It was the end of the month of Ramadan when she finally told him why she wasn’t eating. He felt like an idiot, realizing it had only been during the day, and she was not actually anorexic. But why? Her father was—is—Egyptian—and a Muslim. She had never mentioned it; after all, they had only been dating for a few weeks.
What the fuck? He’s a camel jockey? he asked. Chester had a habit of saying whatever first thing came to his mind, usually jokes that were either inappropriate or nonsensical, a trait that Laila usually found endearing.
It’s not that important, she replied, looking away.
I thought you were fuckin’ Irish.
My mom is Irish, she said.
So shouldn’t we not be having sex? he asked.
Just not during the day, she answered. He loved the sound of her voice more than anything, perhaps because she used it so infrequently.
It was the first time Chester had been in any kind of relationship with a girl, unless you count Tanya, who gave him a hand job in eighth grade for walking her home from the pool when it was dark out. Laila slept in his bed at night. She had light freckles under her eyes that only Chester noticed, while lying next to her in bed under the harsh white light in his dorm room. He struggled to make conversation when they got breakfast together at the student commons on the Bartham campus. But he felt the more time they spent together, the less he knew her. She didn’t mind not talking.
Why are you still dating me? he asked.
Fuck if I know, she laughed. It was one of Chester’s favorite phrases.
The next summer, Chester wanted to move to Brooklyn to be with her, but he needed a job. He had found a room in Bed-Stuy, and though it was far from Laila’s mother’s in East New York, they were on the same subway line. It was a small room he sublet from a young black R&B singer, who raised the rent the day Chester moved in. Reluctantly, Laila suggested he meet with her father, who owned a restaurant.
She said her father absolutely could not know he was her boyfriend.
Mohammed was so civil that it was awkward. His voice sounded like a child’s and had a scratchy quality to it, which Chester immediately associated with Cheech and Chong. He contained himself, refraining from making any jokes. Later, Laila said he had done a good job. Chester, who was born in Kentucky but raised in Utica, upstate, had never been to Jersey City, where the restaurant was located.
Listen, my father is really weird, ok? she said. Don’t take anything he says seriously.
Chester wondered if she had said the same thing to her father about him. I hope he’s not going to cut my dick off, or something he thought.
On his first night at work, Mohammed approached him.
Yes sir? he said, nervously.
You cannot tell any of the others how much I am paying you, understand?
Sure, he said.
If they ask, just say that you don’t know. Johnny will be in soon to show you how to make the shisha.
What’s a shee-shuh? Chester asked.
You know, he said, gesturing toward his mouth, The hookah.
Oh, right. Chester sat down, away from the few customers who had shown up. They were watching a soccer game on a huge television, set to an Arabic channel. When Johnny came in, Mohammed took him aside quickly. Chester watched as they spoke rapidly in Arabic, while Mohammed pointed at Chester. Johnny looked serious, but as he approached Chester, a big smile snapped on to his long face, and he stuck out his hand.
He got back to the apartment around two-thirty, having had to wait forty-five minutes for an F train running on the A track. He called Laila but she said it was too late to go out. When he got back, his roommate, Jeremy, was up watching tv with another young black guy, who was a little pudgy, especially sitting next to Jeremy, who had a slim body-builder’s physique.
Hey man, Jeremy said, winking, You out partying?
Nah, Chester said, I just got back from work.
Oh, that sucks, Jeremy said. This is my friend, Emmel.
M L? Chester asked, As in King?
They looked at him, confused.
Uh, cool, nice to meet you, Chester said, and held out his hand to Emmel. Chester walked back to his room, where his bags sat on the bed, still packed. His room was hotter than outside, and he was sweat through the night.
Sunday morning his phone rang over and over again until he finally answered. It was Mohammed.
Chayster, can you come in this morning? I need someone for the soccer game today.
He got himself out of bed, took a cold shower and rode the A train and transferred to the Path, showing up at eleven-thirty to find the door locked and an unfamiliar girl standing outside with a melting carton of Baskin Robbins ice cream.
Hi, he said. Do you know where Mohammed is?
She smiled demurely and shook her head.
I’m Chester, he said, I just started working here.
