Managing this chain of Subway sandwich shops in Aleppo totally blows. I’m ensuring the bread gets baked, the cheeses displayed properly, that the tomatoes are freshly sliced and that the discs of various kinds of meat do not smell strange and that all the dispensers of condiments are filled. We ran out of napkins during the last bombardment and that was fucked up, but honestly I don’t even know if the home office even knows we are still open, let alone whether we are keeping customers hands clean. They don’t seem to care! But what is worse is that my BEST assistant manager quit in order to start working as a sniper in that old hospital building—she is a total fucking saint, with a quick finger that once punched out subtotals and now rips out bullets, I guess—and all I’m trying to do is hold it together, which is why I was so relieved when I had a little time off this weekend and had the chance to take our girl to a birthday party in Beirut.
She’s just three-and-a-half, which seems really young to me, but what do I know? I just manage a chain of Subway sandwich shops in the embattled Syrian cultural capital of Aleppo. I’m no expert in what children are capable of.
So I’m unprepared and semi-alarmed when we get to the Discovery Center™—a rich kid’s play zone at the mall in Beirut built on a souk ravaged by the last war. A million little brats are running around, screaming, and my girl without fear plunges into the mass, heading straight for this, like, big fake construction zone? Some older boys are beating each other with these fake bricks. And a pair of girls is running the fake crane, trying to pick up another girl by the skin on her neck with this fake hook thing. My brow is sweating and it’s feeling like I’ve been getting bombed too long to handle something like this, yet I really want to be here and at the same time can’t help wondering if I’ve made a mistake not having a member of our staff take the girl.
It is without displeasure that I see my daughter embracing her best friend from the fancy private school we send her to. They are nearly crying with relief at seeing each other, and then they run to this special station, where kids can in theory create these big delicate bubbles. I guess this is supposed to be some kind of educational center? Everything in post-war Beirut is bullshit; looking good but in the end the tastiest cake has fake frosting that is mayo and the flour is cut with chalk. But I make money selling meat, so I know what it’s like to dress up a shit sandwich. Anyway, the two girls stand on a little step-stool, on tip-toes, pulling iron shapes upward and out of these vats of pink fluid, in effect making these shimmering films of suspended bubble film. If you blow really carefully, I tell them, you could make some bubbles. But maybe the bubble bath is too diluted? Cheap bastards. The girls cry and shrug their shoulders, this transition from sadness to bitterness and I want to fix things so they never have to hurt.
C’mon girls, I say, and that’s when I notice a pretty whimsical thing on the ground: A circular trough of pink fluid, in which is submerged an iron circle. I study it and realize what it does. I herd the girls into the center of the circle and slowly pull the circle up, gradually enveloping the giggling pair in a cylinder of rainbow film. I am amazed and so are they, with this giant, undulating bubble-film thing that can hang in the air, protecting them but not really. It’s so fragile! Even a light wind could pierce the membrane, but for a moment it’s so beautiful. I am grateful to the wonderful people of this educational science center. I am also crying a little. This is much better than ensuring sandwiches get made in Aleppo! What am I doing with my life?
A woman with a clipboard taps me gently on the shoulder and I nearly wheel around and strike her with a kind of sly death blow I’ve been practicing each night, when I’m away from the girl, managing a Subway in Aleppo, fearing the day will come when I am taken hostage or cornered by bad men in some dark hallway, and then the sandwich shops will be doomed and I’ll have to regret all the time I spent keeping them open. The clipboard lady just wants to tell me the party is beginning, and I apologize for nearly chopping her neck with an angry hand that I’ve been practicing using in my little hotel room. She shakes her head. I probably look terrible. I didn’t have time to shave before I left. The crack of anti-aircraft fire was rumbling and I hate jets so I drove away from Aleppo fast fast fast.
The girls run over to a painting station, where a dozen little people from school are putting on plastic smocks and preparing to decorate ceramic shapes. My girl picks out a butterfly, and I regret all the time I’ve spent away, doing something other than watch her paint pretty things, and I stifle another tear—so sappy, but who would say life isn’t beautiful?—and the little people get to work with their paintbrushes and un-ironic smiles and I watch with chest-tightening admiration. I try to find birthday boy Michael and realize I have no idea, really, which one he might be. The curly-headed one eating the red paint? The guy with the dark circles under his eyes and the buck teeth? Maybe he’s the pointy-headed dork wearing a gold necklace and Hilfiger?
Clipboard lady is back. We are ushered to the party, where there’s a too-loud stereo pumping out a strange mix of familiar songs rendered nearly incomprehensible because they are covers done by budget artists and the music is being pumped through these over-taxed speakers you can’t actually see. They are embedded in the ceiling? Doing this aural violence unseen? A third-country-national from maybe Somalia (?) serves me weak coffee and I sit down in the adult section as my girl joins in the fun.
I am approached by the giant father of a boy named Joe Joe, this guy in my daughter’s class who looks totally like the cute little boy from The Sound of Music. My girl has been talking about this guy for about a year, going on and on about this Joe Joe boy. We talk on Skype, which I fire up on my Subway laptop in my hotel room. Now that I’m finally able to see the damn kid, I see she’s right, I have a crush on him too. Joe Joe’s dad, meanwhile, has yellow teeth and is six-foot-six and he whips out a fancy smart-phone the size of a piece of bread. He punches up a photo of a bullet, and tells me this entered Joe Joe’s bedroom in Beirut during a recent skirmish. He grimaces, says things in Syria aren’t going to stay in Syria. He says he co-owns two hospitals in Damascus and Aleppo. I tell him I make things for people to eat.
I realize I want some orange juice. Joe Joe’s dad watches me open a bottle. He is big and tall and sure of himself. I am unshaven and not as tall. I open it and Joe Joe’s dad laughs and says I’ve been doing it wrong. You should hold the top and spin the bottle, not hold the bottle and spin the top. I had no idea. I might never co-own anything.
Yet: fatherhood. My little girl runs over, saying she misses Mommy, who is in some city doing work, of a kind that is different than mine but also feeds people, and I forget where my wife is for a minute—was it Amman, or Marrakesh? Something like that. So I hold the girl, cooing, regretting the world and its sharp edges, the way we wander it doing stuff that doesn’t really matter, and I can’t help thinking these thoughts: my daughter’s arms are like plump loaves of bread, her chest is like a turkey breast, and her salty tears flow like the delicious oil we pour on a well-laden foot-long. I am a sandwich man, after all.
Nathan Deuel lives in Beirut and has contributed to The New York Times, GQ, and Virginia Quarterly Review, among others. His first book, a collection of essays, will be published by Dzanc in May 2014.