“When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder.
Everything moved me. A dog following a stranger. That made me feel so much. A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did. Where the smoke from a chimney ended. How an overturned bottle rested at the edge of a table. I spent my life learning to feel less. Every day I felt less. Is that growing old? Or is it something worse?”
– Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
The saddest day of my life was when my father travelled to visit me in Beirut.
By nature, I’ve always been the kind of person that needs to recharge by myself when around people for prolonged periods of time, so the prospect of somebody traveling alone to visit me exclusively terrified me.
A week or two before my father decided to visit, I’d had an overly-dramatized panic attack. I’d been ditching classes regularly, skipping assignments, living in denial of the urgency of performing well in my first semester of college. I was too caught up in the surplus of freedom that my college life provided. I’m not doing well because I’ve gone through a huge transition by going directly into sophomore year, I would tell myself as I neglected my assignments to go out with friends. It’s my high school’s fault for not preparing me well enough. Eventually, I had come up with so many excuses for my laziness that I started to believe them. My advisor thought I had depression. My roommate kept asking me why I was always in bed. One night, when I had a paper due the following day on a book I hadn’t even bothered to read, I called my father at midnight in panic-induced desperation, after which I proceeded to turn off my phone and sleep for thirteen hours. I had contained myself within a paradox. My guilt for being such a careless person was eating me up, and my lack of motivation prevented me from doing anything about it.
My father used financial aid as an excuse to visit me.
“You don’t need to submit the papers in person, dad. Just mail them to me. I can take care of it.”
“No, no. I want to go there myself.”
“I have a party at night.”
“I’m only coming for the day.”
I knew he wanted to come and check up on me. He knew that I knew that. But my father was the king of not acknowledging the elephant in the room. I, on the other hand, was a firm advocate of confrontation, except when I was around him.
His plane arrived at seven on a chilly Friday morning in November. We had planned to meet at Zaatar w Zeit on Bliss Street, which was the only place I knew that would be open at that ungodly hour of the morning.
He was waiting a table for two when I arrived. I went inside, a mixture of hesitation and longing building up inside me. He got up to give me an awkward hug –my father had never been big on hugs– and attempted to speak. “I lost my voice this morning, can you imagine?” he whispered to me amidst a series of short, dry coughs. I laughed at the irony of it, wondering what situation the universe had thrown me in. What use would a visit do if I could not even communicate with my father properly? We sat back down and the waiter offered us the menus. As my father examined his, I examined him: his thin layer of greying black hair, always imperfectly styled in a comb-over. His long face and and the dark circles that framed his eyes, which I have so unfortunately inherited from him. He was wearing his pale olive suit and a large black coat that he would not take off. He had a Don Corleone vibe going on. Resting against his chair on the floor was his computer case, filled to bursting point with documents.
After he tried to strike up a conversation and failed due to his missing voice, the waiter returned and saved us from one of many-more-to-come uncomfortably silent moments. My father pointed to the menu to show me what he wanted, and I ordered a cup of tea for him and a café au lait for myself. As we waited, I updated my father about my two months in university, carefully treading around the topic of my recent academic demise.
After silently walking to West Hall to hand in the financial aid papers we headed to Beirut Souks and he dozed off in the cab on the way, the same way my grandfather used to fall asleep on his armchair.When we got there, we strolled around the stores, and I took longer than I usually would, examining every item. We discussed Christmas gifts, how my brother was doing in London, and shallow updates about the family back in Jordan. I directed the conversation while he nodded or gave me brief replies. Whenever his voice just wouldn’t come out, we would laugh and give up on the conversation.
My shopping attempt for winter attire failed. I barely found any clothes, and the one piece that I actually did like, my father did not. He said the sweater defied its sweater-esque purposes by being too short. “It’s a crop-top sweater, dad,” I said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, but I acquiesced, and we retired to a random café. He ordered tea, and I got some exotically named smoothie. I offered him a sip, but he politely declined. “It’s too cold, I shouldn’t.”
After our second food-and-beverage stop, I headed back to my dorm to shower and go to my classes. My father had four hours to kill by himself. He had planned to go meet up over lunch with an old university friend, but cancelled because of his untimely sickness. I left him with a feeling of concern, wondering how he would manage on his own, unacquainted with the city and bereft of a voice, without me acting as his tour guide and mouth-piece.
Confession? I didn’t really need to leave early. But the way I saw it, was that we had already gone through most of the shops that were open at Beirut Souks at that hour (the bookstore was closed, to his dismay). Besides, my socializing meter was already falling rapidly, and I had to recharge for later. Ironically, I had never thought that spending time with my father counted as socializing.
