Nedda Alammar is a second year MFA student in nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College, and writes predominantly about the first-generation American experience. She earned her BA in American History from Barnard College of Columbia University. She was a featured panelist in the 2005 War on Iraq panel discussion along with NJ Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, as well as a participant in the Arab-American Youth Conference in Washington DC in 2008. Her nonfiction piece, “Come Again?”, appeared in the MacGuffin’s Spring 2009 issue.
When I was growing up, my parents hated the idea of me driving. Anywhere. If I ever asked my parents to borrow the car, they would say, “But we just got home!” as if they were my chauffeurs bothered on their lunch break. Me driving alone was like a death sentence. Why would I need to drive? I don’t work, the kitchen is full of food. Why would I worry my parents? Did I want them to die? So I’d steal their keys and take the car anyway. “I just want a liiiife!” I’d cry to them as they’d chastise me for auto theft. My older sister Sura was treated the same way. But she was fine with it. I think she preferred a driver.
My parents’ excuse to Sura and I was that the world was a dangerous place. But as time went on, they changed their ways. My younger sister Luna got a car. She could do anything, which to the joy of my parents was Pictionary at a friend’s house. I enviously watched Luna enjoy her non-illicit teenage freedom; it was easy for me to do so since at the time I was living right next door to her in the flowered wall papered room I grew up in.
I was twenty-two years old, newly graduated from Barnard, commuting to New York City for a job buying commercial airtime. My true forte was buying time until I found my true passion in life. One’s work is the only important thing in life, my dad always said. And I was saving money until I found my real work. Maybe New Jersey could be fun on the weekends. TGI Fridays isn’t that bad.
But my parents thought it was, for why else would I ignore their phone calls of ‘It’s already 10 o’clock! Crazy people are out on the road! You will die!’ Sura was living in London for graduate school, or business school. It was some school that she attended on her own courtesy of London’s tube. And for the first time, I was jealous of her. The only tube I had was to the toothpaste Luna and I shared every morning before she drove herself to school.
Every morning my father would drop me off in the commuter parking lot for my workday in the city and every night he would pick me up. I longed to drive myself. I wanted to get up in the morning without my mother sticking her finger under my nose to see if I was breathing, I wanted to leave at whatever time I wanted without someone asking me “When do want to leave?” I wanted to put the key in the ignition and feel that I could go anywhere, like how I used in high school (even though it wasn’t my key or my ignition, it was my friends) But that wasn’t not possible now, my younger sister needed a car more than I did, apparently. And so my father officially became what I never wanted anyone to be: completely in charge of me.
He knew my rules: Never send mom and Never speak to me during the ride. I liked it just like that. And he complied. My father gave me my five minutes I could feel like an adult, just driving home from a hard day of trying not to do any work. With my dad sitting next to me driving, I could be on my own.
However one night, he slipped up.
“Ned? Ned? You ok? Are you drunk?” asked a head peeking out of the car window. Her red hair lit up the night like firecrackers.
“Geez, Mom,” I said , “Why are you here?”
“She wanted to come. She said, ‘I have to come!’ ” Dad claimed.
“Ish Mansur! I can come wherever I want! It’s late, what if some snatches her, you are sitting there, just sitting there, not knowing anything!”
“Oh God. I’m not sixteen, ” I said crawling into the backseat, still tipsy from the 2 for 1 jello shots I’d taken earlier at the bar. My father pulled away from the lot. I was amidst a heavy sigh when I heard the car door open.
“Fine you don’t want me? Fine! Let me out!” said my mother, queen of the ultimatum.
“No, Mom,” I pleaded. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, I’m just… tired.” The car door slammed shut. I was saved.
Driving through the quiet New Jersey suburban town, I realized something. I couldn’t escape them.
No matter how much I ignored their you-will-die-if-you-breathe-too-much mentality, no matter how many after work parties I went to, no matter how often I stayed sequestered in my room watching reruns of ER, they would always be there, waiting. Probably with food. I couldn’t escape the fact that I had a mom who purchased talking stuffed animals because they don’t fight with her like we do, who would cry out murder! if we didn’t answer our cell phones the minute she called, and that my father perpetuated her paranoia, for if they lost their children, whom would they have?
I had to act. I had to get out of their world. But it was going to be tough. They were my ride.
My parents banked on the idea that if they stopped us from driving, they’d stop us from dating. When my sisters and I went off to college, Dad finally gave us the TALK. He spoke of Arab boys, “Stay away from them, what you call them, F-O-B-s. Yes, fresh off the boat. You will be married tomorrow and sit home and make babies.” My sisters and I had our defenses set up against Arab boys, but couldn’t test them since the only ones we knew were our fake cousins in Staten Island and that’s just gross. So I looked to my older sister. She was the first to use her freedom, but she failed miserably, dating men not turned on by her ability to correct their vocabulary. When Sura blamed my mother for not addressing boys during her adolescence thus propelling her into spinsterhood, mom retorted, “Back home we don’t talk about these things!” while watching Sex and the City with one eye open. While my track record included handsome Italian men from Long Island who regaled me with sake bombs and displays of physical attraction in bathroom stalls, I didn’t blame my parents. So neither did Luna. I always knew they were less open than others. And by less open, I mean completely closed. Really, what did they know?
