I want to
I want to be someone else or I’ll explode
floating upon the surface for the birds
Talk Show Hosts, Radiohead
When you are on a plane, trapped in the clouds, you are nowhere. Not really nowhere: you are somewhere. A moving point in space mapped by some sophisticated cartographic technology. But, you are detached from everything that transforms spaces into places; in a sense you are detached from reality. It is suspended like you within an atmospheric cushion. Somewhere within this specific dot crossing the Atlantic, I sat in the forced darkness intending to mimic a natural night, while we were buckled into our leather seats, breathing the artificial air. I tried to close my eyes, to sleep like the others around me, but sleep would not come. I glanced at his sleeping profile next to me, at his translucent skin, his straight nose, his thin lips. In his sleep, he lost his fierce intensity, the stony veneer that demanded respect. In his sleep, he looked vulnerable, and I felt both protected and protective. Without turning the light on, I opened my sketchbook, flipping through the pages quickly without lingering, past sketches and charcoals, collaged pages dried stiff with primers and glue, thin wrinkled pages covered with lists of things I had to do or should have done but had forgotten to. The faint, comforting chemical smell of gesso mingled with the chilled, recycled air, until I arrived at an empty page. With the strange music playing in my ears just loud enough to cut the throbbing of the engines but not loud enough to be perceptible to anyone else, I took out the pencil and began to draw him, my hand moving blindly in the dark. My focused but quick glances transferred the details to my fingers with an understanding that was beyond vision. Lines turned into shapes and shapes into volumes, exactly as I was once taught, the traditional way, to follow the positive space. Whenever I was under stress, I reverted to old habits and learned ways of seeing. I shaded the pocket of skin under his eye, the shadow that fell across his face, and his lips so thin they looked as if they could disappear. In the dim light of the cabin, I could not make out exactly what I had drawn. The sketch was incomplete, half a sketch of half a face. It was only an impression – or even less than that: it was a mood.
The songs playing in my head continued to speak to me even as my desire to draw ended. I began a game I have played since I was a little girl. I began to write the words I heard coming through the headphones. And the words I did not understand, that I could not decipher, I made up, filling the blanks with my own lyrics. At some point, you cannot write fast enough to the pace of the rhythm and you lose the thread. When this happens, the short lines change into sentences, and the words break into a trajectory of their own. And the words began to take over the page, to occupy the negative space around the drawing, that sacred whiteness we were taught to always respect. The scribbles in the margins became the center and the center shifted into the margins. I could not see the letters as I transcribed the lines, but it did not matter, I continued until the song ended. And when I looked up, after long minutes that had stretched beyond measurable time, he was awake again, watching me, his lips slowly formed a half-smile, sleepy and lazy. And although he was the one waking up, I looked back at him as if I had been the one dreaming, as if he had woken me up.
I shut the sketchbook in the half darkness, my own expression invisible as I pulled off his headphones and turned towards him.
How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I went wrong?
Won’t take my eyes off the ball again.
First you reel me out, and then you cut the string.
15 Step, Radiohead
When my grandmother gathered us to tell a story, as she reigned on the blue velvet bergère while we claimed our territories on the worn antique Persian carpet that covered her cold gray marble floors. She would always begin with a soft, trembling voice, “Once there was, and once there was not.” We knew, of course, she told these stories to imprint her moral of the day on our impressionable ears: the young must always respect their elders; the kind always win; the obedient always get the prize; “our” culture always prevails; nevertheless we listened, as we were transported from our boring lives to magical and grotesque lands where virtuous girls were transformed to princesses and rebellious ones were doomed to have slimy frogs spewing out of their mouths forever. As she recited her carefully formed lessons disguised as stories, hybrids of French fairy tales meshed with Arabian Nights, I fixated on those first words, that contradictory opening, on the confusing duality of what was and what was not, distracted by the impossibility of something both being and not being, of a story happening and not. Did it or didn’t it? Years later, you learn that some things in fact both happen and don’t happen, that your life teeters on an invisible line between existence and absence. You realize that a story unfolds in infinite possibilities; that what wasn’t and what didn’t define your life as much as what was and what did.
The only story that exists is the one we remember, right now, in this moment. All other versions disappear and become irrelevant. It’s the truth: once there was, and once there was not. Once, the past is clear, and once again, the memory is blurred.
