It was one of the first warm evenings of spring when my new neighbor Steve—leaning over his balcony and through the bougainvillea—suggested we should take the kids to Faraya, a ski town a few hours from what was starting to look like a war in Syria.
My wife, Kelly, was a foreign correspondent for NPR. We'd just moved to Beirut, where we'd joined a crew of journalists and their families, including the legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid. He and Kelly had been neighbors in Baghdad, and he'd encouraged my wife to come here in the first place. Beirut was this plum assignment, with beaches, bars, and mountains like Faraya. After three years in the Middle East—the heat of Riyadh, the bombs of Iraq, and the bleak solitude of Istanbul, where I'd lived alone with our daughter—at last we would all be together. Loretta could walk and talk, Kelly was a newly minted bureau chief, and everything seemed to be falling into place.
“Sure, let’s do it,” I said, grateful for Steve’s gesture of camaraderie. There was room for optimism: It seemed only a matter of time before Syrian president Bashar al Assad would fall, just like the dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. With Damascus free and Syria awash in fellow-feeling, reporters like Kelly and Anthony would soon be free, too.
Life was looking up.
The next morning, bright and early, Steve and I loaded up his SUV with bags of snacks and snowdrifts of warm clothing and a stack of CDs. Kelly was gearing up for another eighteen-hour day covering the Syrian uprising.
Beirut, when we drove through town that day, betrayed none of the horror we’d all eventually come to know. In neighboring Syria, to be sure, every day that spring, ten or twenty or thirty or more were being gunned down. But the struggle felt far away and the conclusion inevitable; freedom-lovers would win, and justly so. Downtown Beirut glittered with new buildings selling purses and Porsches, tourists and locals thronged new restaurants with fancy decor, and if we saw any cars with Syrian plates they were the luxury cars of the upper middle class on vacation—not the battered getaway cars of refugees fleeing a maniac set on his country's destruction. Everywhere we turned was more proof, it seemed, that we had made an excellent decision to come here.
Steve and I passed a Prada store and a Hermes shop and a few car dealerships and a TGI Fridays and a new mall and three Burger Kings and a Tony Roma’s, and then, as we began the long, slow ascent, I saw vast tracts of shiny new apartment buildings, some with views of a shimmering sea.
Loretta sat happily in her car seat, munching a fig. Ed—Steve’s blond son—had fallen asleep and was drooling prodigiously. On the stereo, a train named Thomas tried to understand why moving carts of coal was so important.
Soon we were surrounded by snow. Were you even allowed to park at a ski resort if you didn’t ski? The thing was this: I didn’t know. As usual, I was just along for the ride. While my wife had big aspirations and the ability to fulfill them, I—several years into falling her around the world—was at this point content enough to look for inspiration from a stay-at-home dad like Steve, with his mane of silver hair and that big-ass black truck.
He prowled for a spot and the lot looked like a showroom of luxury cars, dotted here and there by men and women in colorful snow gear. Though Steve and I were married to women with big jobs—his wife a dean at the business school—the comfort and spending power of many of the people around us exceeded anything we could hope to have ourselves. Steve didn't care, and I suppose I didn't either.
Steve spotted an open space beside a gleaming BMW, but a Mercedes beat us to it. He gunned it toward a second spot beside the slopes. Then a security guard materialized. He carried a pistol on his hip and gestured roughly for us to get out.
We were not VIPs. Just two dads in Beirut trying to go sledding.
“Daddy, I need to pee,” Loretta said.
“Just wait a second, honey,” I said.
Squirming in my seat, already shaking from cold, I reached for my gloves, which were not there. I’d left them in the damn apartment. So many little things could evade you and make you weak, eroding what felt like solid foundation. What was my place out here? I thought longingly of New York, where we'd lived, or Miami, where I grew up. Shouldn't we just go home? In that moment, the thrill and excitement of Beirut began to fade.
The four of us lumbered up the mountain through the cold. Loretta wore three sweaters and a pair of Ed’s snow pants. I wore three scarfs and my father’s too-small hat. It had been a long winter, and the snow high above Beirut was, to my eye at least, frozen solid. For as far as I could see, the world was blanketed in a white hush.
“Right,” Steve said, his cheeks going red. “Let’s find a place to build a snowman!”
