By Patty Somlo
The afternoon following his mother’s arrival, Hamid dragged the faded green chair out and set it in front of the window. Hamid had pulled the same chair over to the window two years before, after returning from the airport, his mother in the passenger seat and boxes of her spices and cooking implements stored in the trunk. From her numerous prior visits, Hamid knew his mother had no interest in seeing the sights. To keep her occupied while he tended the store, Hamid walked her over to the faded green chair, where she could watch all the people she didn’t know pass by.
As he’d done many times, Hamid had attempted to convince his mother not to come.
“It’s such a long flight,” he argued over the phone. “I will come see you instead.”
His mother knew he was lying.
“Even if I die,” she argued back, “you will not come.”
Hamid hated to admit that his mother was right; the truth was quite the opposite. If his mother died, he would go back. At least for a visit. It was his mother he’d been avoiding all these years, so he wouldn’t be subjected to her never-ending harangue that he should marry and have children. By now, he’d hoped she would have given in, and accepted that with this one child, she wasn’t going to get her way. But after more than two decades, she still persisted. The visits were her way of making the point, again and again and again.
If asked, Hamid might have said he’d never met the right woman. Some days, he imagined closing the market’s door, turning the lock, and flipping the closed sign to face outside. He would next drag the tall wooden stool from behind the counter and set it across from his mother. Taking a seat, he would describe some first dates he’d gone on, since coming to the United States and settling in San Francisco. He would shock her with the price of a meal at a good restaurant, the need to impress the woman on many levels, and how exhausting he found the whole business. Before long, he would switch to a different subject, the endless work to keep the market stocked and staffed, making sure his mother grasped that being open early in the morning and late at night made all the difference for success.
At some point, Hamid knew. All the talk in the world wouldn’t convince her. He knew, because after all these years, he hadn’t convinced himself. As much as he wanted to believe his work got in the way or he couldn’t afford to pursue a serious romantic relationship leading to marriage and children, or simply that the right woman hadn’t drifted into his life, he had to face the fact. Every single woman he’d wanted hadn’t wanted him back.
Of course, he understood that even this revelation wouldn’t have satisfied his mother. In her world, women didn’t choose men, or the reverse. Parents chose, and sons and daughters made the best of it. Hamid couldn’t explain to his mother that he’d come to America because he wanted to choose. It’s my life, he often silently argued with his absent mother, and I should do with it what I wish.
As much as he’d worked to avoid a certain life, Hamid had so far failed to create a replacement. What he had gotten was this small, crowded convenience store. When he bought the store twenty years ago, Hamid chose to keep the name, Pacific Market, and stocked it with similar products to those the previous owner sold. The market’s front door opened across from a streetcar stop, where commuters stepped down every evening after five o’clock. Regular customers dashed in after work for bottles of wine, of which Hamid carried an extensive stock, from small California vintners. Others of the regulars came early, picking up coffee and fresh-baked breakfast rolls, delivered just after Hamid opened at six o’clock. A few wandered in around noon, to buy pre-made sandwiches and sodas.
Hamid looked forward to the regulars’ visits, since many of them leaned on him for a friendly ear, or in some cases, advice. Lost jobs, or problems with a difficult boss, were thrown at him, and he counseled patience, as opposed to rash decisions that might feel good in the moment but be regretted later on. Relationship issues were raised, and in this area, he did feel awkward giving advice. But he gave it anyway.
The regulars were familiar with Hamid’s mother, since most had been introduced to her on previous visits. Several customers lived in the apartment buildings that lined the north side of Sixteenth Street, including Sarah Miles, who might have been Hamid’s favorite. He liked that Sarah made an effort to engage his mother, even though she got little in response.
While she never appeared happy to her son, Hamid’s mother looked even less so this visit. The first morning after walking her over to the window, Hamid left to get her a cup of tea. He kept several thin porcelain cups for her behind the counter, since she refused to drink from the Styrofoam ones Hamid gave his customers. He brought the tea cup resting on its matching flowered saucer to the window and set it atop a small square table he’d placed next to her chair. Then he squatted down and asked, “Are you feeling all right?”
Hamid’s mother had her head down, and he couldn’t see her eyes. She raised her head now. Tightly knotted under her chin, a bright-colored scarf hid the sides of her face and outside corners of her eyes. Hamid could see, though, how lined his mother’s face had become. He wondered how much longer she might live. She had survived her husband by more than a decade, but for the first time, Hamid wondered if this might be her last visit.
