Los Angeles, Bentleys and nationality.
I smiled fleetingly as the plane landed in Los Angeles, my last stop in a two-week trip: tomorrow I would already be heading home. The smile gave way to prolonged gloom when I thought about the flights that awaited me the next day, first to New York and then to Tel Aviv
The driver, whom I had first thought was an Arab but later, when he spoke, I guessed might be Russian, was waiting for me with a sign bearing my name. I love it when that happens to me, and I waved my hand to signal that the sign was in my honor. Then I looked back to see whether any of the passengers who sat near me on the flight now realized I was not just another drunk with a weird accent who managed to order two Jack Daniel’s and two beers on the short flight from Seattle, but probably some important personality. But no one paid attention to me or the waiting driver. That’s how it is in the United States − a different nation, they don’t care about other people.
After we left the terminal, I moved a few meters away from the gate and lit a cigarette. There are tough smoking laws in the U.S., which are different from one state to the next. At first I felt like a leper whenever I walked out of a hotel to have a smoke, and on two occasions guests came up to me and asked if I was their taxi driver.
A smoke after a long flight has an influence that evokes the memory of the first cigarette; I tried to keep stable and fight the dizziness. One more event, one more night, and this nightmare is over.
“Nice weather,” I said to the taxi driver, who was quietly pushing the cart with my big suitcase. “Yes,” he nodded and stopped in front of the entrance to the covered parking area. “Finish the cigarette,” he said in an accent that recalled the character of an immigrant from “The Sopranos.” “There’s no smoking inside,” he added, gesturing with his head toward the parking area and taking out of his coat pocket a metal cigarette box from which he pulled out a long cigarette with a gilded filter.
The weather really was good − warm and pleasant − too bad I’d only be in this city for 12 hours. In Seattle it had rained nonstop. The day before that, in Ottawa, there was a heavy snowfall, big machines had raced across the runways to clear them, and I was seized by panic when vans with cranes started to defrost the small passenger plane I was sitting in.
“Bentley?” I shouted as the driver pressed a button on the remote and the car lights blinked before he opened the trunk. “Bentley?” I asked again, and the driver smiled at me and nodded. I handed him my mobile and asked him to take a few pictures of me leaning on the car. Afterward, he let me sit in the driver’s seat.
During the trip to the university guest house, I looked out the window of the Bentley and tried to catch the surprised looks of drivers in other cars who would glance my way and wonder who the guy sitting in the backseat of a Bentley with a private chauffeur might be. No one looked my way; all the drivers − white, black, Chinese, Hispanic − ignored me systematically. That’s how it is in the States, no one cares about anyone else.
According to my crowded schedule, I had two hours in the room before someone would pick me up for the first meeting at the university. I switched on the computer and made a video call home. “Daddy,” my little boy exclaimed, “I haven’t touched you for two weeks.” He stretched out a hand toward the screen and I tried to smile and remind myself that all would be well, and that tomorrow I would start the trip home. My wife held the baby in her arms, pointed at the screen and prompted the baby to say “Daddy,” but in vain.
“Where are you now?” my wife asked. “I’ve stopped following your flights.”
“I’m in L.A. now,” I told them. “The weather here is fine.”
“Did you buy me a harmonica?” my little son asked.
“Yes,” I told him, “in an amazing music store in Seattle.”
“Show me,” he said, and I immediately went over to open the suitcase, taking advantage of the opportunity to move away from the computer and wipe away a tear.
“Daddy,” came the voice of my older daughter.
“Go back to your room and don’t come out until you finish the essay,” my wife said to her, and reminded me that everything was normal at home.
“But daddy,” my daughter insisted. “Just a minute, I’ll ask him.”
“Listen to your mother,” I told her when I got back to the computer screen.
“But I don’t know,” she said. She held a sheet of paper with her homework. “What is a nation?”
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“Homework,” my daughter said, reading from the sheet of paper. “It says here: ‘What nation do you belong to, and why?’”
“To the Palestinian nation,” I told her. She wrote it down on the sheet of paper and continued, “And why?”
How many times had I heard that question on my book-reading tour? Relentless questions about identity, culture and belonging. I met Israeli students who already missed home, I was a guest of Palestinian students who wanted to go home already. I met Lebanese, Egyptians, Arabs and Jews who could barely speak Arabic or Hebrew and whose English was appallingly American, but nevertheless longed for home, even if they had no intention of forsaking Boston, Canada or New York. An ex-Israeli professor told me how important it is for him that his children will know Hebrew, and I wondered why. Why is it so important for him if they live in the United States? He replied that it’s important to him culturally and asked me if I didn’t care whether my children would know Arabic. “Of course,” I found myself replying without hesitation.
“Why?” he asked, and I replied, after thinking about it, that it was because of the war, because of the conflict, because of the separation and the uncertain future. Afterward I wondered out loud how sacred Arabic would be if we lived in a country where the citizens were equal, at least under the law. I didn’t find a convincing answer, but I said nevertheless, “In that case, preserving the language would be my selfish desire, the desire for the children to know another language and be familiar with another culture.”
“Well, daddy,” my daughter pressed me and moved her brother away from the screen. “I wrote ‘Palestinian.’ Why?”
“Because of Israel,” I wanted to reply, and then I insisted that she read material on the computer and in books and think for herself. “We’ll talk later,” I promised her.
“Oyvayvayyuf,” she said and moved away from the screen.
“Straight to your room,” my wife urged her. “So tell me, is the offer from the university serious?”
“Yes,” I replied, already regretting that I had told her about the offer to spend a year with the family as their guest.
“But I know you,” she said testily. “You will never accept.”
“I don’t know anymore,” I said. “I’m starting to like the idea that no one cares about anyone else here.”
“Daddy,” my son said, jumping in front of the camera, “show me the harmonica.”