A Snorkel (In Three Parts)



Just a week short of turning eighty, he decided it was time for his life to be brought to an end.

Following the natural flow of the tide outside his window, an effusion of loved ones had long since rolled in, lingered, and then all been drawn away to explore the horizon or to make a final plunge into the depths.

He was ready to join the latter group.

Whether in the water or on land, the man had always navigated his surroundings with fluid, unhurried movements. With the bait of his lithe fingers, the neoprene gradually swallowed his body and the mask encased his eyes. Flippers soon extended from his toes.   The only item left was the snorkel. That could wait until he was in the ocean.

It was an unusually calm afternoon, particularly during the season of high tides. A marine layer tucked the beach under a lull of stillness and the encroaching waves responded in kind, generating a glassy surface all around him up to his waist. Once the mouthpiece was negotiated between his teeth and lips, he sucked in a long breath of air and dipped under the soft ripples.

One solid trumpeting expelled all the excess droplets that had sloshed into the tube and before long he could hear his labored but regular breaths filling his ears. Now he could focus on the world where he really belonged, the place where he felt most alive.

In his youth, he had traveled to many lush terrains. Exotic jungles, swamps. But they were incomparable to the overwhelmingly verdant, teeming density of the sea in his backyard. This vitality was palpable; a pulsating energy that physically nudged you into constant awareness and wonder. He had witnessed a plethora of different forms of sea life over the years. Kelp fronds were his most common companion, but he often caught a glimpse of smelt, or better yet, of seals.

At this point, where the pier ended, was where he usually stopped. Today he followed the sun that slipped from the sky and began dropping into the darkening liquid.

A minute went by.

His lungs began to protest and his limbs flailed around involuntarily, pulling him above.

Another attempt yielded the same result. Frustration and doubt welled up behind the plastic visor.

But then a pair of waves caught him by surprise, filling up his snorkel. When he surfaced and instinctively blew to clear the tube, he discovered something now was stubbornly obstructing the flow of air. By now he was too exhausted to remove the mouthpiece or continue treading water.

He took this turn of events as a sign that he could finally let go. He smiled one last time as he accompanied the day’s descent far into the night.


At the beginning, it was all about basking in a deliciously dark bubble of sleep.

Soft currents kneaded and patted him meticulously on all sides, thereby cultivating this trance of incubation for months on end.

Once the eggs ruptured, mother was already dead, and he and his other 200,000 or so siblings were dumped into the salty atmosphere to try their own luck at survival.

For an additional four weeks, the young octopus had ridden a cloud of plankton that swirled near the surface, sustaining himself on larval crabs and narrowly escaping the mouths of passing smelt, or worse yet, an occasional seal.

Then came an afternoon of the king tides, when the entire marine universe gravitated towards the shore.

Everything took on an eerie, effervescent tone as beings moved to adjust to the change. He was ripped from the community of plankton, his eight spindly limbs scrambling to keep up with an amplified rise of the waves. In a moment of complete disorientation, he was swept up then dropped to rest inside a strange narrow enclosure.

There was only one other time in his brief existence when he had felt so safe.

A blast of pressure came from below, working to push him out, but he established a firm suction with his tentacles along the sides of the hiding place and held on. The force at the bottom finally ceased, and he and the tube were falling downwards, being dragged by a weight. But before long the weight was released and he began to float in his new craft, eventually landing in a shallow lagoon at the shore. He remained inside, feeding on the mussel that had accompanied him. In no time he had grown so much he could not leave this space even if he had wanted to do so.


The snorkel was either overlooked or ignored by the traffic of the vacationing adults who waded by. It was a 9-year-old boy who noticed the blue object in the water, picked it up, and held it close to his face, unperturbed by the fetid stream of liquid that it emitted and trickled down his arms.

There was something alive in there.

After finding a less populated area of the beach, the boy squatted down and worked on twisting the mouthpiece off from the tube. With this done, he saw the parts in the remaining snorkel still would not allow the contents to be emptied. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the knife his mother had told him he was too young to use.  One hand steadied the tube and tilted it at an angle to assure that the creature was away from the projected path of the blade. The other pierced the plastic with the tip of the knife, and then began a frenzied sawing with the serrated portion of the tool. Two agonizing minutes later, the plastic gave way and the snorkel was in three separate pieces. The kid picked up the heaviest portion, tipped it, and a diminutive octopus slid into his hand along with a pool of water.

The shock of the encounter rendered both parties utterly immobilized for some moments. When the octopus began to squirm in his palm, the boy cupped his other hand on top and began running to the surf. He waded out until the water reached his chest, and delicately released the animal. As the cephalopod propelled itself further and further away, he was reminded of the message in his fortune cookie at lunch:

                   You discover treasures where others see nothing unusual.