He watched as tears ran from her eyes, dripping onto her thin upper lip.
“What is it?” he asked.
She didn’t say a word. Hamid pulled a clean white handkerchief from his pocket, slid his index finger underneath, and used it to dry his mother’s tears.
“Why are you crying, mother?”
At that moment, the bell over the market’s front door jingled.
“Good morning, Hamid,” a female voice said.
Hamid stood up and turned around.
“Oh, your mother is back,” Sarah Miles said, closing the door and stepping close to the window.
“Hello, good morning,” she greeted Hamid’s mother.
Sarah’s dark brown hair, brightened with streaks of red, was hidden under a snug black beret. She was clad all in black, everything fitting close to her slender frame. She smiled at Hamid, and his mood brightened.
“Is your mother all right?” Sarah asked.
Hamid considered how to respond. His mother didn’t understand English, so he wasn’t worried about what she might hear. But he normally hid private thoughts from his customers.
Seeing the look of concern on Sarah’s face, Hamid admitted, “I don’t know. She just started crying.”
He shook his head.
“She’s never been a happy woman,” Hamid went on to reveal. “She comes to visit but then makes me feel like this is the last place she wants to be.”
Sarah kept her gaze on Hamid’s face. She had always assumed he was content with his life. His mother’s visits seemed to indicate a closeness Sarah had never managed with her mom.
“Can I speak to her?” Sarah asked, stepping closer to the woman whose head was lowered, as if she were sleeping.
“She doesn’t understand any English. What do you want to say?”
“I don’t know. I just thought I’d say something kind. Can you translate for me?”
“Sure, sure,” he said.
He tapped his mother’s shoulder and said something to her in Arabic.
His mother raised her head and looked from Hamid to Sarah and back again.
“Ask her if there’s anything I can do for her. Ask if she’s feeling okay.”
Hamid nodded, then translated Sarah’s questions.
As soon as he was done, his mother looked at her son, then up at Sarah, and back again at Hamid. Finally, she spoke.
“What did she say?” Sarah asked.
Hamid laughed. “You don’t want to know.”
“No. I do want to know.”
Hamid shook his head. “She wanted to know if you’re my girlfriend.”
Hamid waited for Sarah’s laugh. Instead, in all seriousness, she said, “Tell her I am.”
Hamid waited for Sarah to shrug off the crazy notion. But she didn’t. As he looked at her, he realized that, yes, he had always found her attractive, and also friendly and nice. At the same time, he had put her in a category of women he’d never consider asking out. She was, Hamid realized, far too something. Too sure of herself. Too independent. Too, oh, he didn’t know, except she would never have been interested in the boring owner of a convenience store, who spent his days stocking shelves and thinking about what new snacks might be better sellers than the old snacks no one seemed to buy.
“You haven’t told her,” Sarah said, breaking into Hamid’s thoughts.
Hamid smiled. “I don’t want to lie. She will know and that will make everything worse.”
“What will be worse?” Sarah asked.
Hamid realized he had stepped into a situation where he could no longer hide. Every time Sarah opened her mouth, she ripped away a layer of Hamid’s protection.
“What will be worse?” Sarah asked again, after Hamid let the question hang in the air, hoping Sarah might let it pass.
“I guess,” Hamid began, trying to find words. “I guess it would be worse if she actually had expectations.”
Once the words were out, Hamid felt relieved. He hoped his answer satisfied Sarah, even though he couldn’t figure out what he wanted from this woman, now that he was having trouble putting her back in the box with his regular customers.
“Sorry to be so dense, or pushy, but what sort of expectations?” she asked.
Hamid took a deep breath. What a long tale he might launch into, if they had hours, and he was prepared to open up to this woman, who was really a stranger and shouldn’t be asking such questions. There was a life back home, he would be forced to begin, that he had been expected to follow. Did Sarah know anything about such things, he would demand, what the oldest son in a Palestinian family owed his parents and younger siblings? He had escaped to America, abandoning that life, but his mother kept trying to pull him back. Letting her think this was possible, that Hamid would marry and give her grandchildren, was something he refused to permit.
“Oh, nothing really,” Hamid finally responded. “Nothing. I don’t know why I said that.”
