Some people I have known left things behind out of pure haste and some simply because they forgot where they'd put them all. And then, there were others—like Faisal Hussein—who left things behind on purpose just to ask for them back later. Which he eventually did, but only after we'd found another home for them. But then this was Caitlin's idea—to store Faisal's junk in the basement of our brownstone, which we were in the process of renovating—and only after several months had passed. I'd left him, my former roommate and best friend, repeated and urgent warnings, saying that if he didn't come pick up his stuff, we'd—I'd—have no other choice than to dump it. Which I never did, but I thought about it. I seriously thought about it.
Truth be told, I was banking on his not coming over or calling at all—what would he do with all that junk anyway? I didn't want a fight or apologies, or Faisal and Caitlin in the same room, breathing the same air. Deep down, in the mysterious wilderness that had become Faisal's life, I knew he missed just one thing—not his dusty Bose stereo, turntable, and speakers, the hundreds of albums, the Portable Hemingway collection, not the paintings from his aging aunt in Kabul, or even the antique wooden easel his mother had shipped to him on his twenty-fourth birthday—and that he could never ask to have it back, even if he hadn't meant to leave it—her, Caitlin; yes, we're talking about my wife—behind in the first place.
My messages to him were never unkind or hard-bitten, but as I left them on his phone, I didn't like the way my voice shook and echoed—a disturbing shake and echo that called back the day he'd moved out and reminded me again just how significant our friendship had been.
It came as a surprise, then, a shock certainly, to find him on the phone that Sunday night, nearly a year since we'd last spoken and three months since my last message to him, in which I'd ended the call with, ''It's all in hiding if you want it back.''
''It's all in hiding if I want it back, huh?'' he said, as a cold December wind shook the windows and rattled the panes, loose puffs of air seeping through the rickety jambs. I was in the kitchen staring down at the recipe for goat stew, Faisal's recipe, in fact— something else he'd left behind. The gas burners going full tilt, the rice bubbling and chicken broth simmering, tenderizing, I hoped, the chunks of chewy, once-frozen meat. It'd been my idea to make dinner that night, although Caitlin reminded me again, before she left, that she might not make it back from rehearsals in time.
''Faisal,'' I said, his name in my mouth rusty, as if it were iron and I'd left it out in the rain. ''You're on the phone.''
''Indeed,'' he said. ''And so are you, Ed,'' and I thought he might be smiling and tried my hardest to imagine him like this. I wanted that for him because at one time I knew he would've wanted that for me. Hadn't there been smiles?
''You got my messages,'' I said.
''All one hundred of them,'' he said, his deep, accented voice without a hint of rancor. Which surprised me, all the more for the smoothness in it, the finesse. It had an extemporaneous quality about it, unrehearsed and easy. Friendly even, I might've said, had I not known what I knew.
I expected him to ask after Caitlin and when he didn't, I said, ''You want your things back?''
An extended pause, long enough for me to spear a piece of goat, which turned out to be inedible, still icy at the center. ''I suppose,'' he said, at last.
''I'm making your goat stew,'' I said, blurting it out as if it'd matter to him.
And, suddenly, I felt like the worst person in the world, though I didn't know why until much later, after he said, ''I'll come by on Tuesday then,'' and hung up, before I could tell him his things were no longer with us, after I'd returned to the rice, which I overcooked, after I ate that overcooked rice and the chewy goat, alone. It wasn't really until Caitlin woke me later with her cold, cold feet that I realized why I'd felt the way I had.
I switched on the light and said to my wife, ''Faisal called. He wants his things.''
''I told you he would,'' she said, without opening her eyes. ''Now, aren't you glad I rescued them, Ed? Aren't you glad you married such a thoughtful person?''
I switched off the light but didn't switch off the thoughts swirling in my head, thinking of Faisal and how, at one time, had I mentioned dinner, it would've been implied—no, automatic—that he'd join me and how we would've stayed up late into the night drinking and smoking and telling each other ongoing and fantastic stories about the girls we'd known and girls we wanted to.
It's funny to think how fast it all went, that it was only four years ago he showed up and never left, that Caitlin lived above me and we hadn't said more than a few words to each other. This was before they repaved Smith Street and put in those old-fashioned wrought-iron gas lamps and the neighborhood suddenly exploded—with boutiques and cafes and freshly minted college grads-cum-future yuppies.