Gather around and listen to the tale before it is erased, listen as we glorify parts of our past and selectively change others, as we shift and stretch our truth. And so we begin with, once there was, and once there was not. But there was, there was…
My story ends where it began. Waiting. How long do we wait, thinking, “What if?” Obsessing about “What if?” What if the choices you thought were right were not the right ones? What if you just played a part that someone else had written for you? What if you lived your life through the words of others, the rules of others, the expectations of others, the lyrics of others? What if you waited too long, just to see what if, just to see what is? How long do you wait? Years pass as you wait, and you realize our childhood dreams of what we would be do not match up to what we have become. This is the dark age of life, when we are unable to change the past, yet we are haunted by our perfect, gained-in-hindsight wisdom, and we are unable to accept the future as we now know it will unfold. So we wait, and we delay enlightenment in perpetual procrastination. We kill time, we start over, start again.
My name is Naya, from the reeds, from the ney, the ancient flute made from sugar canes that grew tall on the banks of the Nile. Each golden column is picked out of the marshes, its head and tail lopped off, its sweetness sucked out, and it becomes an empty vessel, depleted and useless, until someone picks it up and puts it to his lips and breathes into the dried tube a new life, a sound, a melody, creating something beautiful out of nothing. The ney, the instrument of the wind and the page, is older than time. It was etched onto the walls of the Pyramids, it was prized in Roman courts, it inspired countless poems of Rumi, it was sharpened and used as a pen to fill blank pages with the history of men. When the reed grew too long to play, it was used as a walking stick, propping up those who leaned unto it for support. Sometimes, when the weight of men became too heavy to bear, the reed would splinter and puncture their tightly clasping palms, their blood staining the golden surface, their flesh digging into the vertical fibers.
You don’t know me, but you have read my words, you have heard my notes. I live in your headphones, whisper in the night, and lull you to sleep. I exist to inspire, to enchant, to depress, to haunt, to tell my fragmented story. I’m in the middle of your picture, hiding in the reeds. But you don’t see me, you don’t hear me, for I am invisible. For I am nothing but an instrument.
I shift my weight from one aching foot to the other. I shouldn’t have worn these shoes. I wonder if I should change into the flats stashed in my purse. It’s crazy; he isn’t even going to see my feet, but I’m convinced the extra four inches will improve my view. With my earbuds in place, I try to focus on the music and forget the pain shooting up the backs of my legs. I pass the time watching people walking past me to join the back of the growing line. While waiting in line for a band you love, you are surrounded by people who have nothing in common with you but your obsession. Waiting in line for a concert is as important as the concert itself. This is where you meet the die-hard fans, the ones who upload their carefully recorded videos on YouTube, grainy evidence that they were there and were willing to stand still for an entire song to freeze the memory and share it with everyone else who could not be there. In the line, their abstract user names flesh into reality, virtual Facebook friends who finally acquire a real face. This is where you can discuss the songs and the lyrics in minute detail without sounding crazy. You can freely analyze the implications of a change of a word in a song between live and recorded versions, and exchange theories behind the intention of the changes. No judgment. After years of no one in your real life understanding this passion, here you belong, with your like-minded tribe of fundamentalists, all searching for meaning in the same place. These unwavering, intense feelings should have been a red flag telling me I had gone too far. But is it insane to find a home, a belonging, in a Radiohead concert line? Not at all.
The guy next to me leans against the brick wall, a lanky indie-type dressed in faded jeans and a grungy, frayed t-shirt. He was trying too hard to fit in with the nonchalant, just-rolled-out-of-bed and probably stoned majority of the crowd. Not that I cared – I didn’t fit in either, overdressed as I usually am when I’m nervous. He tells me he is not from New York, he drove down from Maine. He is an environmental lawyer and used funds from a corporate settlement to bid on this last-minute charity concert for ultimate Radiohead fans to raise money for Haiti. He tells me he went to the Met today to look at the Van Goghs. He describes, with obvious pride, his elaborate, complicated theory that the singer is Van Gogh reincarnated. He goes on and on, comparing songs to paintings of bedrooms and sunflowers. I listen, having heard weirder Radiohead theories. To keep him talking and stay in my half zoned-out state, I nod in agreement.
