Illustration by Andrea Sparacio
BORN FROM JETS
by Emily Lyon
“Here comes that motherfucker Tom,” Omar said, motioning with a jerk of his head towards the figure advancing across the lawn from the house. Jillian wanted to ask Omar why he called Tom a motherfucker but she didn’t.
Tom sat down across from them, crossing his legs under himself. “Hi,” he said to Omar. “Hi?” he said to Jillian. He took a package of Camels out of his pants pocket and began to pack it absently against his palm.
Issue #36 soundtrack: Graham Patzner "Brother Jim"
“Tom is my housemate,” Omar said. This was Jillian’s third or fourth time hanging out with Omar. She bought her cigarettes at the gas station where he worked, and she was smoking a half-pack a day, so she went there several times a week. He was tutoring people at the University of Connecticut in Arabic and she was teaching Adult Ed classes in beginning to read Hebrew. Somehow this came up as he gave Jill her smokes one day, and they made plans to meet and try to learn each other’s tongues, each very near branches to the other on the Semitic language tree.
“Yup,” Tom said. He took a drag off the Camel, its end glowing like a tiny neon poppy. Jillian studied him and tried not to be obvious about it.
Omar and Tom lived in a house they called Harvey’s Blue House. They shared a common kitchen and bathroom. The first time she came over, Jillian had made kasha and macaroni for Omar on the lone, single-burner hotplate that Harvey supplied on the counter. “It’s a typical Jewish-American food,” she told him.
“And so I have something Egyptian to show you,” he said. There was a small plastic tape deck on the kitchen table, and Omar put a cassette in, shutting the deck’s door with a click.
“A-la-la-la… habibi tiiiii,” a plaintive voice sang to them as they ate the kasha. Cars sped past the window. The house was near to the road in the front, so its backyard was a better place to spend time—it sloped down from the house’s back door, away from the road, and twenty yards back or so, there was a little glade of forest that separated Harvey’s Blue House from the neighboring house.
“What do you do, Tom?” Jillian asked him one day.
“I work on a tobacco farm. I used to do something else but I was injured in the Navy.” The sound of the plastic hitting his palm sounded larger than the space between the three friends’ heads, larger than the whole backyard.
“He is?” Jillian asked, looking around the empty kitchen. “Who else is here?”
“Just he is,” Tom said. “You should see it. He does it himself.”
Tom led Jillian up the stairs, where, in the bathroom at the top, Omar had his head bent down, his chin tucked into his neck. He was running an electric clipper over his hair. Chunks of hair fell like black snow into the trashcan perched in the pedestal sink.
“I didn’t know you did this,” Jillian gushed.
“This is what I really want to do,” Omar said, unfolding himself and running his hands over his head. “If I can’t teach English, I would like to cut hair. Or teach people how to cut hair.”
“I am impressed! Your haircut looks so professional,” Jillian said. She and Tom smiled at each other.
Jillian looked at him, suddenly feeling naked without her shirt on, and with her skirt tangled around her waist. “You shouldn’t do this, then,” she said. “You should find a wife.”
“We could get married,” Omar said, as a question. He laughed strangely as soon as the d popped off his palate.
Jillian recoiled, grabbing the hem of her skirt and rolling her hips around as she tried to align it with the tops of her knees. “Omar, you don’t make any sense,” she said. She wanted to tell him that he was crazy and that she knew he was fucking with her, but he was hard for her to read. He just laughed in the way he did, and she got up off the bed, pulling her shirt over her shoulders and opening the door. Tom was in the kitchen, staring at a coffee pot. “Hey,” Tom said. “I didn’t know you were here.”
Jillian could tell, from Tom’s total focus on the carafe, that he hadn’t heard anything. The coffee brewer made its t-t-t-t-t sound and Omar came out of his room.
“Coffee break!” Omar said.
Tom reached up to the cupboard and took two more mugs down, placing them next to his on the counter. “How do you guys take it?”
“What is the Hebrew word for brassiere?”
“Your body was like cake.”
“Cake, that’s a good word to know,” Jillian replied. “I’ll write it down. That’ll be a fun picture to draw.”
Jillian was happy to drink the juice, but there was something strange in its sweetness—a viscosity and tang that hit the back of her throat, making her gag. She went over to the sink and turned on the kitchen faucet, testing its coolness with her index finger, and then filled the glass with water, thinning the juice. Shards of pulp floated to the top. She looked at them there, then stirred the water into the juice with her newly cleaned finger, watching them eddy around.
“I like water in the juice,” she said to Omar in Arabic. “And now you?” she asked him in Hebrew. “What could you say now?”
“This is not mine,” Omar said in Hebrew.
Then he said, “This juice was here. Someone else bought it.” Jillian looked at him with puzzlement. He laughed carelessly.
“Mazal tov,” Jillian said. “You remember this phrase?”