I took my time in the shower, contemplating the newfound uneasiness that had materialized to form a communication barrier between father and daughter. Our relationship back home had always been great. I enjoyed spending time with him. We had a weekend tradition of bonding over hours of preparation for three-course Italian meals in the kitchen, where I would tie my hair up and stain whichever pajama I’d be wearing, while he sipped on his Famous Grouse (full ice) as he supervised my culinary arts.
“The pasta has to be al dente, ” my dad would always say as I twirl the pasta with a wooden fork.
“Dad, you’re not Italian,” I would reply.
My mom would pass by the kitchen periodically, especially when we were preparing food for guests, and offer her help, which we would kindly decline with the excuse that we don’t want to bother her. The reason we were in charge of the food in the first place was because, although we tolerated her mediocre (and often disastrous) cooking skills daily (burnt rice, flour lumps in cake, semi-raw chicken), our guests should never have to.
I remember one occasion on which I was cutting up mushrooms and cherry tomatoes for the salad when Billy Joel began playing on the radio.
“Hey dad, isn’t this one of your favourite songs?” I asked him, swaying to Uptown Girl.
“Since when do you listen to good music?”
I would always sing along as he led the tune with a discontinuous whistle.
After my shower, I sat on my bed and took out my father’s laptop. Looking through the pictures, I stumbled upon one of my mother that I had never seen before. She was smiling, her eyes lost somewhere out of the stationary world of the photograph. I snapped a picture of it with my phone and sent it to my older brother.
“She looks beautiful,” he texted back. He was much closer to her than I was.
When I was in fourth grade, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It took me about six years to truly realize the implications of her disease, and from that point on I felt like I was the mother in our relationship. I was forced to constantly remind her how to cook, or which road to take. I began pulling away from her, because the only outcome of any interaction we had was a fight. I knew it wasn’t her fault, but I was impatient and I couldn’t help it. I hated the disease, not her, but in a sense, she had become the disease and nothing else. One time, about a week after my brother left town to go back to college, she absent-mindedly mentioned how long it had been since she last saw him, and my father and I had to remind her that he had only left a couple of days earlier. I remember crying in my bed that night, thinking about how I had been denied a proper mother figure in my life. Perhaps that was the reason I had put such high faith in my relationship with my father, who would always reprimand my distant relationship with mom. She required constant support, and while my brother and father continuously provided that, I was the dead wright of the family.
After walking to university, I decided to nobly sacrifice my first class in exchange for my daily nicotine intake which I had missed due to being with my father. A piece of trivia: that was one of the two courses that I eventually failed, with a glorious fifty as a course average.
After my second class, I found my father standing morbidly at Main Gate, which was our rendezvous point. He wasn't a morbid person, but my friends would always tell me that he comes off as an intimidating man. I could see where they came from, considering he rarely ever smiled. His long dark coat didn’t help either, at that moment. He handed me a paper with a scribbled list on it.
“What is this?” I asked.
He told me how he’d strolled around Hamra for a while, stopping at a café at some point. “I kept dozing off, so I decided to go to Spinneys.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “Why Spinneys?”
“I calculated a budget for you.”
I looked at the paper, and saw that it was a list of groceries:
“You spent three hours calculating a budget for me?”
He ignored my question. “I also got you these.” He handed me a plastic bag full of those six-pack cereal bars. “For breakfast,” he explained.
“Thanks,” I replied quietly, not looking him in the eye. Was that any way to treat a daughter who secretly spent all his money on booze and cigarettes? “Are you sleepy?”
“No, no,” he said. “I slept on the way to Spinneys and told the cab driver to wake me up when we get there.”
I gave a small laugh. “I feel bad for you now.”
“Don’t be, it’s alright.” He put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a melancholic smile.
Regardless of his brief taxi nap, I was not surprised when he struggled to stay awake at his third café. The initial plan was to head to Zaitouna Bay for sushi before he left to the airport at nine. Dinner at seven sounded ideal, but we couldn’t decide where to spend our time until then.
“I’ve only been here for two months. I honestly have no idea where to take you,” I admitted to him as we walked to my dorm to drop the breakfast bars off. “But I kind of have a submission to work on.”, I blurted. The submission was already three or four days overdue, but I left that part out. And so we went to Zaitouna Bay three hours ahead of schedule, and sat at a cozy café. I worked on my assignment with my earphones on as my father sat beside me without complaining about the obvious dullness of the activity. As Simon and Garfunkel had so accurately phrased it, “no one dared disturb the sound of silence.” I kept glancing at him every now and then, noticing how his eyes kept shutting repeatedly, and I bit on the insides of my cheek to stop myself from tearing up. Guilt was spreading itself through my veins, asking me over and over again why I was so keen on avoiding talk.
