I was going to be fired. Why else would the general manager call me into his office? I sold fewer rooms than the other reservation clerks. I’d once been reprimanded for not pushing the higher-priced rooms. When management wanted to move me to the front desk I’d turned them down. But that wasn’t it.
“I need you to do something for me,” said Mr. Negri, keeping his voice down as he explained that Javad, one of the hotel’s front desk clerks, had just learned of his father’s death in Iran. Sadly, Javad had booked a flight to Tehran for next month in what would have been the first time he’d seen his father in ten years.
“I want you to drive him home,” Mr. Negri said. “He’s upset. Can you do that for me?”
“Yes, sir.” Mr. Negri was three years my junior, but referring to him as anything other than “Sir” and “Mister” was unthinkable.
Despite the gravity of the moment, I felt a certain relief at escaping for an hour or so the tedium of answering phones in the windowless, smoke-filled Reservations’ office. The year was 1982, when people still smoked in public places and no one had heard of second hand smoke. It was also near the end of the era of rotary phones and L’Enfant Plaza Hotel may have prided itself on its high-flown Gallic stylings (we answered the phone by saying “Bonjour,” the restaurant had a Cordon Bleu chef), but it had yet to to install an automated reservation system.
Handing me a set of keys, Mr Negri told me where the company car was parked in the garage, then led me to a nearby office where Javad was bent over a desk with his head buried in his arms, muttering to himself, sobbing. His shoulders shook in the beige jacket that was part of the uniform worn by desk clerks. His bald spot was ruthlessly exposed under the fluorescent lighting.
“Kyle’s here, Javad. He’s going to drive you home.”
Javad slowly lifted his head. Any relief I felt vanished at the sight of his tear-streaked face, his red-rimmed eyes, the overall impression he gave of profound suffering. It was shocking, such naked emotion from someone who’d always impressed me with his smooth and dignified manner. Javad pushed his chair back from the desk, one hand clutching a wad of tissues, and rose unsteadily to his feet. Mr. Negri patted Javad on the shoulder and gestured toward the doorway. Passing him off to me, as it were, Mr. Negri gave me a I’m-counting-on-you nod.
Javad was the senior member of the front desk crew, a likable man in early middle-age who was respected both by management and staff for his dependability and competence. Javad and I didn’t interact that much but I often saw him during his break, walking around with a cup of hot tea which he made with two tea bags, extra strong, presumably how they drank it in his native country. Respect from the whole staff increased for Javad after the infamous Chuck Yeager incident. The Iran hostage crisis began in 1979, when students sympathetic to the Iranian revolution stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and captured 52 American diplomats and citizens, and ended 444 days later. When Chuck Yeager came to L’Enfant’s Plaza’s front desk, Javad greeted him as he would any other guest—with a warm smile and a friendly hello, eager to be of service. Yeager, suspicious of this dark-skinned man with the distinctly foreign name on his lapel, asked Javad what country he was from. Upon being told, the great test pilot refused to let Javad check him in or even speak to him. Java responded with forbearance and aplomb, calling over another clerk to tend to Mr. Yeager, then going on as if nothing untoward had occurred. Where was that forbearance now, I wondered, escorting Javad to the elevator, silently urging him to pull himself together, where was that aplomb?
Any hopes I had that once I got Javad in the car he would begin to exercise some self-control were quickly dashed. As soon as he was seated, he became more upset, more vocal, as if he’d been holding back, waiting until he was in a confined space to give full vent to his pain, rocking back and forth, wailing away in what I assumed was Persian. And yet, I noted, he had not neglected to buckle his seat belt. This was somewhat reassuring as I had no idea where Javad lived. Approaching the first intersection after leaving the garage, I waited several seconds before interrupting what sounded like some sort of prayer, the repetition, the chanting, of two or three phrases.
“Javad?” I said. “Left or right here?”
The prayer or chant continued, Javad rocking so far forward the top of his head was in danger of striking the dashboard. I wouldn’t have minded indulging him a bit longer, but a dump truck had appeared in the rearview mirror. “Sorry, Javad. Left or right turn?” I repeated, “Left or right turn,” raising my voice, which, despite the effort, was drowned out by the steady stream of words.