For the little guy who didn’t actually make it…

Drugs, Alcohol and Cigarettes (After School)



Age nine
On a Tuesday
After school
Is the time
To talk
And cigarettes.

He climbs in,
Buckles up,
And before I can say
“How was your day?”
He asks
Do people smoke?”

The kid knows
Something sweet
Must lie behind all the stink
And I think
I owe him some truth
(Of the beasts it can soothe
The wild hairs smoothed)
-But not without first
scaring him straight.

I tap the nightmarish stuff
Of national campaigns,
Like the woman eking out a puff
Fom a makeshift mouth
In her neck,
Her ragged lungs
Wringing out
Specks of vowels and consonants.

Then the sermonizing fervor
And I hear myself sink
Deeper into the handbasket.
I speak of hardening drinks,
Cups that runneth over lives
And tires that also will
Under the same influence;
I speak of sachets of Salts and Spice
Picked up at the corner store
-How they can slice through grey matter
the same as a boiled vegetable…

I pause
To catch my breath.
He scans the road

He says
I may still try
A cigarette.”

the trail


the trail

amongst the laden tracks of suburbia,
i find reprieve
on the trail.

here only the bravest thrive:
the few cantankerous settlers
who launch their thorny fingers
through the acres of gritty bedrock;
and my little warriors,
whose shrieks and pampas spears
conspire with the gusts,
obliterating caution
into fluffy little particles.

here earth is resolutely agape,
the immediate so vast
magellan’s rotund idea rolls off the edge
along with the ages
or any wanting for more…

until the padlocked gate
comes into view.

time to slip back
to the other side

When Life Gives You Lemons


When Life Gives You Lemons

If I got stuck on a desert island and could choose only three things to bring with me, I can promise you that one of them would be a lemon tree.

Good thing our neighbor just gave my mom one for a gift. It’s my job to keep it watered and fertilized since I’m now known by everyone as the citrus king.

Seriously, just about anything tastes better with a little lemon squeezed on top.

Mom now puts a slice on my plate for every meal. It’s my little dose of sunshine, according to her. She’s the one who taught me that lemons were used like medicine in the palace of the sultan of Persia. So it is no surprise that my current favorite food is Sharhat Mtafay, or little steaks swimming in lemon sauce, which is a dish from my Dad’s home country of Syria. Baba always loved to eat them on his birthday.

But you know, as good as lemons are on what goes IN your mouth, they can be even better for what comes OUT of it.

Words, I mean.

Some time ago, when I was about 9 1/2, I checked out a book from the library about spies and secret codes. It was the first time I learned the trick about writing secret messages with certain ingredients you just have lying around the house. I think my taste buds were already starting to get attached to the stuff, so lemon juice immediately became my favorite ink of choice over milk or say, baking soda. When I showed this discovery to Baba, his eyes lit up and right then our underground communication got started up.

Since he normally had to leave for work before I woke up, he would leave mysterious surprise messages for me to heat up and reveal before breakfast:

“Every knot has someone to undo it.”
“Keep away from trouble and sing to it.”
“The son of a duck is a floater.”

Then I would do one for him right before he got home at night. I’d hide in their bedroom closet, the sliding door open by a sliver. He would squeeze out of his suit jacket and tie, take a big breath, and then pick up my sneaky blank paper. Instead of sharing wise sayings, mine usually ended up telling the most recent joke at school. As the blow dryer buzzed back and forth, I could see the smile slowly develop on his face along with the details of my note:

“What did the grape say when the elephant sat on it?”
“-He let out a little whine.”

And so it went without a hitch until one day three years ago, when a very different kind of letter came to our California house all the way from Homs. The handwriting left smudges on Baba’s fingers that were so dark he couldn’t wash it all off for days. There his sister (my aunt, I guess, but I never met her) disappeared in something he called a civil uprising. My cousins were alone.

Mom and Baba did some fighting then. Baba said Mom’s passport was a different color so that was why she didn’t understand. In the end Baba won, or maybe Mom just let him win.

Anyway, after that, Baba got on a plane and went back to Syria for the first time in 15 years.

At the beginning, we would get phone calls and texts from him every day. Later there were some letters with that same messy ink. Then when the war got really bad, the news said there was mustard gas flying everywhere, we just stopped hearing from him for a while.

I can tell by the way people look at us (like the neighbor who gave us the tree) that they think Baba is dead. But I know better.

Yesterday, on his birthday, while I was sipping my daily Limonana (a Syrian version of lemonade with mint), I got an idea. I ran to the bathroom and grabbed a Q tip from the bottom drawer. I pulled out a fresh piece of paper and dipped the cotton swab in my drink. It took forever to get the shiny, sticky letters onto the page for him:

“-Knock Knock!”
“-Who’s there?”
“-Olive who?”
“-Olive you.”