She held out her hand, and said in a thick Russian accent, I’m Regina.
Mohammed arrived, fifteen minutes later, to let them in, then left immediately.
Do you want some ice-cream? Regina asked. No thanks, Chester said. He started cleaning. He fumbled with the large, bulbous, bottom section of the hookah under the water faucet, filling it and dumping it out, and then used a thin wire brush to clean out black gunk, which got all over his clothes. The heat from the open coal oven burned his back. Regina appeared suddenly behind him, with a plate of melting white and pink ice cream.
For you, she said.
Um, thanks, he said. She kept watching him, so he sat down at a table and ate the ice-cream. An old Arabic man stumbled in as he was finishing the ice-cream. Regina got up and went to take his order. He quickly got up to make the man’s hookah order, with the feeling that Mohammed was staring at him the whole time.
No one else came in that afternoon. Laila called around four, to ask what he was doing. I’m at your dad’s place, he said.
I thought we were going to hang out.
Well, he called me and told me to come in. Do you want to do something later?
Sure, she said.
Ok, I’ll call when I get back to Brooklyn.
When he got off the phone, Johnny arrived. He said nothing to Chester but looked at the hookahs, suspiciously. Many customers? he asked, as though it were Chester’s fault no one had been there all day.
As Chester was leaving, Mohammed approached him and handed him four twenties. So, you don’t tell anyone how much, right?
Sure, Chester said.
Who was that on the phone earlier?
It was Laila, he answered, wishing immediately he had lied.
Oh, did you have a question? Mohammed asked. You just ask me, ok?
Yeah, sorry, Chester said.
He left nervously, his skin heating up. He imagined Mohammed going after his balls with a bloody kitchen knife, and then stabbing Laila. God, he thought, What the fuck is wrong with me?
After working on Tuesday night—Are you ready for busy time? Mohammed had asked him—Chester got back to Bed-Stuy at five that morning and called Laila, knowing she wouldn’t answer. When he got back to his apartment, Emmel was asleep on the couch. Chester tiptoed back to his room and collapsed on his bed. He was covered in sweat. He couldn’t fall asleep. He got up and masturbated silently, watching videos on YouPorn.com at his small desk. Then he lay back down in bed, picturing Laila’s naked back turned to him.
Wednesday night, Laila stayed at his apartment and she asked him to do it to her from behind. Chester agreed, worried that his weight would crush her. He felt soft and stupid, looking at his reflection in the window, while Laila’s head was buried in the covers. He saw the shiny areas of scalp on his head, where his hair was receding; his head looked like two puzzle pieces. She came, which was rare, but he wasn’t able to. She wanted to go down on him afterward, but he said he was too tired.
He felt like talking. He told her that he was glad to be in New York with her, because he hadn’t made any plans for the summer, and he didn’t want to go back to Utica. His friends from high school, who he had been in a band with, weren’t coming back, and he realized that everyone had finally given up. She didn’t say anything.
Chester continued working at Al Boulos through June. He was the only white person ever there, besides two guys, Tommy and Mike, who joked around with Mohammed. Mohammed told Chester they were from the FBI.
Maybe you could talk to them, Mohammed said. Work in the FBI, eh?
Everyone else spoke Arabic, but they got used to Chester being around and spoke to him in broken English. He started getting the sense that Johnny didn’t like him. One night he picked up a hookah and the glass bottom fell off, shattering on the floor and spilling water everywhere. He was nervous, but Justin, an eighteen-year-old Pueto Rican dishwasher—who struck Chester as stereotypically gay—quickly helped him clean it up.
Is Mohammed here? Justin asked. Did anyone hear you?
I don’t know, I don’t think so, Chester stammered.
Justin finished wiping off the floor. Just don’t tell anyone, it’s okay, he said. Chester then realized all the Hookah’s were overfilled with water.
Later, at a hip café in the Lower East Side that made Chester uncomfortable, he told Laila that Johnny didn’t like him.
I’m pretty sure he purposely fucked up all the hookahs to screw me up, Chester said.
Well, you did take his job, she said. It’s not like he does anything with his nights off.