He shot to attention, gaped wide-eyed in front of him, then slowly, hesitantly, turned to me.
“Sorry, man. I don’t know the way to your house. Left or right.”
“Right,” Javad said, then bowed his head and resumed his keening.
Unfortunately, I had need of his help only minutes later.
“We’ve got another stop sign, Javad.”
He pointed left.
By the time I managed to get to the freeway, my distraught passenger had distilled his lamentations into a single phrase, repeated over and over, as if at last he’d found the perfect expression of his lacerating loss. I couldn’t help thinking about my own father’s death, just a year ago last month. I recalled that he died on a weekend because my sister—my only sibling—had reached me at home with the news he’d succumbed to bladder cancer. But that was about all I remembered. I could remember almost nothing of my sister’s phone call: not what words she used to tell me about our father’s death, not what I said in response, not even what extension I was on—the one in my bedroom or the one in the kitchen. I hadn’t cried. I remembered that.
“I’m really sorry about your father,” I said to Javad as I was coming up on the next exit, “but when I get to the Beltway, should I take the north or the south ramp?”
I couldn’t be sure Javad heard me. “North or south ramp?” I repeated, louder this time.
“South,” Javad said and went back to his chanting, his rocking, his crying. I merged with the traffic and headed toward Virginia, suddenly extremely annoyed—at Javad for his total lack of cool, at Mr. Negri for putting me in this ridiculous situation, at myself for being unable to recall even one concrete detail from the day my father died.
Java indicated that I needed to exit the Beltway. By now he’d grasped how much I needed his help and directed me through a residential section, then waved me past a couple of stop signs to a parking area in front of a rundown apartment development: two-story brick buildings with water-damaged roofs, cracked sidewalks, broken toys on the sidewalk. I would have preferred to drop Javad off and be done with it. I never thought I’d be eager to return to the smoke-filled Reservations’ office. But I wasn’t quite as cowardly as that.
Java lurched out of the car and staggered off toward the nearest building. I followed him over the grass and up a flight of stairs. He stopped in front of a door with a crooked “3” on it and fumbled with his keys. Opening the door, he rushed inside, ran across the bare wood floor and into a bedroom. He threw himself onto an unmade bed and buried his face in a pillow, weeping and moaning. I stood just inside the sparsely-furnished rooms, what reminded me of a student’s off-campus apartment.
In the doorway of the room to my left stood two small children, a boy and a girl, both about five or six. The boy wore a Star Wars T-shirt and shorts, the girl a jean dress over a pair of long pants. They were staring at me, more interested, it seemed, in the stranger who’d just entered their home than their wailing father. Appearing behind them was a woman about Javad’s age. I hadn’t known Javad was married, let alone a father. She came over and said something I didn’t catch.
“Tea?” she said.
I didn’t want to be there. I was out of my element. I certainly didn’t feel like lingering over tea, but I knew Mr. Negri was depending on me as a representative of the hotel. “Yes, ma’am.” I said.
“Nasreen. My name is Nasreen.”
“Sit down, Kyle, please,” Nasreen said, gesturing toward the small round table in the dining area.
The children continued to regard me with curiosity. Or was it reproach? Were they blaming the messenger for their father’s suffering, and their grandfather’s death? It did make me wonder how often someone like me—sandy-haired, blue eyed—had been in those rooms.
There was a loud knock on the door. Nasreen came back and opened it. Two men and three women—two wearing headscarves—burst into the apartment. A commotion ensued, the new arrivals spotting Javad in the bedroom and hurrying to him, covering him with their bodies, hugging him, weeping over him.
Nasreen handed me a see-through glass cup filled with a dark amber liquid. “No sugar,” she said. “That okay?”
“Fine,” I said.
She spoke sharply to the children in Persian and they stepped back inside their room.
“Delicious,” I said. Strong without being acrid, my tea tasted like roses, vanilla, cinnamon, all combined. This wasn’t Lipton’s.
“You work with Javad, yes?” Nasreen said. She spoke nonchalantly, off-handedly, as if all the ruckus twenty feet away could just be ignored.
“I do,” I said. “Well, I work in Reservations—behind the scenes—and he works at the front desk. But yes.”
Nasreen wore loose-fitting jeans, a flowy multicolored blouse, sandals.