When everything dried and became invisible, I ran back to the bathroom with the sheet flapping in my hand. I plugged in the hairdryer and pushed the low button even though I wanted to put it on high. Left to right, the machine seemed to be shaking its head, telling me no, sorry, this isn’t going to happen. So I closed my eyes and counted to ten. When I opened them, this is what the paper said:

“Tulet elbel betshil men el-Hamod Helo.
Patience extracts sugar from a lemon.”

Brave New World



In the middle
of the Big Apple
a six foot square museum*
displays bullet-proof backpacks
with a Disney theme

I’m ashamed to say
there are days
I have to hide away
from this weight on their shoulders

What with the desks nailed down
right in the crossfire
truancy is sounding
like the lesser of ills

I want to hold all their thermometers
over a boiling pot
I want to sign that excuse
to tuck them in
up to their chins
under grandma’s quilt
until the worst ends
or they turn 21
(whichever comes first)

Thanks to the exhibit of fake vomit
on another shelf
for a moment
the world gets lighter
and I feel as brave as they do


Phantom Limbs


Phantom Limbs

Right before my grandmother’s death, I had become numb to those strange looks we got from people when we were out together.

It never failed. Every time a passerby spotted one of her animated pantomime sessions with her stump, a flush of bewilderment would spread through their face before they hurried off. They thought she had lost her mind along with her left hand.

They weren’t the only ones, and certainly not the first.

Her kindergarten teacher, being the sweetheart she was, padded her concern for the girl with euphemism: “Honey, please remember, we big kids use only a sprinkle of pretending spice per day!” The first grade teacher hinted that it might be time to be fit for a prosthetic, something my grandmother vehemently refused. Then the second grade instructor went a step further and recommended she see a school counselor, sure that her unusual behavior stemmed from an attempt to cope with some sort of crisis at home.

For the odd episodes had not only continued, they had increased in frequency.
Every time it was her turn in the line to wash her hands after art, she insisted on scrubbing extra carefully on her “haunted hand”, because the paint that had dried there was really tickling her. And least once a week she visited the nurse after P.E. for an aching finger on the arm that ended right above the wrist. The list went on.

When she was nine, her parents reluctantly made an appointment with the pediatrician. They couldn’t go on pretending that she was a typical little girl and were ready to hear what they imagined would be some horrifically shameful and grave psychological condition.

After squirming in the yellow vinyl cushions of the examining room chairs for thirty-six minutes (her father had timed it on his prized Bulova), the GP finally opened the door to deliver a verdict that, although far from devastating, somehow lacked the reassurance and closure they so longed for:

“Phantom Limb Syndrome. Those who have undergone amputation or were born without a limb experience sensations as if it were still attached to their body. The brain continues to receive messages from nerves that originally carried impulses from the missing limb. That is why they feel pain and pleasure in the area where the limb once was. Some even feel they are wearing an article of clothing or jewelry on that absent limb”.

Deep down they knew that their unease stemmed from a symptom that had not been included in the clinical diagnosis that had just been recited to them. It was one that they didn’t dare mention at the time.

I was quite young the first time she described the experiences to me. (Maybe that was why I was so willing to accept them as normal, everyday occurrences). I remember we were sitting in her garden on an unusually hot afternoon.

“You know how it is when you go swimming in the lake? How it’s murky and dense, but cool and smooth to move through? That is how it feels there.”

She swayed her arm back and forth, closing her eyes and smiling softly.

“When my hand bumps into something, it can take me a while to figure out what it is. But until now I’ve always found the answer. This time was easy. Butch always comes to see me here in the afternoon.”

Her dachshund had been run over the year before, but there she was, moving her abbreviated left arm in patting motions low to the ground, and then mimicking a little game of catch. I squinted my eyes, then tried to squeeze them shut and reach my hand out towards the direction that grandma kept addressing.

“Oh, sweetie, It’s just that you don’t have a phantom to feel the others. Don’t worry. I promise to be your guide and keep you up to date on all that’s happening on the other side”.

She kept her promise, imparting stories of new findings every time we saw one another. And although she shared the most with me, she refused to hide this part of herself from anyone; despite all the ridicule and persecution she had endured. “You’d think that she’d have learned some restraint after her parents and her husband tried to have her committed”. This is what my mom would say every time grandma would start anything up about her “other” hand.

As I lie here listening to the computerized echo of my heartbeat and the ebb and flow of the ventilator, I can’t help but think that my accident was an act of providence to pass on a family gift.

Grandma is the first one to visit me, and she’s holding my hand.