It’s dark and snowing when the Jeep Cherokee pulls into the gas station. The car’s windows are rolled down and a couple hands holding cigarettes are poised languidly in the sharp air. The jeep swings past the pumps and turns into a spot near the small gas-mart. Five tall, blond Wisconsin girls get out. They gather by the hood and take a moment to fix themselves. They comb their fingers through their hair. They tug on their t-shirts. They glance at their cell phones. The tallest is wearing a short skirt with no stockings and boots that end mid-calf.
Winter is nothing to them. They don’t seem to notice the falling snow, lighter than ash, or the powerful wind or the coarse patches of ice underfoot, and this is why the young man, standing inside the mart with his hands around a mop, can’t help watching them.
“Why you stop?” shouts the owner, the young man’s boss, occupying the stool behind the cash register. “We close in five minutes, okay?” He follows the young man’s gaze through the glass doors, snorts. No doubt he assumes the young man has certain things on his mind, watching these American teenagers unfurl themselves on a late March night. Perky buttocks, new breasts. But the owner doesn’t know about the bar that the young man goes to Sunday evenings—only Sunday evenings. There, he lets older guys in flannel shirts buy him drinks. They go wild for his curly brown hair and dark skin. The way they look at him, it is almost enough.
Eight months ago he left Lebanon—long, jobless mornings in Beirut, smoking on his mother’s balcony and watching the hot sun climb the mountains. Since then, he’s been living with his uncle in flat, cold Beloit. His uncle has been good to him. He wrote a letter to the consulate in East Beirut, vowing his nephew would not stay in the US more than three months, and he offered the young man a partnership in a Middle Eastern restaurant. But here is the uncle’s America: loud backgammon matches with the Southern Wisconsin Lebanese Club, posters of the cedars mounted above the toilet. On weekends, the young man rides with his cousins to McDonald’s or Home Depot. Outside, there is nothing except white fields. Back at his uncle’s house, the young man cannot warm the tips of his fingers or his nose. The cold pricks and envelops his skin. It has both a granular and infinite quality he could not have imagined.
The Wisconsin girls are approaching. He picks up the mop and the bucket and moves away from the entrance. The tallest holds the door open for the others. They bring the feeling of a party with them. Their voices are pitched high, like teenagers everywhere. But there is a looseness and laziness about their tongues—those flat American vowels—that captivates the young man. They head directly toward the bathroom.
A minute or two later, the tallest one is back, asking for toilet paper. “You’re all out,” she says. Her face is perfect, like a photograph of an apple.
He leans the mop against the magazine rack and follows her. A few steps outside the bathroom, she turns back. She points at the darkened silver chain on his wrist, something he’s always worn. “Cool bracelet,” she says.
“You want it,” the young man jokes in his best accent. He starts to undo the clasp, and she laughs. She turns again, and he follows her again—she seems to expect him to—into the bathroom. The other girls have their chins up to the mirrors, applying makeup and chattering at the same time. One of them looks at him warily, her lipstick held up and away from her face. Her mouth is mean.