Then he looks at me and asks, “Do you think he has a muse?” I smile, and say, “Every artist has a muse.”
Muse, I think. Why do people always want to find out where things come from, to dissect the origin of inspiration? We have a need to explain the intention of art, an urge to take it apart and see how it works, as if we could explain it, as if it would become tangible, as if we all could tap into it like a mythical fountain of creativity and absorb it for ourselves. An instinctive need to figure it out and steal away its magic. A muse doesn’t create the art, she drives it; to be a muse is to be used, analyzed, objectified. To fulfill her duty, a muse must weave an invisible web of truthful lies – deep lies excavated from memory, with a glossy sheen of truth applied to the surface – at once inspiring and intoxicating.
To change the subject, I wonder aloud about what the setlist will be tonight. As expected, a heated discussion concerning possible song selections and speculation about new tracks begins between the lawyer and a group of guys behind me. I leave them completely now, relieved to be finally alone with my music and my thoughts. I used to be like them but I’m not anymore. I’m just playing the part of a regular (okay, intense) fan. When I know that with just a couple of texts I could be on the other side of this brick wall. With him.
The line begins to move forward when the doors open, and I turn and give my new friend a piece of advice. “Stand in front of the piano. Left of stage.” I try to erase thoughts of the past as I turn the volume up. The line inches forward.
Listen to my story, before the wait is over, before it slips away from my memory, before it shifts again, listen, while I can still remember. Slip inside my headphones. Step into the infinite tunnel between my ears and my mind, where my thoughts are triggered by a voice, a note, a word. Can you hear them?
Once there was a muse, the daughter of memory and the lover of inspiration. She held all the desires of the world within her. Once there was not.
transport, motor ways, and tram lines
starting and then stopping
taking off and landing
the emptiest of feelings
shell smashed, juices flowing
wings twitch, legs are going
don’t get sentimental
it always ends up drivel
Let Down, Radiohead
I hate waiting in line. Especially airport lines. I hate check-in lines, security lines, boarding lines, lines that snake in endless labyrinthine mazes, lines that make you rock from one foot to the next, twisting your neck and your back, until every minuscule movement ails your body, and still the line doesn’t move. My people hate standing in line, except in prayer. When they pray, they submit to the line that represents the belief that all men are equal in front of Allah. But that equality evaporates at the bakery, in front of the bus stop, or in an airport; anywhere else it’s every man for himself, pushing and shoving to be first. But, since the fateful September morning when everything changed forever, we navigate a world where we are not only not equal to, but we are officially less than all others. You must not complain, you must not attract attention. You must appear normal, you must stand in line and try to disappear.
I watch the smug airline employee behind his station moving as slowly as possible. Was he trained to read our collective stress, boredom, and exhaustion? I wonder how he learned to move in opposite proportion to the frustration level of the passenger, to type continuously while gazing at the screen with glazed eyes, to speak in slowing syllables in a monotone voice. He must be addicted to our suffering, inhaling our fumes of distress and anxiety. I imagine he would be a sadistic torturer in another life, in another country.
You hate it but you have to go through it, like everyone else who has to get from point A to point B. And eventually, if you make enough international flights, from the Middle East to the US and back, sooner or later, you will connect through London Heathrow. This is where I am today, on the 5th of January 2003, waiting, in line.
Terminal 5 is drab and nondescript. The best thing about Terminal 5 is leaving it. Whenever I’m here, I wonder why they couldn’t have built a better airport, one that welcomes you to England, instead of this massive, uninspiring gray block.
I know airports are hard to design because I have designed one. Not a real one, but on paper, which to an architecture student feels like the real thing. There aren’t many ways to create interesting spaces that meet the endless criteria and needs of gates, security, and runways. Mechanics and logistics make it difficult to insert inspiration and so the coolness that true architecture is supposed to exude dies in an airport. The airport is a building designed for maximum efficiency of movement: moving people with their overstuffed suitcases, moving everything along, up and down escalators, zipping across walkways. The airport is made for motion; once you stop, the flaws appear. All the design mistakes crystalize in the immobile moments. The still perspectives and carefully constructed 3D renderings that architects use for presentations tend to disguise the spaces as perfect snapshots, covered in appealing surfaces and filled with happy tourists. It is far from the messy reality you only experience by being there. We try our best to distract you, to make you forget where you are. We cover the walls, ceilings and floors with signs, colored flags or whatever cultural emblem or historical artifact that signifies: you are here; you are an international traveler; you have arrived! Like the interiors of Vegas casinos that artificially place you somewhere specific, to distract you from where you really are, the flimsy facade cannot disguise the fact that you are in an airport, in isolation. You are not in a place at all, you are expected to move quickly, spend money, and lately, strictly adhere to convoluted security policies. The slickest of architectural tricks can try to make you forget that you are a passport number in a line, but no amount of fancy sky lights, over-designed geometric columns, or in-house museums can make frustration disappear. Nothing can make you forget that you are in an airport.
