Billy Joel, a Love Story

Photo by Steven Lasry on Unsplash

I

Habib bin Habib Al Fulan was born in El Salvador in 1976 and came to Miami with his mother and older sister in 1986. They watched Rocky IV on the flight to Florida. Back then, as a 9-year old, he thought they were going on a family vacation to Disney World, but they ended up staying.

Lucia Oribe was born in Miami. Her father was Afro Cuban and her mother was Salvadoran. At that time, she was working as a kindergarten teacher. Habib and Lucia met at a club in downtown Miami in early June of 2010.

He wasn’t even supposed to go out that night. He was tired of clubs; he had survived them all and left them behind. He was going through a bar phase then. But his friend Juan was celebrating his birthday with another friend (Bob) and a married woman he was having an affair with. That woman’s name Habib forgets.

The memory of that night is murky now, but he’s confident about certain facts. He remembers buying tequila shots for the birthday boy. He remembers dancing. He remembers standing next to Bob, facing a small VIP area while Juan danced with the married woman. He remembers two girls in bright colored club dresses sitting on a red sofa. Were they looking at Bob or Habib?

Habib couldn’t tell. The boys looked at each other and then they looked at the girls. The girls smiled. The boys returned the smile. The shorter girl, the prettier one, had eyes like coffee beans, mischievous and engrossing.

That particular girl pointed at Habib with her index finger, and then turning the same finger upside down commanded him to come over. Now in a situation like this, a man can do many things. Most men would walk over and introduce themselves. Better men would not be so quick to do that for it shows weakness. They’d lose the higher ground so to speak.

Habib was usually a disaster with women. At 32-years-old he had only had two girlfriends his entire life, and the rest were just deep longings that never turned into reality. Throughout all this, there was casual sex with strippers, bartenders and lonely girls that kept him from drowning in self-pity and loneliness. So yes, under normal circumstances, Habib would have walked over to her like a lost boy looking for his mother in a department store but there was a voice — a commanding voice — that said, ‘DON’T GO OVER THERE.’

It may have been the voice of God.

‘What?’

‘DON’T GO OVER THERE.”

‘Don’t go over there? Are you sure?”

‘YES, I’M SURE, DON’T GO OVER THERE.’

Bob looked at Habib like a Marine awaiting orders. Habib in turn did not break his gaze from the girl. Then the voice said: ‘TELL HER TO COME TO YOU.’

Habib smiled, nodded and motioned at the girl to come to him. She acquiesced. Her name was Lucia. He asked her if she was Dominican. Lucia said no, she was Salvadoran. Her mother was from El Salvador.

Habib immediately responded with a big welcoming smile. “I’m from El Salvador.”

They talked for about twenty minutes. She was there for a bachelorette party. She didn’t usually come to this club, but decided to come out tonight. Habib asked her what she was drinking, and bought her a second round. They talked about their love for the Salvadoran national dish — pupusas. Lucia asked him what he did for a living. I’m a copy editor, he told her. Sounds cool, she said, I’m a teacher. Wow, a teacher, he said, I would have never guessed. She smiled. High school, he asked? No, she said, tiny tykes in kindergarten. The stories you must have, he said. I wouldn’t even know where to start, she said, rolling her eyes in exaggeration and smiling big, wide, and pretty. After some time, to not keep her from her friends, he made sure to get her cell phone number before she went back to VIP. Habib tried not to look in her direction too often, but when he did, they both smiled.

When he got home, he decided not to text her until Monday night. For two weeks they texted back and forth and played phone tag until they went out on their first date. He got the impression that she was a social butterfly, a very busy girl. When they finally got a chance to go out, he had forgotten her face, but not how she made him feel. She wanted to go to a Hooters restaurant to get hot wings. He was not at all surprised at her suggestion.

He picked her up on a Sunday afternoon in Hialeah at her parent’s house. Lucia was wearing blue sunglasses and a purple camisole. He pulled up in his small, yellow Japanese clown car’ which made her smile when she entered the vehicle.

“This is a very interesting color, dear, very lemony.”

“Thank you, it was specially ordered from Japan for an extra $2 grand.”

“Really?”

“No. Yellow is my favorite color.”

“Post-it-note yellow is your favorite color?”

“Yes, yellow is a happy color.”

“Yay,” she said, “a weirdo just like me. For a moment I was afraid this might be a boring date.”

“Me, a weirdo? Ha ha-ha –NO!”

She laughed like a chipmunk and this gave Habib a warm feeling in his chest as he stepped on the gas.

At the restaurant she watched him closely as he devoured a dozen raw oysters.

“You really don’t like oysters,” he said, in between slurps. “And you call yourself a Salvi?”

“Yep, sadly I’m not much of a seafood person. But please, dear, enjoy, don’t hold back on account of me.”

“Oh, I won’t.”

She removed her sunglasses and put them inside her purse. She sat up, wiggled her little body, straightened her posture and grabbed the pint of beer in front of her and sipped on the foam slowly. Habib sipped on his own beer and got a good, unencumbered look at Lucia. It confirmed his foggy memory. She did indeed have very pretty eyes. Due to the hot and humid South Florida weather, she wore her hair tied back in a muffin shaped bun. Her friendliness reminded him of a friend that lived in New York City.

In that moment Habib consciously placed her in the Friend Zone. For some reason, he didn’t feel any attraction. She was pretty, but she seemed more like an interesting girl to just pal around with. His guard dropped and he relaxed, and feeling quite glad he didn’t really need to impress her at all since he wasn’t interested. Then he realized that he was being himself on a first date for the first time in a long time.

