Chapter 17: Love in the Dark
Las Vegas, USA
I had been walking through a long hallway in the hospital, where doctors, nurses and administrators were walking back and forth, following up on every detail at a busy pace. The hospital was like a beehive; it was non-stop hustle. Some patients were in wheelchairs, while others were transported on hospital beds towards the operating rooms, preparing for the possibility that they might never see their loved ones again.
Death hovered over the hospital like a shadow, waiting to devour life at any moment. Outside the operating rooms suspense prevailed, as if its intensity was an antidote to death. Once the outcome was announced to the relatives, they were either all smiles or all tears. As surgeons, we were well aware that death was the last viable antidote in incurable cases.
Everything in life had to have a scientific explanation. A patient had died because cancer was attacking his body, or because the tumor hadn’t been removed at the right time, or because he hadn’t committed to the chemotherapy, which could have improved his condition.
I didn’t believe in the spiritual explanations, which Mariam always tried to introduce whenever we got into a discussion, regardless of what the topic might be. Despite my disbelief and the fact that I disagreed with her, I always nodded my head at the end of the conversation; not out of weakness, but to avoid a quarrel.
In the books I had read, I had learnt that our constant arguments affected our children’s psychological state, so I tried not to get drawn into petty squabbles. I had immersed myself in my work over the years, and had become one of the best oncologists in the US as a result. Mariam was as good as I was, perhaps even better.
At college, and later in the hospital, she had always surpassed me academically, but after giving birth to Tuleen and Omair she had decided to work in the clinic rather than at the hospital and had stopped operating so she could spend more time with them. I had remained at the hospital with Gilbert and my patients.
“Hey man, we’ll be off to Italy soon, huh?” Gilbert said cheerfully.
“Yes, we will!” I replied, smiling.
“You’ll find all kinds of pleasure there: music, beauty, art and women. Everything!”
“But I’m only going for the concert, Gilbert.”
“And for the pleasure…” He drew closer to me. “Don’t you miss your bachelor lifestyle?”
Of course I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have decided to go. I was sick of the responsibilities Mariam was always burdening me with. I had had enough of the endless cycle of blame between us over what had happened and what was going to happen. So I would enjoy Italy, even if she didn’t want to go. It was time for me to make some decisions for myself for once!
“Oh, by the way, Michael’s in the other unit waiting for you,” Gilbert told me. ‘I can’t wait to party in Italy!’ he added.
He brought a smile to my face as I headed off to see Michael, who I had never expected to see again after the surgery Mariam and I had performed all those years earlier. He had been five then and now he was thirteen and was fighting the disease again. I didn’t know how we would save him a second time. The tumor had attacked broader and more critical areas.
Intestinal cancer was one of the most critical cases we surgeons had to deal with. It spread so quickly, to the extent that we often couldn’t control it. We always felt so sorry for patients with intestinal cancer.
I was used to all types of cancer. So many patients I met each day would die the next, so death no longer had such a major impact on my life.
My desk was filled with letters from patients thanking me before they passed away, and from others thanking me for saving their lives. There lay the fine line between life and death! While death tightened its grip on a soul in one of the hospital rooms, life crawled in and kissed life into another in the next. Often I became the hero who had saved a soul from death. People didn’t realize that I was only practicing the science I had learnt.
Sometimes I felt conceited, believing that I could defeat death and that I had the power to stand in its way; to stop it taking away another soul. I always did my best to treat my patients, and when they got better I felt invincible. However, that feeling soon disappeared when another patient died at my hands. This was my daily life at the hospital: the ups and downs of life and death; two sides of the same coin.
“Welcome, big boy.” I could clearly see the anxiety on his face, so I tried to comfort him. “Don’t worry, buddy, you’ll be fine.”
“I know that. Because you’re my doctor.” He reached for my hand and smiled up at me.
Michael didn’t realize that he had just thrown a heavy burden onto my shoulders, although this would actually drive me to perform my very best during his surgery the following day.
I spoke to him for a while and then left the room. After examining many cases my day had finally ended, so I drove home late that night. Despite the glamour of the Vegas nights, which attracted visitors from all over the world, I had never experienced their joy. I lived a monotonous life. I went to work, spent time with my kids before they went to bed and then it was family time, when Mariam and I watched TV together.
For eight years I had been following the same routine; not because of Mariam, but on my own account. I simply had a dull personality that wasn’t used to adventure. Just thinking about adventure made me worry, even without acting upon it, so I always preferred to stay at home with my family and follow a clear set of rules.
This was why I had chosen Mariam as my wife; because she systemized everything so well. I had always believed that routine meant security, which was what I wanted to provide for myself and my family. So why did I suddenly hate it? Recently I had been keen to seek some sort of reckless action. I wanted to sense fear for a change; to break that deadly routine I had been living out for so long.