While you are stuck in line, personal methods of distraction and defense work the best. Your cell phone, a book (though I find it hard to read while standing), and your music are essentials. I am addicted to my new, glossy iPod, both minimalist and trendy with the all-important white ear pods. Keep the volume low or even off if you want, but keep those white earbuds in place at all costs. It is your barrier against intrusive people asking for directions, asking if there is a delay, asking if you are on the same flight, asking if they are in the right line, or worse just to chat. As I wait, I try not to stress because I should be in Providence right now, getting ready for studio tomorrow. But of course I can’t forget, I’m stranded in Terminal 5.
I must admit, with all its faults, Heathrow doesn’t compare to the horrid excuse for an airport that is Aleppo International. The building is an iconic representation of the smoky, dusty, and cold socialist Syrian architecture of the last thirty years. Although winters in Aleppo are mild, the desert night chill leaks through the unheated interiors, the kind of cold that my mother says seeps into your bones. In these public buildings you must wrap yourself in as many layers as possible, not just for warmth but to visually bulk up and look as unattractive as possible to avert the looks of the sleazy men who hang out in dark corners watching every person who comes and leaves. Gawkers who have nothing better to do than loiter around the airport in the middle of the night, eating you with their eyes, studying your movements like hawks, listening in on your conversations and mentally taking notes. Don’t look directly at anyone; your eyes must be kept down at all costs. Here, an iPod is not a distraction but a red flag of frowned upon over-westernization; I keep it hidden away in my bag, but I mentally shut myself down and put on an impenetrable expression as cold as the stone walls.
Although I made my teary goodbyes to my family hours ago, it always feels like I’m continuously saying goodbye until I set foot in America. Until then, I cannot think of my life in Providence or my freedom. Until then all I can think of is my home, my mother and my father, and everything I left behind. I was supposed to depart on yesterday’s three a.m. British Airway’s flight from Aleppo to London on an plane coming from Damascus, but after a series of unfortunate delays, overbookings, and missed connections, I spent last night in London and was rerouted on the next evening flight to JFK, scheduled to arrive at my final destination exactly 48 hours later than expected. Delays are a standard part of experiencing Middle Eastern travel, so in reality this Heathrow line was not too bad.
There is a word architects love – ‘threshold’: the border between two separate yet connected spaces. The threshold of a house separates inside from out. At an airport, security separates being in and out of transit. Because we architects are taught to insert meaning into the mundane, we use the word to describe limits, boundaries, spaces of transition. Although I don’t know it yet, the line I wait in is a “threshold moment”, a temporal boundary, between what happened before and what will happen after. These moments can only be analyzed later; no one knows what exact moment will define who we are to become: an accident, a job interview, a meeting, a coincidence. Some are obvious clichés: getting married, having a baby, the death of your parents, these are expected transitions and can be prepared for in advance. Others are hidden, encoded into your DNA, they wait to emerge, to change the future and bring the past into focus. Sometimes it’s called luck, fate, free will, bad choices, all the words we use to explain our lives, but this is what my father has been saying to me for years: everything is written. We are not accidents waiting to happen.
Destiny waits with me in line. Or in two lines, to be precise.
Open your mouth wide,
a universal sigh.
And while the ocean blooms,
it’s what keeps me alive.
So why does it still hurt?
Don’t blow your mind with why.
