Zumwald (c) Malkia Charlee NoCry

Zaid took his coat from the rack. He stood, dressing himself for winter slowly, with the aim of departing unsighted with presence un-missed, as he has done for over two years since attending. He rarely participated in the writing, and it had now come to the stage Elliot didn’t even bother to ask if he had anything to share. Zaid, a dark Iraqi, heavily chestnut in complexion, with near black eyes and very thick hair cut short or it would poof atop his head like a pompadour was not a writer nor was he one for therapy. And somehow, this group being diluted by both aims created the right balance for him, which was why he continued to come. From his vantage point he could see the room like a moving panorama, each person speaking, hugging and consoling one another, yet no sound discernible, almost as if it were all in his head. With his glasses, he could see quite well, as they corrected his vision to 21 in his left eye and 17 in his right eye; but he was having a difficult time focusing on the individuality of persons, and not just seeing them as clusters of colour, some as mannequins and some as small insects; caricatures exacerbating his profound feeling of alienation. His slight lips shaped to a frown; his sharp nose and jaw began to tighten. He made an effort to pick out people, Elliot, Barbara, Martin, Joe… but the effort was too intense and began to create sharp stabs of pain above his eyes. He turned back toward his scarf, feeling frail, though he was tall with a sturdy commanding presence. He began to feel angry, his broad shoulders growing rigid, but that did nothing to change his ever-present air of mildness.

As he stood unwrapping his scarf from the hook he felt a brush of wind. Turning back to the activity of the room he was able to see quite clearly with no emotional difficulty Shawna avoiding eye contact with other members of the group as they became bleary-eyed from the night’s readings. Seeing her walking through the room soothed him. Her long eyelashes were downward cast, almost setting off shadows on her face. Her nose, her mouth so hard he thought to himself. She seemed bigger to Zaid, and if asked he would say she was around 5’ 10’, which was much larger than her 5’ 6’in heels height that Shawna possessed. Her waist is all he would say was exceptionally small, almost as if he could fit his one hand around it, and in jeans her legs were long and sensual, with curves and secrets, and slightly different each time he looked. But it was her eyes, her eyes that were always sad, or vacant, or bathed in something unknown that Zaid would describe first if anyone asked, and those he hungered to see each month he came. It was what seemed to captivate Zaid more than her round lips and behind, her young taut figure. He wanted to swallow those eyes whole.

It seemed to take hours, but she finally walked toward him. Zaid looked down, as it occurred to him he had been staring, but Shawna wasn’t truly seeing him of course, as she hadn’t for the past two years, and as she never seemed to see anyone. She scarcely offered a polite smile while at the racks where Zaid stood, before grabbing her own coat and walking out the door.

At this point electricity entered his limbs, and Zaid accelerated in adjusting the woollen striped scarf around his neck and black leather gloves on his hands, quickening his step to the door so he could enter into a burst of cold that lashed at his skin. He looked down each side of the street. To the right was the subway. To the left were the quickly progressing and steady footsteps of Shawna Thomas. While he speculated as he’s done for the past 17 months (as it never occurred to him to watch Shawna so closely until 17 months ago) at the door of the building’s entrance, important seconds were passing that would make the decision no longer a conundrum.

Different on this day, was that he turned toward his left in time.

He would have no skill at tracking another human being, yet he thought if anyone were capable of it, that person would be him, though he didn’t exactly know why. He had seen in Hollywood inventions that there was a trick to it. A certain distance one must maintain, and if the person turns around, you had to begin reading something, or tying your shoe so you would go unnoticed. And if you lose them, you had to think about what you know about them so you can change your direction. More often than not, in the movies, when they lost them there was nothing they could do but wait until the next opportunity. There will be no other opportunity was Zaid’s knowledge of himself, so I can’t lose her. Principally, because rash behaviour was something he wasn’t accustomed.

He kept his distance. It was very gold that night, so many lights, and it made him warm, so he took his hands out of the sheepskin lined leather gloves and kept them out of his pockets despite the cold. His jeans were new, and thus uncomfortable, dark boot cut over sandalwood coloured Timberlands. He pulled his striped shirt (that incidentally matched the scarf) up at the collar of his sweater within his coat, as there was a scoop, almost as if it were a necklace. It was a gift from Ayesha, and he only wore it to make her happy.

While he walked, taking turns through the city, in the dark, he mused on things. He fingered his wallet, in case he would need quick change to board a bus, and wondered how he would remain unseen. But the longer he walked, the more he relaxed his pace as it fell into the rhythmic melodic night. It was life as a dream. So, he began to reminisce.

He thought to when he was in college and he knew he was going to die. He thought that this death would come at his own hand. He was drowning with no reason to continue and it felt as if his lungs were slashed and draining with each inhalation.

While he was in college he majored in Biochemistry accepting his place at New York University. The choice was made for his desire to become a physician. Everyone knows, or, everyone told him it would be inappropriate to major in pre-med because, ‘if you don’t cut it in medical school, what will you do? Pre-med majors have the fate of Pre-law majors, secretaries in someone’s office.’ These weren’t the words spoken by his family of course – if it took 100 years to bear the insignia of MD, they would wait it out patiently without a word. With a desire to give all they could – go broke for his dreams. The American dream.

They’re good people. They are some of the last ones. Much like Ayesha’s people.

