My husband and I just moved into our first apartment a little over two months ago. It’s a late-nineteenth century brownstown with most of the original brickwork on the interior. The building has been divided into two duplexes. We live in the top one and Enrique has the downstairs.
I had asked the landlord about Enrique just before we moved in. I was just curious who our new neighbor would be. But the landlord didn’t know too much. He said that Enrique was recently divorced and hadn’t even lived here a year. His job, which he didn’t know too much about, took him out of the country a lot. And his two young boys visited him on the weekends that he was home.
The first time we met Enrique was in the entranceway a few days after we had moved in. We were on our way in and he was going out, so we just said hello and exchanged names. He was a few years older than us and in good shape, and his brooding dark eyes brightened up when he smiled and shook my hand.
I bumped into him a week or so later at the local Chinese takeout. We introduced ourselves again and chatted briefly until our food was ready. He said that he was recently divorced and had two sons who were sometimes with him on the weekends. I asked him what he did and he said that he was the market manager of a color company.
“But what is it you do?” I asked
“Well, he said, “I’m the market manager of a company that manufactures colors.”
He pointed to one of my jacket buttons.
“We make these.”
“Oh. How do you like it?” I asked, adjusting my button.
“Well, it’s very demanding. I’m out of the country all the time. Next week I’m going to China for ten days.”
“That sounds exciting.”
“Well, yeah, I got a lot of friends there.”
“My husband was in China. He got me this necklace.” I held out my neck.
To my surprise he reached out and fingered the edges of one of its woven silver squares, staring inquisitively at the oval turquoise stones set in the middle of each square. He smiled.
There was an awkward pause, and we both looked over the counter to see what was going on in the kitchen.
“So,” he said, “are you recently married?”
“Just ten weeks.” And I showed him my ring.
He smiled again and held his smile a moment, as if he was thinking about something. And then his food came. And as he walked out he said, “Well, I wish the two of you the best of luck. It’s no easy thing what you’re doing, you know.” He waved to me over his shoulder. “I’ll see you around.”
I thought he seemed nice enough, but wasn’t it a bit rude to make that comment about my marriage, as if he was some expert or something. And he didn’t even ask me a single question about my husband or anything. Isn’t that kind of weird? I mean, we are his neighbors after all. But I guess it’s none of my business. Besides, he ordered Egg Foo Young.
I didn’t see him for weeks after that, but I would often hear him with different women through the brick walls. They would be laughing away and carrying on at all hours with the stereo going, playing this awful seventies music. My husband called it his boom-chicky-wah-wah music. For days after that we would laugh when we heard that music again, and my husband would say, “There goes Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah Man again.”
But after a while I wasn’t so amused anymore. And I wasn’t so amused that my husband found Mr. Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah’s philandering so funny, either.
One night while I was trying to watch TV, the music just got to me up to here, and in spite of my husband’s whining for me not to, I went downstairs anyway.
There was no answer at the door at first, and after I knocked louder, I could hear Enrique moan out load in aggravation.
“One sec,” he shouted.
He lowered the music and shuffled across the floor and opened the door.
There he stood, in the doorway, reclined up against the side, in a skinny little robe that barely covered him. He was smiling gleefully.
“Sorry,” he said.
“It’s just a bit too loud,” I remarked, unable to keep myself from looking him over a spec.
“It won’t bother you again,” he said, continuing to smile.
And then he closed the door. And just then I realized that that woman of his in there had been doing something to him from behind the door the whole time we were talking, because right after the door closed the two of them broke out into laughter, and I could hear him chase her from right there behind the door, all the way off.
Then, there was this one time when the outside buzzer rang. I ran downstairs expecting the laundry man, but it was one of Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah’s girlfriend’s instead. I don’t know why, but I was excited to finally get a look at one of these chickadees. And I was thrilled to see that she was kind of shlumpy looking, wearing dark and heavy clothes. And as she shlumped up the stairs and looked up at me her glasses slid sideways on her face. But I was a little taken aback, though, because she was blonde and had fine thin features. But all this happened too fast and then Enrique opened his door saw me, and then she slid into his place.