I pass the time watching people around me, particularly in the enviously short first class line. My only consolation was that I knew I looked better than most in the business and first class lines. I was dressed mostly in black, save the fuchsia cashmere scarf that my mother wrapped around my neck as I was leaving our apartment, to shield me from the cold, she said, and to break the depressing black. My mother always wrapped a warm gesture around a criticism. Architects, like artists, like to wear black because it is the color of the intellectual yet artsy, smart yet creative, types. Fitted black clothes, black messenger bags, and black thick-rimmed glasses, render us a blank canvas, with no distracting colors or fussy details. My scarf peeping out of my jacket was like the sliver of a metal zipper, or the slim red strip of rubber peeking from the back of your Prada shoes. Whether an ethnic detail or trademark glasses or a discreet logo, we want to be blank but also known. We also judge harshly, even though we pretend we don’t. You learn to “curate” your image early on in art school if you haven’t already in your teenage angst years. From your thoughts to your voice, every detail on and within your canvas is an opportunity to display this carefully formed image. The worst thing to happen to an architecture student is to be called a slacker (for actually needing and getting over six hours of sleep) or an idiot (for wearing bright colors or sounding too American). No one wants to sound “too American,” not even the Americans. Having a slight Euro accent is extremely useful at design school. Not too thick, just a faint sound of otherness is enough. For me having the accent was no problem, I could go either way, perfectly American at the Stop and Shop grocery store, to slightly “other” in studio, creating the coveted “European” twinge, to the point that my professors thought I knew French or at least Spanish when I didn’t. Worldliness, real or feigned, is necessary to survive. I was surprised when I found this need to be slightly foreign was so important in America. In Syria the expats’ kids who were dragged to visit the homeland every summer would be tormented every time they made a mistake while speaking to relatives, until they gave up on learning Arabic and reverted to the natural American drawl that we all secretly wanted for ourselves.
I entertain myself by texting back and forth with my best friend, Lamia, already in Providence. I know I am going to be screwed with charges, but I convince myself this is necessary to keep my sanity. Rocking on the balls of my black on black leather Pumas, back and forth, a familiar scent mixes with the canned airport air. I glance to my left, and in an instant I wish the entire floor of the airport would break open and swallow me.
He is in the line next to mine, supporting a tall, blonde girl leaning casually against his chest. She whispers something to him and they both laugh. I glance at them sideways, moving slightly to hide behind the guy in front of me. They look like the typical jet-setter couple, the ones you see in magazines, the ones that tell you how you are supposed to look while traveling. Casual yet fitted jackets and jeans and just enough tonal but visible logos on shoes and bags to mark themselves as different, as better. I watch as he slowly massages her shoulders with his clean-shaven face close to her golden, sleek hair. The memory of him touching my hair chokes me. I blink back my tears and try to arrest the flush that creeps unto my face. Of all the fucking British Airways’ flights from London to New York, I have to be stuck on one with him. I wish I were in studio like I was supposed to be, I wish I were anywhere else but here. I keep glancing towards them and turn away a moment too late, just as he catches me watching them. He steps out of the line and walks over.
He taps my shoulder, says, Hey.
I slip off my earbuds, pull my shoulders back and smile, secretly grateful for stretch jeans that don’t lose their cling and for freshly blow-dried hair, because as image-conscious Lamia reminded me that morning, you never know who you will meet in an airport. Because I haven’t spoken for hours, my voice cracks as I say, Hi Omar.
He grasps my shoulders and kisses my cheeks three times in the Lebanese style that Syrians love to imitate. His strong cologne envelopes me in a heavy cloud of past moments just like this one. He asks me about my classes, haven’t they already started?
I tell him that I’ve had a bit of a delay, hating him for remembering my schedule and nothing else. I look up and watch the sympathetic words fly out of his mouth, while his ill-concealed smirk tells me he doesn’t feel bad at all.
I smile and tell him it actually worked out perfectly, I had a great time in London. He keeps going, that I should have texted him, that I knew he was here for the week, that we could have had dinner together, with Elise, as he points to the blonde girl who smiles and waves perkily.
I try to think of a way out of this dead end, but I am stuck in my frozen line, hostage to his faux compassion and annoyingly effective charm. I can hear him telling me how they just met in London, and how she lives in New York, and how she works at a museum, one of the ones I love, but I am only half-listening, my eyes taking in the fragments of him which I can get away with, his jaw, his hand gesturing, the glint of silver from his watch peeking out under his white shirt sleeve. I let out a relieved sigh when he finally stops speaking.