I'd chosen the neighborhood after housesitting for friends one summer. A quiet, tree-lined block, a parlor floor of a brownstone, an affordable rent—what more could I have wanted, especially after the chaos and racket of Hell's Kitchen? My ears always rang with the barrage of never-ending honks and sirens and jackhammers. If I hadn't fled Manhattan, I might've ended up like Faisal the night he appeared at my door—shivering and bloody and sobbing, having just been mugged while the cold muzzle of a gun was pressed against his temple. Brooklyn had saved my life. I thought it might be able to save his, too.
Because the brownstone wouldn't be livable for many months, Caitlin and I were still in the apartment on the corner of Baltic and Smith Streets. To our Manhattan friends, who razzed us about life in the outer borough, we liked to boast about the copious amounts of sunlight that fell through our twenty-one windows; the three of us, Faisal, Caitlin, and I, had counted them one night way back when. We lived above a Chinese laundry and directly across from Giordano's Funeral Parlor. Sometimes, when I got home from work, I'd find Faisal and Bobby, the tall, portly Italian man who managed the parlor and our building for the elderly Giordano, smoking on the sidewalk. That Tuesday night was no different.
I rounded the corner and there they were, as if no time had passed at all. Just ten degrees out, Bobby was coatless, hatless, and gloveless, but even as bundled up as Faisal was, his rabbit-fur–lined hat pulled down over his eyes and his Army green scarf hiding much of his mouth, I recognized him immediately. Although we'd agreed upon Tuesday night, I was still taken aback when I saw him again, and for a moment I wanted to sneak into the apartment unnoticed. When he buzzed, I thought, I'll pretend I'm not home. But then Bobby raised a fat hand into the air, which alerted Faisal, who spun around and said my name, releasing a cloud of smoke with it.
Bobby nodded in that way of his, deferential yet disapproving, eyeing me up and down, as if Faisal were in danger and Bobby his self-appointed guardian. I wondered, as we made our way into the apartment, what the two had been discussing, with what further offenses Bobby would charge me.
''How're the privileged little monsters of St. Clair's?'' Faisal said, removing his hat and scarf.
''Still the same wicked little geniuses,'' I said.
For several years I'd been teaching English at St. Clair's School, where Faisal had subbed for me, among others, on a number of occasions. That is, until he lit a cigar during art class and blew smoke rings, to the awestruck guffaw of some students and the abject disgust of others. ''Your friend is no longer welcome here,'' Headmaster Brick had said. ''And, I don't think I have to tell you, Mr. Reinhart, how poorly this reflects on you as well. Thin ice, Mr. Reinhart. Very thin ice.''
But even this breach in friendship was not enough cause for me to untangle myself from Faisal. Though it was certainly unforgivable, I saw his behavior as merely symptomatic, something to get through and work out. Rather than ask him to leave, as Caitlin had suggested, I remained as devoted to him as ever, because he was in trouble, because he was my best friend. And because I felt an inordinate sense of guilt for having taken Caitlin away from him, even though I'd come to see that sometimes we needed only the smallest excuse to go. Some people I have known were always looking for a way out. Was it to their credit or discredit that they left before things fell apart?
Since Faisal had moved out and Caitlin had moved in, we'd painted, and now as I removed my coat, Faisal wandered around, remarking on the colors. ''Pure Caitlin,'' he said, the tiniest hint of resentment in his voice, which I chose to overlook. ''It's like a terrarium in here.''
''We like to think of it as Coney Island meets Architectural Digest—an urban beach house,'' I said.
''We do, do we? Well, it's an improvement for sure,'' he said. We were standing in the low-ceilinged living room. The walls were the dark green of seaweed, the floor a watery blue, the baseboards sand colored. An adult room, I thought, picturing again the game of Twister that Faisal had painted on the floor a few weeks after he'd moved in. I'd come home and there it was, big circles of yellows, reds, blues, and greens. It had taken me an entire day to sand them away. ''Who needs the beach when you have this? A margarita, a lounger, and a sunlamp and I'd be happy as a mollusk,'' he said.
