On the double bed next to mine I had a black suit laid out like a flat sleeping man, resting for the next day’s funeral. We stayed in this motel, this very room in fact, two years before, July 26, 1995, to see Duran Duran in concert at Great Woods Performing Arts Center, eight miles away. The room looked exactly the same. As a matter of fact, I expected Jeffreed to come out of the bathroom any minute, crawl into bed his and say, “You don’t have to turn out the light if you want to read,” and then give me his proud-child smile. I even brought a Steinbeck novel with me on that trip.
The same ashtray on the nightstand between the beds held my bookmark. Two chairs across from each other at a table in front of the window were pushed out as if two people were talking over coffee. The air conditioner still made the same rattling sound. Jeffreed kept complaining it was too cold, even though the temperature outside was a boiling one hundred degrees. It all looked the same.
We planned that trip the January of the same year. It was the first time either one of us went anywhere outside of Southington, Connecticut, other than visiting family in Hartford, Enfield or Windsor. Jeffreed’s family that is. What’s that stupid saying? We were attached at the hip? I think we were more attached at the heart, maybe someplace more sacred. We slept in the same room at his house almost our whole lives together and I remembered the reason I stayed over all the time — Jeffreed’s mother didn’t want me to be staying over their house late every night because my mother had this habit of ringing the doorbell at two in the morning to collect her son who needed babysitting, so the Hamdans let me stay in Mohammad’s bed in Jeff’s room. Jeff didn’t have any other friends, his mom was weary about the influences of partying American kids on her devout Palestinian Muslim son, but you could be assured that where you found Jeff, you’d find me, always, all the time.
Jeff’s parent’s didn’t like the two of us going out places. Jeff’s mother always made comments about, “Young boys always get into trouble in America. Bad boys. You two are good boys. You stay away from those women. That booze. That drugs.” That was her definition for “bad kids.” She raised us well enough to know we weren’t into that stuff, so when we asked to go to a concert in Massachusetts the summer after graduation, Jeff’s parents said yes.
We even had enough time to drive down to Newport, Rhode Island on our way back home. We stopped at this restaurant called The Newport Creamery. One of those family places complete with a sign advertising, For Family Fare above the doorway. I’ll never forget that sign. What the hell is Fare? When we were walking out, the ‘e’ in “Fare” fell off and hit Jeff in the head. I picked it off the ground and looked around as if The Agency had sent us on a mission and the bad guys were trying to kill us. I did the theme to Mission Impossible as we ran back to the truck. We threw the ‘e’ in the back of his Blazer and drove back to his family. Our family.
When we pulled into Jeff’s driveway, Jeff’s father was washing his new mini van. He squirted us with the hose and came up to us to talk. He saw the ‘e’ in the back of the truck and then he started yelling at Jeff in Arabic. We went into our room to unpack. I asked Jeff, “What did your dad say?”
Jeff didn’t look at me as he was taking his clothes out of his backpack. “He asked me where I got that letter from. He said I stole it off a sign. I was being a criminal. I told him we found it, but he doesn’t believe me. He thinks you… and I stole it.”
When we went to have dinner that night, Jeff’s dad told us one of the members of the family had been shot in Palestine. The Israeli police said he was a member of Hamas, though there was no proof. Jeff’s father said he was going to get groceries for a picnic and his brakes failed and crashed into a bus. The police didn’t ask questions and shot Jeff’s cousin in the back four times. His mother said in Arabic, “If you had been here, you would have known. Go out and have some more fun. Be like other American kids. Go get some girls pregnant. Go ahead!” Jeff stood up and motioned for me to follow him to our bedroom. He told me what she said and then we both lay in our beds and said nothing, falling asleep to the sound of the fan oscillating. Every once in a while Jeff’s mom made me feel like an intruder, but at the same time my intrusion wasn’t offensive enough for her to throw me out. She knew Jeff and I were best friends and loved each other. And any browbeating she could give me was worth being with Jeff all the time. As long as Jeff was around I was happy and comfortable.
Below the mirror, on the small set of drawers, sat the Gideon Bible, and under it a telephone book for Attleboro and a menu for a Chinese restaurant that delivered. I wanted to leave the room, go sleep behind the ice machine. I wish I didn’t take that room again. Same room, same motel. But before I came back home from college, I wanted to remember what Jeff was like before going to his funeral. I wanted to remember everything. By the time I was settled in that room I felt like I’d taken too much, like when people have a near death experience and they say their whole lives flashed in front of their eyes, only Jeff’s life flashed in front of my eyes.
My watch said ten-thirty. The concert would have been over by then. I wanted to talk to Jeff one more time, the last time. I didn’t really want to go see his family, except for Naguid. I hadn’t seen him since I came back from college after Christmas break and left without Jeff. We were both accepted to The University of Massachusetts. We both had financial aid, but three days after we returned from our trip, Jeff’s parents took him downstairs to talk. They told him he had a responsibility to his family. He was going to take over his father’s restaurant and it would be a waste of money to live somewhere else and pay for it when he could live at home for free. Also, he had to start to get ready for his marriage. He had to look for his bride and begin to save money to support his own family. I still don’t understand why they even let him apply if they never intended on letting him go.
Jeff came back upstairs and fell on his bed. He put his face into his pillow and cried. I sat in my bed and watched him.
He reached over to the nightstand to use his inhaler, sat up and said, “I can’t go to college. My parents won’t take the financial aid money. They don’t want to pay back a loan.”
He looked at me knowing their excuse was a lie. We both knew that his Americanization stopped at high school graduation. From that point on he was to follow Palestinian customs. I wanted him to go to school with me. I wanted to share a dorm room with him and learn more with him. He pushed his face into his pillow and I went to brush my teeth.
Naguid came out of his room and said to me, “They’re assholes, you know that? Real fucking ass holes. What did they expect to do when they came to this country? Make the Gaza Strip II?”
He went back into his room and slammed the door. It wasn’t until the day after Jeff died, the same day I got the letter, that Naguid called me up and told me, “Get as much money as you can and take a bus down here right now. Jeffreed is dead. He died. He didn’t take his needle ‘cause he missed you. He had to be a pussy and listen to his parents who didn’t like American boys and now he’s dead. Come home, Will, come home.”
The bag I carried the tickets in was right next to my suit. I had my diary and my composition book of poetry I was writing in there, too. If I opened my diary, I would have look for July 26, 1995, but it wouldn’t be there. All I would see after the twenty-fifth as a header is DaysInn 26, 1995. That’s all I needed to write, no entry. I’ll remember that day as if I just came back from the concert every time I think of it. The TV was still on channel thirteen—HBO. There were three cups wrapped in plastic next to the sink and two bars of soap next to the cups. It all looked the same.
It would have been nice to hear that music that made my ears ring until I fell asleep, two hours after lying down, but all I heard was the air conditioner. I wanted to feel Jeff’s warm body up against mine in the middle of the night, but all I had was the cool air hitting the top of the cheap yellow bedspread. I tried to think about the stage, but all I thought about was how Jeff’s casket was going to look with a whole bunch of flowers around it. I wanted to cry again. I stood up and looked at myself in the mirror and noticed more hair had receded. I turned off the light and got back into bed and stared at the drapes covering the window and saw the headlights of the cars that went by changing them from a darkened-room black to the nasty orange color they were. I remembered hearing the cars go by and the sound of the engines being drowned out by Jeff’s snoring — that familiar snoring, the sound of air being pulled into the body in Jeff’s pattern that put me to sleep, and I wished he could do that for me that night. I wished he could be there to let me know things didn’t always have to change for the worse. I wished he could have told me why he didn’t take his needle so I’d know why he let the shock kill him; whether he died by accident or design. I wanted the night to be over so I could go and see Jeff, the man I missed and loved, and though it all looked the same, the feelings were different—I think that’s why it hurt so much.
A train groaned by and woke me up. It was five-o-three. I lie on my back and stared, tried to focus on the braile of the stucco ceiling. As soon as I cleared my eyes, I stood up and walked to the shower. I steamed up the walls and turned on the heat lamp so when I got into the shower all I saw was washed red. I stepped into the stream of water and it burned my back. My head felt like I dived into the sun and my face, back, legs melted down to the porcelain of the tub. It looked like hell. There was steam boiling up around me. Lucifer was going to pull back the shower curtain and ask me if I enjoyed my life. I could hear him—“Like what you did?”
I washed and didn’t dry off with a towel. I walked back to my bed, shivering from the air conditioning, and turned on the TV. I kept pushing the “channel up” button until I saw snow and heard the fuzzy wash of static. The TV illuminated the room, washed it white and I was still so damned tired, I pulled the blankets on top of me and fell back asleep.
There was a knock on the door. I looked at my watch that had a little bit of soap still caked on—seven forty-two. I pulled on a pair of boxers, a t-shirt, and pulled the door open as wide as the security chain would let me.
“What’s the story, morning glory?” Naguid stood at the door with sunglasses on. He looked bothered and antsy.
“Sorry. Fell back asleep.” I closed the door and messed with the chain for a few seconds and let Naguid in.
“Well, put on your clothes. We got to go now. We’ll be late and I don’t want to hear my mother’s spitting and complaining.”
I lifted my suit off the bed and pulled on my pants. Naguid walked over to the bed and sat down in front of the television set. “Good show. You watch static often?”
I hit the power button. “Hand me my pit-stick, will you?”
“Sure thing. How do you feel, Will?”
“Let’s not talk about it yet.” Naguid stood up and walked to the door. “I’ll wait in the car for you.”
I ran around the room collecting: wallet, keys, change, tie, card, glasses, compostion book, and didn’t turn off the light.
“This the exit?” I nudged Naguid who had his Walkman in his ears.
“Yeah. Turn off here. Take a right. The cemetery’s about two miles to your left.” He took the headphones out of his ears.
“Thank you for letting me drive your car, lazy ass.” I turned on the radio and popped in the tape Naguid had sitting on top of the dashboard — old Steely Dan.
“Hey, I drove up there to pick you up and I’ve got to drive your ass back. Damn right you’d better thank me.”
I smiled and looked over at Naguid. “Nice suit and tie.”
“Hey listen, I’m with the nineties here. You’re the old fashioned one wearing all black to a wedding.”
“Yeah, whatever. Funeral.”
Naguid stared out of the passenger window and moved his head like a printer ribbon going back and forth, following the pattern of fast-food restaurants, department stores and supermarkets. Ten minutes passed.
Naguid turned to look at me. “Why did you stay all the way up in Attleboro? It’s a two hour drive from here.”
“I was thinking about the time Jeff and I went to that Duran Duran concert. That’s where we stayed.” I concentrated on the traffic in front of me — a red Corvette with a Hair Club for Men client staring at himself in the mirror, license plate that said, “MACHO.”
As I turned into the cemetery Naguid asked, “If my mother let him go to college with you, do you think he would’ve died?”
I lowered the music. “He had allergies; he didn’t have his needle. That could’ve happened wherever he was.”
Naguid turned the music up a little. “No. I don’t think it was that simple. He had a lot of allergic reactions. I mean, a lot. He wasn’t going to college with you, and mom wanted him to take over dad’s restaurant and get married. That wouldn’t happen wherever he was. Not if he was out with you.” His voice was monotone. No intonation at all. It was like talking to Mr. Spock.
“Come out with it, Naguid. Say what you want to say.”
“I don’t think it was that simple. Neither do you. You know he didn’t have an accident. You know he shouldn’t have died at all.” Naguid took a pack of gum out of his pocket and threw three pieces into his mouth. “You knew he wanted to be out there with you. You knew he wanted to get away from the family and be with you.”
“You have a huge family.” The cars started to line-up behind me. I pulled over to the side of the roadway and stopped the car.
“Fuck you, Will. Really. Fuck you.”
I got out of the car, stood by the trunk and waited for Naguid to get out. I looked over at the hearse and realized my best friend’s body was in the back. The sun was glaring off the black and chrome of the hearse. The same glare came off of Jeff’s parent’s limo. The wind cooled the sweat on my forehead and the grey and white monuments all over the place blurred into limbo. But it was real. Death — nowhere to run; not one possibility of a miracle to bring Jeff back to life. That was pain; that was what it felt like to be haunted. That was what it felt like to hurt without bleeding or throbbing or crying or wishing God would take your life away from you that very instant. It was the worst thing ever for God to give man. I would have preferred the molten mess of Hell on my body, nails in my hands and wires burrowing into my skin, than to feel that horrible. Physical pain was nothing compared to it. I didn’t want to be there — not at all. I didn’t want it to be the forever good-bye with no reply. To keep my tears in was harder than lifting Naguid’s car. A whine or a yelp would have helped, but that pain wouldn’t subside any season too soon. The fencing around the place was rusting. Rot and rust and grave doubts, sorrow was born there and the deepest measure of pain was how much consciousness comes and goes — the more of it, the more I wished it was me in that casket instead of Jeffreed. Thoughts twisted like old roads and a cat’s yarn. It wasn’t fair — not at all.
Naguid came up behind me and put his hands under my armpits.
“You okay? Stand up, Will. Up.”
“Thanks.” I rubbed my eyes and my forehead and followed Naguid as he walked towards the grave.
Most of the ceremony was in Arabic so I didn’t understand the majority of it. Everyone left; they went back to Jeff’s parent’s house for food and discussion about Jeff, the kid they didn’t know.
Naguid and I stood in front of the hole where Jeff’s casket rested. The tombstone was a perfect cube.
“Why is it shaped like that?” I asked
“I don’t know. Maybe my dad got a deal on it. I didn’t ask.”
“It’s strange. It doesn’t really fit in with all the other ones in here.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” He turned to me, “It doesn’t belong here, does it, Will.”
“ Well, it’s strange. I’ve never seen a tombstone like it.”
“I guess it’s perfect for Jeff then. He doesn’t really fit in here, does he? He’s a nineteen year-old kid. He’s a kid. Not a man — not ready to be married and have a business. Where do my parents think he is, was? Palestine?” Naguid held his hands up to his eyes and wiped them. I wasn’t sure if he was doing a bad job of hiding his tears or completely stopping them before they started.
Naguid and I sat down in the metal fold-up chairs in front of the grave. I loosened my tie. “You blame me for this?”
“Of course it’s your fault. He didn’t want to stay here. He wanted out. He loved you, Will. He really did, and I don’t think it was like a brother. I think you know that. You do know that. Don’t you?”
I pulled the flower out of my lapel and spun it around in my fingers. Jeff would’ve hated the fact that we killed flowers to wear at his funeral. He loved animals and plants and the only meat we ate was chicken because he had been raised watching his uncle slaughter them for dinner, but every other living thing to Jeff was something to be cared for and loved. I looked back up at the tombstone.
“It just isn’t right. I don’t get that stone.”
“Are you listening to me, or have you gone complete idiot? Or maybe you’ve just turned into an asshole. My brother is dead. He’s dead because he missed you. I don’t give a shit if you’re gay or he’s gay or what, but I know what love is. You, apparently, have no fucking clue. The two of you grew to love each other — I get that. And by the time you left for college he still wasn’t strong enough to tell my parents to screw off. All he had was you. You were his only chance — hope. But you didn’t see that. What was he supposed to do with you gone? He had two choices — to work with dad and marry someone he didn’t know and would never love, or marry the dirt. I’d opt for the dirt. And you, you’re married to this dirt, too. You remember this.” Naguid leaned down and picked up a handful of the dirt. “This is your death too.”
He poured the dirt on my shoes.
Naguid walked back to the car. I stood up and threw my flower on top of Jeff’s casket and yelled to Naguid, “I didn’t know what your family was doing. I didn’t know anything.” And as far as being in love, I didn’t know anything about that then, either. I knew there were feelings between us, but they had to be unburied in my brain. “Why the fuck are you preaching to me about this now? Almost a year goes by and you tell me nothing. How was I supposed to know?”
Naguid turned around and walked back to me. “Bullshit. You’ve been to weddings. You’ve seen the faces of those girls who were picked to be married by videotape. That wasn’t for Jeff. He loved you. Do you hear that word. Love! What was he going to do, say, ‘Mom there’s another guy I’m interested in named Hassan.’ He just wasn’t ready yet. He needed time. Apparently, so do you.”
I had to shrug it off. Naguid turned around again and headed for the car. I stood between the hole in the ground and the tombstone looking down at Jeff’s casket. I knelt down and held my hands to my eyes. I couldn’t cry, not anymore. I leaned back and felt the tombstone warmed by the sun on my back — warm rock, cold body. The sun made me sweat. I took off my tie, threw it on top of the tombstone and unbuttoned my top buttons as I walked back to the car.
Naguid didn’t say anything. Before the car reached the exit of the cemetery, Naguid said, “Stop.” He took his flower out of his lapel, rolled down the window and threw it on the road.
I pulled out of the cemetery. “How do you know how I felt about your brother?”
“Everyone knew about you two, except you two. My mother knew — that’s why she didn’t want Jeff going anywhere with you. Her son was going to love and marry a woman — a Palestinian woman. The only reason you lived with us is because my mother respected your father. He helped my parents out when they first moved in to the neighborhood and she also knew what you meant to Jeff, but she wouldn’t let the two of you take it past adolescence. You and he were going to marry women and be happy. They didn’t give a shit about your mom or what was wrong with you. They did it for Jeff.” Naguid took off his sunglasses again and wiped his eyes. “That’s what’s so funny about this. You two never said a word to each other. Two scared kids.”
“Let’s stop. I can’t… This…just stop.” I turned up the radio and rolled down my window a little. I felt dizzy but I was on the road and had to keep going — get Naguid home, get myself home, somehow. “I’m going to ask your mom about that tombstone.”
Naguid shook his head and smiled. “I don’t think she’ll say anything about it. She’ll just smile and wave you away and go about her business and take care of everybody at the house and wait for you to leave. The whole family is going to be there, even the ones from Illinois and California. How long are you staying?”
“I’ll be leaving around five.”
“Not staying very long, are you?”
“I have to get back to school. Taking summer classes.”
We pulled into the driveway to Jeff’s parent’s house, the house where I grew up. I followed Naguid inside and walked down to Jeff’s room telling people I’ll be back in a minute. I wanted to be by myself. I locked the door and lied on Jeff’s bed, and I was lucky it took Naguid fifteen minutes to find me because I wouldn’t have wanted him to see me like that. Not then. I wasn’t ready yet.