It was past time to shift the conversation to a safer subject.
“You needed something?” he asked Sarah. “You didn’t just come to talk to my mother.”
The unexpected turn in the conversation had made Sarah almost forget why she’d come. She had walked to the market from her flat on Sixteenth Street, to buy a bottle of wine. Several tenants in her building had decided to gather on the roof, to toast one of their neighbors who’d just gotten a promotion. Though she prided herself on being honest, and sometimes quite blunt, Sarah was surprised at how she’d spoken to Hamid. He was always kind to her, and sometimes joked, but had a reserve that kept Sarah’s normally over-friendly, and even pushy, manner in check.
She had never considered Hamid anything more than a friendly acquaintance, like the guys who checked her into the gym. While she’d shopped in the Pacific Market for years, she had never once asked Hamid about his life. She knew his mother came to visit, from some place in the Middle East, but she hadn’t bothered to ask where that place might be.
“Oh, I just came in for some wine,” she said, looking at Hamid as he moved across the crowded little shop toward the counter.
He was, she realized, younger than she’d assumed, probably in his early forties. For some time, she had known that Hamid was Palestinian. Like many of her friends, she had lived in a number of different San Francisco neighborhoods, and they all had these small corner stores. She had come to know that the owners were mostly immigrants, either Chinese, Indian or Palestinian.
For the first time, Sarah looked at Hamid, as if she were meeting him at a party or a bar, though she couldn’t imagine him in either situation. He had a handsome face, with large, dark brown eyes. She’d always loved his warm smile and easy laugh. His hair was thick and black, though he could have used a hipper haircut. The same could be said for his conservative clothes, a pale blue Oxford shirt, the sleeves folded just below his elbows, tucked into pressed dark blue jeans.
Hamid raised his eyes and met Sarah’s gaze. In that moment, her cheeks warmed. He was a good-looking guy. How had she, a single woman always on the lookout, not noticed?
Hamid turned away, moments after their gaze locked.
“Do you know what you want?” he asked Sarah.
Heat rose to Sarah’s cheeks again, as she imagined Hamid was referring to something more intimate than wine.
“We’ve gotten a few California wines in, from some smaller vineyards,” he offered. “I can pull some of those out for you, if you’d like.”
Sarah nodded, uncharacteristically tongue-tied. She watched Hamid walk a few aisles over, to the center of the store. From the little he’d said after his mother asked if Sarah was his girlfriend, Sarah couldn’t have guessed if Hamid was married, involved with a woman, or single.
Curious to know, she followed him over to the wine. When she joined him, he handed her several bottles of red and one of white.
“I’m not a wine drinker,” he confessed. “But these have all won awards.”
He was, she could see, carefully avoiding her gaze.
As much as she wanted to ask Hamid about his life, something stopped her. Though she knew Hamid’s mother didn’t understand English, she still felt it would be rude to have a more personal conversation in front of her. Instead, she silently vowed to come back one day and get to know him better.
Only days after Sarah’s visit to the Pacific Market, Hamid’s mother vanished from the front of the store. Earlier that afternoon, the elderly woman had suddenly fallen from her chair, unable to speak or move. Hamid hurried over, lifted her up, and asked, “Mother. What’s wrong,” to which she didn’t respond.
He left her in the chair and dashed to the corner, where he’d parked. After pulling up in front and helping his mother out to the car, he sped to the nearest hospital.
Thankfully, the wait in the emergency room was short. Following an examination and several tests, the emergency room physician told Hamid that it appeared his mother had suffered a stroke. They wanted to keep her in the hospital overnight.
The next morning, the doctor told Hamid they would release his mother in several hours. The stroke was mild, he explained, with no permanent damage. However, he regretted to say, this would probably not be the last. She might have another stroke at any time.
As soon as she was released from the hospital, Hamid’s mother insisted that her son get her booked on a flight back home.
“I do not want to die in this country,” she said.
“You are not going to die, mother,” Hamid responded.
Even though Hamid had discouraged his mother’s visit, he now wanted her to stay. In San Francisco, she could get good care, especially if the doctor’s prediction proved right. She was adamant about leaving, though. The one thing Hamid wouldn’t agree to, was to let her fly home alone.
