Arab Spring

By Gregorio Tafoya

His dad threatened to take his allowance—to lower it at least. Ethan tried reasoning with him, but the man was resolute, his authority not diminishing even with 7,000 miles between them.

            “Rasee3 Aczel, you have this spring term or else.”

The “or else” was the taking of his allowance, and the “this spring term” was passing his ESL classes to finally start his engineering courses—the reason his father had sent him to an American University in the first place.

Ethan didn’t feel like it was a good idea to tell his father that the Lexus he’d just bought, with mainly his father’s money, had also been dinged. Left rear bumper concaved, full passive voice, by a stationery bright yellow concrete light post.

It had been dark and Ethan had been recklessly sober, but pissed. He was failing ESL 118, again, the last class he needed to get into the College of Engineering, and had just left the all-nighter study session with Bridgette and five other students. Maybe he was pissed cause Bridgette seemed to ignore him and focus on the other students more.

Bridgette was tall and blonde and American and worked for the International Outreach Program at the university. Ethan had loved her from a distance for the first term at IOP and then allowed himself to love her from up close once he realized he actually needed her help.

She never called him “Ethan,” and had asked him—after he stayed after class to work with her at the end of his freshmen year—why other tutors or staff called him that. He explained, in slow, but emotional English—he’d taken to using his hands a lot and gesturing with his face—how the first year in the dorms his roommate, Troy, couldn’t get his name right so had just coined him Ethan. Troy even sharpied out the construction paper pin-up name tag “Rasee3,” on their dorm room door and replaced it with a sloppy, slanted Ethan.

“Rasee3 is not that hard a name to say,” Bridgette said scowling, like she was scolding Troy’s specter.

“No, I don’t think so either,” Ethan said patiently.

But truthfully he had been guiltily grateful for Troy’s identity switch because after he gave him the “Ethan” moniker, people actually started to greet him in the halls of the dorms, in the elevators, and even in the chow hall. Even a few girls who lived on the opposite side of his dorm—the ones he knew not even the fluent American guys had a shot with—used his name.

“That’s Ethan,” Jillian told Farah, their perfect, reflective lips pursed in a knowing look and erupting in tiny giggles as they passed him.

But Ethan played up the Troy angle with Bridgette, happy to have gotten the five-minutes airtime with her.

“Yeah Troy was a real jerk,” he offered, which was not even close to being true.

Troy was actually around forty years old, had a lazy eye, and was just as much a social outcast in their dorm as Ethan was. And for the first month Troy and he had lunch together every day in the chow hall. Until Troy met some Asian woman who spoke worse English than Ethan, and Ethan couldn’t really stomach eating lunch with them anymore. The Asian lady was around Troy’s age but even Ethan could sense that continuing to eat lunch with them would do nothing to advance his social standing, or his English.

There were other Arabs to sit with. U.A.E. gents, who lived off-campus and drove foreign cars to the chow halls just for attention. They’d invited Ethan to sit at their table, after the first week of classes, but he never liked Emiratis, not on his homeland. And the other Arabs were from Qatar, but his father had instilled in him an inherent mistrust of Qatari meddling.

So Ethan drifted, eating meals at odd hours, and working on appearing normal but also in a rush. Like his time was in demand. Though most days, when not in class, he just went out by Lake Mendota and watched the waves. Thinking about Bridgette and what he would say to her in different situations.

At the supermarket, “Yes, now is it tomayto or tomahto?”

After a long weekend, “Long time no see! Where’ve ya been hiding?”

Asking him what his plans were for the night, “Going to turn up (though Ethan didn’t drink)…..of course you can join.”

In the morning, after they spent the night together, “Good morning sleepy head.”

Eating together in a campus café, using his Badger dollars, “You order whatever.”

When she had texted him on a weeknight (he still said this one out loud though it was a text): “Just chillin’, Come over.”

She’d text back, “Okay I like chilling!” correcting his fluent jargon but also including an emoji, to let him know her corrections were affectionate.

Ethan’s favorite line to practice was, the waves and wind as his witness, “I swear I couldn’t love you more than I do right now, and yet I know I will tomorrow.”

This was in response to when she would ask him, “How much do you love me Rasee3?”

Nobody in their ESL class knew if Bridgette had a boyfriend for sure, so they gave her two boyfriends in their perverse, after class imaginings of her. The U.A.E. guys always said vulgar, awful things about her and her proclivities—trying out American slang and disparaging everyone’s favorite tutor at the same time.

Ethan never out and out defended Bridgette, not wanting his crush to seem so evident, but he never laughed at their stupid jokes. It really solidified his aversion to boastful Emirates guys though—with their flared collars and rolled cuffs, sporting Ferragamo loafers with no socks.  