He was in good spirits, which helped counteract my intense nerves about the evening. I had no idea if Faisal knew of my marriage to Caitlin—we'd decided not to tell him or send him an invitation—less about the brownstone we'd bought, but something in his face reminded me again how close we'd once been, how I never would've kept a thing from him, certainly nothing as momentous as my wedding or buying a home. Even then, as we wandered into the kitchen, I wanted to believe we'd fallen out over a girl, Caitlin, not because we'd let each other slip away. That we couldn't reconcile or hold on to each other still made me very sad.
''Your things—aren't here,'' I said, thinking of Caitlin and the message she'd left me earlier in the day, that she'd try to make it to the brownstone. ''I might see you there,'' she'd said. During break between fourth and fifth periods, I'd replayed the message, just to hear her voice. I might see you there. Was she worried about Faisal or me, what we might say or do? Had I not been able to keep my disappointment about him as secret as I'd thought? Did my wife know more about me than I knew about myself? There'd been full disclosure and tears and the parting waters of one life for another. There'd been no anger, no regret, a testament to Caitlin's fortitude, but there had been the sloppy gush of my feelings, which for a time spilled over and into our love and threatened to drown it, these parting waters that eventually closed up around us with a soft, quiet crash. Somehow, we'd wound up together on the opposite shore, dry as reeds and just as thin and bendable.
''Poor Mr. Hemingway. All cooped up in one of those dank little storage cells,'' Faisal said. ''No sunlight. No fresh air. So depressing, Ed,'' and with that, he pushed past me into the other room.
I followed, saying, ''No, no, it's not like that,'' while he fixed the scarf around his neck and donned the floppy-eared hat. But it was like that. It was worse than that: a basement in a run-down brownstone in Red Hook. I wanted to scold him, to remind him of my messages, that I'd given him plenty of opportunity to rescue his stuff. Why then did I feel as if I'd kept him from it? Why did I feel as if I'd been holding it hostage? Had my voice belied my anger and ambivalence? ''You could've come by for it anytime,'' I said at his back as we shot down the stairs and into the glacial cold.
''Well, here I am,'' he said, pausing to light a cigarette. He took a drag, French inhaled. A trick he'd used on Caitlin and that Caitlin, when she still smoked, had used on me. ''But my things aren't. Damn life. How it loves to intervene.''
''Is that what it does?'' I said, heading for the lot, where we kept the car. ''I thought it just sucked ass mainly.''
''Among other things,'' he said, flicking the cigarette into the air before sliding in. ''Life tends to suck the life out of life,'' he said and adjusted the seat, stretching out his long legs. ''Congratulations, Ed,'' he said, suddenly, and slapped his hands on the dash. ''I always suspected you were a Range Rover sort of man. It suits you, Ed. Urban safaris—I see this in your future. You can cart a few Michiganders through the deep dark heart of Brooklyn. Fort Green, Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Flatbush.'' I laughed, which didn't exactly mask my resentment, because he added, ''I could be your copilot. We could make a fortune. Think about it. Seriously.''
I think about everything seriously, I thought, though my thinking about everything seriously didn't come close to his. He was nothing if not a man of quiet obsession. We'd met a decade ago at Fez, a live-music venue in the back of Time Café. Faisal worked the door, managing the crowd and collecting tickets, and when I presented mine, he'd said, ''Come back next week,'' and sure enough I'd gotten the date wrong. ''Caitlin Donovan's on tonight. She's—angelic. Do you know her?''
''She's my neighbor,'' I said. ''She might sound like an angel, but the devil's her manager. She keeps me up a lot.''
''Isn't that what a beautiful girl is supposed to do?'' he asked, laughing.
It'd been a long time since I'd been with a woman, beautiful or otherwise, but I didn't tell Faisal this, although I wanted to. Even then, I had a feeling I could tell him anything, how I'd spent the last few years alone, how I knew some people didn't have a problem leaping from bed to bed, as if love were a trampoline. I thought, because he was ugly, uglier than I was, that he might know what it was like. But Faisal, it turned out, was one of those acrobats, a magician of the body, a cannonball of desire, which was a constant source of wonder and irritation, especially when I saw him with another beautiful girl.
At the brownstone, I pulled up behind an idling garbage truck, its mouth full of trash. We were in Red Hook, one of Brooklyn's forgotten neighborhoods, a derelict place of abandoned warehouses and factories. As we climbed out, it seemed we'd crossed some unseen border and that we'd never find our way back. The air was even colder here, full of wind and brine, the East River in the distance.
