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ON THE SUBJECT OF HOW WE MET AYALE
On my fifteenth birthday, my father gave me permission to travel to and from school on my own. This news was delivered as a gift-wrapped-with-trust privilege, but it didn’t escape me that this also meant he no longer had to drop me off or pick me up. I didn’t mind. I knew that he needed to be alone and still for as long and as frequently as possible.
My father worked in various public high schools, fixing mechanical mishaps that could blossom into full-on catastrophes at any moment. He liked this job because it required almost zero contact with other human beings. An administrator would call into the service whose employ he was in and, when my father arrived, would recount the nature of the issue by repeating phrases that included, but were not limited to, “it wasn’t my fault,” “it just happened,” “maybe we should replace the whole damn thing.” My father would nod and wait patiently until left alone to determine what had actually occurred.
Despite long hours alone in his car, on the job, in the car again, my father still had to contend with the fact that he had a live person to feed, clothe, and sign report cards for. Weekends were torture; I could see it in his face. He would stare helplessly as I moved around the small space, asking if we could go to the movies, the park, someplace that served food I liked, which was a rare thing. He wouldn’t let me out alone because as much as he wished he could put me to sleep for specific hours of the day, he never could have lived with the guilt of something happening to me. We are similar in this way: by caring too much about what might happen in the future, we end up caring not enough in the present, too worn out to maintain that kind of attention, no matter how genuine. On those long-ago weekends we would sit in silence in the apartment, reading or watching sitcoms on our small television set (he didn’t encourage laughter but could stand it if I insisted). I would follow his progress as he heated up coffee or smoked and wonder how it was possible that we were here, together, in this place.
On the birthday of my transport liberation, we went to the arboretum. He sat on a bench, I halfheartedly biked up and down a few paths, we had a slice each of the Carvel cake that had been melting next to him, because he’d forgotten that I was too old for ice cream cake, we went home, he presented me with a T pass for the month, we watched the only Robert Redford movie he could stand (Three Days of the Condor, a classic), we went to bed.
Public transportation made punctuality a thing of the past since the truth of tardy trains and delayed buses was irrefutable. After school, I would go to Jamaica Plain to explore dusty thrift stores and brunch-all-day cafés, sneak into movies at Copley, watch pretty waifs at the Common perform original songs available on the CDs in their open guitar cases. I learned how to navigate the city in which I had been living for more than a decade. I was confused by the intersection of Tremont and Tremont; I watched men kiss on the mouth in the South End, but my father said that I must have made a mistake; I ate Vietnamese food in Chinatown, which made me sneeze; I got a free ticket to the Wilbur Theatre’s production of Hamlet, which the Globe called unconventional because the lead was fat but thank God he was British.
It was a Friday afternoon when I exited the Park Street station, eyeing the hot pretzel carts, for which I had no money because my allowance never lasted past Wednesday. I had reached the parking lot near the hat store from which my classmate Seth Taschen would later be banned when he politely asked the saleswoman if they sold hats. I was just about to double back when Amharic stopped me.
“On the one hand, he wanted his mother to like her, but on the other hand, he wanted the girl to like him.”
“Muslims are ruthless.”
“Doesn’t matter now.”
Four heads swiveled toward me to identify the source of the question before pivoting back to a fifth man, who was still watching.
“Because he’s dead,” this last said.
He was wearing a stained sweat suit, the same shade as the booth against which he leaned, his face this side of perfect. The others lit one cigarette off the last, furtively flashing looks at the speaker before beaming their gazes back down. I felt embarrassed by my interruption, at having forced someone I didn’t even know to pin down and call out mortality. I didn’t feel sad. I don’t remember feeling sadness at that point. I watched things happen to me, adjusted myself, and resisted reflection until my mind relented and let me live blindly once more. Sadness would come later, in never-ending and expanding waves, as if my psyche was punishing me for all the years I’d dodged.
“What’s your name?”
I told him.
“That’s an important name.”
“So they tell me.”
I hadn’t yet discovered the phenomenon by which Ethiopians recognize fellow Ethiopians by face and manner alone; I might have actually believed my parents and myself to be the only Ethiopians in the world. The concept of “Ethiopia” seemed too fantastical to entertain as anything but a lovely origin story. I perhaps even thought this man was a mind reader, a prophet. I wasn’t entirely wrong.
“What happened to him?”
