“Once Upon A Time in Parma”
by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large
We didn’t eat out very often — couldn’t afford it — but Ali Baba’s was cheap and highly recommended, and my mother and I were suckers for ethnic food, as exotic as we could find within the greater Cleveland area. Sure, there was Aladdin’s right nearby, the first of what would expand into a chain soon enough, but Ali Baba’s was an adventure: all the way out in Parma, land (as my friend Katie liked to say) of big hair and Starter jackets. My mother hadn’t been going out much on account of her recent colostomy — having your digestive tract rerouted through an intestinally-attached plastic bag can really wreak havoc with your social life — but we made a date with our neighbors, Mary Anne and Laura, for a girls’ night out. Mary Anne was taller than my mother, with short dark hair and glasses; she wore turtlenecks a lot and had once laughed at me when I mixed up Geraldine Ferraro and Margaret Thatcher, and she and my mother walked together every day, hitting the sidewalks with our three-legged beagle, Dina. Years of Pavlovian response had left Dina with an irrational exuberance every time Mary Anne appeared at our door and when my mother and I got into the car and left her behind that night Dina’s dejection was palpable, all too evident in those big brown beagle eyes.
Laura and I sat in the back seat as we traversed the city, reaching Ali Baba’s as dusk brewed. The restaurant was small and not very full, a couple sitting at a table and next to them a middle-aged man, grey-haired and in a t-shirt, sitting by himself but chatting so eagerly with the couple that he had to be terribly drunk or terribly lonely or both. We sat next to the fray in a booth, ordering food to be shared, our knowledge of the cuisine well-informed by so many visits to Aladdin’s: hummus, tabouleh, baba ganoush and fattoush arrived in short order. Next to me, my mother fidgeted.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. “I’m having… problems. Just get my food to go, OK?” She dashed off. Impeded enjoyment of heavily spiced food: just another sideaffect of rectal cancer. Mary Anne, Laura, and I ate a companionable meal — we’d all known each other forever and they were as well-acquainted with my mother’s various maladies as any family member. After our food had come and gone Mary Anne went to check on my mother in the bathroom.
I saw the white van as it pulled up, seated to face the front window, but before I could remark on it to Laura a small Arabic man had jumped out and darted into Ali Baba’s, tossing some foreign brand of protein bars on the tables with a few unintelligible words. He disappeared. Laura and I — freshman and sophomore in high school, respectively — stared at each other, eyebrows raised and mouths gaping. Mary Anne came back from the bathroom.
“Well, Conchy’s having a rough — what are these?”
We told her that we had no idea; we opened one and poked at it. I was daring and took a nibble in spite of Mary Anne and Laura’s protestations, finding it less than toxic but also less than appetizing. The bill came and went as we waited for my mother’s emergence and on the sidewalk outside I saw people milling where the white van had been: two heavyset women, bleach-blonde in the streetlights; a teenage boy and a little girl. The boy walked into Ali Baba’s, past our booth and then back out, and the women grew agitated until one finally burst in, trailed by her caution-pleading friend.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” the first blonde shouted at the gregarious grey-haired man. “You piece of shit! You molested my son! You fucking bastard! You’re disgusting!” The waitress ran from the kitchen to see what was the commotion and the swinging wooden doors to the dining room thudded hard against her momentum.
“Hey,” the frizzy blonde woman’s friend murmurred to her, and she looked around in the sudden realization that there were other people here: the shocked and silent couple; Laura, Mary Anne, and I, shrinking against the green vinyl of our booth; and the waitress, face swollen and bloody from her collision with the door.
“I’m sorry,” the blonde woman announced to all of us, pointing at the grey-haired man. “But he molested my son.”
The four of them turned and left. The waitress stepped back into the kitchen and the grey-haired man stood, sputtering and dissembling, but we just waved him off. The waitress returned with ice in hand, ushering him to sit quietly and then sitting down herself to nurse her broken nose. Mary Anne and Laura and I could only stare at one another.
My mother came out of the bathroom. “What’s up?” she asked, perky and conciliatory, certain that she’d ruined our night out. “Hey, what are these?” she asked, picking up one of these mysterious Middle Eastern Powerbars.
“We have to go,” I said.
“But what about the bill–”
“We’ll figure it out later,” said Mary Anne, standing. My mother noticed the waitress then, waving us good-bye from behind her fistful of ice. “What happened?”
“Later,” we all three replied, hurrying past the grey-haired man and out the door. Around the corner to the car stood the two women, smoking cigarettes, framed by the two kids in a sullen tableau. They recognized us and the frizzy-haired one spoke again. “I’m sorry for ruining your dinner,” she said. “But that man in there molested my son.”
“It’s OK,” mumbled Mary Anne and Laura and I, in quick succession as my mother’s eyes widened. We got to the car and I held onto my mother’s uneaten mujadara, growing cold in her to-go box. The doors closed and we all heaved a sigh, together, and then my mother turned around:
“I guess I missed something back there, huh?”
Mary Anne started the Saturn and we drove back to Cleveland’s leafy East Side, trying to find the words to describe what had happened that night in Parma.