We trudged past young men and women smoking cigarettes and drinking wine, sitting in folding chairs or leaning beatifically on skis and poles and snowboards. Loretta’s nose began to run and even with the prescription sunglasses I wore I was having trouble with depth perception. Stumbling, I rubbed my naked hands together, wondering: If I got frostbite, would I still be able to carry Loretta back to the car?
His lips chapping, eyes watering, Steve announced we’d arrived at the perfect spot. We all bent down to dig snow. The kids took turns pawing helplessly at the hard surface, like a pair of seals. Ed began to cry. Steve held him in his lap, rocking back and forth. I looked at Loretta, who stared up at the sky, eyes watering. She looked like her mom. All over the Middle East, there were little girls who looked like their moms.
Wanting to do my part, I kicked at the hard-pack with the back of my heel, building up a pile of fluff. Steve saw what I was doing and followed suit. Loretta watched us, sneezed. Slowly, a quantity of malleable snow amassed. With the children eying us, Steve and I shaped three balls, my fingers going numb, and then we balanced one on top of another, making a little man not much bigger than a coffee can.
We regarded it in silence. As the sun angled better, I could see the vista was achingly beautiful, and I thought—as I had so many times—about what I would tell Kelly later.
Loretta pointed at the snowman’s face, emphatic. She worked her jaws, looking for the right word.
“Eyes!” she said finally. “Daddy, he needs eyes! He can’t see.”
I couldn’t argue and out of my pocket I withdrew two bottle caps. I screwed them into his face. “There,” I said. "Now he can see."
“Right,” Steve said, shaking some snow from his pants and holding a squirming Ed in one arm. “Shall we sled?”
I stood by an orange toboggan. It seemed small. I scanned the white expanse. Clouds swirled high above us. Skiers hurtled toward an inevitable conclusion at the bottom of the slopes. I sat upon a tiny orange disc and dug my heels in. Was that right? Was anything any of us were doing here part of some plan? What wasn't I seeing? Feeling the thing wanting to launch into orbit, the whole contraption ready to go, I grabbed for Loretta, who squealed, and as she worked her tiny muscles against mine, I crammed her into the space between my knees.
Plastic rocketed over snow, and we were hurtling downhill, scarves flying, wind whipping through hair, sun-blind and shivering. Loretta was dead silent, and as we hurtled down the white mountain, I wondered if this was one of those moments when I’d dragged her into a situation she wasn’t yet ready for. Wind whistled in my ears, and I felt regret for all the decisions I’d made and the ones I hadn't even realized we were making, and then, halfway down the hill, my little girl screamed with joy, and I suppose I discerned for a moment the difference between excitement and fear, between hesitation and action—this, at last, was action, that knowledge that something was dangerous but fuck it.
The sled went faster and faster, no turning back, and then all of a sudden we were fishtailing, nearly flipping, and sweet Jesus, it could have been bad, but I—Miami boy, resident of the Middle East, a father—took control. We glided to a stop, and we were okay.
The wind blew down off the mountain. I could hear the slicing sounds of skis cutting across snow and the happy murmur of people waiting in line for the ski lift.
“Again, Daddy?” a tiny voice said. “Can we do it again?”
A month later, squall after squall of freezing rain battered the streets of Beirut. Up on the mountains like Faraya, snow covered everything. News from Syria felt just as hard and heavy; protests were spreading to cities all around the country and the tallies of dead and missing began to engender a dark and persistent fear. The government, it became clear, would not back down—it would do anything to preserve Assad's hold on power—and as the protest movement became an armed rebellion, guns on both sides were drawn. It was only a matter of time before the blood flowed our way.
Weeks would go by without Kelly getting a full night’s sleep. I'd bring her coffee to wake her up, and in her right hand a BlackBerry would still be clutched tightly.
One morning, I was making the coffee and checking Twitter on my phone. A reporter friend had posted terrible news.
“Anthony is dead,” I shouted, running down the hall, cup sloshing.
Kelly shot out of the bed and ran to her computer. A few minutes later she was standing in our living room, filing a news spot for NPR. On air, she said that Anthony Shadid had died during a rugged crossing from Syria. What she didn't say was that he had a son and a daughter and a wife and an ex-wife and that he'd died doing what he loved and that it was a thing that my wife loved too. Nearly every weekend, we'd tried to see Anthony's family but the work always got in the way. Now he was gone, forever.
