HE ROLLED over and nuzzled his pillow. Through the thin membrane of his unconscious, he saw not the pillow, but mounds of coppery flesh, sweaty and firm, and appropriately stimulating. He could not see a face on this nameless form because he concentrated only on those luscious, satiny curves. His lips sought out that moist crevice he knew would bring them both the most pleasure. A smile creased his lips as he kneaded his face into white linen, kissing its softness, inhaling the fresh scent of a spring morning, but a noise drew his awareness up from the depths of his tantalizing vision. Beyond the borders of his dream, barely noticeable but growing louder, he heard the pulse of an alarm clock.
His eyelids fluttered and one opened. Sunlight poured through a window like melted butter, spilling onto his face, making him squint. The combination of warm rays and cool breeze drifting through the open window pampered his face. It felt strange to lie in the sun, smelling sweet scents that permeated the air. Through the yellow glare, he saw the flashing red diodes of a clock—7:00.
His first reaction—a deep feeling of loss and a desire to return to the satiny skin he had been kissing—fled after a second, expanding into a moment of wonder. He became caught, as often happened, in that void where his consciousness was aware but his identity—his personal history—had not yet reentered his body. He lay staring at the clock, feeling the sunlight warming his face, wondering where he was, and more importantly, who he was. Now with both eyes open, he lifted his head and scanned the room, searching for clues to his identity.
Books, posters, computer gear, and general clutter gave the impression of a classic frat-house bedroom, one vaguely familiar. He read the spines of books standing at attention on the shelf—Sartre, Camus, Graham Greene, Thoreau, Isherwood, Maugham, and Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. His eyes rested on a name scribbled on a notebook lying on the floor near his bed: Sayen Hommet. The name meant nothing to him. Then his gaze shifted to a small silk prayer rug, the intricately patterned rug his own mother had woven at their family loom in Tripoli and given to him at his circumcision. In a flash, his memory ignited and his personal history crashed down on him, a millstone crushing his chest to the point he strained to breathe.
Yes, he thought, Sayen Hommet, medical student, Muslim. After ten years of living in this country of unbelievers, he still had these problems waking up because he simply could not adapt to days not measured out by the shrill calls of the muezzin. He had owned a watch with an alarm set to mark all the hours of prayer, but he had pawned it a year ago. He glanced at the clock again and realized he was much more than a Muslim medical student—he was late!
He leaped from his bed and ripped open the top drawer of his bureau, searching for clean underwear. Moments later he bounced across the room on one leg, pulling on loose-fitting slacks while at the same time running an electric razor over his face. There were no clean shirts in the closet. He dashed to a pile of clothes on the floor and lifted a shirt to his face, sniffing. He threw it aside and lifted another shirt, which smelled worse than the first one. He lifted a third and slipped it on, not bothering to smell it. He stepped into a pair of loafers and raced out the doorway and down the hall to the bathroom where he meticulously washed his hands, feet, and face at a sink. After returning to his room, he kicked off his shoes and stood before his prayer rug, which lay along an axis facing holy Mecca.
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar—God is great. He sank to his knees, bowing into the first prostration. “I bear witness that there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” His deep voice murmured like the rumbling of distant thunder. Within the room’s stillness, the air trembled, making the light shimmer. “God is great, the merciful, the compassionate.” He could feel the blood circulating through his body as he opened himself to the universe and let God flow into—or perhaps out of, he was never sure which—his being. “There is no God but God.” Now came the part he loved most, that feeling of oneness with the Almighty, joining with the pulsating energy that binds all things together. His mind floated in a sphere of calm wonder. Eyes closed, breathing from deep within his diaphragm, he felt his soul smile.
Moments later, a rap on the door and a harsh voice ruptured his bliss. “Hom, get it in gear. You’re late again!”
Sayen dipped his forehead to the rug once more before jumping to his feet. He donned a white lab coat, slipped into his shoes, and grabbed his backpack before racing out the doorway and down the stairs.