Chester hadn’t realized that. It made sense now. All the weird looks Johnny gave him. Staring at Chester while Chester was working. So how much does your dad actually pay them? he asked.
Almost nothing, she said. I think they make like two hundred, two fifty.
Yeah. They’re all illegal immigrants.
Oh, he said. Even the Russian girls?
I think the Russian girls were vacationing in New York and they ran out of money or something, so they’re trying to earn their way back, she said. I have no idea how he met them.
Man, your dad is so weird, he said.
You’re the one who wanted to work there. I don’t see why you have to complain about it all the fucking time.
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that… he said.
Laila looked like she would cry. What’s wrong? Chester asked. I don’t understand why you never want to talk about your dad.
Never mind! Jesus! she raised her voice, and then, embarrassed, walked out of café.
One evening Chester was serving Mike and Tommy, the FBI agents. The two of them could have been twins, both overweight, same complexion, Tommy had hair and Mike was mostly bald. They both seemed to be laughing at him and Mike started asking him questions, did he smoke anything else out of those hookahs.
No sir, I’m drug free, Chester said.
They asked if he had a girlfriend and he responded yes, then quickly made up a girl’s name, remembering he couldn’t say anything about Laila.
You know Mohammed’s daughter, right? Mike asked. You ever screw around with her? Tommy laughed.
No way, Chester said. I barely know her. We just go to school together.
He walked away, so they wouldn’t see him turn red.
He called Laila when he was leaving work. He hadn’t seen her since he had stormed out of the café. He was worried about the FBI guys, but also thought she would find it funny.
Oh my god, I bet my dad made them do it, Laila said. What an asshole.
Are you serious? I don’t really get what the deal with them is anyway. Are they there because it’s an Arabic place, or because of all the illegal immigrants? I mean, they come every night, are they keeping tabs on the Arabs or something?
I don’t think so, Laila, said. If they were, they’re in the wrong place.
Yeah, Chester said.
Hey, do you want to smoke some pot? Laila asked.
No, he said, I’m around so much smoke there, the idea of more smoke is sort of nauseating.
Fine, she said.
The next Friday, after working at Al Boulos until four in the morning, Chester took the 2 train home instead of the C. He got off at Eastern Parkway and walked out in front of the Brooklyn Museum. He had loved the building; it was the only truly large and beautiful thing he had seen in New York all summer. He sat alone on the steps in front of the water fountain, staring across Washington Ave. He stayed until the sun rose, then walked home, a forty-five minute walk to his place in Bed-Stuy. He slept in until three the next afternoon. When he woke up, he checked his cell phone, but there had been no calls.
On Sunday night Chester was working again. Regina was there, sitting in the kitchen, reading a hard backed book with a Russian title. When she told him it was “The Da Vinci Code,” he rolled his eyes.
Around eight, after a steady three hours of serving shishas, Chester noticed that Laila was in the restaurant, talking to her father. They made eye contact, but she looked away quickly. Mohammed then looked at him. Later, Chester walked up to Laila, who was sitting at the front desk, greeting customers in Arabic.
Hey, he said.
Hi, she said. How are you, Chester?
He smiled at her feigned formalness, but she stayed straight-faced.
So why did you come in tonight? he asked.
Dad asked me to, she said. Then she looked over his shoulder and nodded to indicate he should look behind him. Suddenly frightened of Mohammed, he turned around to see Regina. Chester had been a little weirded out by Regina lately. She had been talking to him a lot, and staring at him while he worked. No girl had ever had a crush on him before, unless you counted Laila, and he didn’t really know how to deflect her flirtations.
Chester, Regina said, when do you get off work?
Um, not until late, he said.
Oh, she said, and looked at him with upturned eyes. He smiled at her. She didn’t move.
Well, what are you going to do tomorrow? she asked.
Chester noticed that Mike and Tommy were looking at him with big grins, laughing. He looked at Laila, but she still pretended not to notice. I’m not sure, he said.
This is my phone number, she said, if you would like to go somewhere together. She handed him a crumpled, sweaty piece of paper.
Oh, okay, he said. She smiled and left. Chester looked at Laila, then saw that Mohammed was talking to Tommy and Mike, and looked at her again, then walked away.