Tilting his head towards me, he asks, Habibti, what’s wrong? The sound of his old endearment jolts me back to my senses. He’s throwing around “my love” with such carelessness, and I wonder, not for the first time, if he’s ever meant it.
My eyes slant slightly as I look up into his dark eyes, and they become tender for a moment as they always used to do when he knew he’d got to me, always so easily. He asks me how long I’m going to be in New York and before I can answer his real-life Barbie calls out in a high-pitched whine, Omar, it’s our turn honey, butchering his name, O-mar, mispronouncing the first letter. Non-Arabs can never pronounce it, the guttural ‘ayn they make into a long O, their mouths shaped into a perfect circle. But really, it starts with a harshness in your throat, softly bypasses your mouth to slip effortlessly out of your lips. He used to make fun of people like her.
Isn’t she cute? he says, distracted for a moment. Gotta go, I’ll catch up with you at the gate. He stops and turns back and says, Change your attitude, grudges don’t suit you. How long are you going to stay mad? He gives me a quick peck on the cheek and squeezes my shoulder.
Forever, I think to myself, feeling my bones under his tight grip. But again, I just smile back.
As he walks back to his line, I try to see what was holding up mine. The culprit is a family with two kids and a screaming baby, overloaded with heavy luggage and American “need special treatment” attitudes. Now that I am aware of them standing three feet away from me, the cool calm I was feeling before evaporates. My applied glaze of confidence shattered into pieces, I feel exposed, standing alone, next to him but not next to him. The line becomes unbearable as each minute stretches into the next. All I can think is, we can’t be moving parallel to each other.
I wave to an airline employee patrolling the cordoned edge, and tell him that I’m about to miss my flight and need to check in immediately. I use every ounce of charm I have in me. If I were in Syria, I would have bribed him with five hundred lira, but of course all I can do here is use my sweetest tone and hope I will get my way. He eyes me with suspicion, he can tell it’s bullshit, but he unclips the cord and leads me to the empty first class line. Just wait here, he says. I can feel the rolling eyes of the economy line on my back, but I pretend I don’t care. I catch Omar’s eye as I walk past, and he gives me an amused look, the one he always gave me when I would manipulate a situation to my advantage. I ignore him as well. I pull out my ticket and passport and step up to the counter.
Miss, this is a first class line, she says holding my ticket, without looking at me.
Yes, but the kind gentleman led me here since there was no one in this line. I say this as I think, you are such a bitch.
But look behind you, there is a passenger waiting.
I turn around and see the back of a guy. In the saccharin tone I’m still using, I say, I’m sure that he doesn’t mind. Look, he’s on his phone.
She proceeds with extremely slowed motions, clucking her disapproval at having to serve a lowlife economy passenger. It occurs to me that as long I am here, I may as well ask for a better seat, maybe even one in business class. I take a deep breath and say in my most sophisticated voice, with my slanted accent, Is there any way I could get an upgrade? I just had the worst trip ever and…
She cuts me off briskly, I can’t give you an upgrade to first class. I hope that isn’t why you came to this line.
No, no, listen, I say, lowering my voice to a whisper, Do you see that guy in the business class line with the blonde? He is my ex-boyfriend, and I need to change my seat, just to business, not first.
She looks at my passport again, You are only twenty-four. He looks much older than you, dear.
I know, I know, as I hide the side of my face with my hair so Omar cannot see this exchange of desperation.
She stares at the computer. I can’t bring myself to look behind me at the growing line of people who paid triple what I did for their tickets.
Sorry, I can’t do anything about it now. We’re completely booked. Try at the gate.
It’s okay, I appreciate it, I say in my normal voice, with no effort to hide my disappointment.
You’re going to have a great flight, dear.