Seven frat brothers huddled around a table eating breakfast. Doug Housman slathered butter over his toast, added a generous helping of grape jelly, and brought it to his mouth at the instant Sayen dashed through the kitchen, speeding toward the back door. Sayen grabbed Doug’s toast as he flew by, and crammed it into his mouth as he burst out the doorway.
“Hey, bitch,” Doug screamed after him, “where’s the fifty bucks you owe me?”
Sayen sprinted to the curb where he always parked his Austin Mini Cooper, but he stopped cold before he reached the sidewalk. Before him, a yellow tow truck lifted the front end of his Mini off the pavement. “Hey, that’s my car.”
The tow-truck driver leaned out of the cab. “Was your car. Now it’s the bank’s.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do now?” Sayen said to nobody in particular. He studied the driver, a bear of a man with a grease smudge slashed across his cheek, wondering if anything could persuade him to lower the vehicle. The brute was too big to threaten, and Sayen had no cash for a bribe.
“Pay your bills,” the driver snarled.
The truck jerked away from the curb and sped down the street. Sayen threw his hands in the air. “With what?” he yelled. “Do you have any idea how much Stanford tuition costs!”
Three minutes later, Sayen raced across campus on a borrowed skateboard. He recklessly dashed between fast-moving cars, bumped one student who dropped her books and screamed expletives, and almost ran down a toddler. He flew all out, heedless of oncoming danger or the carnage he left behind.
CAMPBELL REARDON watched a woman’s face, red and dripping with sweat, scrunch into a mask of pure agony. Her breathing became loud, frantic, crescendoing into a scream. “Oh God! What’s happening?” Her panting accelerated, wet sobbing breaths on the verge of hyperventilation. She leaned back on the table with a sheet draped over her elevated knees.
Her husband held her hand, stroking her forehead. “Breathe, sweetheart. Concentrate.”
The woman’s moans built into another scream.
On the far side of the room, Nurse Peggy Warren prepared bathwater and blankets. She had a bird’s narrow lips, bottle-red hair with forties-era bangs, and a Carolina accent that always sounded slightly pretentious. Beside Campbell, crusty old Dr. Crill studied his wristwatch, timing the pains. Campbell was feeling his usual sting of resentment that came whenever he had to work with Dr. Crill. The dinosaur should have retired when I was in diapers. He was convinced that the reason Crill treated him with disdain was not the fact that he was a handsome twenty-six-year-old with wavy blond hair, perfect teeth, and brimming with life, but rather that everything about Campbell spelled money—manners, posture, grooming. Everything except the nervous expression he could feel on his face at that moment.
“Late again,” Crill snapped. “How many times have I warned him?”
Crill glared at Campbell with hard, unfathomable eyes until good manners forced Campbell to look away. He turned his head to stare out a bank of windows overlooking Stanford campus, but what caught his attention was a moth with squiggly yellow markings on its wings battering itself against the inside of the windowpane.
“I’m sure he’s only moments away, Dr. Crill.” Campbell continued to watch the moth, somehow hoping it would find a way back outside, to break free and ride the wind. He yearned for a miracle, and he knew that his desire had more to do with Sayen than the moth.
The woman in labor screamed again as agony arched her back off the table.
“Be strong, sweetheart,” her husband crooned. “Breathe deeply.”
She reached up and slapped her husband’s face once, twice. She tried for a hat trick, but he pulled out of her reach. “Don’t tell me to breathe, you turd—Do something! Make them give me the fucking shot!”
“We have plenty of time here,” Dr. Crill said to Campbell. “I’ll be at the nurse’s station checking on other patients. Send the nurse for me if the baby crowns.”
“And Campbell, if Sayen is not here by the time I return, I’m washing him out of the program. We take medicine seriously on this campus, and that means showing up on time, every time.”
“We don’t know what’s keeping him,” Campbell snapped, his anger leaping into the red zone. “It could be an emergency.”
The expression on Crill’s face revealed he did not like the tone the conversation had taken. He closed his eyes, obviously trying to determine if he was overreacting. “What do you think he’d prefer, Campbell, washing out of the program or setting him back a year?”