I’ve never seen that one again, at least not from that close up, but I’ve seen her and others going up there at night from a distance, when I am standing on the corner and waiting for them to go in.
Then there were times when he would scream at his kids, I mean really scream, like he was going to murder them or something, and that scared the hell out of me, and it even made me stop listening up against the wall.
Then one afternoon when I was going out, I saw his ex-wife picking up the kids in her car. I was rather surprised. She didn’t look like the other women. I mean, she was fat. Or at least the part of her I could see in the car was fat: her face and walrus neck and slug-like arms. Enrique was leaning on the roof and talking to her while the kids got in, and she made some comment to him that she laughed at, and her pink face turned red and her blonde split-ends clung to her patchy cheeks. But Enrique only sort of grinned. And he looked over his shoulder at me and back, just barely acknowledging my presence. So I went in.
Just last week, I arrived home to find all the mail unsorted in a pile on the floor. There was a postcard from a chicky friend of his from upstate saying she would be in for the weekend and would “love to see you.” There was an issue of Esquire magazine. And there was a postcard from the library saying the book he requested has come in.
Then I did something which I couldn’t believe I did.
I actually pretended that I was Enrique’s fiancée to pick up the book from the library. I know, that’s crazy. But is it that crazy to find out who lives downstairs from you? I mean, this guy could be the psycho neighbor you hear people talk about on TV: “He seemed like anybody else, and then one day…”
Anyway, the book was nothing that revealing. Just one of those self-help type books by some PhD in something-or-other called “Coping as a Single Parent.” I didn’t even realize how silly it must have looked, me saying I was his fiancée and all, but as long as I paid my seventy cents they could give a hoot whether I was an alien.
But you know, I did actually end up flipping through the book a bit. My husband would joke with me about how I was planning to have his children and then skip town, but he had no idea why I had this book. He probably figured it was related to something I had seen on one of those TV talk shows. I did buy a book once about the aliens who live amongst us, which nearly scared the hell out of me.
But, this was different. I mean, I actually ended up feeling sort of sorry for Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah man. After all, I couldn’t possibly have known what he was going through. For Chrissake, I had no more than only met the guy.
But then, not even a week ago something awful happened.
We were having problems with our plumbing. The refuse from the sink was coming up in the bathtub. I went downstairs to see if Enrique was having any trouble with his plumbing and one of his boys answered the door. He said that his dad wasn’t there right now but that he’d ask him about the plumbing when he got back. He couldn’t have been more than twelve, and I reminded him again to ask his dad about the plumbing. He just looked at me and said, “okay,” as if he wanted to be left alone to whatever it was he was doing. Knowing he was left there alone made me feel so sad, like I should reach out to him and reassure him that everything would be all right. That was one of the things the book said to do. He just nodded at me and closed the door.
Some time after Enrique knocked on our door. He seemed kind of chipper, and one of the first things he said as he walked in was how much he liked the place. He commented on the exposed brick walls with the ivy we were growing on them, and he looked at me and smiled, the way he did at the Chinese place, that smiley-sort-of-look. It caught me a bit off guard.
My husband showed him the problem in the bathroom and Enrique said he wasn’t having any trouble in his place. He saw one of my bras hanging over the sink and laughed and made a comment about his ex-wife. And my husband laughed and I blushed. He told us we should get the landlord to call the plumber and then said to me that if I ever needed anything else I should feel free to stop by.
Then Enrique followed my husband through the living room towards the kitchen to look underneath the sink, and that’s when I noticed the book laying on the coffee table. My god, I absolutely panicked. My husband was already futzing about underneath the sink and Enrique noticed me notice the book, and then he, too, looked over on the coffee table. My husband made some joke over his shoulder to Enrique and Enrique sort of laughed while he looked back at me. Then he said rather sternly that he had to get back to his kids and had things to do and he abruptly excused himself.
Anyway, maybe a friend of mine was reading the book and left it, or why the hell couldn’t I have taken it out of the library myself, by chance, or who knows. There was nothing for him to go on up here. “Things to do.” Christ. We all know what that means.