“Yes, of course,” Omar said. “I am also tutoring others in Arabic, and she is my most diligent student. I don’t feel it is appropriate to be with two women. She would not like that I continue to see you.”
“Whoa,” Jillian said. She didn’t feel hurt by this. Since Omar had called Tom a motherfucker, and she could never see why, laughed at his own sentences to frost them with an additional layer of code, and then passed off Tom’s unopened bottle of juice as a thoughtful gift, she had soured on the idea of Omar as anything other than a tutor or vague professional ally. The three still smoked in Tom’s room at the top of the stairs or out in the yard, in a purely academic relationship, she told herself.
Tom drove an olive green Saab 96, which he described his affection for only anecdotally. “There was one time I was workin’ on it and I took out all the seats and I flipped a pickle bucket over and bungeed it to the floor by its handle and the door frame,” he said, smiling thinly, “and I drove by a bunch of cops and none of ‘em noticed anything because the bucket was the perfect height!”
“You waste very much time with these things,” Omar griped, taking two successive drags.
“You’re wasting my time, bogarting that joint,” Jillian said, extending her hand. Omar passed the joint, got up and lay on the bed. He didn’t sulk, but grumbled in unintelligible quick Arabic before beginning to snore.
“You know how Omar and me punch each others’ knuckles when we see each other?” Tom asked Jillian, looking out the side of his glasses at Omar’s bare feet, dangled limply over edge of the mattress.
“Yesterday he held his fist out and kept saying ‘Respect, brutha, respect,’ and there was a cigarette between his fingers and he fist-jabbed me with the cigarette.” Tom had a welt the size of a dime and the color of salmon roe on his middle knuckle.
“It was lit?” Jillian asked.
“Yeah,” Tom said.
Jillian felt at that moment a tiny facet of surety that she wanted to help Tom in his life. Tom was gentle and quiet. He didn’t seem like a motherfucker. She never understood why Omar was unkind to him, and the way Tom stared down at his hand now made her angry for him.
She stood up, feeling her feet and hands tingle, and the bubble of highness between her brain and skull. She kicked the corner of the mattress where Omar slept. “We exit the room,” she hissed down at him in Arabic, as he opened his eyes. “We are going downstairs, and your girlfriend wouldn’t want you getting stoned up here anyway.”
As they rolled downhill, she watched Tom’s left foot as it pressed the clutch flat and he pulled the lever under the dash. “This is for freewheel mode, and you can shift without the clutch,” Tom said, not waiting for Jillian’s reply. “You know Saab’s slogan? You know what they say?”
“No,” Jillian said.
“Born From Jets,” Tom said.
“Because of their design?”
“No, ‘cause they were really born from fighter jets. The company made airplane engines. Freewheel is like a coast, like a glide.”
“I try to make it like a massage,” he explained. “I try to make my movements aerodynamic.”
“Born from jets,” Jillian said, laughing.
“I wish I was.” Tom looked absently beyond Jillian’s head and bare shoulder to the pointed tops of the spruces in the back yard and the puffy clouds above them. Jillian knew what was behind her, out the window. She imagined he could only see pale fields of green and blue without his glasses.
“Why? Are you going to buy a different car? Why don’t you just sell it to someone for what it’s worth?”
“No, no. I want you to learn how to fix it, and I want you to have it.”
After Omar moved out, Tom got the garage spot. Jillian had held a timing light over the radiator’s fan as Tom tried to pull a belt over its pulley, stretching it taut with a screwdriver. “How do you know all this stuff?” she asked him.
“Before I worked on the farm, I was in the Navy. I was gonna be a jet engine mechanic. Then I got hurt. I hit my head. Then I moved to Oregon and bought a Saab out there.”
Tom kept his answers short and vague to almost any question. He took time to draw up sentences.
“Omar told me that you’re a philosopher,” Tom said quickly after this.
“Aren’t we all?” Jillian asked.
“I have this Wittgenstein book that was my mother’s in school, and I want to read it,” he said. “I told Omar that and he said that you were a good teacher, and that you were a philosopher and could do it.”
Jillian realized that something had been lost in translation. “I majored in philosophy, if that’s what you mean,” she said, “but OK. We can read it together.”
“Everyone goes his own way,” Tom said. He said it bluntly, with a quick snap of his chin, as if it were fact.
“Well, I’m not sure that’s what he said, but maybe we need some more context to find the motif.” She read the next paragraph, much more slowly than the first. “OK, so what did you get from that? He’s talking about some of the same things as in the last section. Do you see any patterns?”
“Everyone’s goin’ his own way?” Tom said, a little bit more tentatively.
Jillian exhaled loudly. “I’m not sure where you’re getting that. What do you mean?”
“Just read some more, let me see what I can get,” Tom said.
Jillian read the next paragraph, but she felt nervous now. She knew from the way Tom looked at her hands on the book that he wasn’t understanding anything she said. She wanted out of this exercise, but she kept reading. She came to a break in the text, and widened her eyes at Tom. “Well?”