Campbell turned his attention to the windows. The moth still battered itself against the glass. “Are those the only choices, killing his dream or throwing him deeper into debt and delaying graduation by a year? Well, thanks. I’m sure he’ll be humbled with gratitude.”
Crill’s eyes narrowed as they followed Campbell’s stare to the window. “As well he should be. Few people get to choose.” He stood silent, no doubt waiting for a proper, reverential response. When none came, he said, “Very well.”
Crill picked up a pad of paper from a nearby table, strolled to the window, lifted the pad, and smashed the moth.
Campbell willed his face into neutral as his anger turned into shame, which stemmed less from ingratitude than from the dangerous way he had allowed himself to reveal his contempt when it could have been so easily concealed. That was a weakness that could get him drummed out of medical school, and he vowed never to allow himself that response again. His only hope of becoming a doctor was to placate Crill and all the other arrogant bastards like him in a self-effacing manner. And that I will do, no matter what.
Campbell’s chest squeezed tight. His lungs labored and his eyes watered. He reached into his pocket for his inhaler and lifted it to his mouth. One squirt brought sweet relief, and that helped calm him.
As Dr. Crill breezed out the doorway, another wave of pain rocked the patient. She grabbed her husband by the shirt collar and squeezed. He fought to suck air into his lungs. As the pain rolled away, the husband pulled back, gasping for breath. He staggered to Campbell and clutched his arm. “Doc, you gotta give her that shot.”
Campbell glanced at the doorway, thinking he should probably go after Crill, but clearly not wanting to. “I wish I could, Mr. Bishop, but I’m a student here. I’m not allowed to administer drugs without a doctor’s supervision.”
“There must be something you can do. I mean, look at her. She’s in agony!”
Mr. Bishop clenched Campbell’s arm so tight he was in pain himself. Campbell could feel beads of sweat breaking onto his forehead. “Dr. Crill will be back any second. As soon as he’s here, I’ll administer the shot. I promise.”
Another scream sent Mr. Bishop back to his wife’s side to dab her forehead with a damp cloth.
Nurse Peggy turned on Campbell like an attack dog. “Her pains are under a minute. I’ll get Dr. Crill.”
Campbell rushed to put himself between Nurse Peggy and the door. He held out a hand to stop her. “We have to wait for Sayen,” he choked. He gave himself another blast from his inhaler.
The patient’s groans were constant. Her screams grew razor sharp. “Please, doc,” Mr. Bishop pleaded, “do something.”
“I’m not making that poor woman suffer another second,” Nurse Peggy snapped.
“Peggy, no. Please don’t!”
“Screw Sayen!” She hurled past Campbell and jerked open the door, but then froze and stared into the corridor. Campbell cocked his head to the left so he could see out the doorway, and what seemed to fill the long hallway was Sayen on his skateboard, flying toward them like a charging bull.
“Hold the door,” Sayen yelled only moments before he rocketed into the delivery room. He leaned back on the board, screeching to a halt, then popped the board up and caught it with expert-like ease.
Sayen returned Nurse Peggy’s glare as the ends of his mouth lifted. “Hey, Pickles, you look more sour every time I see you. Lighten up and enjoy life.”
“Stop calling me that.”
Campbell stepped close to Sayen, and as he did, he felt that familiar weakness come to his chest, that feeling of awkwardness he always felt around this beautiful man. Sayen had a long face, bushy eyebrows suspended above deep-set eyes, the suggestion of a moustache set over impossibly thin lips, and a prominent Adam’s apple that constantly battled against his starched collar. “Crill is ready to wash you out. I’ve been stalling for time.”
Sayen grabbed Campbell’s wrist and turned it to check the face on Campbell’s Rolex. “I’m exactly on time.”
Campbell felt the heat from Sayen’s fingers on his wrist. He was always amazed at how this lovely man generated so much energy, as if he held an entire universe of burning life deep within, a brilliant comet streaking across an empty sky. “On time for Crill means ten minutes early. You know that.”
Another scream from the patient sent Nurse Peggy hurrying out the doorway.