They shared the twenty hot wings with a pitcher of beer while discussing many topics like El Salvador, family, Miami, traveling, and life in general. She had very interesting things to say. Moments of silence were hardly uncomfortable. There were many fake and genuine smiles mixed together trying to decide which way to go. It was almost like two blind people feeling each other out.

In one memorable instance, as they sat on that high-top table in the balcony of this particular Hooters restaurant, a noisy passenger jet pierced through the clouds and they both followed the craft with their eyes and ears.

As Lucia gazed at the jet’s lovely trail, she asked him, “Do you think it’s coming or going?”

“Hopefully, it’s going far away from this place.”

“Why do you say it like that, weirdo?”

“I guess I prefer other places.”

“Are you serious? I love Miami.”

“Of course, you do. It’s different for girls like you.”

“Girls like me?”

“All the pretty girls in this town are spoiled with ‘Ladies’ Nights’ and all these thirsty dudes tripping over themselves to get to you.”

“You hate Ladies’ Nights?”

“No, I just dislike the people that attend Ladies’ Night.”

“All the people?”

“No, not all of them, but most people; Miamians are assholes. Please pardon my French. They say New Yorkers are rude — bullshit — New Yorkers are genuinely goodhearted people. I meet so many awesome New Yorkers just walking down the street by myself. Miami is like a giant strip club. Most of the women here are just good to look at.”

“You sound bitter, weirdo.”

“Me, bitter? Naaah…it’s just reality.”’

“You just compared all the women in Miami to strippers.”

“I compared the city of Miami to a strip club, not the actual people.”

“Uh oh, someone is backpedaling — beep, beep.”

Habib smiled, rubbing the thumb and index finger together in front of his face like if he was crushing a fly, “Maybe just a little…bitter.”

“Just a little bit,” she said mimicking his voice, squinting, followed by her big laugh that was deep, but still melodic to his ears.

Then they both got quiet for a moment before Habib said, “I guess I’ve had a different Miami experience.”

“Let’s just change the subject,” she said.

A breeze hit them and they both smiled at the same time.

“So, when was the last time you went to El Salvador?” he said.

“Last year. I have a lot of family. Stayed with my cousin Rita and ate a lot of Pupusas and tamales. I gained about 4 pounds! Good times.”

Sometimes Habib thinks about that first date trying to pinpoint the exact moment he crossed into the land of no return. The only thing he’s sure of is that it must have sneaked up on him like an iguana jumping out of a bush. That was his definition of love; a very green, and large reptile that startles you as you hike a nice, quiet trail in the Everglades. And the Everglades, of course, is the wilderness of your heart.

“And what about you, when was the last time you went to El Salvador?”

“I haven’t been down since I was nine. So, like 25 years.”

“That’s a long time, any particular reason?”

“Recently, I haven’t been too curious, I guess. But before that, I didn’t have my papers in order.”

“But you have family over there? Or are they all here?”

“No, I have a lot of cousins and uncles over there too.”

“And your parents?”

“They’re divorced. I don’t really know my dad. Last time I saw him I was about three.”

“So, he stayed in El Salvador?”

“Yes, he’s over there.”

“Does it bother you?”

“Not really. What about your parents?”

“They’re still together.”

“That’s good. Do you ever ask them what their secret is?”

“No, I kind of try not to question it. I feel like I would be jinxing them. They’re so cute though, specially my dad. He drives me to work in the morning.”

“Yeah, you mentioned you don’t drive anymore.”

“I got into a bad wreck, and it left me traumatized. I wasn’t hurt — thank God — but I came to the conclusion that cars and I don’t mix.”

“That’s very interesting,” he said, smiling at her.

“Are you making fun of me?”

“Not at all, why would you say that?”

“The doofy smile on your face, weirdo.”

“I wasn’t laughing at you. I was remembering something.”

“Go on,” she said.

“It’s dumb; just some nerd trivia. It’s nothing.”

“Lay it on me. I enjoy nerd trivia.”

“O…K, well, the writer Ray Bradbury, hated cars too. He hated them so much; he never even got a license. He thought they were death traps. So, you’re not alone.”

“Okay,” she said, laughing.

Habib laughed too: “But go on, so how do you get around? Do just have weirdos like me pick you up?”

“Yes, my weirdo friends drive. They don’t mind picking me up.”

“Must be nice,” he said, smiling. “Do you give them gas money?”

“Yes, of course. And food and good company and we have fabulous, weirdo conversations like ‘which cafeteria in Miami has the best pan con bistec’ and ‘what makes a Miamian a Miamian?”

“That’s good.”

“I’m a very generous tipper,” she said, gazing at his hands that were flat on the table.

“You are?”

“Yes, siree I am.”

Habib rolled his eyes in exaggeration and they both said ‘Weirdo’ at the same time.

“Jinx,” Habib said.

“Jinx,” she said, quickly, after trying to beat him to it.

They started laughing and Lucia snorted a little.

After dinner Lucia goaded him into an empty piano bar. They sat a table to the right of the stage and ordered dessert and martinis. As they sipped their drinks Lucia reminded Habib about the parking meter and gave him most of the change at the bottom of her purse.

He clearly remembers feeling joy walking briskly in the light rain to put quarters in the meter. He wasn’t sure if it was the music, the alcohol, Lucia, or everything combined. When he returned to the bar, there was a man sitting next to her at the table. Habib sat on her other side.

The man was a piano player. He was effeminate, so Habib didn’t get jealous, but at first, Lucia seemed concerned that he would get jealous. Habib could tell by the “oh no” expression on her face, and her body language which seemed to be leaning away from the man. The guy was loud, flamboyant, and flirty, and after telling a few jokes he left to play the piano with another man.

