Mariel Raines actually met Abdel Houte only once. You might have thought they would have met sooner since they lived in the same apartment house in Brooklyn.
Big cities were like that – cold, impersonal, teeming with life, hermetically sealed. People locked into their shrink-wrapped lives. City dwellers pop up and down into subway platforms like gophers, appearing one moment, disappearing, reappearing again. You didn’t know their names, you didn’t remember their faces, you didn’t smile at them or say anything because it was safer to be stuck in your own life and safer yet they were stuck in theirs.
On occasion, but very rarely, you might recognize someone you’d seen before in the same coffee shop, the same laundromat, the same night club or grocery store or subway platform but it would mean nothing, nothing at all. People were all walled off from each other in their loneliness.
As for the people who lived in the same apartment building you lived in, you generally knew nothing about them. You couldn’t even match their names or faces with the apartment numbers on the bank of buzzers at the entrance to the building. People moved in, others moved away. New tenants often didn’t bother to change the names on their apartment buzzers or used assumed names with good reason. There were people whom you thought it might be nice to meet but you couldn’t somehow. You whisked past them on the brownstone steps or maybe you watched them sadly through the one window of your apartment that had a view of the street as they walked to the subway.
Then there was the case of Mariel’s mystery man, the hunky guy who seemed to show up nearly everywhere that Mariel went. That was the name she gave him – mystery man. She spotted him at the supermarket, the bank she used, the coffee shop she favored, even the medical building where she got her annual checkup. It was creepy and exciting, and raised bumps on her skin. Mariel once found herself standing next to him at the subway ticket kiosk. Mystery man turned toward her. A shiver went through Mariel when their eyes locked. Mariel’s heart fluttered. It seemed for a fraction of a second that they might finally speak. But the man nervously broke eye contact, looked away as if he’d done something wrong. Mariel stiffened as she moved past him toward the turnstiles. After that rare close encounter, she never saw him again, never wanted to.
A second great coincidence of city life was that Mariel Raines of 1630-A Apt. B-3 Flushing Ave once did manage to meet Abdel Houte of 1630-A B-26 Flushing Ave. They were thrust together in one of the great happenstances of city life, as if manipulated by invisible hands. But who was Abdel Houte?
Not one of Abdel Houte’s teachers would have described him as a genius. His community college grades were marginal. He loved numbers but kept that talent hidden. With his thick black hair, overgrown at his ears and neck, he was neither good looking nor particularly unattractive. Abdel Houte’s was a face suspended in an unremarkable purgatory of urban faces. His closest friend was his cousin Murad, a brilliant and engaged student who had skipped a year of high school and was enrolled at MIT.
Still, Abdel wasn’t stupid so much as he was opposed to people he didn’t understand. When he failed to graduate and dropped out of community college, his mother explained: “He only does what he wants to do.”
What Abdel wanted to do was to have money in his pocket. His reasoning, in that regard, had much to do with the influence of Murad, who had stayed in touch with relatives in Tunisia. These relatives were merchants, had established a thriving grocery chain and export business operating throughout the Middle East and Europe. There was talk of expanding operations in the United States beginning in New York. It was in consideration of a future opportunity that Abdel decided to pursue a career in the grocery business.
Abdel Houte found a job with Halal Hayat, a Middle Eastern grocer with stores in Brooklyn and Queens. But though the owners of Halal Hayat were bearded and devout, Abdel was disappointed they seemed unwilling to share their private lives with him. Feeling left out and mistrusted by his bosses, Abdel quit Halal Hayat and found employment with the Egyptian owners of Al-Gadana Meat and Grocery. When weeks later he found out that were but Coptic Christians, he quit Al-Gadana and tried unsuccessfully to get on the unemployment rolls. He was furious when he received a letter denying benefits. His cousin Murad was home on a semester break and explained the legal reasoning contained in the form letter.
“It says, Abdel, that you cannot collect unemployment benefits if you voluntarily quit your job.”
Abdel needed no further proof that the machinery of the western world was out to get him. Murad waited until his cousin’s rantings abated, and cautioned him against jumping to conclusions. Murad’s warning had no effect on the hand that ruled the world, the hand which had already concluded that Abdel Houte of Apartment B-26 would meet Mariel Raines of Apartment B-3, just down the hall. But who was Mariel Raines?
Mariel Raines was brilliant but that was usually the last thing you noticed about her. So many other adjectives came to mind when anyone first met Mariel. For Mariel’s intelligence had always been eclipsed by her striking physical beauty.
Following the path of least resistance, therefore, she became a popular but mediocre student who excelled in gymnastics, soccer, and basketball. She was tall, well-proportioned, with fine long muscles. Though she was aware that people were attracted to her, Mariel believed the attentions bestowed upon her were exaggerated and would occasionally respond with a short list of her faults.
“Look at my mouth, Janice,” she vamped for the benefit of her friend. With two fingers on each side of her mouth, Mariel would pull her lips apart to reveal healthy pink gums that were, in her own self-image, slightly more prominent than her teeth. “I’ve got horsy gums.”
“Yeah, whatever. Horsy gums. Sure, first thing guys do is pull your lips apart like that,” Janice said.
“It looks like I’ve got my mouthpiece in,” Mariel persisted. “That’s what Jarod says anyway.”
Janice sighed aloud. “Do you have to filter everything through Jarod?”
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