The garbage truck rolled away, clenching its jaws as it went. The night took on an eerie silence. Through it, Faisal said, ''This must be the place,'' and climbed out.
A soft yellow light spilled out of an upstairs window, and for a moment I hoped one of the construction guys had left it burning, that Caitlin wasn't there, hadn't turned it on. I wanted to spare her this creaky, awkward reunion, which I thought I could because, when I reached into my pocket, I couldn't find the keys. I laughed. ''I have to go back,'' I said.
''You can't ever go back,'' he said, staring down at me from the top of the stoop.
I thought of the day we'd gone to get his things from his apartment in the East Village. It was hot and overcast and I was angry and sweating as we stole up the stairs. I didn't feel like spending my Sunday schlepping back and forth. I had offered to pay to have his things moved, but Faisal being Faisal refused. He'd borrowed a car from a girl in Brighton Beach, ''a nice Jewish girl with nice Jewish boobs,'' he'd said. The horn played ''Hava Nagila'' and I found half a hamentashen in the glove box. The building was a dump and smelled of urine and feces. It didn't surprise me that Faisal lived there, as he'd always lived in places he shouldn't have: on the Bowery with a crack addict, in the West Village with a manic-depressive, in Astoria with the cousin of a hit man. Perhaps because he'd grown up in a shantytown in Kandahar, he had a different sense of home than I did. As a painter, he couldn't afford much, but this was less than that, this was depressing.
We'd fit most of his things into the trunk and backseat and were about to get the bed, when, from out of nowhere, a big husky Puerto Rican kid with long gold chains appeared in the doorway, picking his teeth with a butterfly knife. I had to laugh, though my heart was in my throat.
''Hey, faggot, this your new boyfriend?'' the kid said to Faisal who was standing behind me.
''Omar, this is Ed,'' Faisal said. ''Ed, this is Omar,'' and I realized then that chances were Faisal hadn't been mugged but beaten. Even worse.
''You were just leaving,'' Omar said, full of menace, as Faisal backed up, but not before he'd grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me with him.
As we sped away, leaving behind his bed and desk, pots and pans, Faisal said, ''I'm sorry, Ed. He was supposed to be at church. But I guess some drug dealers don't crave absolution like they once did.''
That Tuesday night, as we climbed into the Range Rover, the glass fogging with our breaths, I wanted to get rid of Faisal as quickly as possible. Another time, I thought. But then the door to the brownstone opened and there was Caitlin, as if she'd always been at the door, waiting. But waiting for whom? She'd slept with Faisal, and then she'd slept with (and married) me, yet he was still a constant and caustic force between us. Even though his things were no longer visible, a part of our everyday lives, his presence remained and persisted. I'd liked it, the idea of holding on to his things, because I liked the idea of his eventual return. Though now that it was here, I didn't know what to do with it.
In her hand, Caitlin held a bag of trash, which she set at the curb, the bottles of beer the construction crew often left behind banging and clattering within. As she pushed her long red hair out of her pale, freckled face, I thought, In thirty years, when she's fifty-seven and I'm fifty-five, will we remember this night? I felt it then, as Faisal climbed out of the car and said hello to Caitlin, that once we walked into the brownstone, we'd come out different people; that the night, rather than relieving doubt, would raise it to new heights.
Faisal followed Caitlin into the four-story brownstone while I locked the car and then stepped into our future home. The air in here was colder and purer somehow, as if it'd been trapped for centuries. It smelled clean, like a Midwest winter, not at all how I'd expected it to smell, dust-choked and dank. I hadn't been back to check the progress for a while, although Caitlin and our contractor would leave me messages throughout the day. The last I'd heard they'd finally repaired the dilapidated roof, which had been leaking and rotting the timbers, causing major delays.
''We got lucky,'' I said to Faisal and told him, as I liked to tell everyone, about brownstones as old as ours that often had hidden and unforeseen structural problems.
''Yes,'' he said. ''I see that. You certainly did get lucky, Ed,'' and his eyes flashed on Caitlin, who leaned into me and wrapped an arm around my waist, an innocent gesture that left me at once closer to and more distant from her.
We three hadn't been together in over a year, and it showed. One of those awful, awkward silences fell down around us, until Caitlin broke it by saying, ''I'm going to let you boys do your thing,'' squeezing my hand. ''If you need help, I'll be poking around,'' and she tilted her eyes heavenward. Then, she drifted off to explore the fruits of her inheritance, how her family's money was transforming the rooms.