“We both know that decrepit boob can’t even see his watch,” Sayen spat. “This has nothing to do with being late, and everything to do with him being a homophobic swine.”
“No argument there.” Yes, Campbell knew the truth of it all too well, and he felt a wave of admiration for this Muslim man who had the courage to be completely out. He also felt a tiny twinge of shame for not having the same pluck. In Sayen’s excited state, he had yet to let go of Campbell’s wrist. “If you’re timing my pulse, let me assure you, now that you’re here my heart rate has doubled.”
Sayen dropped Campbell’s arm. “We better scrub up before Pickles comes back dragging that knuckle scraper.”
They walked to the sink, rolled up the sleeves of their lab coats, and, side by side, soaped and scrubbed. Campbell felt waves of coziness. He seldom had the chance to be this close to Sayen. He could feel the energy radiating from him, and that warm strength comforted him. He nudged closer, but Sayen moved farther away.
“Have dinner with me tonight,” Campbell said in a low voice.
Sayen glanced up, lifting one eyebrow. “You know I’m in a relationship.”
“Ah yes, the mystery man. Nobody believes he’s real.”
Sayen rinsed his hands. “He’s real, alright. He just travels in different social circles.”
“Fuck off.” Sayen grabbed a towel and dried his hands. He turned his back on Campbell and slipped on rubber gloves.
Campbell cast his towel aside and lifted a glove. “I’d show you off regardless if I had a wife. Don’t you think you deserve better than that?” He stared into Sayen’s eyes. It never failed to amaze him that a man of North African ancestry, with thick, jet-black hair on his head and fine hair covering his arms, would have eyes the color of the sea. But then a purple spot below Sayen’s lips caught his attention. “You have a smudge of jam on your chin.”
Sayen held up his gloved hands, hesitating. Campbell felt a burning desire to lean forward and lick that sweet jelly off that bronzed skin, but instead he pulled a white monogrammed handkerchief from his pocket, cleaned Sayen’s chin, and slipped the handkerchief into Sayen’s pocket. He smiled. “Keep it.”
Sayen hesitated again until Campbell said, “It’s only a hankie, not an engagement ring.” Sayen dropped his head and nodded. He glanced at the patient, at her spread legs. His head jerked back to Campbell, and a mask of panic etched his face.
“What’s wrong?” Campbell whispered.
“That’s my undergraduate-English teacher, Mrs. Bishop. Jesus, I can’t do this.” He pulled the white handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his forehead, leaving a faint line of purple.
In the three years that Campbell had known Sayen, this was the first time he had ever seen the man so unnerved. He laid a calming hand at the back of Sayen’s neck, gentling him like an unbroken colt. “I thought you’d jump at the chance to rip the guts out of a homophobic Bishop.”
“This is no joke. She and I were really close. I can’t deal with her like this.”
“You can’t walk away from the people you care for, Sayen. She’s a woman in pain, and we’re going to help her bring new life into the world. Just focus on the baby.”
Sayen glanced at her spread legs again as sweat beaded on his forehead. “Shit, it’s crowning. What should we do?”
Campbell shrugged. “You’re going to deliver a baby, what else?” He walked to the patient’s spread legs and lifted the sheet higher. He moved to Mrs. Bishop’s side and took her hand. He nodded to the husband and then to her. “Looks like someone is anxious to see its parents. It won’t be long now.”
NURSE PEGGY dashed to Dr. Crill, who leaned against the nurses’ station counter with a cell phone pressed to his ear. “Doctor, it’s time. You’re needed in Delivery.”
Dr. Crill held up a hand to silence her. “Yes, that’s right,” he said into the phone. “Sell my entire holdings in Apple. Buy ten thousand shares of IBM at market.”
He shushed her, turning his back to her.
Nurse Peggy folded her arms over her chest and tapped her foot. Crill paid her not the least bit of attention. “Dr. Crill, there is a patient in pain.”
Crill placed his hand over the phone. “Just a damned minute, young lady.”
GLOVED and masked, Sayen advanced on Mrs. Bishop’s spread legs, but then he froze.
