That Summer

Monday, August 25, 2014

That summer I bought new clothes: the most unflattering ones I could find. Ankle-length skirts and blouses two sizes too big. I folded and stuffed them into my suitcase, alongside three books, a tube of sunscreen, some letters from my boyfriend, and two jars of peanut butter. I’d heard it could be difficult to find peanut butter.

First thing, I learned to direct taxi drivers in Arabic. They’d drive me to my morning language lessons, where I used a tape recorder so I could lull myself to sleep at night with wave upon wave of verb conjugations. The owner of the Lebanese place where I usually ate lunch saw my recorder, told me that in his country, during the war, they’d probably have arrested me if they’d caught me with a thing like that in my purse. I played the recording for him. Man, the voice said in Arabic. Man. Woman. Woman.

Evenings, I taught English to a room full of young Jordanians and Palestinians, 16 men and one woman. Some of the men were really good-looking; I remember stuffing that thought down. We listened to English language tapes and went over the review questions. I mimed “tripping” and demonstrated “arguing” and “agreeing” with my co-teacher. I spent a good 10 minutes of one class trying to explain why they couldn’t use the n-word, even if Jay-Z did.  

My one female student invited me to a ladies’ party on a weekend when her husband was out of town. Good Lord, the food. Stuffed grape leaves, hummus, lamb, chicken, rice, tabbouleh, bread with zaatar, bread with cheese, cake, ice cream, fruit. There was more; I forget what. When we couldn’t eat any more, we went out for donuts at 11 p.m.

That night, we unrolled sleeping bags in the living room. They swapped dirty jokes that made me blush. They asked if I had a boyfriend, and I lied about it. They told stories about their lovers. Sad stories, mostly. One woman had fallen head-over-heels for a man who couldn’t marry her because she was a Muslim, and he was a Christian. He had married someone else. She hadn’t.

My boyfriend sent me e-mails that summer from Russia. Abbreviated e-mails, sporadic ones. His Internet connection was spotty. I didn’t have that much time to miss him, so I stuffed thoughts of him into the moments I spent waiting for a taxi, or eating cherries on the front stoop. I wondered if he and I would make it, and spit cherry pits into the street.

One weekend I learned to dance like an Iraqi. You hook pinkies as you circle the room; there’s some complicated footwork I never got down. I ate baklava and watched the sunset cast pink and gold light across the balcony. Never did ask those friends about leaving Iraq. Didn’t know the proper manners for inquiring after someone’s trauma. And anyway, we didn’t share enough common vocabulary for a story like that.

I was young that summer, but of course I didn’t know it. 

That summer I kept a notebook for learning Arabic vocabulary. I carried it with me everywhere, and wrote translations in pencil, scribbling down what little I thought I understood, and using an eraser to smudge out my mistakes. I made a lot. I learned to revise as I go.


  1. I love this post. I can picture everything so clearly: you in your wondering, sweet, maybe painful youth; the delicious food (I can pretty much taste it); your new friends, the handsome men, your co-teacher; everything. Great work!

  2. I want more of this. It makes me hungry for a memoir. should get working on that. You know, in your free time. :)

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