Many of the lights worked one day but not the next, and when I tried the stairway switch, I was surprised and happy to squint my eyes against the harsh glow of the naked bulb. Faisal shielded his own eyes with a hand, and then said, ''If it's all right with you, Ed, I'd like to speak with Caitlin later. I have something important to discuss with her.''
I laughed. He knew it was a silly request. Caitlin was her own person, which was another reason I'd fallen in love with her. ''I don't see why you can't, but you'll have to take that up with her,'' I said.
''I was just being polite,'' he said at my back. I didn't respond, as I was concentrating all my attention on the spongy stairs, afraid they might give way. I hurried down them and when I hit bottom, my last step was soft and splashy. The light from above didn't quite reach us, and I tried the switch on the wall to no avail. The darkness stretched itself out, the air even colder here, clammier. I heard Faisal somewhere behind me, but I couldn't tell where. Above, below? Then he crashed into me and I went down on my hands, the ground like a freezing swamp; the earthen basement, it seemed, had flooded. There were splashes and Faisal said, ''Ed, are you there? Where are you?''
''Down here,'' I said, feeling the whirling grope of his hand at my face, his knuckles brushing my nose.
My jeans were soaked through and my fingers gritty with the mud that had also gotten in my mouth. I spit and secretly hoped I'd spit on Faisal. Above us, I pictured Caitlin inspecting the dim, unfinished rooms, feeling more and more guilt about the poor Dominican family we'd displaced, the homeless who liked to take temporary shelter. We aren't bad people, I'd said to her, but now I wasn't so sure. And with Faisal around, even less.
In the complete, awesome dark, I grew bold and said, ''Why do you want your stuff back when you clearly didn't care enough to take it with you? Is it Caitlin? Is that what we're really doing here?''
''This would be easier for you if it were, but I'm not here to make it easier for you,'' he said.
I knew Faisal's face and wondered, in the absence of light, if he were beaming that infuriating grin of his. I could almost see it, the straight white teeth, the five in front that his father knocked loose when he was an adolescent and which Faisal had replaced with porcelain inlays in America. I imagined him as he once was, going through his days toothless and unsmiling, the fun his militant father had had at his expense. At sixteen, before his father could force him into the army, Faisal fled Afghanistan and never went back.
As I made my way to the dim halo of light that fell down the stairs, Faisal lit a cigarette, his face in the sudden burst of flame as blank as it had been the day I'd asked him to leave. I'd blamed it on Bobby, although I'd told Bobby it had been Faisal's decision all along. How could I not take the attacks on the towers personally? Positions had to be taken and lines drawn. It's nothing against Faisal, I'd told Caitlin, who walked out of the apartment and didn't speak to me for weeks.
''I'll be right back,'' I said now to Faisal, who struck another match, then another, the scent of sulfur and smoke following me up the stairs.
''I'll be here,'' he said.
Wet and dirty, I hurried to the fuse box and flipped switches, calling to Faisal—''Anything? What about now?''—who remained silent. Around me, the brownstone shook and groaned as if alive, and when a rat leapt at me, I screamed, which brought Faisal from below and Caitlin from above.
''I fell,'' I said to Caitlin, explaining the caked mud in my hair and on my face and clothes.
''Did you see a ghost?'' Faisal asked.
''We still have vermin,'' I said and refused to look at him. Then, to Caitlin, ''I thought you took care of this.''
''A gut renovation and out they pour,'' she said. ''It's winter, Ed. If you were a rat, you'd come in from the cold, too.''
''Any news to report from the upper netherworlds?'' I asked, softening, even as I rummaged around for a flashlight. The night was wearing down, wearing thin. It was time to pack up the car and get Faisal to wherever he was going.
''News from above isn't good,'' she said. ''I made a list. You can obsess over it later.'' She paused. ''Do you want me to run home and get you some fresh clothes?''
''No, thank you, I think I can manage,'' I said. ''This shouldn't take long once I find the flashlight.''
Then Caitlin was gone, back up the stairs. When she returned a minute later, she held out a couple of candles. ''We have more than just vermin,'' she said.
''Everyone needs a place out of the elements,'' Faisal said, and his voice reminded me of where he'd come from, the mud floor and thatched roof of his youth.