Lucia requested Billy Joel. The piano duo began the set with “Piano Man” and then a second round of martinis arrived at the table accompanied by a big piece of warm apple pie for both of them to share. Despite the piano bar still being pretty empty, the alcohol and the good time piano music seemed to place Habib and Lucia in some kind of impenetrable “GOOD TIME BUBBLE”.

Then there were more martinis. More song requests. More alcohol. Then shots. Then dancing and finally kissing. Habib noticed her smile curl and it was exactly like a cartoon light bulb appearing above her head and right after squeezing his hand, she went to make a song request, placing cash in the small jar on top of the piano and whispering the song in the musicians’ ear and at that point, he looked at her outfit and the whole back of her and everything he could see from where he was sitting and he still remembers to this day thinking that he couldn’t believe she was there with him. How did I even land that? That’s when he realized it, he was looking at the girl of his dreams, but back then, he ignored it.

They left hand in hand down the sidewalk in the summer August rain and back to his little yellow clown car where there was more kissing, and more embracing and more butterflies springing forth from his stomach. He remembers her there in the passenger seat drunk and beautiful. There was a lot of making out, and rubbing and touching and clothes were almost coming off but Habib stopped himself because her kisses were getting sloppy. She was too drunk and he was already in love. He looked at her once more and then he turned on the ignition and drove to a gas station where he bought a six-pack of Red Bull. He sat in the car drinking the energy drink as she slept in the passenger seat.

When he arrived at her house, he helped her to the front door. She was able to unlock the door and before continuing through the threshold, she turned to him, gave him a quick kiss and said, “Text me when you get home, weirdo.” He helped her a little more and she was off into her house. He closed the front door making sure it was locked and returned to his car.

Upon arriving home, he noticed that she left her cell phone in his car. The next day, when he got to work, he sent her a friend request on Facebook with a message telling her he has her cell phone. She replied saying, ‘thank you! What a crazy night! No more Baby Guinness shots for me.’ He told her he’ll drop her phone off after work.

On the drive to her parent’s house in Hialeah, he recalled anticipating a warm welcome but when he arrived, she didn’t even give him a kiss on the cheek. He was confused about her demeanor, but he gave her the cell phone and said goodbye. Despite that, they went out again sporadically, perhaps around eight times and just like on their first outing, the same things happened every time: the flirting, the good rapport, the eating, the drinking and the drunk make out sessions at the end of the night. It became a pattern, and Habib — who was turning complacent — became trapped in a kind of dating loop that he enjoyed somewhat but couldn’t seem to break out of. At that time, Habib was living with his mother and Lucia lived with her parents. Adding to that his dating logistics being out of whack because he and Lucia lived 45 minutes from each other and they never got more intimate than making out in his car.

The last time they went out, he took her to an Oscar Movie Marathon at the multiplex, but she had to leave early to help her friend plan a wedding. Then after that, Lucia just sort of disappeared or was just not around anymore, he couldn’t really remember. Then Habib noticed that her Facebook status changed to ‘In a Relationship’. So, whenever the subject came up, he became really good at pretending that he didn’t care. But his very close friends knew he was posing.

“So, what happened with that girl you were dating?”

“Nothing, I don’t think we were dating. Not sure what it was, just passing time.”

“Did you fuck her at least?”

“No, I did not.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

His own mother on the other hand, did not directly ask him about the girl he had been going out with and never brought home. She circled around the subject like all good, intelligent deceptive mothers do.

“You’re staying home tonight, Habibi?”

“Yes,” he answered from his bedroom.

He was pretending to read but he was really sulking, feeling sorry for himself like an asshole.

“Wow,” she said, placing emphasis on the “O”.

Then she too would be pretending to be cleaning or actually cleaning, as Spanish TV is blaring in the background some novela or three-hour variety show with skimpy girls Habib could only dream of dating.

And when he stayed silent, then she would press him again:

“Habibi, what’s wrong? You love to go out. Where are your friends?”

“I don’t want to…go…out….Ma. I’m trying to read!”

The elephant was definitely in the room and Habib knew it, he was getting angrier because he did not want to talk about Lucia even though he had mentioned her before to his mother as the “Salvadoran girl,” but dropped the subject after she began to ask about Lucia’s last name and her family, trying to find out what kind of Salvi stock she came from.

“And what about the girl?”

There it was. She said it. She said the words he didn’t want to hear. Habib was about to yell back to her but he took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“What girl?”

“You know what girl; the Salvadoran girl.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Habibi, she didn’t deserve you my beautiful boy. She lost.”

“What?” he said, placing the worn out, green copy of Ulysses on his chest. “What did she say?”

“Habibi you will meet the right girl. You will be happy.”

He didn’t say anything. He turned over on his stomach and sank his face into the pillow.

“Habibi.”

“What?!”

He turned over again on his back, “What?!”

“Habibi, don’t yell at me please.”

He grabbed the book again and reread the page with Stephen Dedalus walking the pebbled streets of Dublin thinking about prostitutes, Shakespeare and chamber maids.

“Habibi, do you want some strawberries?”

He didn’t respond.

“Habibi, I am asking if you want strawberries.”

“Yes,” he said, quietly looking over at the page again.

“Habibi, are you listening son?”

“Yes, mother, I want strawberries.”

“Do you want a lot, or a little?”

“I don’t want a lot.”

“Okay,” she said, and started washing the strawberries on the sink.

Then she said, right as she was putting the strawberries in a bowl, “Habibi, I love you.”

“I love you too.”

She brought him the strawberries in a green bowl with brown sugar sprinkled on top. He ate them on his bed and after finishing the strawberries and the section he was reading in the book, he went to the living room and sat on the sofa to watch the models on the TV with his mother.