I said to her, “My condolences.”
She shrugged. “He was a very old man.”
The mourners were sitting up on the bed now, stroking Javad’s back and shoulders, talking to him in placating tones, but Javad was unconsoled, unconsolable.
“Do you smoke cigarettes?” Nasreen asked me.
“Sometimes.” Actually, I was trying to quit.
“Come,” she said. I followed her to the other side of the apartment. She slid open the door to the balcony and we stepped out. The D.C. skyline was visible on the horizon. A plane was descending into National Airport. The day was overcast, chilly. Nasreen offered me an unfiltered Camel. I placed my teacup on the wicker table next to an ashtray overflowing with butts. We each lit our own cigarette with her bic.
Nasreen was a handsome woman with big dark eyes under unplucked brows, high cheek bones, and a prominent nose. There was a languidness about her, a weariness or sadness, that made her exotic to a middle-class kid from the white-bread suburbs. Even the way she smoked was different, holding her cigarette like a dart, between thumb and index finger, before raising it to her full lips.
“Everyone likes and respects Javad at the hotel,” I told her.
“He’s always talking about it, the hotel.”
I couldn’t tell whether that was a good or bad thing.
“He’s very popular,” I said.
“Popular, yes, but the pay,” she said, shaking her head, “Not so good.”
“No. I have two roommates. Otherwise I couldn’t afford to live in the city.”
“And the hours,” Nasreen said. “Terrible.”
Front desk clerks had rotating hours. They never knew from week to week whether they’d be scheduled to work in the a.m. or the p.m.
“They’re not the best if you’re raising a family,” I conceded.
“But he loves it there,” she said, squinting as she drew on her cigarette. In a sing-song voice, “The beautiful lobby. The fancy rooms. The famous guests.”
“Did he tell you about Chuck Yeager?”
“I applied for a job at your hotel,” Nasreen said.
“You did? Which one?”
“All of them. Except for housekeeping. I do housekeeping enough already. Lack of formal education, they said. I said, I educate myself. My English is as good as anyone’s. I love English. So many ways to say the same thing. But…” Nasreen shrugged. “Javad would live in the hotel if they let him. He’s found—what is it you Americans say?—his groove. He’s found his groove.”
Aside from the irregular hours, there was a reason I’d refused to leave the relative safety of the Reservations’ office for the front desk. The guests at L’Enfant Plaza tended to be very well-off, very entitled. I wanted nothing to do with repeated face-to-face encounters with people every bit as rude and obnoxious as Chuck Yeager. I was an inhibited, socially awkward thirty-one-year-old college grad who lived with two guys he didn’t particularly like and hid away in a nowhere job. So it was unusual for me to ask a personal question of someone I’d just met—of anyone really—but I felt like Nasreen had invited it, that she had pulled me out on the balcony for just that purpose.
“No,” Nasreen said. “Not too much. But it’s a great country. Everybody says so. Land of opportunity, yes?”
I heard a chorus of “Nasreen! Nasreen!” coming from inside the apartment, the mourners calling for her, imploring her to join them.
Nasreen was unmoved.
“Well,” I said, “it can be a difficult adjustment coming to another country.“
“Easier for men. Much easier. Women in my country…” She made a dismissive gesture.
“You’re a stay-at-home mom, then? You don’t work—I mean—outside the home.”
“Is that what’s it’s called? Yes. That’s me. I stay at home.”
The balcony door opened. One of the headscarf-wearing women strode through and up to Nasreen, got right in her face, speaking in rapid Persian. Nasreen, impassive, held her cigarette at eye level as if she might burn her interlocutor’s cheek if she got any closer. She listened a while longer, then spoke two or three fierce sentences. The woman backed away and left the balcony.
The children were watching us through the glass door.
“Nice kids,” I said to say something.
When Nasreen saw them she gestured brusquely, shewing them away.
I asked, “What are their names?”
“Muhammad and Fatima. Their father named them.” She frowned.
“You would have preferred other names?”
“There are so many beautiful names in my country. Why the same old ones?”
“Will you be going back?”
“To your country. To Iran. For…the funeral.”
She answered without hesitation, “I will never return to my country.”
I didn’t go to my father’s funeral either. There was no funeral to go to. He’d requested that he be cremated without ceremony immediately after his death.