He tried to tease Bridgette in his own way. He called her “Bardot” after the French actress, when it was just the two of them. Ethan had only ever seen one movie with Bridgette Bardot, Contempt, and couldn’t even remember how or why but he remembered Bardot’s glistening pouty lips moving incongruously with the dubbed over Arabic.

Bridgette looked nothing like the actress, except for being tall and blonde, but in Ethan’s eyes she was the spitting image.

“Thank you for your help today, Bridgette Bardot,” he’d tell her with a toothy grin.

“No problem Rassim Ethan Aczel,” she’d respond back, and just once, he thought he saw her arm lift, as she was passing him to go to the other classroom, hoping she was going to touch his curly hair. Tug on it, like he’d seen other girls do to their American boyfriends by the lake, and for that ephemeral moment it felt like his stark, black hair was electrically fringed in anticipation. But Bridgette just patted the back of his chair and proceeded on her way.          

He had this spring semester to get “his shit together.” Without his dad’s allowance, he wouldn’t be able to afford living in his off-campus student housing, make his car and insurance payments, and shop at the world market.

Ethan had nabbed one of the last available units at Hub Madison, and even if the rent was going up next year he was looking forward to being part of the building again. It was advertised as sport-chic housing, and he made a note to store that description in his memory, so if ever he was asked about his style, say by Bridgette, he could respond with a, “I’d say I have a sport-chic styling, wouldn’t you?”

He didn’t know his roommates at the start of his sophomore year, but a more than tolerant relationship brewed between them.

Ethan’s quad included twin brothers, Max and Engle, and their friend from high school, Justin, and they had indicated on their application that they weren’t averse to a relative stranger occupying the fourth room in their apartment. It helped that everyone had their own bathroom. Ethan had expected to be roomed with other people who didn’t know each other, possibly other sport-chic foreigners, so he was intimidated by the fact that these guys were all related and from Wisconsin. But they were cool.

The only non-cool one was Maggie, Max’s cinematically-deranged girlfriend. Max and Maggie had met on Plenty of Fish.

Their apartment was on the ground floor, so it had a back door with a porch, and the first time Ethan was hanging out in the living room, alone on the couch flipping channels on the community television, Maggie had barged in and eyed him suspiciously, asking:

“Who are you?”

“Ethan,” Ethan said, taking in how her frumpiness gave her a strange authority.

“And what are you doing here?”

“I live here,” Ethan offered.

“You live here?” Maggie asked perplexed.

“Yes, I am roommate.”

She huffed off, opened Max’s bedroom door, which was right behind the couch Ethan was chilling on, and proceeded to interrogate Max about Ethan, as if the walls weren’t paper thin. Ethan just moved off the couch and back to his room when he heard Maggie wail away on a “Is he like, safe?” rant.

The twins’ mom came to visit pretty often. She was young and unattractive and didn’t work, so every other Friday she would swing by Madison and do the twin’s laundry, change their sheets, and clean the kitchen. Once she asked Ethan if she could do some of his laundry, and he shrugged a “Sure”, found some clothes strewn about his room and under his bed and put them into the basket she had left outside of his door.

“I bring my own detergent Ethan. Are you allergic to Tide?”

“No I don’t think.”

“Okay, just checking.”

She was an incredibly kind lady, and he always made sure to thank her when she came over, whether she did his laundry or not, because sometimes her sons would hardly speak to her.

Her name was Julia, and she shared Ethan’s sentiments about Maggie—at least he thought she did. Whenever Maggie was over on a Julia Friday, she would hole up in Max’s room, and actually keep most of her opinions to herself, or she would leave the apartment and, evidently text Max five minutes later with instructions to follow her, because he would trail out soon after she left.

The first time this happened, Julia looked at Ethan—who was watching a VICE program about the Gaza Strip—and said:

“That one,” with a head shake.

“Yes,” Ethan said hoping they shared an unspoken disapproval.

Sometimes Ethan didn’t know what to make of Maggie’s antics. Even he knew what she was doing was not normal—but it all seemed quite contrived – like she had been conditioned to act intolerant, clingy, and overindulged.

Once, at seven in the morning, Ethan had woken to the sound of her banging on Max’s bedroom door, shrieking a, “I know you’re in there,” and a “Open up, or we are through.”

Ethan rolled out of bed, dressed but barefoot, and tried to reason with her. All she said was, “Get your disgusting toenails away from me,” and kept pounding on Max’s door.

From what Ethan could tell, Max never did anything outrageous to her. He never saw Max with another girl, and he always behaved like a reasonable boyfriend in Ethan’s estimation—but what did he really know.

The craziest thing about Maggie was that she wasn’t even a student at UW-Madison. She was from “Podunk, Wisconsin,” as Justin called it, and she wanted to eventually get into a local beauty school.

