Though I lived there but a year, I remember Cleveland fondly: the wide boulevards, the prickly chestnuts scattered along the sidewalks crackling beneath our feet, the corner coffee shop where students gathered on a Sunday morning to strum guitars and read newspapers over endless successions of 25 cent refills in hefty ceramic mugs. The University neighborhood radiated youthful energy and lofty ideals. Cleaning the river, fair housing, educating inner city kids, caring for stray cats… any of these might kindle the fires of nightlong intrigue. As might politics, economics, or law. On the brink of adulthood with scant history to call our own, we envisioned our surroundings fresh and ripe for our imprint.
I plunged into my new life in Cleveland, unaware that it would last only a year. A comprehensive street map was my first purchase, allowing me to stray from the terminal tower on public square to the lake front, the flats, the west side, and the east side, even the dispiriting and sometimes terrifying streets of rundown Hough. This was my city, and I intended to know every part of it intimately. I registered to vote, registered my car, and applied for a library card. Cleveland was home. Thanksgiving was still months away.
Hillary was 26, the oldest of my room mates and the only one not enrolled at Case Western Reserve University. Hillary despaired of becoming a spinster. Her job in a home for mentally-disabled adults did not provide a ready social life. She longed for the companionship of someone like her, someone intellectually vibrant but, more importantly, big-hearted. My other room mates were Kathryn, a graduate student, and Ellen an undergraduate. Like Hillary, they sought to use their presence in this world to make it a better place. Despite our similar outlooks, we were four different women living independent lives that crisscrossed in the apartment and on certain social occasions. So we had a plan for keeping peace in the apartment that addressed shared foodstuffs, chores and courtesy. But our plan did not anticipate Ali.
Ellen’s guest Ali who begat Ali’s guest Ann was a case of good intentions gone wrong. I was the first one to meet Ali, so I will tell you how it happened. I came into the apartment between classes several weeks before Thanksgiving to find a man I’d never seen before strumming Kathryn’s guitar.
“Are you a friend of Kathryn’s?” I asked.
“Who’s Kathryn?” he replied.
“That’s her guitar you’re playing,” I told him. As no one else was in the apartment, I asked him to explain his presence. He refused. I insisted, pointing out that it was startling and perhaps unsafe for a young woman to come into her home and find an unknown young man making himself at home. He grudgingly revealed himself to be a friend of Ellen’s.
That evening, Ellen did not return to the apartment, and Ali showed no intention of leaving. He denied knowledge of Ellen’s whereabouts. He insisted that he was spending the night, despite our wishes that he leave. He said the now-unreachable Ellen had given him permission to use her room for a few days while he looked for an apartment of his own.
Several days later, Ann appeared. Slight and nervous, Ann spoke only when spoken to and then only in monosyllables. A contrast with the dark-skinned Iraqi Ali, British Ann was blonde and fair. So fair she appeared faint. Ann was Ali’s girlfriend. She too had intentions of taking up residence in Ellen’s room. Ali had invited her. And Ellen was still nowhere to be found.
Hillary, Kathryn and I recounted the reasons they couldn’t stay. 1. We pay the rent. 2. We didn’t invite you. 3. Ellen didn’t have the right to invite you without our permission. And then there was 4., the biggest reason of all. Ali ate our food, left dirty dishes stacked on the drainboard, then complained of the lack of clean dishes when he returned to the kitchen for his next meal. Ali banged on the bathroom door when we took showers, charging that our morning showers made him late for class. Ali used our belongings as if they were his own, never asking permission first or expressing gratitude after. In short, he didn’t respect us. Our requests that he change his ways had thus far fallen on culturally-unattuned ears. It seemed that his view of our household was hierarchal, with us delegated to the lowermost rungs.
We concluded that Ali and Ann had to go. Where they would go was their problem.
Our resolve faltered only when Ellen resurfaced, begging forgiveness. She thought we’d approve, helping these international students in need in a foreign country. And they’d get an apartment of their own any day now, she pleaded. Could they stay just a bit longer? She’d continue staying with her boyfriend, to keep the numbers down. We agreed on two weeks, but only if they’d buy their own food and help with the clean-up. This turned out to be no problem, only because Ann silently catered to Ali’s every whim and did both their shares of the household work.