“What you like some more tea?” Nasreen said.
She took my empty cup and returned a minute later with my refill.
“How long have you been married?” I asked Nasreen.
“How long have you and Javad been married?”
Nasreen smiled, smoke seeping out of the corners of her mouth. “Javad’s not my husband. Javad’s my brother.”
“Oh. I thought…” Just like that I had to reset the entire scene, the entire day. Nasreen saw my surprise, knew what I was thinking: here she was chatting with a stranger while her brother was doing all the grieving for their recently departed father.
“Me and Javad,” she said, “we had a very different relationship with Baba. I can not take my brother’s tears seriously. I can not respect them. What’s the expression? Different strokes.” Nasreen nodded, pleased to have found precisely the right phrase.
“You and your father weren’t close?”
“No and yes. Baba was very strict with me. He was afraid I’d be corrupted by Western influences. He hated it every time I left the house. I couldn’t date. I couldn’t listen to the music I liked. Javad—he came and went as he pleased. He had girlfriends. He got his degree at Tehran University. I was not allowed to go to college. I was expected to get married and start a family and there was no use arguing. I argued anyway.”
The balcony door flew open again. All three women huddled around Nasreen, talking at once. Nasreen glared into their fervent faces, saying nothing, letting them make their case before they gave up and went back inside.
“My father and I weren’t that close either,” I said, lighting another cigarette.
The last time I saw him he was lying diagonally across a bed in a white T-shirt and brown and white stripped boxers, his eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling, his chest slowly rising and falling as he took deep, raspy breathes. I had just started to thank him for being my father, a short speech I’d memorized on the three hundred mile drive to Pennsylvania, when my sister stopped me. He hadn’t been conscious since last night, she told me. Hospice said he’d lost almost all brain function. I hadn’t minded not finishing my speech. My sister called me ten days later and we had the conversation I couldn’t recall.
“My father wasn’t much of a talker,” I said.
“Baba talked all the time. Mostly about religion. I couldn’t say anything without him quoting some verse from the Quran to prove my wickedness.”
“Even when you asked my father a direct question,” I said, “he didn’t have a lot to say.”
“Yes. He wasn’t comfortable around most people. I’m not sure he was comfortable around his own children. He was shy. Like me.”
“You’re not shy.”
“I am, though. I am, well, normally.”
“Baba was not shy. He was lord and master. How do you say? He ruled the roost.”
“My father didn’t at all. My mother raised us, basically. She did all the disciplining and stuff, which she resented. We weren’t real close-knit, my family.”
“Not much togetherness. Not a lot hugging and kissing. It’s kind of embarrassing, but…” A surge of emotion filled my chest.
“Yes?” Nasreen said.
“I barely remember the day my father died.”
Nasreen gazed at me for a moment, as if searching for the perfect idiomatic expression to cover this sad fact; deciding not to bother, she said simply, “There are worse things,” and stubbed out her cigarette. She was pinching another one out of the pack when the balcony door opened yet again. It was Javad this time. He was a mess, his jacket falling off one shoulder, his eyes swollen from crying, his cheeks wet with tears. “Nasreen,” he said and stretched his arms toward his sister. Nasreen stood firm, chin up, unlit cigarette poised next to her ear. Javad appeared so desperate, so needy, I found myself losing impatience with Nasreen’s intransigence. I had half a mind to run to him myself. The children had drawn close to the door again, peering in at the adults and their inscrutable goings-on. It looked like another stalemate, Javad and Nasreen just staring at each other, when Nasreen said something in Persian that didn’t sound entirely negative. Javad answered with a string of words that included her name. Then they were talking over each other in louder voices, “Baba” every fourth or fifth word. Suddenly, there was silence. It was a second before I realized Nasreen was looking at me. I don’t know what she saw in my face, but whatever it was she said something to Javad that made him drop his hands, race across the balcony, and fall into his sister’s arms.
I slipped away. As I was passing through the living room I could feel the children’s eyes on me. When I got to the door I turned and put up my hand. Muhammad and Fatima’s small bodies stiffened, as if stunned to have been acknowledged by me. Would they remember this moment? Would they remember this day? Was there enough caring to make a memory? Raising their hands, they waved me out.