Sarah stood on the sidewalk, staring at the closed sign on the Pacific Market’s door. She had walked to the market, thinking about the store owner, who she hadn’t seen for over a month. Her plan was to stop in the store and pick out several bottles of wine, then invite Hamid to a party the tenants were having the following night, in the building’s rooftop garden. She still didn’t know a thing about his life but figured the invitation would be a way to open the door.
Since there was no indication of when Hamid might return, Sarah figured she’d wait. How much longer could he be?
Fifteen minutes passed, but he didn’t return. Sarah looked around. Maybe he’d gone to one of the restaurants for something to eat. She let her gaze sweep up to the corner of Church and Market, spotting a few people walking, but none looked like Hamid. Then she turned in the other direction, noticing a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk with his cardboard sign. No Hamid in that direction either.
Just when she decided it might be better to come back later, a young Asian guy walked past, then stopped and turned around.
“You waiting for the store to open?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sarah answered.
“It’s been closed for about a month,” he said. “Mr. Wong, who owns the market on the other corner, said the owner went back home. To take care of his mother.”
“Oh,” Sarah said. “Any idea when he’s coming back?”
“No. No idea. Don’t think Mr. Wong knows either.”
Unbeknownst to Sarah, the week before, Hamid had gotten off the phone with a realtor, after a lengthy conversation about the market. For several weeks since his mother’s funeral, Hamid had thought deeply about his life. Away from the store, Hamid had discovered something surprising. He didn’t miss his life. He went over the routine of his days, rising before the sun came up, dressing and drinking coffee, then stepping out into a day thick with frigid fog, and driving to the market. Even when he’d mentally followed his day to the stopping in of regular customers for coffee and a donut, chatting and laughing with each one, he didn’t experience the least bit of longing, to be sitting on the tall stool, overlooking the kingdom of his store.
He went ahead and accepted a generous offer on the store, followed by a separate deal on his house. Once both sales moved into escrow, Hamid boarded a plane destined for London, where he caught a second flight to San Francisco.
Back at his San Francisco home, he retrieved documents and not much more, watching as two well-built guys from the Salvation Army carried his furniture out to their truck. Afterwards, they hauled out cardboard boxes filled with dishes and cups. When they were done, Hamid made his way over to the store.
In a few days, the market would belong to another man, with a name suggesting he might have immigrated from India. Hamid paused on the sidewalk, debating whether he ought to go in or not. The morning fog had burned off, and the sky was the bluest blue Hamid thought he’d ever seen. He hadn’t appreciated this sky enough in all the years he lived here, and suddenly decided he would miss it.
As he waited on the sidewalk, Hamid closed his eyes, picturing the layout of the market, recalling the attention he had paid to the arrangement of products, each morning refilling shelves and moving displays, to better catch his customers’ attention. He opened his eyes, still not sure if he wanted to go in one last time, when a woman passed on the sidewalk, then stopped and turned around.
“Is that Hamid?” she asked.
Hamid had agreed to join Sarah for a glass of wine, once he stopped in the store and grabbed any papers or personal items he wanted. He never drank alcohol, of course, and it seemed too early in the day, even if he had. He spotted Sarah as he got close to the café, sitting at a small black wrought iron table on the patio. As Hamid looked around at the other patrons, gathered here and there in twos or larger groups, he wondered why he had never hired someone to assist him at the store, so he could enjoy an afternoon like this, sipping wine on a patio with a beautiful woman.
“I heard you went home,” Sarah said, after they’d ordered and the waiter walked away.
Before he had a chance to speak, she said, “Where is home, by the way?”
Hamid heard Sarah’s words and suddenly felt a burning ache in his throat. Not so very long ago, before his mother arrived for what would be her last visit, Hamid would have said, “Right here,” and pointed down the street to his store. “Home is here.”
But now that he’d given up the store and the house where he’d gotten up each morning, thinking about the endless tasks that would keep him occupied for hours, he didn’t have an answer. He looked around at the people on the patio, most appearing younger than him by a decade or more, and he knew that this was not his home, at least he’d never made it so.
“Did you hear me, Hamid?” Sarah asked, as the waiter set a glass of wine in front of her and tea in front of Hamid.
As the waiter walked away, Hamid said, “Yes. I heard you.”
Then he leaned close and said, “My answer to your question is I don’t know. I guess that is what I am about to find out.”
Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.