Friday, October 23, 2009

One Shot Before Dinner (Richmond, VA)

It's 3:15 p.m. I get on line in the pharmacy for a flu shot. I'm number 95. I ask the woman who hands me the pre-shot questionnaire ("Have you ever had a negative reaction to a flu shot?" "Are you allergic to eggs?" "Will anybody realize you're acting oddly if you start screeching like an angry monkey?" "Have you updated your will?")how long it will be before I get my turn. She doesn't know and wouldn't care that I have to be at a former student's apartment for dinner at 4:30.

Ahmed lives at least 20 minutes away. I wonder if I should wait or just go next door to the florist, buy a nice bouquet or plant, and arrive at dinner relaxed and on time. I opt for stress.

I am not about to stand idly in line. I'll get some work done. The time will fly by and before I know it, I'll be cradling my wounded arm and wondering if this is my last shot. ("If you notice itching, swelling, or tingling at the site of the injection, call your doctor, rush like mad to the emergency room, and dictate your epitaph to the triage nurse.")

I rifle through my Mexican shopping bag, pulling out folders crammed with papers that will, hopefully, form the basis of a presentation I'm giving to 120 new teachers in two sessions next week and which I haven't had time to think about. I shuffle through the sheets, make mental notes -- always a bad move when you're prone to forgetfulness -- and ten minutes or so later, try to put the folders back. They won't fit, so I just shove them in. They're obviously not taking this kind of treatment from me, so they fight back, flying back out and spreading their contents all along the aisle. Everyone watches me (no, I'm not being paranoid) as I hunt down and gather up my stuff.

I decide to jot down my mental notes. After fumbling through my purse to find a pen, I pull the inker out. In obvious collusion with the folders, it jumps out of my hand, shoots into the air, torpedoes down an aisle, and rolls under a display. Everyone watches me as, on hands and knees, I try to retrieve the impudent implement.

Returning to my place in the line that hasn't advanced an inch in 25 minutes, I balance my Mexican bag on a shelf. The shelf collapses. Everyone looks at me. I shrug and mumble that I'm not going to attempt to fix it, as it will probably break.

I tap my toes, then stand on them. I stretch my legs, first one, then the other. Stretched, tapped, and still standing, I decide to find out how long it will be until I reach the front of the line. "I'll be right back," I tell the people who aren't watching me.

Zig-zagging my way through aisles showcasing cosmetics, candy, and weird things straight out of late-night TV ads or science fiction movies(pastel-colored plastic balls that fluff your laundry; pink pads that remove hair from even your most delicate body parts by simply rubbing; electronic devices that shield you from shrieking monkeys), I make my way to the front of the line, in the back of the store.

"Excuse me," I say in my most ingratiatingly pleasant and polite voice. "I'm number 95. Can you please tell me how long it'll be before I get my shot?"

The nurse stops mid-jab to glare at me, pointing the needle as if it were a sword and I the sorry knight who lost the battle. "We are working as fast as we can!"

"I know you are," I say in my most groveling and ingratiating voice. "But could you please just tell me what number you've reached?"

She practically spits at me: "Sixty-nine!"

I return to my place in line. I wrestle my pen to a notepad and figure out that at this rate, I will probably get shot, if not killed, by about 4:15.

We nano-inch forward. When I am finally within sight of the needle-wielders, the kindly couple standing in front of me instructs me to go ahead of them. I thank them and realize later that they must have been watching the proceedings. When I turn again to thank them, they are nowhere in sight -- probably slunk out the front door, high-tailed it to their car, and sped out of the lot, panting in fear and relief.

I am hoping that the nurse doesn't recognize me. I try to make small talk, in my friendliest, most charming voice. Apparently, charming friendliness doesn't work with everyone. I swear that every bit of pent-up rage that this woman has ever felt in her entire, very long life, went into that one thrust into my arm. I'm surprised that the needle didn't break in two or, at the very least, fly into the air in imitative pen-movements. I almost did.

I lurch out of the pharmacy and into the florist. It takes me 15 minutes to make it back to my car, bouquet in hand (of working arm).

It's 4:30. Not too bad. Ahmed is from Saudi Arabia, and in the class before he transferred out (he had to change nights for family reasons), we had discussed when people arrive for dinner in various countries. In the US, I'd explained, you can be 10 minutes or so late. I remember that in Saudi Arabia, you can arrive something like an hour to four weeks late without a problem.

Ten minutes later, I'm driving through the apartment complex, searching for the right building. I find it, but cannot find an unreserved parking spot. I recall the discussion in my class the night before. My students were telling me that none of their friends visit them anymore, because their cars were always towed for parking in residents' spaces.

I ride around for 10 minutes. Reserved. Reserved. Every spot is reserved. There should have been a sign reading "NO VISITORS ALLOWED." After asking various residents where the guest parking is and getting "I don't know" for an answer each time, I park in front of Ahmed's building and exit my car.

Some rather unsavory looking young men are lurking near the building's entrance. "Will I have a problem if I park here?" I ask.

"You'll get towed," Unsavory #1 responds.

"Do you know where there's a space for visitors?" I ask.

"Never seen one," says Lurker #2.

They both run around the lots, searching for a space. Lurker finally finds one and plants himself there until I pull in.

I thank them and walk to the building. It's three stories high. When I step inside, I realize that Ahmed never gave me the apartment number.

I ring all four doorbells and move to the center of the hallway.

A man opens a door. That's when I realize that I don't remember Ahmed's last name.

"Do you know Ahmed?" I ask in my hopeful voice.

"No English," he says. "My daughter speak."

The daughter comes to the door. She doesn't know any Ahmed.

"He's got four or five children," I say in a more hopeful voice.

They both shake their heads no.

In my most hopeful voice, I say, "His wife covers."

They point straight up.

I climb the stairs and ring the bell. Ahmed's oldest son opens the door, smiles, and lets me in. Ahmed's wife comes over, smiles, and tells me to sit down.

She serves me weak coffee, flavored with cardomom, in a tiny porcelain cup. She places a bowl of dates in front of me and apologizes that Ahmed is not home yet; he's getting a flu shot at the hospital.

I help the oldest daughter with her science homework. I talk with Houda and Abdullah. Houda calls Ahmed to tell him that I am in the apartment.

When Ahmed arrives, about an hour later, he apologizes profusely. Later, he tells me that he thought that I was coming for dinner on the 27th. We had originally scheduled for the 20th, but I'd told him that I had to work until 8pm that night. I thought that we'd agreed on the 22nd. I am mortified. Everyone is gracious.

The family admires the flowers. I admire the dinner (biryani with chicken, almonds, and raisins) and a salad of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes.

Ahmed is late for his class. I am late for a meeting. I thank everyone and say goodnight. They tell me I am welcome anytime.

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