Far away from Cleveland in that autumn of our unwelcome house guests, students from another part of the world staged an uprising. In Tehran, Iran , students stormed the U.S. Embassy, taking hostages. Rage and xenophobia spilled across our campus, with particular focus on the international student program and its many Middle Eastern students. Picket signs bore angry slogans. Marchers shouted hateful, menacing words in the brown faces of our campus’ international guests. Newspapers decried their right and the rights of others like them to remain in our country. Ugly vengeance led to threats of expulsion, deportation, housing and job loss, and physical violence. Intimidation silenced many empathizers. Rage spilled across national lines, treating Iraqis and Iranians as one.
So our Ali problem grew. A hated foreigner through no fault of his own, Ali had unwittingly drawn us into a microcosm of the world outside the walls of our apartment and the border of our city. Could we turn him out to face rage, hatred and perhaps violence? Racial discrimination? Our hearts said no, no human being, not even Ali, ever unfriendly and still unwelcome, deserved that treatment. An international crisis was at hand and we determined to rise to the occasion by graciously extending Ali’s stay. Our only proviso was that he step up his efforts to find an apartment.
And then came Thanksgiving. My first Thanksgiving in my new home, it was laden with expectations. Twenty-one Thanksgivings had yet to take me over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house or anywhere else. Thanksgiving dinner had always been a skimpy meal of stuffed turkey, mashed potatoes, mashed turnip and jellied cranberry sauce turned straight from a can onto a plastic saucer. When the food was ready, whoever reached the table first started in eating. No grace, no togetherness. The food was gobbled in minutes, with occasional grunts of conversation squeezed between bites, a quick slice of boxed pie, and it was done. It was a time of hopes unfulfilled and generous instincts unshared, a time when I longed for the storybook Thanksgivings I caught glimpses of at everyone else’s house. This year, I was determined to have that storybook Thanksgiving.
On Thanksgiving morning, Rodger and Eleanor arrived at daybreak, clapping their hands and shouting excitedly at spending Thanksgiving in our apartment. Kind Hillary brought them with our blessing from the home for mentally disabled adults where she worked. They had no family with whom to share a holiday feast, so they would share ours. The holiday mood set Rodger to jumping up and down on the sofa and Eleanor to delightfully touching everything within in reach. They chattered about turkey and pilgrims and sang songs reminiscent of elementary school. Hillary gently reminded Rodger not to jump on the furniture and Eleanor not to use her hands to explore our bodies and our belongings, but we didn’t mind much. We could see on their faces the joy inclusion in a holiday in a real home brought to them.
When Ali woke up, we ducked our heads together and whispered – what should we do about Ali? Deep down, we acknowledged, we knew there was only one thing to do. With trepidation, we asked if he and Ann wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving with us.
For the first time since bursting into our lives, Ali’s face lit up with a broad and grateful smile. Soon the kitchen was bustling with washing and peeling, slicing and stirring. Ali didn’t wait to be asked- he asked us what he could do to help prepare the feast. With good cheer, he sliced vegetables and carved meat. He shared stories of his home and his own family’s celebrations. He listened with interest to our tales of Thanksgivings past, with our varied family traditions. Even Ann said a few words of her own, the most we’d heard her speak in Ali’s presence. Rodger and Eleanor eagerly pitched in, setting the table, singing songs, and carrying condiments to the table. Working alongside one another, swapping stories and sharing memories and dreams, we didn’t seem so different after all. The Iraqi and the British girl, the mentally-disabled adults with no family, and four American students from different states and backgrounds setting culture, history and politics aside to find a common humanity. When our meal was ready, we counted each other among the blessings for which we gave thanks.
With a lot of effort and some luck, Ali found an apartment of his own just after Thanksgiving, and we never saw him or Ann again. But each year at Thanksgiving I remember that special magic of sharing the holiday with people so different from myself.
The names of the people in this story have been changed.