II

About two months later, Habib decided to visit his friend Lou in San Francisco. His friend was living near SF State in Parkmeced, in a two-bedroom apartment he once shared with his wife who had left back to Miami.

“Are you going to go after her?”

“I don’t know. She’s being irrational. We’re making so much money here. She misses her family, but I told her if we hunker down for a couple of years we can save enough and go back with more money.”

“What did she say when you told her that?”

“She said she hates it here and she can’t wait. That it’s her or San Francisco and I need to make a choice.”

“So, you made your choice?”

“Nope, just biding my time, biding my time. She needs to make the choice. I gotta put my foot down. I’m not chasing her. I am the man here. She needs to listen to me — I am her husband. She will soon realize the mistake she’s making. You know how much money I make here? Nurses make six figures a year here just starting out. Think about that. Compared to Miami, please man, she’ll come around.”

They were sitting on the couch, with the television on but the sound off.

“How’s it going with you and the chicks in Miami?”

“Not too good. I was sort of dating this Salvi girl but she disappeared all of a sudden.”

“Damn son, she sounds ice cold. Did you get any cooch at least?”

“Nothing. I really didn’t have any place to take her.”

“You should have taken her to one of those shitty motels on 8 Street. Or if you really needed to save the money, you should have just fucked her in the car — bust that nut and kick her out.”

Lou was laughing now. Habib gave him an uneasy smile.

“I don’t think she was that type of girl.”

“Oh please, they’re all like that man. You should have just whipped it out and here you go darling.”

“It’s complicated when you don’t have your own place.”

“That’s sucks man. You really need to move out of your mom’s house soon.”

“Yeah, planning on it, it’s just that she needs me now you know.”

“I know brother, but what do they say? We’re not getting any younger. You don’t want to turn into one of those old, sad bachelors.”

“I think about that. You don’t think I think about that?”

“It’s funny cause when I talk to my wife about you, she doesn’t think you’re ever going to leave your mother. And I tell her, well, that’s all she has is Habib but I’m counting on you, brother. I know you’re going to do it and be happy. You gotta help yourself. I believe in you my friend.”

“Thank you,” Habib said.

“But check it out. The girls here are not as hot as Miami chicks but they are way friendlier and more approachable. We can go on the hunt tonight.”

“Cool,” Habib said, even though he didn’t really feel like looking for anybody.

They went to a jazz festival in the day and then at night met up with a lively group of Lou’s coworkers at a gay dive bar on Castro by the curious name of the West Coast Tool Box. Early in the evening it was empty but then it picked up so much that the dance floor was crowded with men and women. Lou was talking to a co-worker of his, another nurse by the name of Amanda. She was divorced with two daughters.

“She’s coming back, you watch.”

“Do you love your wife?”

“Of course, I do! What kind of question is that?”

“Then you should go after her. Listen to me Lou-”

“Forget it; she needs to give me just a little respect. Are you aware of how hard I’ve worked for that woman? What am I saying? You’ve seen me whining and crying about her all the time at work.”

“Listen Lou, listen to me.”

He was nodding and sipping on his beer.

“I’m listening but I just don’t think you’re looking at it the way I see it. What about me, you know? I’ve sacrificed.”

“Listen to me,” she said, clasping his face with her one free hand. “Are you listening?”

“Yes.”

“You’re being a selfish asshole. There are two people in a marriage. If you continue being a jerk she’s not going to come back and you’re going to end up alone.”

He didn’t say anything. He looked at Habib standing in front of them and smiled. Lou’s co-worker had long blond hair and a bright smile; she didn’t look at all like anybody’s mother. She placed her hand on Lou’s shoulder and squeezed, telling him she was going to the Lady’s Room.

Lou came up to Habib quickly, holding his beer close to his chest. “How’s it going man? How do you like San Fran so far?”

“It’s nice man, I’m really digging it; can’t wait until we hit the Golden Gate Bridge tomorrow.”

“It’s a beautiful view; you’ll get to see all the goddamn fog going over the bay. Then I’ll take you up to Sausalito and the Napa Valley for a little wine and cheese tasting. I know a retired nurse up there with a nice little vineyard — it’s beautiful up there; she got two cute golden retrievers to meet you at the front and got this tight little group of Mexicans helping her make the most delicious wine you will ever taste. I guarantee it!”

Habib was now picturing the vineyard and the Golden Retrievers and the wine tasting and…Lucia sitting next to him on the park bench taking a bite of cheese and winking at him. He suddenly had a little smile in his face that quickly turned into a frown, which Lou noticed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said, fake smiling.

“You look like you’re about to cry.”

“I’m good, I’m good.”

“Okay, you sure? Let me get you another drink; you’re looking kind of empty.”

Lou quickly got him another beer from a cocktail waitress.

“But anyway, where was I? But anyway, then on Sunday I’ll take you to Alcatraz. You’re going to love it. It’s a lot of fun but depressing as shit.”

“That’s a curious observation,” Amanda interjected, upon arriving from the restroom.

Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ began playing and the entire club was singing along.

“I feel the same way about it,” she said, looking at both of them.

“There she goes, busting my balls with that sarcasm,” Lou said.

“Why are you being so defensive? I’m serious. Were you referring to the part in the tour when they talk about the inmates hearing the New Year’s Eve celebrations across the Bay? Right?”

“Yeah, exactly! Imagine being so close to freedom you can almost taste it across the bay — if that shit don’t make you shed a tear, then your heartless!”

“Except for one thing though, they’re criminals; they were paying their debt to society. Fuck those guys; you’re a real pussy sometimes Lou, you know that?”

