Friday, March 7, 2014

A Chance Encounter

This is my original story chronicling how a Christmas holiday spent exploring NYC helped me cope with the emotional turmoil of leaving my home and family in Egypt after the Arab Spring.



A Chance Encounter
By: Amira Badawey
All my bags are packed I’m ready to go
I’m standing here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’ it’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’ he’s blowin’ his horn
Already I’m so lonesome I could die
So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe I hate to go

Leaving on a Jet Plan echoed in my head while I packed my life into two suitcases. I was preparing to leave my home, my family, my country and move to the US. I sorted through my belongings, selecting what to take. I wept, knowing that I’d be leaving behind loved ones, a lifetime of memories, and a future of dreams.

Hard work always pays off, or so we’re told. Study diligently and you are rewarded with high grades. Put in the time and effort at work and you get a promotion. Yet, a single incident can eradicate all the hard work and in a heartbeat you lose everything. One of the first phrases our parents teach us in Egypt is “In Shaa Allah”, if God is willing. Can you take us to the amusement park? In Shaa Allah. Can I get more allowance for doing the dishes? In Shaa Allah. We learn early on that we are not in control of our destinies, for everything is by God’s will. Nevertheless, we’re expected to strive at achieving life’s rewards. We must work tirelessly and maintain the patience of Job. When the coveted promotion goes to the boss’s inept nephew, people condole us with “God wasn’t willing for it to happen. He has something better in store for you.” When we lose everything we’ve worked for, all our hopes, all our reasons for being, it is God’s will. We are helpless. We can only pick ourselves up and start over, while thanking God for his mercy, for we are better off than others. Mourning our loss is a sin. “Do you object to God’s will?” we are accused, “This is a test. Patience and perseverance will get you through. God will reward you, if not in life, then in the afterlife.” We are programmed to endure hardship with a sliver of hope for a reward after death. 

Spring is a time for blossoming and prosperity. However, the Arab Spring hit Egypt like a hurricane, destroying everything in its path. The revolutionists wanted to dispose of the country in its entirety and start anew. The economy and every other domestic system crumbled with the crush of the political structure. The only form of communication to survive the tumultuous birth of democracy was argument. Everyone was fighting with everyone. If you didn’t wholeheartedly support the revolution, then you were against it. If you dared to criticize the situation, you were pinned with a scarlet letter of traitor, democracy hater. Egyptians only saw the world in black and white. White being their opinions and black was all the others, the naysayers. I had lost my country, my job and life savings were soon to follow. I sought refuge in leaving Egypt, while I still loved it. As I stepped off the plane at JFK with a tear stained heart, I was certain that I would fall apart after a few weeks. Yet, I survived the first year and was planning a vacation. 

For the past twenty years, I had been the good student, the obedient daughter and diligent employee. I was exhausted, always rushing to meet deadlines and working tirelessly to secure my career. I continuously did what I was supposed to do, when I was supposed to do it. And In the process, I became dull and humorless. I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed out loud, the last time I played hooky to go to the movies, or the last time I merely had fun for the sake of having fun. I decided to spend Christmas break in New York and enjoy myself as much as I could. Yet, solitary tourism was a grim notion. Not having someone to remind me of the memories, someone to smile with over the mishaps was disheartening. My insecurities about being a thirty-seven year old single woman unfolded. The thought of spending ten days with just me, and no other human contact, was daunting. Surprisingly, I received a message from a friend, Magdy, saying that he would be in Philadelphia for the holidays and might come into the city for a quick visit. 

***

On The night before the beginning of my vacation, I was as excited as a child on her first day of school. I woke up the next day with a smile on my face as I rushed through my morning routine, eager to get to the city as soon as possible and rendezvous with Magdy.

I arrived at Penn Station at 8:30 am. The streets weren’t yet littered with tourist. I leisurely walked around without fear of stumbling over sightseers. Hidden snuggly in my jacket was a faithful travel companion, my digital camera. I took it out and captured the memories for future returns. I photographed Macy’s window displays along 34th street, the statue at Herald Square, the Christmas tree at Bryant Park, Radio City Hall, the enormous holiday decorations lining 6th avenue, and the Cartier store disguised as a gold and red glittery gift. I spent the majority of the day roaming Rockefeller Plaza. I enjoyed chocolate dipped macaroons from Godiva. I browsed the merchandize at the NBC experience store, reminiscing about Seinfeld and Friends. I admired the Chinese silk tunics on display at the MET shop and scrutinized the overly priced Egyptian memorabilia. I obsessively glanced at my phone, checking for missed calls or text messages, although I knew there were none. “This is ridiculous”, I thought, “Am I expected to spend the entire day tethered to my phone, hoping it’ll ring?” I decided to call Magdy. I looked up the familiar number and dialed. The phone rang for a while and then it went to voice mail. I left a message, 

“Hi! This is Amira. I just wanted to let you know that I’m already in the city. So call me when you get in and we can meet up, . . . or whatever works for you. . . . um. Okay, looking forward to seeing you. Byeeee.” 