Campbell, aware that his friend’s distress had deepened, came to his aid. “What now?”
“There’s blood oozing out.”
“For Christsake, move over.” Campbell shoved Sayen aside and bent between the patient’s legs. Mrs. Bishop’s constant cries could shatter glass, but Campbell stayed calm, working to support the baby’s head as the tiny body emerged into the world. “Mrs. Bishop, I need you to push now. Push as hard as you can.”
Sayen turned away as more blood appeared. He continued to dab his face with the handkerchief, which became completely damp.
“You owe me dinner for this,” Campbell said over his shoulder, “and I’m hungry for sushi.”
Sayen leaned over the sink but managed to hold his stomach down. He glanced up at his image in the mirror and visibly tried to pull himself together. “You know I can’t afford sushi. How about Mickey D’s?”
Campbell shook his head, secretly pleased that he had gotten a dinner commitment out of this lovely man. “My dime. Sushi To Die For on 3rd Avenue, seven thirty. And don’t be late.”
Campbell pulled the baby away from the mother. “It’s a girl, Mrs. Bishop,” he said, holding it up for the parents to see.
Campbell held the infant while Sayen cut and tied the cord. They stood together at the foot of the bed while Campbell tried coaxing the baby into breathing. It didn’t respond.
“Slap its butt,” Sayen hissed.
Campbell shook his head. “We don’t do that anymore. That was covered in one of the many classes you missed.”
“Fine, Mister Adorkable, do something!”
On her own, the baby balled her tiny fingers into fists and let out a cry that let the whole room know she was a fighter.
Relief swept through Campbell. He held that tiny bundle of bawling life in his hands as he gazed into Sayen’s fatally blue eyes, and he felt something pass between them, something so warm and natural it felt, well… loving. There was no other word for it. Caught in the wonder of seeing new life emerge into the universe, so frail and so dependent on him, he felt his infatuation for Sayen blossom into something deeper, some unknown force he could only call love.
They worked as a team. Sayen took the baby to the waiting bath water while Campbell tended to the mother. Campbell glanced up to see Sayen fastidiously washing the tiny, pink body. Campbell saw warmth pour from Sayen as he fawned over the infant. It seemed as if their two bodies became one glowing force of nature, bound by some invisible strength. But even caught in that cocoon of heartfelt feelings, Sayen seemed to pull back.
Campbell moved to Sayen’s side.
“I can’t believe people are so hot to be strapped down with one of these,” Sayen said. “I mean, they cry, keep you up all night, cost a fortune, and they smell.”
The baby continued to cry as Campbell wrapped it in a blanket and handed her to Sayen. Nuzzling into Sayen’s protective embrace, she stopped crying. Sayen pressed his cheek to the baby’s forehead, humming a soothing tune.
Campbell nodded. “They give you unconditional love, which is something in short supply.”
The baby seemed to smile. Both men shared a wonder-filled moment, drawn close to each other, with the baby between them. They could almost kiss.
Sayen broke away from the moment to cross the room and press the baby into its mother’s arms. Mrs. Bishop’s tears were now joyful. She cuddled her infant, then grabbed Sayen’s hand and pulled him toward her like a fish on a line. She kissed his cheek, and a line of red moved up from Sayen’s collar to cover his entire face.
Mrs. Bishop grabbed her husband and kissed him. “It’s a girl. Honey, we have a baby girl. I love you. I love you so much.”
Campbell crossed the room and slid an arm across Sayen’s shoulders. “Look at them,” Campbell whispered. “They’re glowing. You think they care if it smells? That’s why God made talcum powder.”
“Okay, babies are adorable. I’ll give you that. But for me, kids are like snow.”
“It’s great when it belongs to someone else. You drive to it, play in it, and then drive home to your warm, dry house.”
“It snows in Tripoli?”
“Are all Americans so stupid when it comes to world geography?”
Nurse Peggy rushed through the doorway. Dr. Crill strolled in behind her.
“Alright,” Crill said, “are we ready to begin?”