I was struck by it the minute I walked in. The resemblance!
There was no comparison of course. Jamma was much taller and darker. He had a long and narrow-shouldered shape with the slight hunch that tall people are prone to. He moved with a touch of trepidation. He was much too reserved — all of this the opposite of Francisco.
But it happened the minute I caught his eye. I can't say there was recognition — you can't recognize someone in someone else. I froze for a second glaring at him, hungrily searching for that which was not there. But there also was something there. And that's what made me lose my presence of mind and forget my business.
I stammered something to the effect that “Maryam F suggested that I get immunization updates from you.” A couple of years ago we had also worked with him on a project and somewhere in my files I must still have the version of the text with his editing on it. But at that time I did not meet him.
He leaned over his desk, smiling, and I didn't know whether Maryam had already explained what I needed and I was repeating myself and should cut it short, or to go on — I needed material for human interest stories. But it was really the smile swimming in his eyes that distracted me. I recognized Francisco's smile, though the quickness and the edge were missing. But what was the occasion for this smile? Was he “recognizing” me?
“What is it you're looking for?” he asked. “Immunization campaigns? Coverage figures? Constraints? Funding?”
“Stories,” I said, “or whatever has narrative value.”
Story…? I'll tell you a story.
Life offers occasions through which the space of one's existence is doubled. I borrow the phrase from Rousseau when in his old age he wished for no more than the pleasure of reading his earlier writing. But the occasion may present itself as a man. The occasion — he — may knock on the door and walk in.
Maryam S and I were in the backyard when Francisco ran down from his sublet second-floor apartment to tell us that some ungodly character was lurking in our backyard. It was the summer of 1984 on the Upper Westside and my apartment had already been broken into a couple of times.
After that we became friends and one time Francisco tacked a poem, “I be kool” something something something, on my bookshelf, and gave me that swimming smile. He was at his peak. Everybody was in awe of him. In the mornings we walked to the campus together, he to his bar review class and I to my summer work-study job. He studied, took the bar, and passed it so effortlessly that I had no idea any of that was hard to do.
Once I came home to find him sitting on the banister outside our brownstone, his legs dangling, smoking a cigar, like the suave Puerto Rican gent that he was. Normally he did nothing Puerto Rican. He even preferred to call himself black rather than Puerto Rican. He hardly used his Spanish and when he became a practicing attorney he dressed in $1000 shirts from UK and was only to be seen at Carnegie Hall and a few upscale jazz clubs. I called his taste unimaginatively pretentious and he called me a hard woman.
But there was one episode that jabs at me now. In the early days of our friendship the wife of a friend commented that Francisco looked like a rapist. We were all graduate students at Columbia but Francisco already had a PhD from Yale and a law degree from Harvard. He called any even slightly radical comment “vituperative.” Once I gave him a present of a framed Iranian stamp commemorating the taking of American hostages and he called me “vitriolic.” “Another V word?” I said, and he gave me a sideways glance through his “spectacles.” For God's sake, the guy was a golden boy straight out of an Ivy League yearbook.
Rapist? Was it the dark skin? Was it the glint behind the smile? Was it that he tread some holy ground not belonging to his kind? Well, that was the end of my friendship with that husband and wife and I thought no more of it. I thought the comment forfeited any discussion or explanation as to why I didn't want to see them again. But now I am troubled that it did merit the thought that I did not give it.
“I am conflicted,” Francisco would say to me. “I run on sadness and fear.”
But know, gentle reader, that these were comments he made to shut out a conversation not to open one. And they were made if you said that he had a drug habit. “Weekends are my own,” he said. “I do blow and listen to Miles all day if I want.”
He died of overdose, heroin and morphine, three years ago. His partnership in the illustrious firm where he worked had finally been rejected.
“I'll give you what I have,” said Jamma. He stood for a moment before his bookcase, then pulled out, one by one, journals and bindings.
“Press release on measles eradication in Haiti, case studies of TB in AIDS patients, diphtheria resurgence in NIS countries.”
Dip-theria — he enunciated extra clearly. He took his seat and rested his elbows on the desk. “For the latest on the dip-theria resurgence talk to Stephen.” He jotted down Stephen's extension number on a piece of paper and handed it to me.
Now the smile was playing at the corners of his mouth. I recognized this too. But his smile lingered whereas Francisco's would start to quiver after a moment and burst into a semi-suppressed chuckle.
“I'm giving you all my originals because Maryam sent you,” he said, and then his smile finally widened in recognition. “My daughter's name also is Maryam.”
There are so many Maryams. I met Maryam F at work. Maryam S and her family I've known all my life and for a while she and I were roommates. To distinguish us people called us Maryam S and Maryam R. I'm glad she was with me the day Francisco knocked on the door and walked into my life. He accompanied us to the backyard to investigate. A very dark-skinned man in dark clothes was sprawled against a massive chunk of black stone — what the isle of Manhattan is made of — that apparently no one had found economical to remove from the linked backyards.
“It's a jungle out there,” Francisco said famously. Maryam S later commemorated that day by making a print for me by that title.
Jamma kept piling up information for my use. He would spring up and fetch something more — something more recent, something more interesting. There was hardly a need for me to ask. I just watched him. I watched the twitch of every muscle in his face. I watched his hands. I hungered for the resemblance. I watched his every move, which was not at all like Francisco. I can't say how Jamma moved. He moved the way he said “dip-theria” — proper and stiff beyond the call of duty.
Francisco had a bounce in his step that he played up or down at will. He didn't dance often but when he did he puckered his lips, closed his eyes, and still smiled through them. His movements were all in the feet and the hips. What he had was the Latin sway and not the African tilt.
And, boy, the Latin nerve!
Once Maryam S nervously told me that one day in the street Francisco held her hand and said, “I love Maryam R but I lust after you too.”
I laughed. I still laugh. There was nothing vulgar about him. He was not a dandy. Try as he might.
When later I saw Jamma walking down the hall he was holding his head a little to the side with his shoulders pulled up, looking down at his feet. He walked like a suppressed crab. How unnecessary, I thought. You should not let anybody do this to you.
“They hired him with the promise to make him a P-5,” — the UN ranks its professionals — “so he gave up another offer and moved his family to New York,” Maryam F told me when I rang her up after the appointment. “He's the most knowledgeable one around here but they're banishing him to Ghana. And P-5 is out of the question.”'
“Do I love Francisco but lust after this man too?” I asked myself.
“I wish,” I answered myself.
Alas, alas… how does one describe loss? He who expands the space of your existence, diminishes your life by his absence.
The poet says: come to me in dreams, that I may live/my very life again tho' cold in death. Or, come to me in the smile, the bearing, the hands, the audacity.
Perhaps Jean-Jacques has got it right again. Perhaps your existence is doubled in writing.
“Goodbye,” said Jamma. “Hope I gave you enough for a story.”
“Goodbye,” I said. “Good luck in Ghana.”
— May 1996
About Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.