The vanilla-scented candles threw out a robust glow as we made our way down the stairs, but this time, before I took my last step, I stopped to eye the marshy basement. The rains the previous week had saturated the dirt, which we'd planned on having cemented but hadn't yet because neither Caitlin nor I had wanted to fuss with Faisal's things. The cinderblock walls sparkled with cobwebs and moisture, as I tried to find a decent path through the brown, soupy mess. A couple of yards in front of me, I noticed a series of wooden planks lying in a single line.
''Are you sure we shouldn't do this some other time?'' she asked. ''I mean, maybe when it's warmer and the floor's dried out a little.''
''It has to be tonight,'' Faisal said and suddenly pushed past me. ''Tonight,'' he said again, hurrying with a candle over the planks, which squished under him. As he went, the candle went out and he sighed. And then the strike of a match and the candle sent its light into the far corner of the room. A shuddering cry, some words in Arabic, and Faisal said, ''Yes, you have more than just vermin,'' even as I took a few steps gingerly toward him and saw what he did, which was nothing. Or rather what was left of his things, just the thick Portable Hemingway turned over in the muck. The rest of it—the paintings, easel, albums, stereo, and speakers—was gone. It was Caitlin now who came out of the gloom to console him, squishing as he'd squished over the loose planks, almost in a rage to get around me to him.
''This is terrible,'' she said. ''Oh, you must hate us,'' and I could tell she wanted to tell him how it'd been her idea to stash his seemingly worthless things down here.
Faisal simply blinked at the place where his things used to be, the indentation of them, square and heavy, in the soft wet earth. If he hates us, then he hates us, I thought, gazing at the Portable Hemingway, a present to him from Caitlin years ago.
''We'll speak to the contractor,'' she said. ''Heads will roll.'' Her face was ruddy and severe and beatific in the candlelight. Or was it always like this, ruddy and severe and beatific? I knew this much: it was a good show that she, my wife, was putting on, all this sudden concern for Faisal, a man who'd left her. ''I know it won't be enough, but we'll write you a check for what was stolen,'' she said, and touched his shoulder. Their shadows danced on the wall, hers shorter than his by a foot. Caitlin bent down and recovered the Portable Hemingway and handed it to Faisal, who carried it with him back over the planks and up the stairs.
''Maybe whoever took it is just borrowing it,'' I said at the car while Caitlin brooded beside me, sensing from her a deep dark regret. Her body shivered and I wrapped an arm around her, though she was unyielding, wooden.
''We'll make it up to you,'' she said. ''Won't we, Ed?''
''Whatever he wants,'' I said, taking one last look at the brownstone, every window now dark, including the one on the third floor.
Even then, as we pulled away, I knew what Faisal wanted, why he'd seemingly come for his things that night. We drove back to the apartment in silence and once there, he said, ''Because my father refused to give me a cent, I had a rummage sale before I left his house. I didn't have much to sell, as you can imagine, just some books and records and old clothes that no longer fit. I made a big colorful sign and set up a table in front of our hut, hoping that because of the nice day I'd attract a lot of shoppers. (Funny how I saw the world at sixteen, like suddenly the streets would be full of white people with lots of cash.)
''My father was gone that day and my mother sat with me for a couple hours until she'd had enough of the sun. A man from next door shouted at me that I needed a permit for what I was doing and that he was going to call the police, but I don't think he did because they never came. My mother came back out with a pitcher of lemonade and some cookies she'd baked. 'I saw this on American tv,' she said. Then, I ate most of the cookies and drank most of the lemonade until I'd had enough. I went inside, discouraged, but my mother took me by the ear and led me back out. 'If you want this, then want it more than anything else,' she said and planted me there.
''I sold only one thing the entire day and that was the sign I'd made. A British couple had somehow ended up in our quarter, saw the sign, and bought it. The wife said I was going to be a great artist and she wanted to own the first Faisal Hussein.''
We were standing on the sidewalk. There were tears in Faisal's eyes, and mine. Caitlin drifted into the building, something clenched in her fingers. A moment later, the lights in the apartment went on. My back was to the funeral parlor, so I didn't know that Bobby had been watching us or that he was now crossing the street, his face bright red and disturbed.