“Kassahun? Wrong place, wrong time is what they’re saying.”
He slid the Metro out from underneath his armpit. Five lines about Kassahun Beyene, age twenty-three, newly arrived from Gondar, non-drinker. Immediately after was a more substantial piece about an Allston divorcée who swore there was an ancient Native American settlement below her hedges.
“How are his drinking habits relevant?”
“I suppose everything counts when it comes to murder.”
“I didn’t know about him.”
He tossed the paper to one of his friends, who caught it and seemed pleased that he had.
“Most people don’t. Bigger papers didn’t seem overly concerned.”
“That’s kind of sad.”
He laughed. “Isn’t it? You get used to it, though.”
“Objective reporting.” He looked over my shoulder. “Are you by yourself?”
“Yes, but I’m going to meet my father soon.”
I gave his name. He eyed the others, who promptly supplied the mutely requested information.
“Mechanic. Or something.”
“Addis Ababa, his mother knew Mengistu.”
“Been here a while, doesn’t go out.”
“Had a green-card wife, no sign of her now.”
The man absorbed these facts without taking his eyes off me, while I stood there, stunned at how much they knew. This was my first encounter with the unofficial intelligence network that includes all Ethiopians in any given locale. The minute someone leaves the borders of his or her adopted state, it’s like they’ve vanished as far as the remaining inhabitants are concerned. This is particularly apt if they move to Washington, D.C., or L.A., where our people tend to get devoured by the sheer amount of homeland.
“Where do you go to school?”
I told him. He looked impressed.
“What are your favorite subjects?”
“English and history. I hate math.”
“You still do well in it?”
One of the men, dark and steeped in stale smoke, asked if I knew what an Achilles’ heel was. When I defined it, the men nodded appreciatively.
“A real scholar.”
This came from the apparent leader, and though I didn’t understand why, it meant so much to me that he might believe it.
“What is a square root?”
“Can decimals have square roots?”
“Who is Napoleon III? Careful, that might be a trick question.”
“What is more important, the body or the soul?”
“What is virtue?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Laughter for the first time, in an interrogation I found I was enjoying.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
They laughed even harder before the man by the booth silenced them with a look.
“Everyone knows him.”
“Admission of ignorance is the first step to gaining real knowledge.”
“I have to go now.”
“Come back soon, anytime during normal business hours. Tell your father that he’s welcome, too: anyone who creates a genuine scholar in this day and age is a friend of mine.”
I escaped, almost running to Government Center, where I took the next train home. I tried to do my homework as if nothing had happened, only to strike out when my fidgeting knocked my father’s toolbox onto the floor, where he was carrying out his weekly polishing. He looked at me, aghast. I braced myself for rebuke, but he merely began retrieving the casualties. I made as if to help, but he shook his head.
“Do you know someone named Kassahun Beyene?”
My surprise when he nodded made him laugh.
“How? No, but really: how?”
He kept chuckling as he examined a gleaming monkey wrench.
“Well, if it’s the one I know, his father worked for the same cab company that I did.”
I told him what I’d heard. When I’d finished, his face looked as if someone had scooped out everything inside, leaving only a flexible shell.
“His father must be devastated,” he whispered. “To lose a child … unthinkable.”
“How did you find out?”
“Are you sure it was really Ayale?”
“I mean, I’ve never met or heard of him before, but everyone else seemed convinced.”
The hollows under his eyes and below his cheekbones seemed more pinched than usual as he got up and began heating water on the stove, tools forgotten.
“Are you hungry yet?”
“Wait … that’s it?”
“What do you mean?”
“What are you going to do about Kassahun?”
“What do you expect me to do?”
He seemed furious, and though circumstances would soon prove that I was anything but the most observant, even I could tell that his anger was meant for someone else.
“When are you going to see Ayale?”
“Why would I go see him?” he shot back.
He was just snapping for snaps’ sake now.
“He invited you!”
He gave me a small smile and nothing else.
“How about tomorrow? Can we go see him tomorrow?”
“He only works on weekdays.”
“How do you know?”
“Ayale is a famous man.”
“Famous for what?”
“For being where he shouldn’t be and disappearing from where he should.”
He refused to say anything more, busying himself with a box of ziti, pretending he couldn’t hear any additional questions. I finally left it; I didn’t want to pester him to the point where he’d decide I was to never see Ayale again, not as long as I was living under his roof. Furthermore, if such a decree were to be issued, I knew I’d have to disobey.