Later that night after the plumber had left, we were watching TV and Boom-Chicky-Wah-Wah man was playing his music and everything seemed back to normal around here. The telephone rang. I figured it was the plumber or the landlord checking up on us, but when I picked up the receiver there was no answer. So, I said, “hello?” a second time, and then waited.
In the background she could faintly hear the muffled tones of music, and just before she said hello a third time, she identified that music as the same sound coming through her apartment from downstairs.
I hang up the phone.
The news said it was the worst bombing in recent years, twenty-two dead and over a hundred wounded. Bodies were flying everywhere, it said, bodies were flying at the height of twenty to twenty-five feet.
That morning we waited for our guests in a reception hall at the Capital’s most plush and fortified hotel, half-an-hour from the open-air market that was the site of the blast. Eighty-five had registered and confirmed, but seventy-plus were no-shows. The plush room was surreally empty, the exquisite buffet nearly untouched. During the seminar most of the few in attendance unstealthily sneaked out, so by midday I was presenting to only three, each one seated at their own table laid out for ten.
The event’s organizers were on and off phones and hurrying in and out all morning, yet they couldn’t explain the apparent failure. More likely, they chose to protect the information from the foreigner. Secrecy feigns control and order.
The quietude of our room stood in stark contrast to the rackety lobby, which functioned more as a luxury mall than a hotel’s reception. It also served as a hotspot for photographing wedding parties and a meeting point for VIPs allowed entry to the otherwise fortress. There were various ranks of armed security positioned about, which gave the sense that your sole presence was at all times being observed and tracked.
Once a cluster of secret police crossed the promenade. They were towering, muscular men wearing dark fatigues and military boots and all armed with AK-47s. Their sheer, navy t-shirts had the words No Fear in emboldened white lettering on the backs.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon after landing in Urumqi, China when I learned the news from a Dubai colleague. After our call, I phoned my other foreign colleague still in Islamabad. The bombing had been kept surprising and unneedfully hushed.
He overtly downplayed the tragedy. It was not something to be discussed—or at least not over an open line—but in reality never at all. “These sorts of things happen all the time and you never hear about them. Nobody hears about them.”
A bomb kills twenty-two and that is that.
Of the hundreds of people I met in Pakistan, most were eager to ask whether I felt safe there as an American. This was at first off-putting, but it soon became an expected icebreaker, along with other, more innocuous, questions like whether I ate spicy food or liked their country. To the safety gambit, I half-jokingly replied: “I felt much safer before everyone kept asking.” This proved the perfect reprieve to cease further small talk.
My safety was discussed so often, however, that sometimes I needed to engage in earnest on the topic. All I knew were the dribs and drabs I had half-digested from the Western media. But I didn’t feel there was one thing I could point a finger at and say that that was the issue. Admittedly, I might be the most naïve American to have ever been granted a Pakistani visa.
Interestingly, though, no one could, or at least would, relay any solid information. When I once asked the only American working at the international school in Lahore as to the source of all the perceived danger, she curtly retorted, “Are you kidding me?” So much for that. And so, my uncertainty—perpetuated by the constant queries into my well-being—lead my overly worked imagination to run wild with terrorist scenarios.
One dinner in Karachi was on the open-air terrace of a famous kebab shop. Even the short walk in and out of the dark parking area made me uneasy: met by intent stares of huddled loiterers dressed in traditional shalwar kameez and the filthy food vendors who dotted the near-vacant lot.
While eating, I drifted in and out of the table chatter, periodically entertaining visions of a grenade or Molotov cocktail being lunged onto our patio from the manic streets a stone’s throw below, where the unlit main thoroughfare blared with cacophonous traffic.
The next night my foreign colleague and I flew to Lahore where we were met by an unmarked hotel car. Ten minutes en route from the airport we were pulled over at a makeshift military checkpoint where two men with machine guns slung over their shoulders took our passports. They also took the driver, and the three of them slowly walked off the black road and into a distant, temporarily fixed trailer.
We waited in near-silence for five minutes, then another five. My colleague had been to Lahore many times but uneasily confessed that this was irregular. We exited the taxi and lightly paced about the area, each double-burning two cigarettes and periodically looking out towards the quiet office container, our ghostly white countenances only illuminated by the headlights of the odd-passing vehicle. After an unprecedented twenty-five minutes and with no explanation, we were again safely on our way.