Ethan always wrestled with the conundrum of why American girls didn’t like him. Were they truly xenophobic or what? Sometimes it felt like Maggie disliked him, not because he was an Arab, but because he was inarticulate. That’s probably what most girls felt about him, Ethan thought.

Sometimes Ethan tried POF. But he always got stuck with a bot, or in the net of one of those webcam girls who act like they are in the area, up until the last minute when they message you a link to their site. Or they want you to give online verification of your identity— asking for a credit card number, just for records purposes of course.

It always started the same too. A girl would match with him and then message him first. Never did they have more than three pics on their POF profile, and always they’d drop their phone number, or email, within the first two POF messages. Most of the time they had three letter names too—Viv, Ivy, Glo, Sia—like they were trying to make it easy for Ethan to pronounce their name. The area code of the phone number they dropped would not even come close to Wisconsin. It was always Maryland, or Arizona, or Texas. Ethan got pretty good at guessing the state by the area code, even though area codes and American geography weren’t a part of his ESL classes.

But he played their games. They’d send a pic, then ask him to send one. He lived for them to respond with “nice pic” or “cute pic” and chased the elusive “cool hair,” but these girls couldn’t get that personal. Most of the time the house of digital pics came crashing down with some frantic, copied and pasted message, about needing validation of Ethan’s “effort, and commitment levels,” judged by credit card numbers.

He was never mad. It was fun to “chat” with those fictional people in those brief encounters on lonely nights. Sometimes Ethan even turned the tables on them, “No you send cc number or else.”

Ethan’s roommates complained about the lease, saying how it ran over into the summer when they were going to be home. But Ethan didn’t mind that part, because he had nowhere to go over the summer anyway. He minded other parts of his building though.

The HUB billed its amenities as state of the art, but in many ways the place was less than artful. The WiFi was inconsistent at best. The sauna and spa were never fully functioning. The rooftop pool and hot tubs were closed six months out of the year. The on-site fitness center was the size of a unit living room and had one cable weight contraption and two elliptical machines—one of which was usually out of order.

They charged you twenty-five bucks if you locked yourself out of your room, which Ethan had done once when his roommates had gone home for the weekend. He thought maybe they were trying to take advantage of him and his English, but he learned that it was standard policy for them to bill your next month’s rent an extra twenty-five bucks and label it “security fee.”

But what the place didn’t advertise was what Ethan liked best about it: the beautiful women and Gio, a South American who lived in the unit next door to Ethan. He threw wild parties and knew gorgeous American women, and was the embodiment of the sport-chic lifestyle.

Ethan’s roommates hated him, but Ethan fawned over the guy. His roommates hated Gio because they claimed Gio sold drugs out of his apartment, but they had no proof—other than skin color and dazed, starry-eyed, loose limbed individuals coming in and out of the pad next door. Ethan probably would have hated Gio if he was an Arab drug dealer, but because he was South American he didn’t fault Gio for trying to make a living.

Ethan met Gio at the rooftop pool, the first weekend of sophomore year. International people and Wisconsin women—posing for Tinder and Instagram on some sort of European bohemian vibe—surrounded Gio. Ethan had showed up alone and kind of made a lap of the pool, before Gio approached him.

            “Wassup man, you smoke?”

            “No,” Ethan, replied too quickly.

            “That’s cool bro, where you from?”

            “Saudi,” Ethan said more slowly.

            “Dope. There’s like usually some Saudi peeps around man. I’ll introduce you if they show.”

            “Cool,” Ethan said, hoping his mono-syllables were conveying a chillness that always evaporated from him.

Even if his English didn’t require buffering, Ethan wouldn’t be able to communicate with Gio’s crowd. Everyone used terms he’d never heard before, “Coachella,” “Sasquatch,” “Ultra Miami.”

When some Saudi’s did show up, all they talked about were their adventures in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and Ethan couldn’t believe the sacrilege they were spewing, like they were ashamed of their home country. When one of the Saudis from Riyadh saw Ethan getting into a tussle about why they didn’t adventure in Mecca or Medina, he said in Arabic:

            “Nationalism is so uncool right now,” and then in English, “Chill, bro.”

 If Ethan was deemed uncool, it didn’t stop Gio from including him in the festivities. After a month of Ethan just popping up at his pool parties, Gio started calling him the “Saudi prince,” and exchanged phone numbers with him.

In the winter, when the pool was closed, Ethan became a fixture on Gio’s leather couches. One November party, some scantily clad girl in two pieces of black fabric, whispered something disapproving to Gio about Ethan.

But Gio responded loudly, “That’s a Saudi prince right there girl.” And the girl, Erica came over and sat down next to Ethan and asked what kind of car he drove and tried to determine if he was an oil baron heir or just political royalty—which of course are the same thing. But Ethan was neither.

