“Jesus Christ!,” I shrieked when I saw the person in the elevator.
It was my Egyptian neighbor, Ali. He lived on my floor with his family. I didn’t know him well, but I was fond of his three children. Ali’s oldest boy was one of the top Eagle scouts in the Tri-State area. When he wasn’t scouting or in school, he ran errands for the little old Cuban ladies in the building. Ali’s younger son was maybe six years old. He was a cute little pain in the butt. He’d been known to sneak out of his apartment to knock on my door to ask to pet Bethel, who hated children. I’d had to return him to his family more than once. The little girl was three or four. She was mainly just adorable, when I saw her with her mother in the elevator.
I knew considerably less about Ali than I knew about his children. He obviously made a good living, because everyone was always well dressed, clean, and healthy looking. I knew he was a Muslim, because I’d made the mistake of talking to him in the elevator once when he was praying. He was nice about explaining to me that he’d been silently praying, but I’d gotten the message and the message was, “Talking to me is something you may not be allowed to do at any given time, so best to just nod and smile.”
“Oh my God, Ali, you scared the shit out of us.” I leaned against the wall and tried to catch my breath.
“During times like these, you take your God’s name in vain and curse,” Ali observed.
“Ah. Yeah. I’m sorry,” I said, lamely.
“It is not me you should apologize to,” Ali snapped. His eyes flashed hell fire at me. Then, he softened. “I know you were gone for a while, and now you are back. I wanted to know if you have news. I heard you leave your apartment, and I followed. I do not want my family to hear what you say, if it is bad.”
“It’s pretty bad,” I admitted. I filled Ali in a little on conditions downtown, telling him some of the things we had seen and heard. It was the short short version. I left out witches and lesbians and peep shows and Mike murdering the old lady.
“So there is no rescue taking place downtown,” he mused. “I thought perhaps that the rescue was beginning there and we had only to wait our turn. Now I see that is not so.” He was silent for a moment, then he asked, “Why is it that you came back to Washington Heights, Marina? Is there something you came back for?”
I took a deep breath and told Ali what I hadn’t told any people, outside of our immediate group. “We are going to try to get across the Hudson River, to New Jersey.”
“That will be quite the feat, Marina,” Ali laughed grimly. “We’ve all tried to get across the George Washington Bridge. At first, people were turned away by soldiers. Then, many workers cleared all of the cars away and built metal frameworks, sharp like razors, on all of the levels of the bridge. Anyone who is determined enough to climb over them or get through them will bleed to death before they make it all of the way across the bridge. If by some miracle of Allah they don’t bleed to death, they will be shot before they step into New Jersey.”
“That’s fine,” I said, feeling totally full of bravado and bullshit. “We never planned to use the bridge.”
“You are going to swim?,” Ali laughed.
“No, we aren’t going to swim,” I said. “We have another plan.”
“OK,” Ali said, still laughing. “You have always been silly. Living with that woman and that little unclean dog. But, you do not stop, and that shows your convictions give you some kind of strength. So, when you go, I want you to take my daughter with you.”
“Your daughter. The little girl.” I was seriously taken aback by this.
“Yes. It is the duty of my sons and my wife to stay with the family. My daughter has no duty.” Ali let go of the elevator door, pushed the button, and left us in the basement while he returned to our floor alone.