Lou’s mouth fell wide open and then turning into a smile, he said, “You’re such a bitch, you’re lucky I love you kid.”

The Talking Heads’ song “This must be the Place” started playing.

Habib was checking out a cute girl standing by the bar, but then he saw she was with a guy who grabbed her by the arm and pulled her towards the dance floor. When he turned back to his group, he was shocked to see Lou and his co-worker Amanda making out like drunken kids in front of him. Once Lou noticed Habib’s awkwardness, he stopped himself, and looking at his friend, made a zipper motion on his lips and went back to making out with Amanda.

After that, they went to a piano bar but it was really late so they were only able to get one round of drinks and make a couple of song requests. At the piano bar, he made a conscious effort to not think about Lucia or her second favorite Billy Joel song, “Vienna”, which somebody in another group at the place requested. But as the melody reached his ears, Habib told himself, “Just keep drinking. Keep drinking. Billy Joel is a very popular artist.” When that place closed, everyone ended up at a 50s style diner and then they all went home.

Back at Lou’s apartment at the end of the night, a very tipsy Habib stared at his phone rereading Lucia’s last text messages to him.

Then he began a new text addressed to her:

“Hey! Just wanted to check in. Hope things are good.”

As soon as he hit send, he immediately regretted it. Habib wasn’t sure how long it would take for her to respond or even if she would. He put his hand over his face, realizing he was being a weirdo again.

Then a reply came. He was afraid to open it. His heart felt like it was about to pop out of his chest.

He grabbed the cell phone and read her response:

“Hi Mr., how the heck have you been? I’m good. Still mooching rides from friends… 🙂

He didn’t know what to say.

He started texting something then he deleted it and began the message again.

“I’m good! I’m in San Fran right now on vacation! Just spent a crazy night at a piano bar and thought of you.”

“Awesome! I hope you requested our song!”

“Yep, sure did–a lot of good time memories!”

“Aww I hope you didn’t have too many Baby Guinness shots, and your home safe.”

“Lol not too many only ten.”

“lol you’re so funny.”

“JK”

“Well, be safe over-there, and take care of yourself. It was nice hearing from you.”

Then without thinking he wrote: “I love you Lucia.”

There was no response for about a minute and Habib felt like throwing up.

Then she wrote back.

“Please don’t do this. You’re drunk, dear. Put the phone down and go to sleep.”

“I miss you.”

“Go. To. Sleep. Weirdo. Please take care of yourself. Bye.”

Habib read and reread the text. He wanted to write something else but instead threw his phone to the ground and went to sleep.

Around noon Lou walked into his room.

“Wake up bro,” he said, lightly shaking him.

“I’m up, I’m up,” he said, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “What’s up?”

“I’m going to Miami to get Gina back.”

Habib was still sleepy, but he opened his eyes wider.

“Cool, man, when are you going to go?”

“Today man, I’m getting the next flight out.”

“Wait, today? But I don’t leave until Tuesday.”

“It’s cool, you can crash here. I’ll give you a spare key. “

“Are you sure? I mean if- “

“I hate to do this my brother but I love my wife. I have to at least try. I can’t be without my wife. If I have to go back to Miami or travel back and forth, well so be it.”

“No, you don’t have to explain man, I understand. I’m sure I’ll find things to do. It’s just a couple of more days. Just go do what you have to do.”

“Thanks man. I’m really sorry, will definitely make it up to you. Love you brother!”

Habib knew that more than likely; Lou would not make it up to him. Married friends had other gods to answer to.

The next two days Habib walked around San Francisco like a ghost. He enjoyed the ride to Alcatraz on the ferry but did find the prison depressing. The day was overcast and muggy and windy with light drops of rain.

After the prison tour, he decided to eat at a bar on Fisherman’s Wharf. There was a mirror behind the bar and he avoided his reflection.

The next day he mostly stayed in and watched television. His flight was early in the morning and he wanted to be at the airport with plenty of time.

When he got back to Miami, Lou rang him up to tell him he was officially back with his wife.

“I had to beg and she wasn’t having it. So, guess what I did?”

“I don’t know what did you do?”

“I threw a Hail Mary; I said can we at least have sex one more time? And Bam! I’m back in my brother!”

“That’s awesome,” Habib said.

III

A month after the San Francisco trip, his friend Montes rang Habib up to suggest that he go hiking in Mexico in his stead. The flight was departing in two months, and due to a family emergency, Montes would not be able to attend. Everything was paid for, except the hotel.

“If you want to forget a woman, you go up the monolith. Listen to me Habib…it will open your Third Eye,” Montes said to him. “A good, challenging hike will put things in perspective for you. It is such a different thing to do in life. If your body is not strong, the elevation will be the first downfall. If you pass that, then walking for 8 hours at only 30/40 % of oxygen at night could kill you too, so many things could kill you.”

Then there was a thick moment of silence between the two friends like there hadn’t been in a long time.

“But,” Montes said, “When you come down your vision will be clear — you will be self-aware. A spiritual awakening will uncurl from the physical, mental experiment with the self.”

Habib didn’t really pay attention to most of it, but liked the idea of taking off once again. As opposed to hanging around in Miami still thinking about Lucia, any diversion was a welcomed activity. He did apologize to her about the drunk texting, but did not reach out to her further. Despite the fact that she didn’t seem too bothered and to avoid any further complications, he decided to delete her number from his cell phone, but left her as a friend on Facebook since he was now using less and less social media.

Montes continued trying to sell the trip: ‘And when you are very old, and close to the end of your journey, your death eyes will twinkle as you take your last breath remembering the day you hiked the monolith.’