He sipped on his fourth cup of tea while I slowly munched on my fries he did not approve of me ordering so soon before dinner. Eventually, I reasoned that the submission had reached a point so overdue that it did not matter anymore how late I submitted it. I closed my laptop, telling my dad that I had finished studying, and we chatted for a while.
My desire to cry grew steadily. I rambled on about my English assignment, and how I had chosen to write my research paper on literature as an art. I knew that once I began talking about literature, I would not be able to stop. I explained how it did not differ from painting, in the sense that it can transform a creator's pain and suffering into a beautiful piece through which other people can empathize with. As I spoke, a hint of pride surfaced on his tired face.
Eventually, we ordered the check and left the café. We headed to the sushi restaurant, far too early, and ordered two glasses of red wine as we looked through the menu. My father took this as a chance to advise me against going to the party.
“It’s not necessary.”
“All my friends are going.”
“You’ve already done enough for one day.”
“I already got my ticket, dad.”
“Make sure you drink carefully though.”
“I always do, don’t worry.”
Later that night, I passed out drunk in a bathroom stall at an overcrowded club after puking out a mixture of vodka, Redbull and semi-digested sushi. Admittedly, it was not one of my best moments. Sometimes I feel like parents can just sense these things.
When I was a kid, I would always hide when I felt overwhelmed. I would hide in the small space between the couch and the wall, on the steps behind some bushes in the neighboring house, under my parents denying some childish request I had made. But on that day, I felt a much more severe desire to escape, overwhelmed by a crippling realization of helplessness.
Before the food arrived, I excused myself to the bathroom where I watched silent tears escape my eyes with the same intensity I felt I needed to escape my father. Both of us knew that we had far too much extra time, and I was terrified beyond belief because I did not know how to spend them.
We tried to eat as slowly as we could. We even ordered a few extra pieces after we finished the platter, even though we were both full. I went to the bathroom to cry again. We got another round of wine. We might have even gotten dessert, I honestly cannot recall. We sat for a good thirty minutes after the waiter cleared off the table, postponing the impending moment where we would have to admit that there was nothing left for us to talk about, or do. Nowhere else to go.
We reached a point where we had to leave. It was still eight. By that time, I wasn't able to talk without my voice breaking. We strolled around the bay, going back and forth, admiring the calming sound that the sea made as it moved back and forth with the breeze. I shivered. My father offered me his coat. “It’s fine. Keep it.”
“What time are you going to the party?”
“Tennish, probably. What time is your flight again?”
“I’ll call a cab at nine?” I asked. He nodded. After ten minutes, I called again and told them to come at eight thirty, and my voice cracked as I did. There I was, with my father, the person I’d known my entire life, and I could not think of any way I would be able to spend an extra thirty minutes with him. I slowly began realizing the nature of our relationship: we were father and daughter, and nothing more. We were not friends, or confidants, or anything that transcended the familial bond that we had. Both of us had always been fond of silence, with the comfortableness of sitting across each other in the same room at home without feeling the need to say one word to each other. But that relationship was so fragile and delicate that once it was relocated outside of our household, it could not help but quiver, holding it together barely enough to not shatter.
As we walked up the steps from Zaitouna Bay to the street, I recalled how my father’s elderly uncle had made me head up the slope with him after we had had lunch there once, because he was far too weak to go up the steps. I began thinking about how there would come a point where my own father, the rock and foundation of my entire existence, would not be able to go up a small flight of steps, and I would have to help him.
He dropped me off at my dorm after a silent cab ride, and told the cabbie to wait while we bid our farewells. I hugged him tightly. "I'm sorry we didn't do much, " I said, never having expected to feel
"It's my fault," he assured me, "I should have stayed overnight at a hotel." He paused for a second, and we stared into each other's eyes, establishing a sense of sombre understanding that the day could not have gone any other way. "Take care." And with that, he got into the car, but not before I had stormed into the dorm building without glancing back. I ran into the bathroom and shut the door, and for a minute I genuinely contemplated not going to the party. He will never know that I did, but the mere thought of hesitating to go purely for his sake made me feel a little better.
Whenever I go home, we always fall back into our routine, in our small comfort zone. We still share sarcastic comments across the dinner table while my brother rolls his eyes and my mother looks confused and then angry because she doesn’t understand; I still pull up a chair behind him as he sits on his desk and works, while he recounts stories about his childhood. And most importantly, we still join forces every weekend, pretending to be the world’s best goddamn cooking duo.
S.Q. graduated from the American University of Beirut. Words are her closest friends, from books, songs, and most importantly, from people.