“Everyone’s going his own way.”
Jillian shook her head in frustration. “I think you need to start with some more basic philosophy, even just logic patterns and stuff, because he’s not saying that at all. I don’t know why you think that. Which words make you think that everyone’s going his own way?”
“I don’t know,” Tom said. “I wish that I could read it and understand it. “
“I’m not sure what you expect from yourself. Why do you pick the hardest guy to begin analyzing?”
“I feel stupid. I feel like I don’t understand anything and that I’m stupid. I wish that I had skills like you do that make it easier for you to talk. I just can’t get abstract things. “
Jillian suddenly felt sick. Tom’s face didn’t change as he’d spoken, or as he looked at her. “You do get abstract things,” she countered. “How can you just pop the hood and know what’s wrong? You hear a noise and you know what it is, the engine gets too hot and you know why, it’s running weird and you know why. That’s abstract.”
“It’s not abstract, Jill. It’s just not. The engine either goes or it doesn’t. There’s only one answer for every mechanical problem. There’s nothing abstract about it at all. “
“It seems abstract to me. I couldn’t do it. You have this huge gift and you want to write it off and waste your time fucking around with books about theory.”
“You changed the spark plugs last week. You replaced the distributor cap.”
“You taught me how to do it.”
“And if you can’t teach me how to read this, then why not?”
“Jill,” he’d said into her answering machine, “I have to go to the hospital, but not for my regular appointment. Can you bring me? Or they’ll charge me for parking?”
Tom sounded empty, searching, and Jillian could picture his eyes, squinted up with pain, and the wrinkles running across his forehead. She hit the stop button and went right back outside, driving to the Blue House to pick Tom up.
On this night, Tom was admitted.
They told him to sit in a wheelchair. “I know you can drive the Saab, but don’t,” he said, as a nurse put a plastic bracelet on his wrist. “I think you need to practice more.”
Jillian left Tom at the hospital. She got into her Honda and drove back to Harvey’s. She knew Omar still worked at the Citgo on Tuesdays. She had the key to the Saab, and she got inside it and drove it to the station.
Omar was behind the counter, reading USA Today. “Long time, no see,” Omar said. He smiled at Jillian. Jillian remembered the way they’d sang along with the tape, the way Omar put his face through an oatmeal can and said “Smoke meeee,” the funny fake American accent he used when he was trying to teach her new words. She and Tom had just said to each other that the Blue House seemed quiet without him. Then she remembered the juice and Tom’s blistered knuckle.
“I just brought Tom to the hospital,” she said. “He told them something and they admitted him and now he’s inside there.” She felt her throat tighten and the sweetness of mucus, like she had to keep herself from crying.
“I want to know why you called him a “mooderfoocker,” she choked, imitating his accent and narrowing her eyes. “I want to know why you would be mean to him.”
“Look. He’s going to make trouble for you, Jillian. None of us are perfect. He’s not such a bad guy, but he certainly annoyed me. He always wanted to be in my space.”
Jillian stared at him. “Give me some Shermans,” she said, pulling a crumpled ten out of her wallet and flattening it against her thigh.
“We are never all good or nice,” Omar said.
Jillian thought to ask him about his fiancee and his new place and if he was getting his cosmetology license, but instead took the cellophane wrapper off the cigarettes by its gold ribbon and crushed it in her hand, then pressed it into the counter in front of Omar, where it unfurled, crackling and blooming. “See you,” she said.
“If you can’t find it, grind it,” Tom had joked when she was just learning to drive it. “You’ll know it’s in the wrong spot if it squeals like that, and then you go back into neutral and try again.” She shifted back into neutral, feeling the shift loosen, and tried this time to third, then to second, as the car slowed. She heard the grinding again, shifted to neutral, and pulled over to the side of the road. She pressed on the hazard lights. A yellow > sign reflected them back at her. She opened her box of cigarettes and pulled her sweater close to her body. She stood next to the car, smelling something vaguely rubbery. She lit her cigarette and dragged on it, waiting. She waited there for someone to help her.
Emily Lyon published 20 issues of her zine, Daffodil, from 1993-2003, has been published in The Long River Review and Noctua Review, and is an MFA student at Southern Connecticut State University.
Andrea Sparacio is a graphic designer, artist, and illustrator based in Brooklyn. Her artwork has appeared in magazines such as Vogue Patterns, Life In Action, Slice, and Hue, as well as on giftware, wall décor, greeting cards, and commissioned illustrations for a variety of clients. Andrea’s first illustrated novel, The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse (author Steven C. Schlozman, MD), released this past March from The Hachette Book Group, Grand Central Publishing. Visit her online portfolio at artsparrow.com
Graham Patzner is a musician based in Oakland, California. Stream more of his work on Myspace and Bandcamp.
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