''Everything okay?'' he asked, without looking at me. Up close, Bobby was more than imposing. His big fat head sat on top of a big fat neck, a conduit to his big fat body. He was a foot taller than I was and a hundred pounds heavier, at least. I hadn't noticed until then the way Bobby was around Faisal, shy and protective and nervous, as if he were—in love. Yes, I thought. Of course. ''I'm right over there if you need me,'' he said, returning to the parlor, his vigil at the window.
Faisal wiped his eyes and said, ''He's a very compassionate man.''
''Seems that way,'' I said, as I too wiped my eyes. Though I had no idea where Faisal was staying, I said, ''Can I give you a lift somewhere?''
''Yes,'' he said, but didn't say where.
My clothes were stuck to my skin and my entire body had begun to itch. My shoes were heavy and wet, and whenever I moved water and mud oozed between my toes. Caitlin was on the phone when we entered the apartment. I left Faisal in the kitchen with the tv while I showered. Had we been alone Caitlin might've joined me, but we weren't alone. Faisal, whom I'd thrown out because, I said, a Jew and a Muslim couldn't possibly live together, was in the next room at the table on which we'd shared a countless number of meals and Scrabble games. It took the water ten minutes to heat up and another ten for me to thoroughly rinse away the dirt. After I dried off and dressed, I walked into the kitchen to find Faisal gone and Caitlin alone at the table, staring down at a small, plastic Virgin Mary nightlight.
''He asked me to marry him,'' she said. ''He got on his knee and asked me to marry him.'' I took a seat across from her. ''He needs a wife to stay here,'' she said. ''Something about his visa.''
''Would you have?'' I asked. ''I mean, if we weren't already.''
''Oh, Ed,'' she said. ''How can I possibly answer that?''
And I knew then there'd always be a part of Caitlin that would wonder, as I wondered, about Faisal. I thought then about the day I'd asked him to pack up his things and the look on his face when I explained why. I couldn't have him around, but now, of course, I saw that it had nothing to do with our respective faiths and all to do with Caitlin. I'd thought the hardest part of losing him was losing his friendship, but I was wrong. The hardest part of losing Faisal was losing myself, what it meant to have him near. He'd left so easily and fast that I never had a chance to say goodbye. I came home from work the next evening and he was gone. Just like he disappeared that night, without a word.
They'd been together a year, Caitlin and Faisal, when I awoke one night to the ferocious twang of her guitar and bolted up the stairs.
She came to the door in a robe, the guitar slung across her body, a shield of sorts. Her face was mottled and red with crying. ''I'm not Muslim,'' she said. ''Can you believe it? He wants to marry a Muslim woman and have little Muslim babies. Even after—''
But she didn't have to go on. ''I told him I'd convert, which would've killed both my WASP parents on the spot. But I would've,'' she said. ''For him, I would've done that.''
I didn't kiss her until Faisal had moved out, until she swore it was completely over. Yet even as I did, I could feel the better part of her pull back, horrified by me, though more horrified with herself. A year later we were married and Faisal's things sat rotting in the basement. Still, as I took her hand in mine now, I had to wonder about those things of his. What could someone have possibly wanted with a beat-up stereo and easel? I looked at Caitlin, then down at the Virgin Mary, remembering a different day— when it had shown up mysteriously in the bathroom. Faisal said he'd bought it for its kitsch value, though I knew it'd come from Caitlin. A blessing over our house, someone to watch over us, him. Had it really been such a struggle for them to meet halfway, between her faith and his? Would we have the same problems later? Our son's circumcision on his eighth day in the world, his bar mitzvah at thirteen? If love wasn't a couple's one true faith, then what was?
''I have rehearsals in the morning,'' she said and got up, tousling my damp hair as she went.
I listened to the sound of her footfalls through the apartment, then the silence afterward. The wind shook the windows, all twenty-one of them, as I made my way into the bedroom and lay down next to my wife. When I switched off the light, the Virgin Mary brightened the corner of the room, throwing a soft white glow onto the wall and ceiling and all the spaces in between us.
Notes from the Author
I lived in a great apartment In downtown Brooklyn for a couple years and always wanted to set a story in it or write about it. It had all these great windows. It also had a funeral parlor across the street. I got to be friendly with Tommy who worked as a kind of security guard at the parlor and was also kind of the de facto constable of the neighborhood. After 911, his true political colors began to emerge, and I realized he'd always been more of a racist than I could have ever imagined. Thus, Gut Renovation was born.