The next day we held a seminar at an alcohol-free bar, where around bar stools the mixologists proudly shook up virgin cocktails concocted from juice. It felt as natural as a vegetarian restaurant that simulates meat dishes.
Because the event was publically advertised and there was no security preventing anyone from wandering in off the street, I naturally daydreamed about armed bandits bursting through the threshold and littering the room in a blaze of bullets. I even went so far as to identify the optimal places to seek cover and considered all possible escape routes. But this fantasy left me deflated, as I sadly concluded that the place was a venerable deathtrap. And so I regained consciousness, the guests still deep in conversation, and lounging around me on plush pastel sofas slurping virgin Piña Coladas.
But my paranoia was not abated when, after the day, colleagues advised against going downstairs and outside to wait for our hotel driver, instead insisting we remained perched in single file on the broiling, narrow second floor stairwell in anticipation of his call.
The next night we dined with clients at another open-air restaurant, this one atop a narrow and confined historic walk-up that once functioned as a brothel. The overly decorated small entrance way and crammed corridors featured erotic pictures, statuettes, handicrafts and paintings of prostitutes. The roof offered exquisite unobstructed views of the twinkling Badshahi Mosque, Pakistan’s largest house of prayer.
During the meal there was a power outage. With a snap of a finger the entire landscape went black, rendering a rooftop packed with diners, the world’s seventh largest mosque, and a labyrinth of ancient cobblestone streets all in instant darkness. It gave one the eerie and majestic sense of how civilization existed for so long in the absence of electricity. Restaurant attendants frantically placed candles about the terrace and then shined flashlights onto our invisible plates, piled pell-mell with a mélange of charcoaled meats draped in mouth-singeing gravies.
After dinner we strolled the ancient alleyways once home to Lahore’s red light district. I was told there were still brothels in operation, so it was naturally half-jokingly suggested that we explore some of these options. Such a notion made me giggle with dread. I could easily envision getting raided at a Pakistani whorehouse and the inevitably catastrophic results with all their humiliations and near, or not-so-near, death experiences. So, to this repeated proposal, which I insisted interpreting as jest, I dismissed the bulging white eyes and impish grins of our hosts without a whiff of interest.
The next afternoon we made the four-hour drive from Lahore to our hotel in Islamabad, a smooth open highway along magnificent mountainous countryside without checkpoints or other obstructions. The drive revealed the vast extent of the open border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which put me on guard when we stopped to refuel. Here I was met by the unfriendly stares of travelers from aboard trucks and buses, leaving my mind reeling with images of dread. But of course, yet again, I was absolutely fine.
Pakistan was at once fascinating and as equally unsettling. I was deeply moved—as I often am when I travel—by people’s kindness and hospitality. I had the pleasure of visiting three families’ homes and enjoying their incredible home-cooked feasts. I met hundreds of lovely people. Many have since kept in touch via Skype; so many in fact, that a good half of all my contacts are from the trip, which I’m sure is much to the chagrin of the NSA. While my fear wasn’t constant, it was still—however helpful or not—a most loyal companion.
I think Jiddu Krishnamurti says it well:
Fear is never an actuality; it is either before or after the active present. When there is fear in the active present, is it fear? It is there and there is no escape from it, no evasion possible. There, at that actual moment, there is total attention at the moment of danger, physical or psychological. When there is complete attention there is no fear. But the actual fact of inattention breeds fear; fear arises when there is an avoidance of the fact, a flight; then the very escape itself is fear.
And so, I can’t wait to one day again escape back to Pakistan.
The Taj Mahal
When you first set eyes on the Taj Mahal the sensation is absolute awe. As the sun sets and again rises, you have the privilege of exploring this marvelous behemoth, meditating on its splendor from multiple perspectives and heights. After your time is done, that precious moment fills you when you realize you must cast a parting gaze. This knowledge is joined by mixed feelings of nostalgia coupled with inexplicable swells of sadness. But those final seconds are also accompanied by a serene lightness before you inevitably journey on. To experience the stillness of the ages you must confront how your own days are so surely waning.