In a daze, I put Loretta into fresh clothes and watched Kelly pace the room. Rain came down in sheets. We were late for school, and I dreaded loading Loretta into the stroller. Kelly gave us a half-wave goodbye, her face pale and eyes red. While we got ready, she got back to work.
“Daddy, I’m cold,” Loretta said, as I buckled her in. “It’s bad out there.”
Less than an hour after I’d heard the news, I stood under an awning at a preschool a few blocks from Anthony's house, wondering what his death would mean—for us, for everyone, for a new life we’d barely started living.
In the middle of the hallway, surrounded by hand-painted posters and tiny backpacks, I was confused to find an administrator waiting for me. She smiled, clapping me on the back.
“Congratulations!” she said. “You should be so proud.”
Of all mornings, the school was announcing which of the children in the day care program had been admitted into the kindergarten.
Back outside, under a steady rain, I stood shivering, holding an acceptance letter I didn’t want and with a fresh perspective on a problem—how to live in Beirut?—that I didn't know what to do with. The water made the words bleed and the paper disintegrate.
On a brilliant Sunday a few weeks later, the cold spring storms finally broke and there was almost no chill in the air. A fat sun hung in the sky. Anthony was still gone but we were still here. And it was time for a family trip to the grocery store. Walking the sidewalk, Loretta held Kelly’s hand, and in my own, I carried a bag of knives.
Two more Western journalists had died in Syria since Anthony.
At the grocery store, Loretta demanded to ride in a shopping cart shaped like a car.
“It’s dirty,” Kelly said.
I looked inside. There was a steering wheel with a horn and a little seatbelt torn in half. There was also a dark puddle on the floorboard underneath the place a gas pedal should be. I sighed.
We wanted to do everything right. Yet sometimes it was hard to know when to say no, to make the choice to walk away from what might harm us.
We walked past bins of produce, which we could wash in bottled water to avoid typhoid—which struck us all anyway a few weeks later. I paused at the cases of milk, trying to remember which of the four brands wasn’t among the ones recalled because they were basically sugar-water dyed with chalk. Loretta and Kelly scooted off to pick pasta.
Alone, I walked to the meat counter, where I caught the attention of the heavyset butcher. Catching his eye, I dragged a dull blade across the heel of my palm, trying to indicate the problem.
He nodded, understanding. I hated having dull knives. If we were going to stay in Beirut, next to Syria, we needed to be prepared for anything.
Puffing out his chest, the butcher settled a steel wand into a pink-stained butcher block. With great arcing swings of his arm, he slashed the blades over steel.
Mesmerized by the sound and sight and the smell of all the meat behind the counter, I couldn’t stop thinking about Anthony and the other journalists who had been killed, how they'd only been doing what they'd always trained for. At an informal gathering after his death, his assistant had come in wailing, repeating her departed boss’s name over and over, beating her chest with grief. “Why did we let him go? Why did we do this?” Then I attended the funeral, where an entire generation of reporters sat in pews, heads bowed. It was tempting to think some of them might take a break—reassess or something. Unable to even fathom canceling a reporting trip, Kelly spent the hours of the funeral deep inside Yemen. In the coming months and years, more journalists would be arriving in Beirut, not fewer.
I watched the butcher slap down a giant hunk of imported Australian beef. It was probably one hundred dollars worth of meat, and my eyes grew wide. He showed me one of my knives, then he plunged the blade into the loin. Working feverishly, like a man possessed, he merrily sawed off a two-dollar chunk here, then a five-dollar hunk there, making a quick pile, which he proceeded to bludgeon until it was a pile of gore.
“Stop,” I said. “I get it. They’re sharp!”
The butcher took a deep breath, shook his head, and then he began to whistle. Taking out a clean cloth, he wiped down each blade, laying them on the counter for me to inspect.
“These are good,” he said. “Now they are better.”
Walking home, I held my daughter’s hand, and in the other hand I felt the tug of my knives.
Anthony was gone but we were still here. Kelly walked ahead of us, lost in thought, aching to get back to work. She’d cancel her next trip into Syria. But she couldn’t stay out forever.
Nathan Deuel lives in Los Angeles after five years in the Middle East. He has written essays, fiction, and criticism for GQ, Harper's, The New York Times, and The Paris Review, among others. (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/AS...) This is an excerpt from Friday Was the Bomb, a book of essays that will be published by Dzanc in May 2014.
[Photo via Getty]