So what was that all about? Laila asked, surprising Chester from behind. He looked at her from the corner of his eye, still washing the bowl of a hookah.
Oh, so you’re going to talk to me now? he said.
Dad’s out for something. I’m going home. Have fun on your date.
Chester looked at his watch; it was only nine-thirty. Hearing Laila’s voice excited him. Spending the twelve-hour shifts in relative silence was difficult for him. She didn’t seem mad, but they’re last few phone conversation hadn’t gone well. She had completely withdrawn from him. The next day he thought about calling her, trying to see her, but he couldn’t do it.
What? Chester yelled, I can’t really hear you. The signal is bad.
My father said you quit the job.
Oh, yeah, I mean, I didn’t really quit. I pretended like I was leaving New York. I don’t think he cared. I acted like that was the plan all along.
Are you leaving? she asked.
I don’t think so, no, Chester said. I’m not going home now, there’s only a month left in the summer.
How’s Jeremy? she asked.
I don’t know, I never really talk to him. He isn’t here that much.
Oh, weird, she said.
Yeah, he said. I feel better though. I felt like an asshole the whole time I was working for your dad.
She didn’t say anything.
It’s not your fault, I just felt weird working there. It was obvious no one wanted me there. It was stupid, he sighed.
Yeah, I know, she said.
Are you doing anything later? he asked.
I don’t know, she said.
Well, call me if you to hang out, he said. I gotta go.
Two weeks later Chester was out late, drinking with some friends from Bartham who were also spending the summer in Brooklyn. He took the G train home and got back around five. As he walked up the steps to his building he saw an unfamiliar figure below him, going through the garbage.
Hey! It was a woman who shouted at him. You live with Jeremy?
Um, yes, he said, stopping in the middle of the stairs.
I’m the landlord, she said. I thought I’d seen you around. Tell Jeremy he needs to talk to me. He’s been avoiding me.
Uh, ok, he said.
He hasn’t paid rent in two months, she said. And when I come by he doesn’t answer the doorbell. Do you know this? He owes me four thousand dollars. I don’t know how much you are paying. I’m starting the eviction papers though. I don’t mean for you, but you’re not on the lease, so I can’t do anything.
Jeez, he said, I’m sorry. I had no idea.
You tell him to talk to me, ok?
Ok, I will. Sorry ma’am.
It’s probably going to be okay, Laila said, she might just be crazy. You should just talk to Jeremy. Anyway, it takes forever to actually get an eviction, like at least a few months. All the laws favor the tenants over the landlords.
Okay, Chester said. He was sitting on the still hot sidewalk, around the corner of his building. I just got really nervous. Sorry it’s so late, I just didn’t know what else to do. It’s really good to hear your voice. Man. What the fuck man.
You’re going to be fine.
I know, but I already paid him for the three months and a security deposit. If he gets evicted I’ll lose twelve-hundred fucking dollars.
Well, if he’s not paying the rent, he’s probably not going to give you back the security deposit. The landlord sounds crazy anyway. Listen, do you want me to come over? I have some pot. I’m not really doing anything.
Really? It’s like five in the morning.
Yeah, I’d like to see you.
Uh, okay. Yeah, I could smoke some pot. Do you think it will be weird? I mean, I haven’t seen you for like a month really.
Do you want me to come or not?
Yeah, I do.
Okay, I’ll be there in a little while.
He lay back on his bed. He heard the front door open, and footsteps walk down the hall, and then Jeremy’s bedroom door shut. He sighed. He didn’t feel like talking to Jeremy at all. He no longer really felt like talking to anyone. He pictured Laila walking through the door, and though he couldn’t tell if he really wanted to see her, the thought of seeing her face made him smile. He had never figured out what the deal with her and her father was. Whenever he asked she would get quiet and annoyed. I wonder if I’ll ever know anything about her? he thought. He knew she was Irish, and Egyptian, which meant a lot more to him now than it had in October the year before. She likes me because I’m loud and act stupid, he thought. She never talks. It made sense, somehow. But what if trying to understand her would only drive her away?
ContributorOwen Byron Roberts
Owen Byron Roberts is a writer based in Brooklyn.