Habib was sold on the idea so fast his friend didn’t have to say anything further to convince him. Montes let him borrow most of the equipment he would need. He commenced training by jogging nine miles a week and weight lifting on off days. He found a great deal on the plane ticket and took a direct flight to Mexico and then a bus to a little town full of hotels and bars and restaurants with a monolith theme for the tourists. Once there, he hired a young professional guide and they were on their way to base camp for a day of acclimatization. When finally confronted with the great monolith in the distance, and despite his now rapidly growing fear, he decided in that short private moment that he had to go through with it no matter what. Fuck, he whispered, what did I get myself into?

The guide, who went by the name of Aureliano, said they would camp most of the day and leave at sundown. Habib was having trouble with his tent and the guide went right up and helped him. He was a very good guide. Habib was embarrassed that he had already forgotten his name. He decided to talk to him once the camp fire was started and while they ate their meager looking dinners.

Cual es tu nombre,” Habib said, with an apologetic tone.

“My name is Aureliano,” he said, in almost perfect English.

“You speak English?”

“Yes, I graduated from NYU.”

“Oh,” Habib said, “But you are from here? I mean you’re Mexican?”

“Yes, I am a Mexican that speaks English, and went to NYU and after he graduated returned to the land of his birth.”

“Wow, what did you study in New York?”

“I studied Architecture and Literature.”

“That’s cool, two very different fields,” Habib said.

“Not really, not to Ayn Rand.”

“Who’s that?”

“She’s just a writer I hate, and my wife enjoys.”

“You’re married?”

“Yep, you?”

“No, never been married.”

“Well, don’t fret, you’re not missing much.”

“How did you meet your wife?”

“We met on a blind date like a week before I left to attend NYU.”

“You went on a blind date before you were going to leave Mexico?”

“Well, I did it as a favor to my friend, who wanted to be with my wife’s best friend.”

“And you guys just got together, and she waited for you to return? That’s nice- “

“No, we actually got into an argument about the politics of a famous Colombian writer that we both admire, which led to a shouting match about Ayn Rand, who I believe to this day is a cultist.”

“Wow, and you still managed to get her number?”

“You say ‘wow’ a lot.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess I do.”

“It’s okay, wow man. But to get back to my Mexican ‘When Harry Met Sally’, no, I did not get her number. But she did get on my nerves. We didn’t talk again until I came back from NYC. We ran into each other at a bookstore, in the damn philosophy aisle, and both started laughing hysterically the second we saw each other.”

Habib was listening intently and upon noticing this, Aureliano continued his tale.

“We went to get coffee and spent the whole day together.”

“What did you talk about?”

“More like, what did we not talk about? It was good, I needed that talk.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, when I went to NYU, I had this obsession to marry a Gringa and bring her back with me but that didn’t work out. So, I had sex with like three Gringas that whole time at the University. I was terrible with women. And English Lit girls are supposed to be the easiest. But I remember one night after having sex with this girl at a party for some reason I was thinking about Ayn Rand and that fucking book ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and that led to me to thinking about my future wife and her argument which I thought was total bullshit, which at that moment, I couldn’t even recall the details of and then-”

“And then what?”

“I started weeping very quietly next to this beautiful girl. I had no idea why. I guess I felt like a weird guy, laying there next to this hottie after just having some crazy sex and I’m fantasizing about another girl that I barely even knew or ever even kissed like if I lost something very valuable that I would never see again.”

“Wow, what a story. But did you think about her again after that? Did you ask your friend if he’d run into her?”

“No, I didn’t tell anybody, I just put my future wife to the back of my mind until that day that I ran into her at the bookstore.”

“So, then you asked her out on another date?”

“No, because after spending all day together, we had sex that night, then the next week she moved in with me and six months later she got pregnant and we got married. And now, we got three kids, and I work as a guide for extra money.”

“That’s a great story.”

“So, what about you?”

Habib stayed silent for a little bit at that question.

“I was dating someone, but it didn’t go anywhere.”

“Oh, don’t worry, you’ll meet somebody else. It’s kind of like when we hike the monolith — don’t look back — you gotta keep looking ahead and down, of course. Relationships are overrated anyway.”

“They are?”

“Yeah man. You know how much I wish I had even five minutes to myself when I get home from work? How I pray for a quiet house? I haven’t been able to watch TV or read a book in peace and quiet in ages.”

Habib was getting ready to tell Aureliano everything about Lucia to get his opinion but instead he stayed quiet.

“Cheer up,” Aureliano said, tapping him on the leg. “Out here, thoughts of the flesh and past loves will only get you killed. Out here, it’s pure living without the first world worries and comforts. This was the original plan my friend. Let’s get some rest now before we head out.”

Habib got excited for the monolith until he pictured Lucia hiking up a treacherous trail like a ghost wandering the valley. He tried to take a nap but she wouldn’t leave his brain. He was good now, he thought, he wasn’t going to drunk dial her from Mexico, it was over and he was fine because in reality there was nothing really there.

At sun down they started early for the summit. Things were going well at first but as the hike gradually turned harder, he kept on. This was a test, he told himself.

He tried not to complain to Aureliano but it was now obvious that he underestimated the challenge: he was dehydrated, his feet were starting to callous and he was getting cramps in his lower back. At a certain beat down point, nothing made sense to him. He remembered looking up at the sky and thinking this could be it. He could hardly breathe and was starting to feel dizzy. Then after barely reaching the summit right behind a group of outstanding Australians, his body gave up, dropping like a tower of Jenga blocks collapsing on itself. Aureliano took a good look at him like if he was in the presence of a child acting out a dramatic fall in front of his parents. Habib eventually came down on a mule being pulled by a very old man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache. When he returned to Miami, Montes was ecstatic at Habib’s efforts on his first hike.