I wondered aimlessly around the Plaza. With nothing better to do, I decided to ascend Rockefeller Center to the Top of The Rock and observe Manhattan. 

It was a sunless New York winter day with clear skies. I could see as far as the George Washington Bridge. Forgetting my fear of heights, I surveyed the magnificent Manhattan horizon. It is always the unexpected that brings so much joy. If Magdy hadn’t stood me up, I would’ve missed the best view of New York City. I sat on a large leather bench and took in the sight. The sheer size of Central Park was overpowering. Although it looked more like a winter horror than wonder land, it was captivating. As I rode down the psychedelic elevator, I checked my phone. There were still no messages, but to my surprise almost ninety minutes had passed. My ticket included admissions to MoMA. I wasn’t sure if Magdy was coming. Ever the planner and always the hopeful, I convinced myself to call him one last time. There was no answer. I reached for my guidebook and headed north on 6th Ave in search of the modern arts.

I started on the last floor of MoMA and worked my way down. I looked at exhibits and paused on occasion to read the descriptive plaques. My heart wasn’t really into it, until I came across “The Scream”. I couldn’t stop staring at the painting. It was smaller than I expected, yet quite poignant in the expression of agony. The distorted face conveyed congealed shock, pain and fear. I could’ve been looking into a mirror. During my first year in New York, I was overwhelmed with the newness of the experience. I missed my family and the familiarity of little things like the metrics system and Celsius degrees. I missed Egyptian food I rarely ate but always had the convenience of consuming when I got the urge. I frequently ended in bed, crying and catching my breath between sobs. Washing away the tears, I was always surprised by the person staring back in the mirror. I didn’t recognize myself. I was a stranger. An old stranger agonizing over what the future might hold. “The Scream” evoked all those tearful nights.

Upon exiting MoMA, I walked straight to Penn station. It was early, not yet dark, but I had no desire to remain in Manhattan. I wasn’t hungry, despite only eating the macaroons. It’s amusing how things changed over the course of the day, how harshly they turned from sweet to sour, from light to dark. My feelings were dark, a mixture of blue sadness, black anger, and gray melancholy. I was homesick. I was lonely. I was angry for being homesick and lonely. As the train moved away from Manhattan and back to Long Island, my disposition darkened with the skies.

***

I had planned to see a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the next day, but I wasn’t in the mood. I decided to stay in and watch TV. The rest of the holiday wasn’t any better. Every morning, I forced myself to get out of bed, to get dressed and do something, anything. Every second, I forced myself to breathe in and breathe out.  I saw a couple of movies and I caught a cold. I went to an outlet mall seeking retail therapy to alleviate my somber trance, but to no avail. Each evening, I had dinner in bed and counted the days until the end of my self-induced sequester.

On the last Saturday, I had a ticket to see The Nutcracker. Lincoln Center was a vision out of the enchanted forest. Snowflakes cascaded onto the fountain and an animated toy train circled a large Christmas tree atop Avery Fisher Hall. I stood outside admiring the view. My mood lightened as I watched children catch snowflakes in their mouths and tourists pose for photographs. Entering the David E. Koch Theater, a smile emerged and remained plastered across my face throughout the entire performance. My joy didn’t deflate during intermission. Nestled squarely in the middle of a bank of seats, I was privy to the interactions of those around me. I sat in my place happily thumbing through the playbill and eavesdropping on their conversations. As the final act came to an end, I jumped out of my seat with jubilance and applauded with all my might. I understood why The Nutcracker was a cherished Christmas tradition and why families continue to attend the performance whether with their six year old daughters or grown sons. Clara and Fritz invite us to venture to their amazing dreamland, where gingerbread soldiers battle mice and little girls are crowned princesses of the Sugar Plums. A land we can revisit as often as we please as long as we hold the memory of The Nutcracker in our hearts. A land I was fortunate enough to witness in all the glory of the New York City Ballet.

I woke up the next day still basking in a dreamy state. My sadness, anguish and melancholy were fading, not so much for the imminent end of the vacation but rather the joyful aftertaste of The Nutcracker. I resolved to spend the day in my small town of Rockville Center, sleeping in, checking Facebook and Twitter, and eating at a local diner. 