I can’t convince myself to believe her cheery prediction.
there are front doors,
and there are revolving doors
doors on the rudders of big ships
we are revolving doors
there are doors that open by themselves
there are sliding doors and there are secret doors
there are doors that lock and doors that don’t
there are doors that let you in and out but never open
but there are trap doors
that you can’t come back from
Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors, Radiohead
The Roseland, with its seedy history, touristy location, and banal facade, is a building with an attitude. Tonight the building with nothing to prove, with no sparkle or fancy lights, has a string of people wrapped in a necklace around the city block, which begins to overlap at the seam, starting a second human strand. As I approach the entrance there is a solemn aura mixed with anticipation hovering around the doors. The last time they played in this former ice-skating rink turned roller-skating rink turned disco nightclub and finally generic ballroom, was in 2000, after the release of Kid A. I found out much later that the tickets had sold out in minutes, that it was one of the most anticipated shows that year. Back then, I still lived in Syria, a world away from New York, and Radiohead was just another band I listened to among many others, before they occupied my playlists alone. But tonight, I have my coveted ticket in my hand, after bidding a dear price for it in the name of charity, although it may be hard to determine who really needs to be saved, the people of Haiti or me. The concert’s agenda is to be an intimate affair, a performance for the most dedicated of fans, most of whom have only seen Radiohead play at festivals, watching them projected onto massive screens while they swim in a sea of tens of thousands of people. But tonight I am prepared. I’ve made sure I’ll get a great spot inside. I paid a homeless guy yesterday to stand in line for me, and a few hours ago I took his place, to experience the anticipation myself.
On the floor, I am surprised at how large the space is when empty. People rush to the front but still they are scattered. I know that soon my personal space will be as small as my footprint, bound by the people who will crowd around me. And now bodies begin to press forward, heat and odors rolling off them. By the end the scent will be much stronger but less noticeable, because, by then, after seeping into our skin and hair, it will belong to all of us. I maneuver myself to the front, one row behind the rail, to the left, near the piano, to be as close as possible. Everyone knows being on the rail is not cool; there’s too much pressure and not enough space. Everyone knows he doesn’t focus on the people on the rail, the clamoring girls and guys who spend the entire concert trying to catch his eye, holding up their cameras and phones, red lights and flashes shining in his face. He looks just beyond, at the true fans who have just enough room to dance and listen without hanging on his every breath.
In the moments before it begins, everything is still perfect, after our expectation has been set and before any disappointment arrives. It’s been so long since I’ve looked forward to anything. It feels strange. Once I looked forward to everything. I have stood exactly in this place dozens of times in dozens of cities, and I try not to think why I am so nervous this time, why I feel this time will be the last time. I shake off the negativity and immerse myself in the crowd. They lift me out of the past and into the present tense.
After finally checking in, as I walk outside for a last cigarette before boarding, I text my Lamia quickly. I sit on the edge of a concrete planter and light up. Within thirty seconds I receive “asshole” back from her. I smile, twirl my finger on the white wheel, hearing the clicks in my ear as I turn up the volume and stretch out my legs. I inhale the smoke and exhale the stress. Someone sits right next to me even though there is plenty of space around. I turn my back slightly as I text “I know” back. Thank God for earbuds, although my obnoxiously loud music makes me feel rude. When the guy taps me on the shoulder, I take my left earbud out slowly without pausing the music, slightly embarrassed by the song blasting out of the tiny white piece, but at least it is a good song. I say, Excuse me?
May I bum a smoke? His clipped British accent barely registers on my one pounding ear.
With his black skull cap and worn leather jacket, he has grunge written all over him. I classify him in a two-second glance: an artsy type, maybe high. I dig into my bag and hand him a cigarette. As I turn away again, I hear him ask softly, Lighter, dear? I sigh loudly, take the lighter out of my coat pocket, and give it to him. It is imperative to use the Arab girl rule of survival when faced with these situations: avoid eye contact at all costs.
I text Lamia: “This creep is sitting next to me and won’t leave.” And then, “Can’t even enjoy a smoke before boarding.” She replies, “You should quit. What did Omar say?”
I start to text something back as the song ends, and in the two second gap before the next begins, he asks, So where are you headed?
Now emboldened, I turn to look him directly in the face to show him this is not okay, and I freeze when I see him. My face flushes. The guy who was behind me in line talking on his cell, I wouldn’t have known him from the back but I now recognize his angular, boyish face, even recognize his voice as the same one floating out of my ear pods. He watches intently as I stammer, Um, New York. Hi.
He laughs and says, Hi, I’m Thom, giving me a wave.
Naya, nice to meet you. I’m a fan.
He smiles and says, I can hear that, I know it’s my music but is that even good for your ears?
All I can think to myself is keep cool, keep cool, keep cool. My phone beeps, it’s Lamia’s text “Tell me more.” I slip the buzzing phone, unattended, into my pocket.