“Wow brother, I am so proud of you,” he said, hugging him at the airport.

Habib was laid out in bed for almost two weeks because of the painful calluses on the bottom of his feet. At home, when he was totally alone, he tried to forget the monolith. He was all fucked up now, he thought, but either way it was liberating. He tried to feel his ‘Third Eye’ on his forehead. He kept his bedroom door closed, forcing his mother to knock when dinner was ready. She tried to leave him alone mostly, because she knew he was now deep in one of his doldrums that she couldn’t understand even if she tried. Habib sometimes felt like he was suffocating, she had turned into a roommate that he didn’t really care to run into. All his excuses for moving out were now null and void. He was coming to the conclusion after all this time that he and his mother both fed their insecurities from the same fountain of loneliness. They were holding on to each other, but it wasn’t helping either of them.

IV

Towards the end of that year, he went on yet another trip to the Dominican Republic for two weeks with his friend Michael Suarez Jr. Michael was a New Jersey Cuban that was married to a Dominican hairstylist that couldn’t leave the country due to her immigration status; she was still waiting for the Green Card to come through. So she sent her husband Michael to visit her family and since he didn’t want to go by himself, he tried to convince Habib to go with him. Habib didn’t really have to be convinced for as soon as his friend brought up the trip, he said yes once again without hesitation. His birthday was coming up too, and a trip to the Caribbean sounded like a nice gift to himself. They stayed with Michael’s in-laws in a little town in the middle of the island. They hung out at gas stations that moonlight as bars called Bombas. They went to strip clubs. They ate fresh sea food. They danced Bachata with a lot of women. They threw a lot of parties — they did everything they’re supposed to do. One night, he was thinking about the monolith, but he was drunk and his thoughts were erratic. In that fantasy, the monolith was black, and Habib, a tiny white ghost, almost a blemish.

On another night, they went to a Bomba to drink and play pool. The waitress that was taking their order was as gorgeous as a famous Puerto Rican actress that Habib couldn’t remember the name of. She was really friendly, and he ended up flirting with her the whole night. Then one of Michael’s wife’s nephews told him they could pay for the girl and take her back to a cabana. The wife had two nephews who lived in the house where they were staying, and Michael referred to them as the cousins. They were always together, and they looked like twins.

“What do you mean ‘pay for her’?” said Habib. The cousins explained to him that some girls do prostitution on the side for extra money; that it’s no big deal. Habib at first said no, but he was drunk and after considering it for a minute, he agreed. The girl winked at him after he said yes and he felt a little heartache.

Michael, who looked after Habib like a little brother, said to him: “Make sure you use a rubber brother.”

The entire group of men drove to the cabana located in the outskirts of the town. The girl gave them the address and directions on how to get there, with the promise that she will meet them there once she got out of work. Michael was sitting in the back with one of the cousins, as Habib sat in the front passenger seat with the second cousin. Both cousins were tall and lanky, with the same elaborate cornrows, and severe fashion sense making it hard to tell them both apart.

Upon arriving at the right location, they pulled into the parking area that was made up of a set of parking garages connected to each individual cabana. They parked into one of the empty garages and told Habib to get out of the car and wait for the girl inside the cabana.

“Just go in there,” asked Habib, pointing at the red door at the end of the garage.

“Yes, bro,” Michael said, “time to get your dick wet.”

Michael followed that with a joke in Spanish and everyone inside the car started laughing except Habib, who was now getting out of the car.

Michael got in the front passenger seat and told him that they would be back in a couple of hours. The room was already paid for, he said, so have fun.

As Habib was about to turn to go into the cabana, Michael called him once again.

“Wait, come here, and take a hit of this fat joint to calm your nerves.”

The cousin sitting in the passenger seat carefully lit the medium sized joint for Habib and handed it to him. Habib took a big puff and started coughing.

“What the hell is in it? It smells like fucking bleach.”

“Don’t worry about it, “Michael said, “Take another hit, it will help you.”

Habib took another puff and coughed some more before he started waving his hands that he was good now. Michael and the cousins started laughing hysterically.

As he watched them pull out of the garage and speed down the parking lot pumping bachata at full volume, Habib began to have second thoughts. Inside the room, it was awash in red light. After shutting the door behind him, he sat on the bed and waited. There was some kind of S&M porn playing on the television with men and women hanging from ceilings. Next to the bed, there was a night stand with a menu and next to the night stand, by the wall, there was a hatch with a speaker next to it.

The door to the cabana opened slowly and the girl from the Bomba arrived. She smiled as she sat next to Habib.

“Did you ask for anything to drink yet?”

“No,” Habib said.

The girl grabbed the menu and spoke into the speaker next to the hatch and ordered beer and cigarettes.

“I didn’t know,” Habib said.

“You’ve never been to a cabana?”

“No.”

She undressed and in the red light, her beauty had turned demonic. Habib began taking his shoes and pants off. He clearly remembers feeling dread, standing in front of this woman in fear like if she was a serial killer.

“What’s wrong amor?”

“Nothing,” Habib said, smiling.

“Then take off all your clothes. Let’s do this, amor. I’m so hot for you.”

Habib knew that was a lie.

She grabbed a condom from her purse and placed it on the bed in front of him. It was a local brand of condoms.

He then took off his underwear and was completely naked.

“Get on the bed,” she said, “and try to relax.”

He couldn’t relax but he did as he was told and awkwardly sat back on the bed naked. She began to rub his stomach in a circular motion. At first, her touch felt good but then it made him ticklish and he moved back and away from her, sitting up on the bed.

