The New Morning Coffee Normal

I’m slowly sipping coffee with almond milk. My husband hasn’t come home from the hospital this morning. It isn’t unusual for him to be late. Sometimes he lines up for toilet paper or the rare canister of Clorox wipes. Sometimes he falls asleep in his car. He’s known for his work ethic and his epic fatigue. More than once, I’ve found him passed out, car door flung open, his attempt at exiting his vehicle evidenced by one foot planted on the asphalt. The neighbors might assume he’s a drunk except for the scrubs and stethoscope around his neck. But now, I worry. Not that I didn’t worry before. But this morning, I’m worried that he’s out there, overtaken by a sudden cytokine storm, dying alone in his red Prius. I get dressed and go outside. My husband is sitting in his car, talking to his sister on speakerphone. I can hear her rapid-fire speech through the window. She has been in quarantine for four months, and my exhausted husband doesn’t have the heart to hang up. He made it through another night. I go back to my coffee, add some more almond milk, and watch the creamy liquid swirl and disappear.

The Black Djellaba

The empty wine bottles I used to decorate the one and only shelf in the tiny, monastic room off of the Boulevard Saint-Michel would have to stay. The stains on my teeth from smoking Gitanes and drinking too much Beaujolais Nouveau would be coming with me. I smoothed the Flock of Seagulls spike of platinum blonde hair that intersected my face and gingerly folded my designer clothing, a far cry from the mass produced polyester garb that dominated the Ohio malls of my youth. I had been fixated by the fashion show that lit up the Parisian sidewalks, everyday people dressed to the nines just to walk around the block. I found myself lurking about the chic tunnels of Les Halles underground shopping center, quickly learning the etiquette of dressing nicely to shop (no jeans or tennis shoes) and making polite conversation with boutique salesladies. I tucked away the silk blouse lined with gold thread I purchased at Frank et Fils. Then, the tailored blue pinstriped Actuelle de Renoma wool suit that I eventually wore to present my thesis on the Falkland Islands. Finally, the umbrella with the tan leather strap and metal ball handle. I imagined myself brandishing that umbrella like a baseball bat, defending myself while marching to and from nightly language classes where I learned to repeat, “Elle etait un peu sotte.” She was a little stupid. And “Les chausettes de l’archiduchesse sont-elles sèches?” Are the archduchess’s socks dry? To this day, the effort of moving my tongue with such staccato gymnastics makes my brain sputter. Finally, the soft black djellaba robe.

My American classmate, Wendy, and I traveled to North Africa with a Syrian girl from my dorm, Nisrine, and her Iraqi cousin, Denaz. Nisrine was somehow related to Syrian royalty and she was the queen bee of the Foyer International des Étudiantes. The Arabic girls worshipped her, brewing her morning Turkish coffee in a copper ibrik, and rousing her to hoof it  to the bathroom before the screaming housekeeper locked the showers for the day. As the only Jew in the dorm, I got the cold shoulder from those girls until I bumped into Nisrine on the street one evening. I was in near-tears over a boy and, sympathetic to my lovelorn plight, she invited me for a glass of wine. Nisrine’s own young adult life had been a series of hidden romances, under the microscope of a society that reported her every move to her powerful family. If she called her lover, the telephone operator would report the communication to her father. If she mailed him a letter, it would be intercepted at the post office. The glass of wine turned into a bottle; as we bonded over our broken hearts and sang Carol King’s “It’s Too Late” until the café waiter threw us out. After that, we became fast friends, the girls in the dorm suddenly accepted me as a sister, and Nisrine and I planned a trip to Morocco for the winter holiday. Nisrine and her cousin agreed to include Wendy, my American classmate. Together, we trooped off to the visa office and waited while Nisrine and Denaz put in their applications. The cousins were indignant that, although their home countries were part of the Arab League, Wendy and I, with our American passports, did not have to jump that bureaucratic hurdle. I heard Denaz whispering something about arrogant America Jews and it was the first time I felt tension and resentment around our cultural chasm.


Upon arrival in Casablanca, the four of us were followed by groups of young men with such ferocious intensity, we called them les mooches—the flies—because they were constantly coming at us, and they never went away. We were detained by police (twice) and chased by angry camels and rabid, haggling merchants. We were snubbed by German tourists and embraced by Moroccan strangers. We were given meals of couscous and invited to weddings, we belly danced in cafés and balanced trays of sloshing glasses on our heads, we watched sugary spearmint tea poured from the rafters into ornate glasses. We were mesmerized by goats that climbed trees and teeming market places with snakes coiling out of baskets. We bought powdery black kohl liner for our eyes and embossed leather wallets for our purses. We flew Air Maroc from Casablanca to Agadir just to go to a New Year’s Eve party. All four of us were always on the brink of exhaustion and we fought and made up and fought again, our political and religious differences breaking through the surface and setting our uneasy friendship on fire. Finally, we went back to Paris, I took my final exams, and flew back to the States. Sleep rendered impossible by the time change, I wandered the empty hallways of my California dorm, the only sound the brush of the swaying black djellaba robe whispering…Nisrine, Denaz, Nisrine, Denaz.