He has already turned away, towards the gray airport hardscape as his right leg shakes. He stares at his cigarette, rotating it, studying it, not really smoking. I flick mine and the ashes drop to the pavement. The silence is awkward, but I’m not about to risk breaking it.
He finally says, You didn’t look too happy in there, is everything okay?
I answer, Yeah, just tired. I needed to get out of there.
I could see that. So what’s so upsetting? His t’s disappear completely.
I hesitate, not knowing quite what to answer, not knowing quite what he’d like to hear, and say, Well, I’ve had the flight from hell to get here and my ex is on my flight with his new girlfriend. So I haven’t had the greatest morning. With my fingers I air-quote girlfriend.
That sucks. His eyes crinkle as he suppresses a smile. His voice is low, lower than I imagined it to be. His words come out as mumbles and, along with the accent, I need to lean a bit towards him to capture the sounds coming out of his mouth. He doesn’t speak directly towards me but around me, almost to the point that I don’t know for sure if he is really speaking to me, or speaking to the air, or the ground, or the white-gray swirls of smoke that dance out of his cigarette.
I know, thanks for your pity. My day is getting a bit better though. I point to his ticket, New York as well?
Yeah, some meetings and stuff. He coughs again while facing the ground.
You don’t smoke do you?
Is it that obvious?
Yeah. It is.
Well, not cigarettes at least, I haven’t for a long time. They’re bad for you! We both laugh.
I wouldn’t know about smoking anything else. Sorry I cut the line. Or queue, as you say. I feel my insides cringe. If Lamia was with me, she would have known how to make an impression. I try to conjure up her aloof nature, wishing she could text me through this.
No worries, no worries. He accentuates the r’s, rolling them a bit harder, faking an American accent. I enjoyed the wait, it was entertaining.
I don’t usually see a girl who looks like you, blasting Radiohead into her head, trying to talk her way to a free upgrade.
I wasn’t aware there was a specific Radiohead stereotype, I respond quickly, trying to hide that I’m flattered he’s noticed me. Then I realize I probably haven’t been an impressive sight, so I defend myself, I wasn’t trying to scam the system, I was just trying to get back at my boyfriend. Make him uncomfortable by sitting nearby.
By stalking him, right?
Like pretending to smoke so you can talk to a girl?
He laughs. His leg is shaking just slightly now. He’s on the extreme side of thin, like the goth guys in my class, the ones who make your thighs look huge no matter how thin you are. I try to discreetly suck myself in to make my body smaller.
We sit side by side, in silence, smoking. The wind begins to blow harder and I zip up my jacket higher.
Wind is my favorite weather, he says, looking straight ahead, speaking more to the atmosphere than me.
Wind is not a weather.
Really? Then what is it?
It’s the air swirling around, I say slowly. The expression of weather. Really, it’s beyond weather.
He turns to face me and I am able to see his eyes, which are much bluer in person. I know he has a lazy eye, but looking at him directly, I can’t tell which one it is. He seems to contemplate what I just said, or maybe he wants to get the hell out of an awkward situation. He leans back, breaking the gaze. He grinds the cigarette on the side of the concrete ashtray.
Feeling like I’ve definitely blown it, I’m mentally preparing to say goodbye when he turns to me and asks, Are you still interested in making your flight? Or do you just want to hang out here and think about the weather? Or non-weather, as you put it? He stands and extends his arm to me.
I look up at him first to make sure he is not being sarcastic. He holds the pose, so I stand and place my arm in his, and ask, Do you do this with all your fans? I can’t believe you have such a bad reputation.
Rumors, dear, all rumors.
Well, you are quite the gentleman. I shiver a little.
Are you okay?
Yes, just cold and nervous. Flying makes me nervous, especially now. You know taking off and landing, passing through security.
He winks at me: Nice, sounds familiar. Let’s get you inside then.
He leads me to the entrance and I hide a smile behind my scarf. For the first time in thirty-six hours I’m happy I’m wearing it. And although I’m engulfed in gray concrete and clouds, shrouded in black fabric, I feel a lightness that I haven’t felt in months.
The double doors slide open like a sharp breath and clip closed behind us. Doors that swallow you whole.
** Accidents Waiting to Happen is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress: It Girl, Rag Doll. The excerpt was first published in Critical Muslim.