Marina and Leonel, a Love Story

October 3, 2009

October 3, 2009

Dear Papaito,

I’m sorry we did not get a chance to meet today. I did go to our café, you know. I was there early, as usual. I ordered a late, and decided to try the cinnamon cone you suggested the other day. I paid (Wanda was at the cashier, she is doing better now, recovering from her cold), and proceeded to sit at our table by the window. I thought of ordering mint tea for you, but then changed my mind. It would be cold by the time you arrived. You would appreciate the thought, I know, and sip your tea without complaint, but I would know you’re not enjoying it. So you to do that.

I wonder now whether you ordered a late for me, along with your tea when you arrived. I pray you didn’t! You see, I could not call you to inform you of my sudden decision to leave early. I forgot my phone at home. And it only occurred to me that I could have left you a note with Wanda once I was in the train to Brooklyn.

Papaito, you will surely excuse my absence when you learn about my day. But this cannot wait till tomorrow. I must write now. I must tell you about Leonel and Marina at once. My day has been feeling dreamlike since the morning… and now I grab pen and paper, and write. You would know by now, Papaito, that it is in writing that I deposit my hopes of transitioning from illusory to real (and very often, vice versa).

My decision not to wait for you was due to the fact that I remembered today was Day of Dignity, a day when we volunteer to distribute supplied and food for homeless people, as well as offer them free health screenings. Today the meeting place was Masjid Taqwa in Brooklyn.

As I was there, Marina, an elderly African-American woman (or so I thought) led Leonel to me, and talked to me in some language I could not recognize.

‘Huh?’ I said confused. “What does he need?”

Again, the woman spoke unintelligible words. It now became clear to me that she had a speech problem. Yet, she was also trying to help Leonel. I could not understand how this lady, who seemed to need help herself, planned to help this man. It did not occur to me then that they were together.

The man raised his hands, so that I could see them. They were very swollen. The woman pointed to his hands, and said something again.

“Yes, of course,” I said, nodding profusely, pretending I had understood what she said. I would have to guess, I decided, because I did not want to accentuate her awareness of her disability, and the distress of not being able to communicate. She wished to communicate something to me, and so she would! (How, I was not sure, but I would have to understand her some way).

“I will make sure he gets what he needs,” I said to her, to which she nodded, turned around, and left.

Leonel, an elderly man who tried to hold a cane with a terribly swollen hand turned to me. I turned to him. We stood there, looking at each other’s eyes, him knowing that I had not understood his wife, and I trying to guess what this man’s situation was, and what he needed.

Then he spoke. “hay Dios mio, como se dice numero en Ingles?” (oh God, how does one say ‘number’ in English). He was speaking to himself. I smiled.

“Numero is “number,” I said to him, “but no need. I speak Spanish”.

Leonel nodded and smiled. Immediate connection.

From then on, Papaito, I did not let go of Leonel. I walked him through the tents, carrying a bag on my shoulders, collecting things for him. His wife met us midway, and looked at him surprised. Where was his bag? Leonel pointed at me, and said, “she is helping me, mujer.” When Marina replied to him, I could now understand a lot better what she was saying, because I knew she was speaking Spanish (now I knew I had try to distinguish Spanish words from her speech).

Leonel had had three strokes in the past six months, and as a result his upper extremities had atrophied. His speech had also suffered. To make matters worse, his wife, Mariana, had been suffering from Parkinson for the past seven years. None of them could speak properly. None of them could carry anything mildly heavy. None of them could really help the other.

But they did.

How can I explain to you Papaito the anguish I felt as I walked this couple through the lines, carrying their bags on both shoulders, holding their supplies in my hands… Was I not qualified for volunteering? Am I to feel each time I do this that a part of my being stays with the people I meet…? Can I not learn to be satisfied with automatic responses and superficial –kind superficial- encounters? Must I always experience a need to know these people’s names and stories?

Now, after talking for a while and gathering their supplies, they were ready to go. I was holding all their things. Give it back to them? How? They could not carry them. They spoke of taking a bus, but there was no way they could take their supplies with them on a bus. So Leonel spoke of taking a taxi, but Marina didn’t want to. “Leonel!” she reproached him with a dignified frown, “we can take the bus!”

Marina, old, white-haired and fragile like an autumn leaf, started to explain what bus they needed to take. Imagining perhaps, that if she said it forcefully enough it would become possible. Possible to forget strokes. Forget Parkinson. Forget age. Forget forgetfulness. Forget…


As she spoke, I wondered whether I could go with them to drop the bags at their place. The only worry was that me being me, I would probably never find my way back. If I could only pay for their taxi… but I did not wish to offend them (how many times, Papaito, I wished to pay for peoples’ bus tickets in Cairo that first year, remember? Remember how we talked about these impulses and the risk of hurting people’s dignity? Remembering these, I became afraid Papaito. I did not want to offend).

I had an idea. They might not feel comfortable if I paid for their taxi, but they might feel it was okay if Islamic Relief did (the organization organizing the event). I told them to wait for me. I ran into the mosque and made a few arrangements. I came out again and told them that their taxi fare was covered…


Papaito, I do not wish to remember Marina’s and Leonel’s expressions when I told them about the fare. I prefer not to recall Mariana’s eyes becoming teary. Or Leonel holding my hand and repeating “may God pay you back, Que Dios le pague!” I do not wish to recall, Papaito, how embarrassed I was to be thanked so generously, how humbled I was, how little I felt. Marina dried away her tears with her sleeve. How not to kiss her wrinkly cheeks, Papaito?

“Now you go! Before it really begins pouring over us!” I said cheerfully, looking up to the threatening clouds and trying to lighten up our mood.

“okay,” said Mariana. “But you must call me…” They had a hard time remembering their home phone number. Their memories failed them. But eventually, they remembered it and gave it to me. I folded the piece of paper and put it in my pocket.

We stopped a taxi. We put the groceries in the trunk. They got in and I closed the door behind them. I stood there, until the taxi took off. They waved goodbye. Marina, Leonel and my heart waved goodbye at me. Standing motionless, suspended above time, I waved back at them.

The car disappeared in the distance. I walked back to the tent. Silently. Disoriented. Overwhelmed. I reached a door that read “no trespassing. Women area.” As by inertia, I walked in. I took off my shoes. I walked to the back of the room. I faced the Mecca. Familiar words began pouring out of my mouth. Slowly, their soothing effect enveloped me. Gradually, I felt my heart restored…

I lingered Papaito. I lingered in sujood. It was the longest prayer in a long time.


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