We ride away from the cities into Seih Al Salam Desert to find the Flamingo Lake. Fifty minutes deep in desert, there’s a yellow and black road sign with an X over a clip art camel. Why aren’t camels allowed here? If anyone is allowed all the way out here, it should be the camel. All gold and gingersnap, not like the sand near the cities. City sand is pencil shavings, iron fillings—you want New York sewer snow or Vermont? Gold roll, gold roll, ginger, Fer’s hand—black—Bam!
A day later, a month later (still asleep in a flimsy shift), a thousand times by nurses and doctors and the soft whispers of my fiancé Fernando, I am told (I am reminded?) we were hit on the side—the spleen of the car (my passenger seat!) by a white SUV. No, he wasn’t drinking—he was a god-fearing (or social pressure-caving) Muslim, and otherwise, just stupid. This driver wasn’t a prince or a sheikh, or anybody special’s eldest son, just a kandura with a hard-on for freestyle driving over the dunes, ad lib, a red cooler of Holsten 0.0% in the backseat, and spilled all over the sand (I am told) after he jacked himself right into us on that dumb desolate almost-pure-desert road.
I wake up three months after at a hospital in Al Ain, the city where also-engineer
Fernando is on the tit for that tax-free check. My mother (yes—my mother!) is in the room. I rattle my eyes again (fuck). How did she get a passport? The furthest she’d been from the Garden State was Athens, Ohio, where the preacher she met online lived. Between praying together at his relic church, he was on her, dominoes, her first first-kiss after my dad’s death (so I remembered shit! —just not the last months). Where had I been then?
“She’s awake! She’s awake! She’s alive!”
Damn, mom saw my eye twitch. Did it twitch? Or are my eyes open?
“Nurse—Nurse Khulud! She’s awake!”
I feel kisses, hands on either side of my face.
My mom knows a person named Khulud?
“What?” my mom asks me. I spoke? Cried? Opened my eyes?
“Mary Shelley,” I guess I repeat. I was reading Frankenstein before I died.
“I think she’s hallucinating,” I hear my mom say.
“Someone call Fernando!” she also says. I think. Don’t call Fernando, please!
Because she was wrong—big surprise. I was not hallucinating then, but I sure had been—I’d been riding in a solid joy-fuck of a hallucination for three (they will tell me) months. Until they all disagree and report in about the spleen, I had made it to Flamingo Lake! Just not with Fernando, nopesey dopesey. I was at the strange mirage-y lake district (district?) in Salam with my dad, who had died four years ago. And Flamingo Lake wasn’t just one lake, it was innumerable lakes, each one human-made, each a sanctuary for a different species of Middle Eastern bird. Imagine a tanned white person’s belly punctured by clusters of extra navels. Filled with water, tinted green. Inside, black swans with red feet and white swans (with no feet?), and dad’s favorite—the bald ibis from Syria, the rock star black bird, the David Bowie of birds, a beck all painted colorful like Ziggy. All the while, Dad was aching for a cigarette but I told him no. Just one? He asked me a thousand times, then a hundred. And I said, “Every time you ask me, I will recite Catullus number five again.” Not again! In Latin? No, I forgot that. Just English.
“Hey hon,” he said to me on the bank of the northern wheatear, “When were these lakes birded?” His hands feel his face, felled into his pockets, up his nose, scratching himself—I look away. He never knew what to do with his hands without a smoke.
“Dad, I really don’t know,” I tell him. “We could look it up, but why? I think we
need to be more selective with the time we spend looking stuff up.” I want to say ‘shut
up’ but it’s my dad.
“Don’t be pedantic!” he says, and I think, pedantic? My father knows a word named pedantic? Am I dreaming?
There is only so much time. I want to ask him something important. Not ‘why did
you have to die’, nothing maudlin, something useful. I think about college icebreakers—What is your favorite book? What would be your superpower? If you could go anywhere, where would you go? Not Flamingo Lake! Not death!
I say, “Silence can be a plan rigorously executed. The blueprint to a life. Do not
confuse it with any kind of absence.”
“Oh, honey,” he says and suddenly he has a cigarette. From Joe Camel? That’s
why they don’t want them around! And I feel bad, like I tricked him, because my dad
thinks those are my words, because he hasn’t read a whole book since Ribsy in the sixth grade. Maybe some movie versions of books! I decide to tell him the truth. “Adrienne Rich,” I complete. He doesn’t care or doesn’t hear me. In this world, his daughter is the end and beginning of everything.
“Are you talking about me or somebody else?” he asks. We can’t find the
flamingos, maybe the sheikhs forgot the shrimp.
“Somebody else. Right after you. When I first moved here.” A breeze.
“I see,” he is holding a pork roll sandwich. Afghan babblers are on his fingers and shoulders like Snow White. They want some. Oh how many kisses we shared!
“I left him. Because I was a wisdom tooth and he needed a spleen,” I admit (I tell
myself). A spleen yapping Arabic, a spleen-fist fighting foreign infections. The right kind of woman to raise his children. Is something dead in my navel?
“I’ll knock his teeth out!” dad growls, and the sandwich transfigures into a metal
baseball bat and my dad is holding the bat like the time he went to Camden after high- school-me had her wallet stolen, her shirt zipped open, and he drove around in his car for hours, bat on the seat, looking for something to hurt.
“No—you don’t need to do that,” I tell him, “I have a new fiancé now.”
Suddenly, we are at the white swan lake and there are three swans a-merry swimming, necks like boys’ smelly gym socks, a solar flare (just doctor checking the pupils). Bombs? Helicopters? God’s scissors? We both look up.
“Is this one smart? Is he good to you?” Dad chews on something.
“Yes, very good. But the one before him, the one after you—”
“Yes, little girl?”
“He once swam across the Suez Canal with his brother. Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t
it special he told me?”
“So special, sweetheart.” Does it need to be more? Does it need to be a lesson?
“That was in the eighties, when kids could do things like that, I guess?” I say. I
was born in ninety-one, what do I know? I know: his legs, his arms, his isthmus, the way a child swimmer winds the arm like a never-ending pitcher (ad infinitum!). I know the history of the Suez Canal (I looked it up).
“Maybe I told you this before—“ my dad smiles, the sky is becoming my
mother’s face. “The time Uncle Jerry and I pool hopped in Vegas, that heist feeling, the
imaginary freedom, when everything felt so big. This boy reminds me of that.”
“He reminded me of that too, dad—he”
“She’s awake! She’s awake! She’s alive!”