I Say Falafel, You Say Calzone
For the most part their stories matched. Their car didn’t have any brakes. Where they lived, on the corner of Vermont and Mariposa in Potrero Hill, it was hard to get around in a car without brakes. They both agreed on this. He explained to me how they did it, how they’d stop at Division and time the stoplights going up the hill, how if they left three seconds after the first light turned green and didn’t stop for traffic, they could make it all the way up Rhode Island without stopping, just using the clutch. They’d never had to stop, he said, and even now, even after what happened, I could tell he was proud to tell me this.
Maria was Roman Catholic and Samer was Lebanese, and I suppose a relationship like that is bound from the start to have its share of disagreements, and not just about God and Church and a woman’s place. Food, they both agreed, was a major source of contention. “There isn’t much in common between Italian and Lebanese cuisine,” Samer told me. “In Lebanon our diet is considered one of the healthiest in the world. In Italy,” he shrugged. “All they eat is starch and cheese.”
As would be expected, Maria had her own opinion on the matter. “All the chickpeas and lentils and tahini give me the gas,” she’d say. “They give him the gas too.”
It was the third week of Ramadan, and just like approximately sixty percent of all Lebanese, Samer was Muslim. The sun had just set and he was hungry. They both agreed that he could become cranky when he was hungry and they both agreed that Maria became impatient when he was cranky. It was agreed that the best solution would be to get Samer some food but they couldn’t agree what kind of food to get him. Being Italian, Maria suggested Italian food, but Samer said he desired falafel.
She knew what falafel would do to his stomach after a day of fasting, and he knew that a calzone tonight would only make observing the fast tomorrow that much harder. He became cranky. She became impatient. They argued. This they both agree on. He called her an infidel and she called him a zealot.
“She has no respect for anything other than herself,” Samer said. “She is base, stubborn, but she also loves me very much. In the end we had falafel.”
“You can’t reason with a Muslim,” said Maria. “You have to reason with the man. Lucky for me this man loves me very much, and in the end he gave in.”
According to Maria, they drove down De Haro Street to Alameda and Gaspare’s Pizza House and Italian Restaurant. According to Samer, they drove down Carolina Street to Hooper and Abu Marrakesh. By both accounts, they came back up Rhode Island Street, stopped at the light on Division, and three seconds after the light turned green began driving up the hill.
Samer was driving. Maria never drove because she didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. “Maybe if we ever move to Iowa I’ll learn,” she said. Samer was driving, and Maria was holding whatever kind of food they’d bought in her lap. They were just coming up to Seventeenth where the grade begins to really steepen and Samer had punched the gas to compensate. Suddenly a car pulled out of its parking spot and Samer swerved to miss it, swerved into a pedestrian just stepping off the curb.
In reflex Samer punched the brake but it was too late, there was a thump and a scrape and a clang as the side of the car hit the fire hydrant, and even though there was no brake the car began to slow, the units of force began to drop off, and Samer realized that if he didn’t press the gas their momentum would eventually fall to nothing and they’d start rolling back down the hill. This was how he explained it, as if every decision is simply a choice between two contrasting options: up or down, left or right, love or hate, falafel or calzone.
Unlike the general opinion by some of many Lebanese Muslims, Samer was not an especially violent or aggressive person. In fact, in his whole life he’d never hit anyone before, and certainly not with a car. Of course he hadn’t gotten a very good look at the person he hit because if he’d gotten a good look chances are he probably wouldn’t have hit them. He’d seen enough to see that it was a woman however; a flash of thigh-high skin too high and smooth and fine to belong to any man. His heart was filled with shame, and there was no pedal working to stop it because the only pedal working was to go.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” whispered Maria, crossing herself for the first time since she was a little girl in Fresno. Samer cursed, in Lebanese, for the first time since he was a teenager in Beirut. “Cuss oukhtel hayat!” he said. In the rearview mirror, he could just see the strap of a handbag lying in the middle of the road.
They drove home, parked in front of their apartment, and walked back to where the accident had taken place. “Why hadn’t we walked down to the restaurant in the first place?” he asked later. “It was cold but it was only ten blocks. I could have used the exercise. I could have worn a jacket. Why don’t I walk more? Why does everyone always have to drive?”
I took them about fifteen minutes to return to the scene of the accident, by which time the woman had gone. Certainly not long enough for the ambulance—or the coroner—to come pick her up, pick up the body. They looked around. They couldn’t believe it. Had they dreamed it? Had they both had the same dream? Had it all been a figment of their imagination? No, there had been a dent in the front of their car, a scrape along the side where they’d hit the fire hydrant. They’d scoured it for signs of blood or hair and there’d been no blood, no hair, just a dent that definitely hadn’t been there before.
That’s when they came to the police station. They took a cab. He said he wanted to turn himself in for the hit-and-run of an unidentified female on Potrero Hill. “No,” she said. “I want to turn myself in. After all,” she said, “it was my fault.” Being the unlucky bastard stuck with the job of manning the front desk, I smiled and walked back to check the reports. Bernstein was eating the last Danish. My stomach was grumbling. “Jesus Christ,” I muttered under my breath, because technically Bernstein was my superior, though only technically, and also he’s a Jew, and I know how they feel about blasphemy. “Couldn’t have left one for me, could you?”
When I came back, they were still arguing. “But if I’d given in, we would have gone to Gaspare’s,” he was saying. “We wouldn’t have taken Rhode Island up because it’s out of the way. We would have gone up Kansas Street.”
“But that’s exactly what we did!” she cried. “We went to Gaspare’s because that’s where I said we wanted to go, because you’re a sweet, loving husband and I always get my way, and then we went up Rhode Island and hit that poor woman!”
“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you say the accident occurred in Noe Valley?”
“No,” Samer shook his head. “Rhode Island Street.”
“Pacific Heights or the Richmond District?” I asked again.
“No. Rhode Island Street. Potrero Hill.”
“How about Downtown Polk?”
“We hit the woman on the corner of Seventeenth and Rhode Island in Potrero Hill,” said Maria. “That’s where it happened.”
“No you didn’t,” I said.
“You didn’t. At least not according to the reports. All we’ve got in Potrero Hill is an attempted robbery on the corner of Madera and Wisconsin Street and a domestic dispute across from McKinley Square. You didn’t attempt to rob a convenience store, did you?”
Samer shook his head. “Ya Allah,” he whispered. “Holy fuck,” said Maria. They wrote down their address and phone number and I took their statements in case anything came in, but nothing ever did. They went home. You would have thought they’d be pleased not to be arrested, but from the looks on their faces you would have thought their cat had just died. I guess they just both found it easier to ask for forgiveness than to forgive themselves, and by forgiveness I mean penance, atonement. I guess now they’re going to have to find a new kind of food to eat. A happy medium, maybe, with enough variation to make sure this kind of thing never happens again. Maybe Greek.
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Portland Fiction Project
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