The weekend passed uneventfully, and on Monday, I found myself taking more copious notes than ever before, listening to everything my teachers said, searching for tidbits of information to pass along to Ayale as a sign of how each day brought me closer to wisdom. It didn’t bother me that I sat with the unpopular Asian girls at lunch—all rejects from all races were relegated to their table—and I was unimpressed by the newest tattoo acquired by the boy who yearned to be Goth enough to sit at the Goth table. I was above all this. A scholar had to be, in order to better observe the masses, ponder self-created theories, scoff at the notion that life followed the maxims of our school’s Statement of Vision: Good Citizenship, Kindness, Honesty, Character, Art, Sports, Teamwork, Success!
In my last-period study hall, lulled into drowsiness by the rhythmic snores of the monitor, I saw my father in a new light: perhaps he, too, was embarked upon this path of solitary intellect. We all knew the man could unclog drains and reanimate lifeless pieces of heavy-duty machinery with the best of them, but perhaps, concealed behind his curt responses and taciturn companionship, he was generating theories that he thought too mind-blowing for the world and the century into which he had been born. I wondered if he realized that I, his sole progeny, had inherited his burden, that it was I who would be compelled to carry on the mantle of brilliance once he had departed for other, lovelier shores.
I went straight to Ayale’s lot after school, where I posited that Tess of the d’Urbervilles was less a novel, and more the pathetic swan song of an imbecilic weakling. He asked me if I had read a lot of Thomas Hardy. I was surprised that he knew who he was and then ashamed. Ayale noticed, I think, but didn’t say anything.
“Did you tell your father that I’d like to really meet him?”
“What do you mean by ‘really’? Have you met before? I thought you didn’t know him at all.”
Ayale patted me approvingly.
“I’m glad you caught that, good listening. Keep your ears open for inflection, tone shift, odd word usage. It will tell you everything you need to know about the person you’re dealing with.”
I was so delighted that I forgot to pursue my line of questioning. I watched as Ayale talked to customers, mostly older white women at that time of day, wives who no longer worked because they didn’t need the money, who volunteered at urban youth centers in order to fill the otherwise idle hours between when their husbands left for their in-name-only directorships and when they returned with a bottle of something that Jean at the wine shop had promised was the best the Loire Valley had to offer. I’ve never understood how much money one must accrue in order to be certain that one no longer needs any more. Even after a windfall of frozen boiler systems, my father still had to save for when work would fall off around the school holidays. The difficulty with money wasn’t earning it but controlling it.
Ayale had an enormous wad of cash that he kept in the back pocket of his pants. It was this lump that he added to and withdrew from as he accepted payment and doled out change. He barely looked down at what he was doing, laughing and gesturing with abandon, and yet, if you watched closely, his attention never strayed from the precious cargo he carried under the bulk of his fleece jacket. One of his favorite topics was his luck at having escaped the plague of office work and its accompanying tortures: the ties that choked, the bosses who hovered, the cigarettes that were forbidden, the buttons that constrained, unlike the twin blessings of zippers and drawstrings.
The location of the lot was ideal for escaping unwanted—i.e., unpaid—notice, surrounded as it was by an uneven ring of massive glass buildings, all starkly contrasting with the filthy square of the lot, whose lines demarcating parking spaces had become so faded that they barely counted. Because of their angles, many of these structures didn’t reflect the lot, and later, when I couldn’t bring myself to leave Ayale’s side, I would sit in the attendant’s booth and stare through its window at the building directly in front, unable to see myself or the people around me. I imagined scenarios where the lot was a magic box that no one could see into but from which we saw and judged everything. The accumulated dirt and cigarette ash of the parking area gave off a unique stink. If I could do it all again, I would.
It was five P.M. when Ayale went into the attendant’s booth and closed the door. He emerged minutes later carrying two yellow manila envelopes with names and figures written across them in fine black pen. Ayale always bought the same brand of pen and could abide black ink alone. Blue drove him into a rage.
“I’ll give you a ride home if you show me the way.”
