War in the Afternoon
There’s a particular ritual in which the Lebanese take part when they gather with their émigré friends. There’s a flurry of cheek kisses, always three, a few slaps on the shoulder, and an offer of food and drink. They settle into sticky vinyl lawn chairs, encircled by beer bottles and snacks. They’ve all known each other since childhood. One grew up in an apartment two floors down from my father. They all went to the same primary and secondary school, university, and medical school. And they all found their way from Beirut to this sun-bleached porch perched above an emerald lawn, deep in suburban Maryland.
When the conversation begins, the younger children are sent off to the yard to play. They come back sweaty and grass streaked to grab a handful of chips to ask, when’s dinner? And they’re quickly shooed away to resume their hide-and-seek match. There’s always a mild scent of barbeque wafting from a distant neighbor.
All of them grew up in Beirut in the 70s. The eldest among them was 17 at the start of the civil war. The youngest, 10. They spent their most formative years embedded in a country at war, birthdays and graduations marred by shootings, school years broken by cycles of violence, first dates interrupted by another nation’s bombs.
I sit with the parents because I'm too disinterested to play video games with the teenage boys, and I'm too old to retreat to a hidden TV and watch re-runs of Dawson's Creek all evening. Sometimes, we talk about our gardens, and the deer that ruin our plants. Sometimes, we talk about our pets, or mock each other’s sports team preferences. One of them will ask me, how’s your job? Where is your brother? Do you still have that obese cat? They talk as newly orphaned adults, memorializing their recently deceased parents in anecdotes. When the conversation falters, they turn to Beirut. And when they talk about Beirut, they talk about war.
They talk about war when we talk about first jobs: "The first place I worked was in the Merrill Lynch in the Geffinor. The morgue was right behind my work, but I never passed it because I always walked a different path. But in '82, when the morgue was full, they stacked body bags outside. I could see the bags from the window of my office. It was terrible. I didn't like that job, anyway. My boss was this old man who smoked all day and never gave me anything to do. Can you even imagine working without the internet anymore?"
They talk about war when we talk about birthdays: "You're going out to a bar for Erin's 21st birthday? I never understood the 21st birthday party. I was hiding from Israeli shells in the basement of our building on my 21st birthday. But that birthday isn’t special anywhere but in the U.S. We never even had a drinking age in Lebanon. I used to order drinks when I was 15 when I was at the beach. American culture is so repressed."
They talk about war when we talk about summer: "Remember that French navy boat you could always see from the beach? It was so far one day and then the next day it was almost to shore. And then the next day we watched it launching shells into the mountains from my uncle's balcony. I loved his apartment, it had such a wonderful view of the sea. Now they've built these ugly modern high-rises in front of it and all you can see is maids cooking and hanging laundry."
There are always pregnant pauses when they talk about war. They’re the same pauses that punctuate anyone group’s story trading. They could be thinking of the time they lost the championship soccer match, or were stood up on a date. Maybe they’re remembering the horror of the whistle of a falling bomb, and the scramble for shelter in their building’s basement. They may have lost friends to errant bullets. I don’t know, I don’t ask. I only know about the war they make humorous and adventurous. I can relay their stories about cunning escapes from Syrian soldiers manning checkpoints, but never of the smell of bodies rotting in the summer heat.
I have a stack of large, sun-bleached scallop shells I picked up from Seven Presidents Beach in New Jersey. I drove there nearly every week from my parents' home in Baltimore to visit my friend Laura, whose boyfriend was a beach lifeguard. It was the summer before I moved to DC, my last gasp of childhood between the end of college and the beginning of life, a time when driving three hours to the beach on a weekday was normal. We would drink Arizona Iced Teas and Diet Cokes and line the bottles along our towels like a fort of recyclables and make stacks of our favorite shells of the day, only to relinquish those with the slightest imperfections. And before we made the drive back home, we would always, always stop for ice cream.