Maybe that was the most reasonable explanation for the initiation of a secret relationship that carried a momentary, heated desire that faded away the moment the phone call was over. That’s what my superficial relationship with Isabelle was like. I knew almost nothing about her apart from her voice, and most probably we would never meet. I called her whenever I felt the need to loosen the chains Mariam constantly confined me with. Feeling that confinement acutely, I decided on a whim to walk aimlessly through the streets of Las Vegas that evening.
Every language was spoken and every civilization had an imprint on the Strip, apart from the civilization of Vegas itself, perhaps. The Strip itself was the only true representative of the native Vegas, upon which the hotels, with their multicultural layouts, had been built.
The hotel layouts displayed a civilization from every era: starting from the pharaohs on display at the Luxor Hotel, which is said to have been built by the Illuminati and followed their rituals. Along the road, Italy was represented at The Venetian; a city of water-submerged streets and rivers. The journey ended with the New York-New York Hotel, which cloned the actual city of New York: the hustle of Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, designed to evoke the American dream.
This dream had become the aspiration of many who had heard of ‘the country of Uncle Sam’, because it was widely believed that every dream could come true in America. Many failed to realize that the statue wasn’t actually American; it had been a gift from France. But still, America was America! It was the state of law, where the law was above everyone and everything, even its president. That was why it had become the land of realized dreams for so many.
As soon as the sun set and darkness crawled in, the massive Vegas lights were lit, announcing the beginning of the hubbub and the vice. Gamblers would flood to the casinos, betting everything they owned; even their wives and girlfriends.
The charm of Vegas could steal away your money and your breath, and it did so with your full consent. Gambling wasn’t just a game played by visitors and tourists; it was a journey that started with a single step. Once you had taken that step, you would find yourself slipping down the road as if you were dehydrated in the middle of the Nevada desert, running after a mirage in search of water. Just when you thought you were about to reach an oasis, the reality that it was just an illusion would strike. That’s why, in Casino, Robert De Niro wasn’t just acting out his part. He was presenting a believable image of Vegas for a global audience.
When the merchants and dealers of Vegas discovered that Vegas didn’t have oil to generate money but had money to generate money, they had invented the casino culture, where gamblers strove to achieve their dreams with a strike of luck by pouring their money onto the roulette and poker tables. Little did the gamblers know that the only luck they were likely to find was a foolish elopement based on a drunken whim!
With this flow of thoughts running through my head, I found myself walking a long distance. I felt tired, so I stopped for a while, and almost at the same moment my phone rang in my pocket. It was Mariam and she sounded really nervous as she interrogated me about where I was and why I was so late. I didn’t want to argue with her, but I told her that I would prefer not to come home that night.
“What do you mean you’d prefer not to come home tonight?” she asked in a stunned tone.
“I need some time alone, Mariam.”
“And since when do we solve our problems apart from each other like this?”
“Over the past eight years we haven’t found any way to solve our problems. Maybe that’s because we’ve never had any distance from each other. Maybe we need to get away from each other for a while.”
“How can you say that, Yaser?”
I didn’t know myself how I had arrived at that decision so quickly. I had never slept anywhere but my home during the previous eight years unless there had been an emergency at the hospital.
I had never told Mariam that I needed space to sit by myself and look back on every detail of our dull eight years of married life. I had never told her that I wanted to break away from the routine, which might well have been our core problem. I had never told her that I’d had enough of her repetitive words and monotonous tone. I had never told her that I was bored with my perfectly neat bed and its comfortable mattress with the crimson sheets and the numerous pillows. I had never even told her that I was bored with Omair’s cries and Tuleen’s laughs. I couldn’t tell her all that, so I had simply resorted to saying that I needed some time by myself.
“Come home, Yaser. Are you leaving your home over a text I didn’t send your mom? That’s what your mom was hoping for when she called you. She wanted to cause a problem between us!”
“My mom has nothing to do with this! Do you think I don’t have enough trouble to deal with?”
“What do you mean?”
“I just mean that my mom’s phone call had nothing to do with this. I just need some time to myself. And by the way, I’m not going to a medical conference. I’m going to the Adele concert you turned down in Italy. With Gilbert.”
I didn’t hear Mariam’s response as I had already hung up. I looked at the city’s flickering lights and then laughed out loud. I had found the courage to tell Mariam that I didn’t want to go home. And that I was off to Italy with Gilbert!
I stepped out of the car and indulged myself in the sleepless Vegas atmosphere. Still laughing my socks off, I roamed the streets delightfully. I felt the city’s fresh night breeze for the first time and soon I would be breathing in the sweet breeze of Italy, where Adele, Gilbert and fun were to be had. Yes, Gilbert and not Mariam!
I picked up my phone and called her. “Isabelle, I want to see you… Yes, to see you… No, no, I don’t want to see you right now… Just tell me when and where we can meet… Okay great, see you there!”