Thanks to my recent habit of idle exploration, I didn’t hesitate. He drove expertly, never speeding up to overcompensate for previous hesitations, using every single one of the mirrors and, what’s more, using them correctly. When we arrived at my building, I got out and thanked him. At that moment, my father rose from the stoop and stepped forward, zipping his navy blue jacket up to his Adam’s apple. Ayale peered out of the passenger-side window, smiled, and offered his hand to shake. My father took it after the tiniest moment of seeming like he might refuse it, like he might detest Ayale with all of his heart. Ayale told him that I had been very helpful, I had finished my homework, he was lucky to have such a wonderful daughter, it was nice, so very nice, to meet him.
“Do you have any children—”
I could tell he wanted to give Ayale a title, at least the traditional Ato, but Ayale laughed too hard to let him finish.
“Everyone calls me Ayale. I don’t think I could take a sudden surge in respectability; it might kill me.”
Ayale smiled as my father finally, almost grudgingly, chuckled.
“I don’t have any children. Luckily, it’s only too late for us men when we die, isn’t that right?”
“That’s what they say.”
“I’ve always wanted a daughter…”Ayale trailed off. I had never heard anyone sound wistful before. He recovered quickly.
“I’ll see you both soon?”
My father nodded, and I kissed Ayale on both cheeks before he drove off, coming to a halt at the corner stop sign.
“Had you met him before?” I asked my father.
“Only heard of him.”
His tone was abrupt, forbidding further comment. As he walked behind me along the hallway, I kept turning to look at him, trying to slow down the military pace he’d set, but the obscurity never left his features, and his insistent speed never lessened. With the door closed behind us, he put on the kettle, still not looking at me.
“Do you see my khakis on the back of the chair?”
“Take the belt off.”
I didn’t understand. I handed it to him. It was black leather and surprisingly heavy.
“I’m going to beat you.”
The announcement sounded mislaid in the stuffiness of the room. I stared at him, confused, as he turned on the fan. It didn’t help.
“But … why?”
“You were late coming home. You didn’t call to tell me where you were. I’ve been worried sick. I went over to the school. I went to all the hospitals that I could think of. I bet you didn’t even think about me, not once. You must have passed so many pay phones. You always remember to call. You could have asked Ayale. He’s the kind that has a cell phone.”
Each sentence was a right hook to my gut; later, I was surprised to not find any bruises.
“I’m sorry! It’s the first time! I won’t do it again!”
It seems silly now that I was so scared, hardly able to speak for the tears that were choking me. After all, he wasn’t wrong: these were the rules, and the rules had been broken. I was guilty; I had to suffer the consequences. I can only offer up the explanation that he had never told me what punishment would ensue from going against his word. I had simply always done as told, a gag reflex, a lack of imagination.
He allowed me to finish my babbling and turned the kettle off when it began to whine its dirge of completion. He poured himself a mug of tea and set it on the countertop. When I had tired myself out into whimpering, he told me to pull down my jeans. I did. He told me to lean against the couch, which served as the dividing line between the living room and the kitchen. I did. In that eternal moment between the first downstroke of the belt and the crack-snap sound it made upon contact with my skin, I closed my eyes. When I screamed, I opened them and saw that his mug was no longer steaming; I remember thinking it was the fastest-cooling tea I had ever seen.
Five strokes later, he was done. He told me to pull up my jeans and go to the bathroom, where I discovered that I had wet myself. I threw my clothing on the floor and then took a long bath, the kind I used to take when I lived with my mother. Unlike my father, she didn’t care or perhaps didn’t understand the concepts of heating bills and water conservation. He didn’t knock on the door or shout from the kitchen to get out before I melted all my skin off, like he usually did. I heard nothing when I finally slunk into my room to put on my pajamas.
When I came back out, he was watching television. Without turning, he said that my portion of macaroni and cheese was still hot if I wanted it, and I realized that I was ravenous. He reached out for his interminable tea, and I saw that he was having trouble grasping the handle, his hands shaking. I passed the mug to him. He took it, still not turning, and I helped myself. This was before restaurants saw macaroni and cheese as something to specialize in, charging ridiculous prices because it was covered with bread crumbs, bacon, gorgonzola-wrapped apple slices, diamond flecks, mother-of-pearl crustaceans. Real macaroni and cheese will always come from a blue-and-yellow box, with a separate packet of bright orange to be squeezed onto the tubes of pasta, a fluorescent mayonnaise. When I had finished, he stopped me before I went to my room.
“Don’t ever make me do that again.”
Copyright © 2018 by Nafkote Tamirat