“What’s wrong,” she said.

Habib didn’t say anything.

She looked at him and he started laughing. At first, she smiled uneasily, but then her expression turned serious. Habib couldn’t stop laughing, it was coming in waves. She got off the bed and started putting her clothes back on delicately and slowly as if she was giving him enough time to stop laughing but he didn’t. His laughter was cascading off the walls like if he was a hyena.

After making sure she had all her things, she left the room. Habib stayed on the bed, engulfed by the red light as the pornography continued playing on the television. Then the hatch opened and a bucket of Presidente beers was pushed through. Habib also noticed the cigarettes she had asked for, and he decided to smoke a cigarette and drink a couple of beers before his friends came back.

When Habib’s friends returned, they found him drunk and alone sleeping on the bed. Once they got him back to the car, he told them that it was some of the best sex he had ever had. She was worth every penny, he said, and might go back for seconds. The group laughed at Habib the entire way back to the house.

Then on the day before their last day in the Dominican Republic, while tipsy on Brugal rum and crossing a busy intersection in Santo Domingo, he swore he saw Lucia walking down the sidewalk. At the same time his eyes were following this doppelganger, an electric current ignited in the center of his chest causing him to stop in the middle of the road and tires screeched, and people screamed, and our poor, dumb Habibi was suddenly bouncing off the hood of a small car. Now flat on his back and facing a blue, cloudy sky, Habib felt a warm liquid trickle down his forehead. His vision was foggy. He remembered thinking “is this it?”

A circle of faces gathered above him, suffocating him. He wanted to speak but he couldn’t form the words. Then one face from the circle stood out. It was the girl who he thought was Lucia; she was looking down at him. It wasn’t his Lucia; her teeth were like large accordion keys, but from the back, she looked like Lucia’s twin.

He closed his eyes and then when he opened them, he was on a gurney in the back of an ambulance that seemed to be deliberately driving over every pot hole in Santo Domingo. His friend Michael was next to him.

Michael didn’t hesitate to say the obvious, “What the hell happened back there?”

“I thought I saw a girl I know- “

“What are you talking about?”

“She didn’t mean anything to me,” he said, sounding defeated, looking away.

“O…K…WEIRDO.”

Habib spent an entire week in the hospital before he was released so he could fly back home. He had a minor concussion, and four broken ribs. The doctors recommended bed rest as soon as he got back to Miami.

Once in Miami, the American doctors discovered a ruptured lung as well which would take weeks to heal. His mother was so distraught she called everyone in the family. Some friends came to visit him and others texted him wishing a speedy recovery. As far as his job, he would be forced to use the rest of his vacation days.

With all this time bedridden at home, Habib spent it on his computer and the internet, and eventually back to Facebook where he noticed that Lucia had posted a Happy Birthday note on his page. At first, he was angry, and then he was sad, and ultimately, he became obsessively hopeful and decided to stalk her Facebook to see what she was up to. He saw photos of her at a wedding; she was wearing a purple dress like all the other bridesmaids. Habib wasn’t a fan of the color, but she looked very good in it.

There were more photos of Lucia at parties, or at a club, or intimate family gatherings and in each one of them she had that clever smirk. In each photo, she seemed to be the center of the happiness in the room. Her round face was always so affectionate with the cute crinkle at the corners of her eyes.

After going through most of her photo albums, Habib begrudgingly admitted that she looked effortlessly beautiful in every single image. He then looked at all the other things she posted like funny memes about Miami life, and YouTube recipes by Gordon Ramsey. And still not one sign of the boyfriend. Then Habib came across her ‘Relationship Status’ which now said “Single.” He read and reread it and said it out loud slowly, stretching the vowels with his tongue — “S…I…N…G…L…E” — and let out a girlish laugh.

“What does it all even mean,” he said.

That bitch, he thought, and then at that exact moment, Lucia Facebook messaged him:

“Hello Mr.”

He reread the message four times. Then he closed his eyes and made a deep sigh.

When he opened his eyes, he wrote this:

“Hey, how are you? “

“I’m well, how are you? Just wanted to reach out and say hello.”

“I’m good. Glad to hear you’re good too. Every time a Billy Joel song comes on, you come to mind.”

“Lol, ditto. I think that’s a given for both lol… did you hear he’s coming to town? ;-)”

“The Piano Man is coming to town?

“Yes.”

“No way.”

“Yep, Mr. Long Island himself.”

“When is it?”

“New Year’s Eve.”

“Wow Billy Joel live in living color — wanna go?”

“Great minds think alike; we should discuss this in person,” she wrote back.

Habib responded, “Yes, definitely.”

She was writing something else; he could see the bubbles:

“So, tell me Habibi, what else have you been up to? Inquiring minds want to know.”

He felt a warm, more gentle current spreading over his chest not unlike when crossing that street in the Dominican Republic right before he was struck.

He started typing: “There’s a lot to tell, where do I even start?”

“The best way to tell a story is to start at the end. Then you go to the middle and double back.”

“Just double back?”

“Yes sir, just double back.”

“Okay,” he said, smiling. “Here we go, I think the beginning was you.”

About the Author
Fawzy Zablah was born in El Salvador but raised in Miami. Among his works is the short story collection CIAO! MIAMI and the novel RARITY OF THE CENTURY. His fiction has been published widely at Hobart, 3AM Magazine, Acentos Review and Expat Press. His short story, THIS MODERN MAN IS BEAT, was adapted into an award winning short film in 2015 currently playing on Amazon Prime. He is hard at work on a novel about the Arabs and Jews of Latin America with the working title of GITANES.
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