In Iraq, mating is –you see, you like, you marry. In the case study of my parents, my dad was working at the Atomic Energy Commission when he saw a pretty young chemist tying her shoelaces. In between her experiments and his responsibilities as head of the Nuclear Reactor, they would eat lunch with about twenty or so other scientists and have plenty indirect conversation. Soon they decided to marry. Dad then sent the women in his family to my mother’s house so they could check her out. After a resounding, “Oh yes, she’s pretty enough for you!” dad and his uncles went to mom’s house with his paycheck to show her father that he was not a bum. During this stage, my mom and her aunts hid behind a curtain in the kitchen, anxiously awaiting the outcome. When dad was approved, all the women giggled in excitement, still from behind the curtain, while the men drank scotch and criticized their government and economy. Luckily, such freedom of speech was allowed, since it was 1972, pre-height of the Ba’ath party. Although after the Ba’ath took over, people faked their opinions so as to avoid untimely death; but the women still giggled from behind the curtain.
Mating in the States, I eventually taught my parents, was different.
Tom Cecil was my coworker whose outgoing personality that made up for his girth. He often talked about being Irish, perpetually dressed in Casual Friday attire, and laughed easily, making our superiors feel humorous and magnetic. He was a rising star. I never dated anyone so smooth.
I spent many bacon filled nights in the pub/restaurants of the Upper East Side hearing about Tom’s college life in Wheeling, West Virginia; a place where people didn’t wear shoes and drank Coors Light in forests. I was mesmerized. Such nights included battery – operated candlelight, tables with padded seating and wheat beer. I observed all the other couples, chatting, nodding, or simply just staring at their plates, eating. They looked happy. Finally. My people.
Within weeks, our rendezvous became routine. This routine inspired my parents to leave a car in the commuter lot for me to pick up and drive home all by myself. Tom Cecil, in pursuit of my heart, gave me the one thing I’d been aching for: freedom. When Tom Cecil professed his love for me, it shook me to my core. I knew I could be free for awhile. It wasn’t long before I met the Cecil family.
I didn’t quite know how to prepare for this, for I never spent much time with anyone else’s family but my own. Throughout my childhood, my parents adopted an isolationist mentality. My mom didn’t do so much as borrow a cup of sugar. “Why we borrow, we’re not poor!” The only people who came unannounced were Girl Scouts, and Sura usually fielded them due to her propensity for baked goods. And we hardly went out to dinner. “My food is better than outside! Why don’t you like my food? What’s wrong with my food?” mom would say. But my parents weren’t always this way. I heard when they first got married, they went to bars with actual people, and had conversation, and even belonged to a social club where mom learned to flip a lit cigarette in her mouth. But that was back in Iraq.
The Cecils were different. The Cecils were Bradys of the Upper East Side. Although Tom, like me, lived at home with his family, he was chipper and not suicidal. The Cecils had a restaurant that knew them, a beach club in fancy Long Beach Island, and even sat front row at Michael Jackson concert. The Cecils were cool. Friday nights at the Cecils, the men drank beer while Mrs. Cecil cut up bits of this mysterious meat called ‘salami’ into perfectly round circles and cheese into perfect tiny little squares. At my house, my sisters and I drank lukewarm diet caffeine free Shasta and fought over the remote waiting for my parents to come home from work. As I joined the Cecils on their pointy furniture laughing at their deliberate jokes, I wondered, “Why isn’t anyone fighting?” Calmness, I decided was a nice change.
Our romance conveniently crystallized during bathing suit season, which meant only one thing: Weekends at the beach club. Each weekend of the summer, I would spend the night in his family’s apartment and in the morning we’d pack the car and off we’d go, out of the city heat and into the beach paradise. Although once we’d arrive, I’d grab Tom’s three-year-old niece and migrate to the kiddy pool where I could feel the floor. Swimming was not my forte. My parents have a big backyard, but never once did they consider a pool: “If you fall in, you die!” The few times we went to the beach on family vacations, my mother’s voice would rip through the crowds. “Ned! It’s too far! Come back!” as I’d be dipping my toe. For the most part, my family spent the summers just like the winters, sitting around watching television, eating and fighting over the remote for cardio activity. I’d babysit Luna while our parents were at work and Sura would be on her tenth round of reading Nicholas and Alexandra, with no car amongst us, no experience of living beyond our house that embodied all the holidays and had all the food. Why leave?
As my summer with the Cecils came to a close, I decided it was time for Tom to come to New Jersey and meet my family, even though never had a boyfriend stepped into our house. But I decided parents needed to wake up and realize they had another adult living under their roof. The days of stalking me at TGI Fridays were over.