He was standing in an organic chemistry lab, staring at tubes and steam, and he couldn’t shake his mind free to the next thought. He froze in that second – it wasn’t the practical, it was actually very simple. Not like spectrometry, which he hated, because he hated physics, therefore could never write his results in his lab-book in a way that made any sense.  No, just put this tube here, watch it do this, measure it to the log of that…  The end result, he tried to tell myself, will get me through the brass tacks of worthless experiments.

How would this equal, saving a life, in the end?

Zaid looks up and doesn’t see Shawna. He stops. He wasn’t paying attention, and panic rises inside of him. I can’t lose her, he thinks to himself, and he feels so frantic he’s unable to make a single move, he can only see immediately ahead of him, into the moving blackness of night. And just when he thought it was over, he would have go back, fail, the loudest blaring of a horn and a man’s voice screaming, “Move your fucking ass!”

His head turns, alerted to the sound, and by doing so he is able to see Shawna, who had jay-walked across two streets and was fast disappearing around the corner. His legs find momentum, and he’s able to hurry his steps. He catches her in the street-lamps illumination. He settles back into his pace.

He remembers his uncle sitting in front of him, with a cup of coffee, and a wife in a veil, his aunt, motioning through the house like a phantom. His aunt would not have to wear a veil, or a hijab; but she was the youngest of his aunts, the rest of his uncle’s wives, the older ones, were in Iraq, and she was strangely frightened with guests, and made no risk of offense – in case Zaid brought a friend or colleague from school with him. Zaid was alone this time, but she still did not remove it, perhaps out of habit. Perhaps preferring to stay hidden.

His uncle would be considered rich and quite successful for such a new immigrant. He was a businessman and well respected in their small Iraqi community in New York. Yet, like all the Iraqi’s who were now living in the United States, without many options of going home, there was a piece of him very different and slightly missing to that of him before he’d left, and Zaid had never seen that person. He had drawn himself more fervently into his religion, and was not kind or open hearted in the same way with others. He would judge the young Iraqi girls who he saw on park benches in shorts, necking with the white boys in their classes. He would become even more Iraq as if paranoid it would disappear, that each western value was murdering his own, obliterating who and what he is. His uncle did not have the luxury to be himself in this foreign land.

So, if Zaid had to describe him to others, it would be an incomplete description of him. From time to time his uncle would try to rekindle himself, and he would do this through chats over tea with his sister’s son who was studying Biochemistry in order to be a doctor.

Once the room was filled with the powerful pungent smell of roasted coffea seeds, real china cups cupped within their hands, his uncle said to him, ‘Zaid, let me tell you about medicine,’ and he began with a story that wrapped you up in your own insides and spat you out through your teeth. A man’s chest opened wide with blood pouring into the sands and the earth. The breath of the Gods motioning him through each touch, each life-giving moment. The air was metallic; he couldn’t see his hands for the outpouring of liquid rubies.

‘Uncle, what did you do?’ Zaid said as he took coffee from the broad cup, sitting with his legs pinned together, back leaned forward. He wanted to know if the man died, and he knew it was quite possible for his uncle to prattle on without ever getting to the point.

‘Does it matter?’ His uncle asked, eyebrow at an arch.

Zaid chuckles at this, because it’s a question he still asks himself, even today. At the time, he’d thought long and hard for maybe a solid three minutes about what his uncle was trying to tell him. He’s come to it now, that it was perhaps mostly bull shit. There was no riddle, his uncle just missed it. His uncle just missed his old life. But Zaid always knew what right answers were supposed to be, even without questions. The totality of his uncle’s supposed riddle, is it more important to have died at the hands of help – or for your body to be uncared for, rotting in the sun?

The story was about the man, not medicine. And it was about the man whose hands were wrist deep in death, not the one dying. There was clearly nothing his uncle could do, in the moment that would stop death from purchasing another soul from war.

His uncle wanted to know, what does Zaid know about living?

After the long pause, “Yes. It matters because you were going to tell me a story about medicine”. He said. Which was right then. But only then, when you’re a boy of 20.

‘He died in my arms…’ The uncle replied abruptly, as if he no longer cared. As if he didn’t want to be there, with him, just then.

Zaid remembers just sitting, almost mummified, silent, waiting.

“But I tried as if it were my own blood I was seeing…” and that’s when Zaid first saw it really, the thought that led to the other thought that led to this thought that needed to mature with life and with tragedy. From his faraway look, preoccupied look, the piece missing from his uncle fell across his face as if there was previously a visible hole.

‘That’s what I wanted to tell you about medicine…that that is how you have to be prepared to feel’.

After sitting with his uncle, Zaid goes home and studies for a test. Months later he receives the results from his exams. His brown eyes and long lashes staring at the paper, his name Zaid Jahandar next to the number 56%, fail, engraved in permanent ink.

A boy of 20 he was then. Just a boy of 20. And that’s when Ayesha, Ayesha Monique Thompson appeared through the door, with the longest braids Zaid had ever seen…

Zaid stops. He watches Shawna like a figure in a fauvist painting, geometric black against the shocking blinding white of the lights within the building, search through her clothing, frantically, fitful. She lost her key he thought. He continues to watch in the blackness of the evening, as her face turns toward his direction. He swore she could she him, before she sat to light a cigarette, he thought she even smiled at him. After she had inhaled and exhaled, the smoke making grey swirls that turn into clouds as it mixes with the condensation in the night air, he looks away. Then raises his head once again to catch her eyes.

He stared at her for a few minutes. Then he turned around and walked back the way he came.

(c) 2005 Malkia Charlee Nocry. This excerpt is from the unfinished work Zumwald, now due to be completed in 2020.

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