One topic in particular was trending in the Egyptian Twitterverse that day. The country’s political unrest had devastatingly devalued the local currency. The elected government did nothing to rectify the situation. Instead, they adopted a passive attitude, blaming the old regime and never putting any solutions forward. Everyone was tweeting about the economy free fall. Comprehending the complicated tapestry of Egypt’s infant political system was as vexing as following the online rants. I escaped to Facebook, yet the Egyptian Pound’s plight followed me. The virtual arguments were taxing. Rather than justify their rational, people hurled insults at one another. I responded to tweets and posts with humor to deflect the tension. Soon after, I was frustrated and my earlier exuberance melted away. “To Hell with this”, I thought as I turned off my computer, got dressed and left for Manhattan. Not wanting to spend the day stewing in an endless political debate, I jumped on the train and retreated to New York City, hiding from the chirps of my twitter account.

I exited Penn Station and walked up the familiar path to Time Square. It was December 30th, preparations for the New Year celebration were underway. A large crystal ball hovered over the busy intersection of 7th avenue and 47th street. Two stages were erected to accommodate TV presenters. The area was packed with crowds of people. I turned left onto a side street to escape the masses. As I walked down 46th street, passing Broadway marquees, I noticed a poster promoting Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I bought a ticket for that night’s show. 

The play had nothing on Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The cast stumbled around Maggie and Brick’s bed while shouting out their lines. The performance finally ended after three agonizing hours. As I stood up and turned around to put on my coat, I noticed James Franco in the seat behind me. I was overtaken with the urge to proclaim “That’s James Franco”, but to whom? Should I have told the couple to my left, who spent the entire time sipping wine and kissing? Should I have told the lady to my right who was chatting with her husband? I stood there looking left to right, following some invisible tennis match. On a whim, I decided to complement his acting, but for the love of God I couldn’t think of any other movie besides Pineapple Express. “You are a sophisticated thirty seven year old woman who enjoys the ballet and Tennessee Williams, how can you praise a stoner movie?” I scorned. After a while I finally remembered one of his worthier performances, thus saving face, but not for long. As I conjured up enough courage to approach him, his back was turned. That didn’t stop me, for I was hell bent on talking to him.  I tugged at his sleeve and he turned around. His face was five inches away, if I had tripped, I would have fallen into his arms. I gave him my most poised smile and said, “I liked you in Milk.” He nodded and replied with a silent thank you. For a sane person, that would have been enough. But I was running low on sanity that day. Instead of walking away, I gushed, “This is such a big deal. I have been in New York for a year and you are my first celebrity”. As soon as the words flew out of my mouth, remorse followed.  Concealing my blushed induced embarrassment, I looked down at the floor and wished him a happy holiday. Mr. Franco’s response was quite charming and gracious. He smiled, with all his face, and wished me happy holidays in return. Although he was smiling in amusement to my comic reaction, I chose to believe that he was simply smiling at me.

On my way back to Penn Station, I noticed a bounce in my step. I was dying to tell someone, anyone, that I had just met James Franco. I almost shouted it out to complete strangers. Skipping down 8th Avenue my smile widened with each leap. The darkness dissipated into New York’s aura. As the sadness, anger, and melancholy lifted, I could see more clearly and out in the obscure crowd I noticed a face, someone I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. She looked up and smiled. We ran towards each other and embraced. The first thing she said was, “Oh my God, you look so old.” This took me by surprise, for I had forgotten how painfully honest she can be. Then I remembered detecting glimpses of her throughout the week. She was present in my passion for The Nutcracker and disdain with the political discourse, in the ferociousness of my humorous tweets, the spontaneity of planlessly riding into the city that Sunday, and the giddiness of proclaiming My First Celebrity. At that moment, I decided to hold on to her, to hold on to me. A me that existed before the seriousness of life took over, before I was burdened with the responsibilities of making a living and riddled with the guilt of disappointing my mother for never marrying. A me who made her own luck. A me who allowed herself to be silly and relished the experience. Since 2011, I’d been living the life of a victim, grieving the loss of my country and predictability of my life. I’d been pursuing the negatives and neglecting the positives. By approaching James Franco, I took control of the situation. I changed it from “Seeing James Franco” to “Meeting James Franco”. I made that happen, and I can make my time on earth a great and memorable experience. I have learned to savior the little things in life and embrace happiness, even when it comes in the form of a chance encounter with James Franco and the pleasure of bragging about it to everyone I meet.