Erica ended up leaving with some U.A.E. dude who asked her if she wanted to smoke shisha.

The weekend before Ethan’s ESL 118 final, he was playing beer pong on the rooftop pool of HUB Madison. He’d played before, but never to this level of ingratiating success. His partner, some bro-tank with a farmers’ tan, was giving him high-fives and rubbing his traps before every shot. Dan, was also drinking all the beer for Ethan.

They played against girls who did their half-dressed darnest to distract Ethan from his record streak of “on fire” shooting. After only two games, Dan had to excuse himself and either voluntarily jump in the pool or was pushed by his inebriation to belly flop noisily into the tepid water. Ethan was momentarily disappointed until a dirty blonde in jean shorts and a midriff asked if he would be her partner.

“Yes, I’m on fire,” Ethan said with a smile, not sure where this new confidence was coming from.

The girl laughed and drunkenly frizzled his hair, and Ethan was in love. Though he was in love, he knew the girl didn’t compare to Bridgette. She was shorter than Bridgette and her hair was a diluted blonde, and her face was pretty but not fine featured.

They played one complete game and won, and he had told the girl he didn’t drink at the beginning, but she didn’t quite hear him or understand him, or maybe she just ignored him, so when their opponents made two shots, she expected him to split the cups with her.

She gulped her cup down, and he looked at his opponents, who were more concerned with the activity in the pool, so Ethan threw his beer to the side. Nobody noticed, even though Ethan had come dangerously close to splashing some huddled drunk girls on the pool furniture.

When his partner, Haley, started to touch him, at first Ethan thought it was involuntarily, but all he could think about was Bridgette. If only Bridgette could see him now.

Haley was pushing herself against Ethan and he had to steady himself. Without thinking about it, he put his hand on her hip and he thought he had overstepped, but she placed her hand over his and continued to dance American with him while their opponents shot.

They only paused when it was their turn to shoot, but Haley maintained contact with him as Ethan scanned the crowd to see if anyone else was as shocked as him at this development. Openly hoping Bridgette would make an unprecedented appearance at his apartment rooftop party.

“Do you know Bridgette?”

“Yeah, Bridgette, dating Russell?” Haley said as her bum was brushing his hip.

“No not that Bridgette,” Ethan quickly wished.

“Tall, blonde, pops Adderall?”

“No not her, other Bridgette,” Ethan said, now satisfied that his Bridgette would never engage in such activities, and though he didn’t really know what Adderall was he didn’t like the sound of it.

“Oh I must not know her then,” Haley said, and with the most aggressive circle yet she side-eyed him and asked, “Why, is she your girlfriend?”

And now with both hands on this girl’s hips, Ethan gave the universal maybe shrug. It didn’t deter anybody.

After another game, Haley turned to face him and said, “Beer pong is boring, will you get me another beer?”

“Sure,” Ethan said, but before he could go find wherever Gio was hiding the beer, Haley grabbed his face, and pecked him ferociously on the lips. It was sloppy and unexpected and Ethan thought one of them would leave with a bloody nose, but it was also quite wonderful.

Soon they were in the hallway between apartments; Haley was assertively pushing him against the wall, with her lips raging.

When they stumbled into his apartment, because she was leaning into him as he worked his key into the lock, he was relieved that his roommates had gone home for the weekend to study. He didn’t want witnesses; because he knew what was happening was wrong.

In his bed, they wrestled for the upper hand, Ethan not sure what was normal in American bedrooms. Somehow, they had silently agreed that underwear would stay on, and Ethan tried to attribute wholesome intentions to this. Like maybe this was taking it slow, and implied a next time.

Finally, Ethan relented and let her get on top. For the next five minutes, Ethan felt horrible. He learned much later, that what they were doing was called “dry humping” but he felt much worse than if they had done the real thing. There was a depersonalization to it, that Ethan both detested and was appreciative of.

When it was over, she rolled off him and went to the bathroom and he heard her urine against his porcelain as she didn’t even bother to shut the door. The sound was so immediate that Ethan checked himself, trying to determine if some of the fluid could possibly be piss. She exited his bathroom, after hurriedly washing her hands, clumsily drove her nose into his ribcage and quickly passed out.

With Haley’s tiny snores as a backdrop, Ethan envisioned a new conversation with Bridgette, one where they were in the midst of a heavy relationship, and Ethan had just done what he had done but with the weight of cheater’s guilt. Somehow it gave him pleasure to utter this sentence out loud, when in his fictional relationship with Bridgette, she was withdrawing, possibly suspicious of something he had done to jeopardize their future:

“Baby, are you mad at me?”