the coffee table, socks smelling bad, Turkish soap operas playing on repeat. She says, “That school wasn’t good enough for you anyway,” and, “It’s their loss,” with confidence in my worth. She moves me to the private school where she teaches and says, “It’s easier this way,” because we moved apartments so she could be closer to work, or because she couldn’t pay the bills, or because apartments also are transitory.
The new apartment complex has jasmine trees leading to a heavy metal door and tinted awning shielding the entryway from the sun and rain, but the building looks like someone started with the metal gate and simply added walls to the structure. Inside, a sophisticated elevator has eight buttons for floors and two for the parking garage. The neighborhood streets are empty—no one playing soccer between parked cars or go-hide-and-seek behind light poles. Our apartment has very white walls like they were painted yesterday and it smells of no one—the tile floor of bleach, and the bedsheets of detergent—not like the old apartment where I would go to Dad’s desk and take out his blueprints, spread them out and hover over them, pretending to know what I was looking at, the room smelling like the cigarettes he smoked (Gitanes Superlight), which I used to buy for him from the little store at the corner of our old block because the old man behind the counter knew our family and that I was buying them for Dad.
But my sister likes the new place. I tell Mom that my sister is having nightmares and that I have to sleep in her room, not really knowing why I’m lying, but doing it anyway. For a while, Uncle visits and sleeps on the couch, filling the house with his snoring, sounding just like Dad, and when I wake him up in the morning, he grabs me, tickles me on the couch, pretending he’s a monster. Sometimes, I wake up early—not go-to-school early but early-early, the way of animals and birds—to play with him. Then he leaves after a few days. I guess his visits are transitory, too. But I thought our living here was transitory. Maybe his visits are transitorily transitory, or maybe Mom is a liar. And Dad, a liar. Maybe transitory is only short term compared to the war, which has been going on for eight years now, I guess.
When Uncle leaves, the place is big, too big for my sister and me. When she stays in her room, which she does often, she reads books, but mostly stares at them. I see her sometimes hunched over a book, sitting perfectly still, not flipping a single page for minutes. So one day I tell her to be useful, do some work around the house, which she does, or tries to do. She fries an egg but leaves a wooden spoon in the pan, and it catches on fire before I put it out. She drops her head and walks to her room, but I stop her and tell her, “You don’t just walk away,” and that I’m her older brother, the man of the house, and I have to discipline her. Then I slap her, and I guess I slapped her too hard or hard enough for Mom to send me to the village to do some yard work with my older cousin for a few days, and I don’t mind.
We do stupid yard work. It’s easy—pick olives that are ripe before the picking season, take a gardening tool to the neighbor, peel walnuts and dry them out—and boring. I brought my Xbox with me (Dad has sent me the money to buy one) because my cousin has nothing to play with, nothing to share, and nothing to show off, but he says Xbox is for kids and that he has something more important. He shows me where his dad keeps his gun—in the far back of the closet rack, underneath an old wool blanket—and says every man should know how to use a gun; ISIS and other radicals might attack any day. I guess he’s right.
So, we take the gun outside, hide it under a newspaper, and go back behind the driveway, where a long concrete porch leads to an old wooden shack with two shovels, chicken feed, and a wheelbarrow. I hold the gun, and it feels good in my hand, heavy and solid. My cousin says it’s a government-issued Makarov, Russian made. With my fingers wrapped around the sandy handle, my cousin and I squat and look at the gun together, admire its black body glistening in the light seeping through the cracks of the wood. Then suddenly, the gun still in my hand, it fires—not at my cousin, at the floor, but later I’m told the bullet bounced back and penetrated his leg and traveled up to his pancreas. And I guess I froze, didn’t call out for help, didn’t move, but I remember the sound of the gun going off being loud. My cousin’s mom runs over, and it goes black from there.
I don’t know what a pancreas is, but it sounds important, so when Mom picks me up and takes me back to the city, I ask, “Am I going to jail?” Mom says no, “It was an accident,” says I’m going to be fine, but she also says Dad is coming home to visit soon, and I get excited, but only until she clarifies that soon means tomorrow. So I ask, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” but don’t remind her that I’m the man of the house! She says it was supposed to be a surprise, and when Dad is here, it really is a surprise because he looks different; he has a belly and is somehow shorter (it’s been a year and a half).
When he shows me his Green Card, and it’s white, not green, I don’t ask him if it’s fake, I just let him hug me. He keeps me in his arms, holds me tightly—almost too tightly—and keeps whispering, “You’re okay, it wasn’t your fault,” then they all dress in black and say they’re going to the village to check on my cousin, my mom’s cheeks puffy and her eyes red. I want to go with them, but they say they can’t have too many people at the hospital. So, they call the neighbor to watch me while they’re gone.
The neighbor is taller and a few grades older than me, but he’s such a kid—he doesn’t know anything about being the man of the house. He sits on the couch, crosses his arms, and turns on the TV, plays cartoons for me, but I feel like they’re really more for him. So I tap him on the shoulder and wave for him to follow me, and the whole way he’s saying, “Where are we going?” and pausing, but I keep waving for him to follow without turning back to face him. Then, I stop in the bedroom and take out my stash—a shoebox in the back of my sock drawer with fifteen packs of Gitanes Superlight stacked neatly one on top of the other. I tell him I’ve been buying them for Dad, I’m going to surprise him with this gift, but then I open a pack and take out a cigarette, hold it out in front of his chest and say, “Take it,” but he says he doesn’t want to. I ask, “Don’t want to or can’t?” but he insists he doesn’t want to. I shake my head, put the cigarette between my lips in the corner of my mouth, hand him a lighter, and tell him, “Light it.”
He’s nervous—he says, “You can’t smoke,” while looking over his shoulder like he’s hoping someone was home, but I tell him, “Chill, your mommy’s not here.” I take the lighter back and light my cigarette. I take another cigarette, point it at his face and tell him, “Don’t be a girl.” So, he finally takes it, holds it at his side. I take out the lighter and wait for him to lean forward and take a hit.
He takes a drag and coughs. I take a drag, but don’t cough, much. I keep taking drags, inhaling, holding transitory smoke in my lungs, longer every time.
Fajer Alexander Khansa
Fajer Alexander Khansa was raised in Lattakia, Syria and lived in Tokyo, Japan. He moved to the U.S. in 2005, where he completed his studies at USC. His writing has appeared in publications such as Tin House and The Normal School, and he is a 2019 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow.