map Play Date

by Walt Giersbach

Published in Issue No. 161 ~ October, 2010

Stanley Diamond entered the new world shortly after his grandson was born, appearing at the playground as soon as the sea breezes blowing west from Boston had warmed, about the time the last patch of snow in Cambridge had dwindled to the size of a newspaper. He pushed the blue baby carriage in an unfamiliar way, walking alongside it and guiding the too-short handles with his left hand. He didn’t consider himself old at 60, but there was at least a generation separating him from the mothers trundling toddlers and leading the pre-schoolers past the sprinkler that would shoot upward in a jet d’eau in another month. Age and gender differences were a gate barring fast friendships here.

The others acted as if no one occupied his bench, or if they noticed the tall, balding stranger with a ponytail they gave no recognition. There were objects in the playground as immutable as the swings and climbing bars, and then there were other daily fixtures-the six or eight mothers and their children at any time-that were their own constant.

He would pick a bench and sit for an hour, alone, with a newspaper or magazine trying not to think or remember.

By lowering the paper a bit, Diamond could stare at the mothers through his sunglasses without appearing to be a voyeur, or worse, someone who expressed unnatural interest in their children. He studied them, the women with their hair tied back under baseball caps, others who wore their hair short, and the redhead with a voice made for shouting at a child across a playground. Their stomachs were flat, unless they had just given birth. Their thighs taut below their shorts. Their breasts small or medium in size, but never grossly cow-like.

He overheard words like pediatrician and formula, boo-boos and-continually-“Stop that!” “Come here this instant!” and “Leave your sister alone!”

“Keira,” a T-shirted mom explained maternally, “you have no shoesies and you’ll get boo-boos on your footsies.” Would Keira have to learn English as a second language, and unlearn choo-choo train, moo-cow and pee-pee as nouns?

A new world.

He wondered, perversely, if the mothers later went home and had to wait for their children to fall asleep before their back-from-work husbands could make love to them. Were they too tired then to raise their hips? Did they sigh in climax with one ear cocked for a baby’s call? He sympathized with their plight of exchanging career for maternity, of having to regain momentum when they rejoined the work force, of seeing a significant career postponed from their original plan. It saddened him that when the children were ready to enter school, they might discover their training and experience were meaningless and another vocation seemed more attractive. Would they cry silently over the trade-off they’d made?

His requirements of family and career lay behind him, and there was only the sorting of memories through a sieve of experience. “You have it too easy,” his pal from a Web marketing firm said. “Stop jerking off and come back to the real world.”

“Not a chance,” Diamond answered. “I like exploring this whole thing of child care. Never had time when my kid was growing up.” The new tasks offered a short interval of relief, but that would require too much explaining.

At any time, a third of the mothers seemed to talk intently into cell phones while their eyes drilled into the sons and daughters toddling, falling, running on the playground. The phone on his belt rarely rang, unless it was his daughter calling to make sure everything was all right. Less frequently, it was a former business acquaintance wanting to trade gossip.

Age, gender, physique, habits, connectedness all set him apart. He was in a world of aliens. Good, he thought. All the better to act the part of an anthropologist who had landed on another planet.

Today was a good day for observation. After twenty minutes of sitting, he folded the paper and put it in the buggy, stood and stretched, then walked the baby clockwise around the playground. At the far end, he stopped to light a cigarette after making sure the wind was blowing away from the mothers and children with their bright toys and baby paraphernalia made in China. Routines like this were remarkably soothing.

An orange public works truck behind him suddenly dropped its steel tailgate with a clang. Diamond jumped and cried “Fuck!” Perspiration broke out on his forehead and a nearby mother shot daggers of scorn at him. She arched her back, putting a protective hand around her child’s shoulders.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, self-conscious at using that common expletive among the aliens. “My doctor said it’s post-traumatic stress syndrome. Sudden noises….” Ones that made the fear return. The panic also rose in confined spaces-another reason for liking the playground with all its exits.

She looked curiously at him, as though she was inspecting a car seat. “An accident or something?”

Diamond didn’t want this woman’s sympathy, even less any pity. “Terrorist bombing. London underground.”

She smiled as an association erupted. “London can be awesome. My husband and I were there before the baby was born.”

* * *

He thought of her as the London Tourist each time he saw her from a distance, but she never spoke to him again. The playground’s apartness made him very alert when a woman in her young twenties, blonde highlights in her hair and wearing a flowery sundress, breached the gap of personal space and sat down on his bench.

“How old is your baby?” she asked. “Boy or girl?”

“Matthew’s four months. He enjoys going outside when the weather is good. Truth be told, so do I.”

There was a moment of silence as Stanley refolded his paper.

“You are his grandfather?” Her question was formal, as though her English was layered on top of some other language. Although she had no discernible accent, her words were carefully parsed. She wore no makeup-few of the mothers did-except that she had eyeliner and dark lashes that seemed natural. No mother would glue on artificial lashes to visit the playground unless she had an ulterior motive, but what did he know about women’s motives?

“I’m taking care of him till he’s old enough for day-care. Maybe a year or so, until he can go to school. It’s not a problem. I’m retired. My daughter and son-in-law have demanding jobs.”

Her mouth twisted in a fleeting smile. “You are good at changing diapers?”

He thought the smile was ironic, as if a grandfather-even a middle-aged one-might not be adept at wiping a baby’s ass and wrapping it up again after ablutions with moist towelettes and lotions. “The best. I was a systems engineer. Still do some consulting. I deal with logic and problem-solving. A baby’s butt isn’t much of a challenge.”

The pause grew heavier as the new social contact expanded in consequence and each decided where to probe indirectly to see if it would go from formality to familiarity. Diamond took the challenge the same way he had worked a room full of executives or a conference of technical people. “My name’s Diamond. Stan Diamond.” It would be awkward to offer his hand. This was a playground, not a place where people exchanged business cards.

“I am Françoise and this is Marisa. She’s five months old.” For the first time he looked into the pram and saw an unblinking child under a striped blanket. “Well, we have to go. We have an appointment shortly. It has been nice meeting you.”

Interesting how mothers always referred to themselves and their charges as “we.” He was witnessing the beginning of a lifetime bond. Men, he decided, were more objective in their relations with children. No less loving, but more detached-even with wives and lovers.

The blanket stirred and he noticed an odd pattern to the material-stripes and diamonds, not the usual covering with little animals woven into it. No Chinese export bought at Carter’s or Baby Gap.

“See you again.” He went back to his trade paper on large array systems management.

* * *

May turned into June with a few mothers departing and the arrival of others who gathered quickly into knots of familiarity. In the middle of the month (his copy of Electronic Design had just arrived) a woman in her late forties or early fifties sat down on a bench a few yards away. She wasn’t the only grandmother at the playground, but the others never warranted lifting his head to smile or nod. They were babushkas who had been called into service like him. This one was tanned. Her hair was a burnished mahogany, and fine lines in her face appeared to have been earned with smiles.

“Good morning. Nice. Warm sun today.”

Her English was inflected with an accent. Something European, it seemed. “Nice day,” he agreed, and then the thought came to him. “Sind sie von Deutschland?” He had played this game before in capitals around the world.

She shook her head negatively and smiled, and he noticed her eyes were hazel flecked with gold. “Kleine Deutsch…sprechen. Nicht gut.”

¿Habla Vd. Español? Parla Italiano?” Her widely spaced eyes and full mouth reminded him of CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, which made him wonder how the Dow was doing.

“Me? Algerian. My name is Jana.” The way she pronounced her name sounded like Zhahna.

Mais vous parlez français! Ça va bien. I’m Stan Diamond.” Impulsively, he slid over to sit at the end of her bench.

She pointed to his baby grandson, to Matthew who still stared uncomprehendingly at the sky, the hood of his baby buggy, or a hand that tucked a blanket more closely under his chin. She said, in French he had a difficult time comprehending, that he had a beautiful child.

He protested, with a wry smile to indicate irony, “I’m not the father, but thank you. Je suis le grand-pere. I’m taking care of the baby-just a short time-while my daughter goes back to work.”

Jana said her home was Algiers. She told him Yves St. Laurent and Albert Camus also were Algerians, perhaps to help an American better locate the country. The fact surprised him. In a matter of fifteen minutes they were conversing easily, although slowly to avoid misunderstanding. Her English was excellent. Had she been faking ignorance? More likely it was the French reluctance to speak English that he had experienced during visits there.

“My father was from Marseilles,” she said. “My mother Algerian. I am more comfortable in French, but you are unlike other Americans. You know other languages.”

“My work. It’s good to speak to clients in their own language. It uncovers greater truth.”

“Do you still travel?”

“Less so now. Last real trip was to London, July 7, 2005.”

“And your wife? She also knows other languages?”

Jana was so inviting in her assumption that he almost stumbled. He looked down at the ring on his left hand. “My wife died. Six years ago.” He shrugged, but he didn’t know why. Perhaps a Gallic gesture to say such is fate to lose your mate and leave you to care for a grandson. She didn’t say, “I’m so sorry” or “What a pity” or any of the other banalities he expected. Looking intently at him, she asked, “What change has this had on your life? I mean, how did her death affect you?”

Diamond was unable to answer for a moment. “I…went back to work. I worked twice as hard. And, I spent more time with what was left of my-our-family.”

“I am not being personal,” she explained. “I simply wonder how people deal with death.”

“The word is cope. You muddle through as best you can. You can’t stop living.”

“Cope. I will remember that. Eh, bien, good day,” she said abruptly as she stood up. “We are going for a walk.”

There was that first person plural again!

“Wait,” he interrupted. “This is your granddaughter-Marisa.” Surprise that he still knew the child’s name, but the unfamiliar blanket pattern recalled his conversation with…what was her name? Françoise. “I met your daughter. She is well?”

Jana nodded at each mention of her daughter and granddaughter. “Working.” Jana sighed deeply. “Americans work so hard, but they call themselves professionals.”

* * *

“Jana,” Diamond said spontaneously. “Let me buy you a cup of coffee. There’s a place two blocks from here. Good espresso there.” She had been missing from the playground for several days and Diamond realized he had looked for her in expectation. Well, hell, he reflected defensively, he couldn’t really put the moves on some lactating young mother!

She frowned and glanced across the playground.

“C’mon. We’ll take Matthew and Marisa and the baby buggies.”

The pizza parlor called itself a trattoria and was actually several blocks from the playground. When they were seated, he thought with humor and a little superiority that this was their first date-probably not something other young parents do on the playground. They were both mature, cosmopolitan adults.

“I should ask,” he said, sipping his black coffee, “you’re not married? I don’t want to get in trouble stealing another man’s wife.”

She shook her head with a smile that turned into a deep-throated laugh. “Do not worry,” she said, without explaining her circumstances.

“How long have you been in the States?”

“Six months. I came when Françoise was pregnant. I was lucky. I got a visa for one year.” She waved her hand to indicate difficulty. “So much papers. Before, it was easy to visit. So hard now.”

“Fucking terrorists. They make life difficult, but security is important, too.”

Jana’s head wagged back and forth as if to say there were at least two sides to the situation.

* * *

Back at his own house in Somerville that evening, he replayed his meeting with Jana. She was good-looking, alluring and mature, but more intriguing was the fact that she had mentioned Camus and St. Laurent. How many Americans would say, “America, Mark Twain and Ralph Lauren” or “John Updike and Bill Blass”? Algeria was-what? Casbah with Yvonne De Carlo, and something about jewel thief Tony Martin being chased by Peter Lorre.

After checking his e-mail (spam, a newsletter and a note from Alicia) and the market closings (his rollover IRA had dropped two thousand), he keyed Algeria into the Wikipedia site. It came back to him now. The French had their asses kicked out of the colony when he was a kid. Bloody mess and lots of torture on both sides. He had never thought of the French as torturers. They were philosophes and wine-drinkers. But then who would have thought young American boys and girls from places like Tennessee and Alabama would torture Iraqi civilians?

He went back to Alicia’s e-mail with a twinge of guilt. He had promised that he would fly to Miami, pick her up and they would go to St. Martin for a week. He had suggested a resort that invited nude bathing on its Caribbean beach.

“Just reality testing,” she had written in her telegraphic style. “Did you make reservations? Book your ticket?” No, he hadn’t, and he felt a bite of irritation at the way she had composed her letter with no initial caps, signing off with “LOL” and a smiley face. LOL! He wanted to respond, “WTF?”

Alicia had been his late wife’s college classmate and her maid of honor at their wedding. He was the old man, three years their senior. She had rushed to Diamond’s side when his wife lay in the hospital exhausting her breath in the last terrifying stage of cancer. Alicia became many things then. All a man could ask for in a help-meet, friend and occasional lover-one who was separated by more than half a dozen states. This attractive signpost directed him to a different route, one that was familiar in some ways if the avenue led to marriage, but a direction that would require him to sell his house in a down market, pack his belongings and embrace the eternal sunshine of Florida.

He would e-mail her later. Or, he might call her.

* * *

Meeting Jana over espresso became a daily ritual, one that Diamond called his play date and looked forward to with growing anticipation. She was becoming his Zhahna, he thought, relishing warm feelings of pleasure. She insisted on calling him Stanley in some sort of humorous formality.

In small increments, he gave her a précis of his career and family, trading tidbits to probe her life.

She said she had translated her sympathies for universal suffrage into organizing a support group for Algerian women. “The women I discovered flopped like so many fish, trying to secure rights that had been stolen by the government, by the male culture,” she explained. “Muslim men don’t separate theology from politics, but women are women everywhere. They need help in very personal ways. To survive.”

He began rising a few minutes earlier. Often, when he arrived at his daughter’s shingled triple-decker condo, he’d have to brush off her mild remonstrance that she hadn’t yet breast-fed Matthew. Today, he tapped his foot and skimmed a catalogue on her coffee table until the baby was fed and dressed and his diaper bag packed with his sippie cup, a bottle of Poland Spring and another bottle with dry Similac. Then he strode purposefully to the pizza shop with Matthew. “Time for your play date with Marisa,” he said to the baby buggy. “Maybe you can take her out on a real date in fifteen or sixteen years.” The baby buggy didn’t respond.

Jana sat silhouetted at the big window fronting the street, reading over her coffee cup. She wore a billowy white dress that hung from her bronzed shoulders and floated over her breasts down to her lithe legs. Her outfit harked back to the sixties when it was a-what? It was called a balloon dress, trapeze or something. A baby dress that gave him an erection as he watched her hold the coffee cup in one hand and jog the baby buggy with her other.

He entered and sat down, pleased when she looked up. “You’ve read l’Etranger by Camus?” he asked, anxious to begin a dialogue. “You said he was Algerian.”

“I find him depressing.” She put down her book. “The French have such irony. Everything is ironic. Nothing is what it seems to be. No, I have been reading Frantz Fanon. Again.”

Diamond shook his head to bring back dusty memories of books he had read. “Fanon was from the Caribbean, and then was in France. I think I read Black Man, White Masks a long time ago in college. I remember hearing he spoke French so well that people ignored the fact that he was black.”

Jana stared intently and leaned forward slightly. “He practiced psychiatry in France, then he was-what do you say?-chef de service at a hospital in Algeria. And, yes, he spoke French very well. He said that speaking French means assuming their culture, supporting the weight of their civilization.”

Diamond frowned and thought about carrying a civilization around like a backpack filled with great fat books. “So, because I speak English I’m accepting-adopting-the entire American culture? That’s bullshit.”

Jana shrugged. “Finish your coffee, mon cher. I have an appointment to produce the baby at her doctor.”

* * *

Two days passed before he called Alicia. He asked about the forest fires that had appeared on the evening news all week.

“It sounds like they’re out of control, like the whole state of Florida’s burning. There were fires in Georgia and New Jersey, too.”

“Stan,” she chided, “do you really care about the fires? What’s on your mind? You’re somewhat distant.”

“Got me,” he said, seeing an opening. “I had a call asking me to take on a project. A small one. I’m debating whether to sit down with them and hash out more detail. Nearby, in Natick.” It was only a small lie, enough of a prevarication to buy some time to think. He pictured her in her apartment near Biscayne Boulevard and far from the fires. It was a living room filled with contemporary furniture and pastel colors on the walls and decorative objects. Alicia’s things were never more than “objects” to him, not antiques or collectibles that evoked memories, and memories were all he had now.

“Are we still on for St. Martin?” There was a note of hesitancy, perhaps even anxiety in her voice, and he wondered if he were doing something despicable by holding her at arm’s length for a day or two.

“We’re on. I have an ocean-side room. It’s a nice place. Orient Beach is just steps away. I just have to book a flight to meet you.” He didn’t mention the nude bathing or the clothing-optional restaurant down by the riding stables. If she objected after she got there, well, she could just wear her Jantzen or whatever, or they could find another place to swim.

“Would you like me to fly up and meet you for a weekend? Sooner? Next week?”

“I don’t know. I have a bunch of meetings.”

“Your project. It won’t interfere next month?” There was a challenge in her voice. She was daring him to come clean or call the whole thing off.

He lied again.

* * *

By the end of June, Jana and he had begun to communicate in a meta language they had invented. A raised eyebrow might indicate she would prefer to stroll with the babies down to the used book store, a twitch of her lip meant she appreciated a joke he had tossed off, and a slight crinkle between her eyes as she stared at him over the baby strollers (their grandchildren were now sitting up) carried entire paragraphs of meaning.

“My daughter and her husband are going away for the Fourth of July,” he announced as they watched the playground sprinkler making rainbows in the sunlight. “I was wondering what I could do over the long weekend.”

“Françoise and Roger are visiting his parents in New York. I will lie down in the sun with a good book-something silly, I think.”

“Jana,” he said, and his eyebrows drew together, “let’s drive to a place I know. The Equinox Hotel, in Manchester, Vermont. There are outlet stores, a nice museum nearby and some pretty good restaurants.”

“Equinox, when the days and nights are the same in length.”

“You know the word?”

“Silly ass, it is the same word in French.” She laughed, deeply from her stomach and he knew then that he loved her.

“Then you’ll come with me for the weekend?”

“I think it is better that we do not describe our holiday to our children. Not in any detail perhaps.”

* * *

“I am a lonely woman,” Jana said later that day without any antecedent conversation. “Since my husband left.”

The suddenness of this confession surprised Diamond. It breached the privacy he believed was necessary to maintain a certain social order.

“How can you be lonely,” he waved his hand, “here, in this city? This is a cultural center of the world. The museums, universities, people from every part of the world.”

“I’m speaking of the absence of loved ones, not their presence around me. My husband didn’t die. One day he left for the studio where he was making a film and he never came home. He disappeared. I asked the police, the government agencies. Nothing.”

“You have your daughter and son-in-law, who I presume is an okay guy, and the baby. I’ve known loneliness. I believe you have to pull yourself together and go out and do whatever the hell you want to do. Not just suck your thumb and stay in bed.”

She looked wanly at him. “That’s your advice to a person whose family life has been destroyed?”

“Jana, I lost a wife. I’m in the same situation. And I was almost killed by a terrorist bomb. There are evil people and this is a problem we need to solve. Just like racism and intolerance and all the other evils. I’m working on the problem. I head a committee that raises money to fight illiteracy, and we’re making headway. Hunger is my other main concern. That’s not the entire answer, but it’s a start.”

“Readers don’t fight wars and kill wives and husbands? Oh, Stanley, what am I going to do with you? But, thank you for your understanding.”

They parted with Diamond feeling something hadn’t been resolved, but he couldn’t easily define the problem that lay like an undefined ache.

That night he woke up again drenched in sweat. Nighttime was the worst part of his days, when his eyes popped open and he could feel the sweat dripping from his head onto an already soaked pillow. The clock read two a.m., and he knew he had slept only a couple of hours.

Pulling off his wet T-shirt, he went to the refrigerator to pour a glass of milk, then sat smoking a cigarette and trying to think of the nightmare that had jolted him into panic. His thoughts evolved into questions. Was his good will as a caretaker-and often as a babysitter while his daughter and son-in-law attended an evening meeting-being abused? Was the money going to run out because he had left the business world just as the stock market began to slide downhill? Where had all his friends gone? Worse, was he unable to invest real emotion in others because it was terrifying to get too close to their pain?

Experiences could be related, the way he sometimes described being on that bus as the bomb went off, but never the sensations. No one understands sensations like those who live them.

Intellectually, he knew daybreak would make the fears disappear as easily as it dissipated the fog that had settled on the city overnight. Emotionally, his fear waited under the covers for his return. He waited for the sun.

* * *

The large white Colonial hotel grew out of the landscape, framed in green by a golf course in back, bracketed by dark oak trees, and lightly gripped by Route 7 whose two lanes of traffic made drivers want to slow down with an atavistic urge to taste something of the 18th century.

“Ethan Allen used to hold staff meetings here, discussing ways to attack the British.”

She didn’t know the name and shook her head slightly.

“Our Revolutionary War. George Washington and all that. The hotel is quite old.”

“Do you like coming back here?” she asked.

“Always. Now more than ever. I avoid big cities, large crowds.”

They sat in the pub-quiet and almost vacant in the mid-afternoon-so he could introduce her to frosty glasses of black-and-tan. “The Guinness at the Equinox comes from a tap, not a bottle.”

“If Algeria is known for cous-cous, America is a hamburger,” she said lightly.

“And baseball.”

“Soccer, please,” she retorted.

“Democracy.”

“Passion unique to North Africa.”

They left their drinks half finished and went to their room overlooking the putting green. He held her arm from the time they left the lobby until he took the key out of his pocket to open the door.

“I hope you will not be disappointed, Stanley.” She twirled once, gracefully, and let her dress fall to the floor. “I sometimes can only give passion, not democracy.”

* * *

On Monday night, after he returned Jana to her daughter’s house, he picked up the phone and dialed the Miami number from memory. “Alicia, some bad news. I have to jump into this deal for awhile. The project looked good when I talked with them, but more importantly, they really need me or it’ll all fall apart.”

“Important,” she said, more to herself than to him.

“What?”

“The adverb is more important, not importantly.”

He knew she was pissed, sitting among her pastel objects. “Let’s postpone our vacation, just until September. The weather may be cooler, and certainly the rates lower.”

He was answered by a soft click as she hung up the phone.

That night, he fantasized seeing Jana in a bikini, something yellow that would set off her tan. No Jantzen or Speedo for this woman. Waiters would admire her slightly zaftig figure discreetly regardless of what she wore. Other tourists would nod appreciatively as Stan and Jana strolled or paused to examine souvenirs. At the beach he could imagine an Ooh-la-la when she stepped naked into the water.

He saw her Tuesday morning at the Italian restaurant. She had arrived before him and was nibbling a biscotti.

Bon jour,” he said.

A slow smile crept over her face. “Comment ça va?”

“I have come up with what I think is a capital idea,” he said, pulling out a chair and sitting down. Matthew and Marisa slept in their strollers, indifferent to any ideas. “I have a reservation at a wonderful resort in St. Martin. In the Caribbean. My friend was going to go down there with his wife, but she’s ill and he can’t get a refund. He asked me if I was interested and I said it so happened there was a woman I was extremely fond of.”

“You want to take me on another vacation?” She rocked Marisa’s stroller and sipped coffee. He recognized her dry humor now. “I thought you were exhausted from…the Equinox. All that sightseeing.”

“You’re teasing me. I know you are teasing me.”

“Perhaps yes, and perhaps no.”

Next to him, a child broke into a screaming rage and threw a slice of pizza. It hit Diamond instead of the child’s sister and the tomato sauce dripped down his arm. He held out his arm, staring at it in shock.

Jana laughed. “You are wounded, my dear. The battle of the pizza parlor!”

His vision blurred and he didn’t notice the apologetic mother jump up to dab a napkin at his arm.

* * *

After checking his mail box, his e-mail and the market summary, he turned on the television. For the next hour he sat entranced as CNN and the networks replayed the grainy video of a car in flames at the Glasgow airport terminal. Interspersed film footage shot earlier showed a Mercedes being dragged onto a car transport and taken away from a night club in Piccadilly Circus.

The walls of his living room began closing in. Old feelings returned and gripped his heart in its fist. Standing abruptly, he grabbed his keys and cigarettes and slammed the door on his way out of the house. There was a bar in Davis Square where he gratefully pulled out a barstool and sat down. It wasn’t a place he frequented, but he occasionally stopped in for a cold beer. The TV at the end of the bar displayed the Mercedes being pulled onto tow truck, again and again in an endless loop. He debated whether to ask the barman to turn the channel.

“Bother you?” the man said.

“I know that club. I know Piccadilly.” And wasn’t-he tried to think of the name of a software developer working for Siemens. Didn’t he still live in Glasgow?

The adrenaline was rising again. Looking at his watch, he calculated the time difference and decided not to call and wake up a former boss who was now doing something with one of Prince Charles’ business projects in London.

The bartender, a doughy-looking man with the stubble of a beard, stared at him. “You okay?”

“No, I am so fucking angry I can’t see straight.” He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. “Johnny Walker, on the rocks,” he ordered.

Feeling an explanation was somehow required, he told the barman, “At 8:50 in the morning, July 7 last year, I was on the Piccadilly line between Russell Square and King’s Cross, on my way to a meeting. The explosion was the last sound I heard for the rest of the day.” Because of the smoke he felt he had lost his sight too. Blindly, he had fought his way down the car in the direction that the smoke was exhausting.

Fifty-two were killed and 700 injured that morning. Diamond didn’t count himself among the wounded, and had walked to the police lines where a cop helped him sit down. The blood on his clothes wasn’t his own, nor was the severed finger that dropped to the street when he took off his jacket.

* * *

He sat down next to Jana in the playground the next morning. She hadn’t been at the pizza place and sweat was dripping from his armpits when he located her next to the climbing contraption made of iron pipes.

“Jana….”

She put her hand on his arm. “Shh, shh, shh. Marisa is sleeping.”

“Did you see the TV last night? The terrorists who tried to blow up the Glasgow airport? They’re connected to the bastards who tried to car bomb London earlier.”

She nodded. “England has many problems.”

“It’s the immigrants. These people come to England-just like those they picked up in upstate New York-and they bring their Goddamned jihad with them.”

“What did you just say?” She withdrew her hand.

“Jana, don’t take that tone with me. I didn’t vote for Bush. I wrote to my Congressman and Senators. I said it was wrong to unilaterally declare war on a crappy little country. We should leave the fucking Arabs alone. Leave the beards and towel heads to kill each other off, but don’t….”

“Aren’t you making gross generalizations, Stanley? About religious and political sects?”

“Generalizations? You’re intelligent, Jana. The Muslims are trying to regain something they lost five hundred years ago.”

Jana stared at him, over a shoulder that had turned slightly away. “Do you know what they called me when I was a little girl?”

“They?’

“The French. To them I was a salesarabe. One word. Dirty Arab. Didn’t I tell you that I am a Sunni? That my father was killed by the French for protesting their murder of a 15-year-old girl? That my career is helping women who have been outraged by their society?”

“These things-politics-don’t stand between us. We’re above that.”

“Yes, they do, and no, we aren’t.” She strode off with the baby stroller, forgetting her bottle of milk on the bench.

Diamond breathed deeply, in and out, and his head felt dizzy, watching the rainbow formed by the sprinkler.

***

Jana didn’t appear at the pizza place or the playground the next day, or the next. Diamond didn’t have her telephone number. In frustration, he wheeled Matthew half a dozen blocks down to the shingled, century-old house where he had dropped Jana off on their return from Vermont.

Feeling confusion at the three names on the hallway buzzers, he realized he didn’t know the daughter’s married name. He tried the first, waited silently for a minute and then tried the second number.

“Yes?” came the tinny voice through the intercom.

“It’s Stan Diamond. I need to speak to Jana.”

“She is not here.” It was Françoise’s voice. Wasn’t she at work? Had his faux pas caused a major schism in the family, perhaps driving Jana back to Algiers?

“May I talk to you? I think there’s been a terrible mistake.”

“Perhaps there is no mistake.”

“Stanley, what is it?” Jana walked around the side of the house carrying Marisa in her arms.

“I didn’t see you at the playground. I was worried, but more importantly-important-I wanted to apologize for my crude remarks.”

Jana stood on the sidewalk as he came down the steps. He stretched both arms out in supplication, but she held up her hand flatly. “Do you remember asking if I had read my Camus? Have you forgotten he said that happiness flies in one door and out the other?”

“Jana, don’t quote literature. I made a dumb mistake. That’s all. We’re going to St. Martin.”

“I can accept unhappiness knowing there will be times of happiness to come.” The noon sun glinted off the bronze highlights in her hair. Her skin glowed. “So, I can accept happiness…or not. Go back to your family, Stanley. Go to your island. No more play dates.”

He took her arm and made her sit on the front steps, holding Marisa in her lap. “I didn’t tell you everything. I was almost killed. In the London bombings two years ago. I couldn’t get on a subway after that. I don’t go into cities now unless I can drive in and out the same day. I jump when I hear loud noises.”

Her eyes bored into him, the yellowish brown eyes that sparkled with gold. “I was wounded, too, but I go on living. The terrorism doesn’t end. Five hundred Algerian girls have been kidnapped by the Islamic Maghreb. Three hundred were raped when the rebels attacked their villages. The rape victims were lucky, because the kidnapped girls had their throats cut. Do you have a monopoly on grief, Stanley?”

“I’m simply saying….”

“No, you don’t know what you are saying. You knew I am a Muslim-as you put it, a fucking Arab. Did it feel good fucking an Arab? Terrorists are parasites. They thrive on alienated people, ideology and a community that supports them. Does that not describe you?”

From an open window on the first floor-the living room perhaps-he heard the word, “Bâtardes” and what sounded like “tout le monde” spoken not loudly but with despair and vehemence. Françoise?

“Don’t be absurd. How can you talk that way!”

“Look at me, Stanley. You say you didn’t vote for these people in the White House-but you are not far from being a terrorist yourself.” Very softly and just inches from his ear, Jana said, “Think about that and then perhaps we can talk.”

She walked by him and up the steps. Diamond stood in the street with his baby stroller, wondering what had just happened.

“Jana,” he called to her retreating back. Despair made him light-headed, and the porch railing seemed to be falling towards him. “Jana, I’ll see you-at the playground. Tomorrow?”

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Walt moves among writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance, and long-form literary with a little historical non-fiction thrown in for good measure. His work has appeared in print and online in over two dozen publications, including Pif Magazine. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online booksellers. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and to a couple of Asian countries. He now lives in New Jersey, a nice place that exceeds its reputation.
  • I really liked this — I think my favorite paragraph was the one that discusses the mothers being “too tired to raise their hips,” and the following notes about crying over careers. There’s a very powerful statement there about loss — it’s thinking about loss in something most people wouldn’t ordinarily think of as being “loss.”

  • W Giersbach

    K, there’s a whole nother story that needs to be told there, but I don’t know if a guy can write it. Thanks for your comment.

  • Funkyearth09

    this was great. i always say many debates about politics and what is considered “politically correct” comes down to gut feelings, not facts. diamonds mistake illustrates this. also love the comments about the mothers…..and i never spoke baby talk to my kids!!! now they have amazing vocabularies.

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