It was late September, a time of year when San Francisco is warm and clear. Ali wandered the streets by day, kept his vigil at the southeastern Golden Gate overlook in the evening, and sampled the nightlife when he left his vigil post. The City was still colorful and festive, but less gay now. With more tolerance of their lifestyles, gays and lesbians had spread out throughout the country rather than concentrating in city enclaves.
High-tech had taken over. The new gold in town was knowledge. The knowledge industry developed the hardware and software that powered the world. With little space for growth, San Francisco pushed ever upward. High-rise condominiums and office buildings had altered the skyline, creating shade in the fog wet and sun drenched streets and dwarfing traditional monuments like the Coit Tower and old Ferry Terminal on the waterfront. Ali breathed it all in and savored the spicy side of food, song, sex, and humor served up to the masses in North Beach, Chinatown, and the Fisherman's Wharf area. He also sampled the little neighborhood restaurants and bars. But he didn't mix with the young crowd of professionals that flocked to these venues in the eternal search of a mate, at least for one night. Instead, he found a corner table and ate his meal or sipped his drink alone; drinking in the beat of a life he had become a stranger to. There was a loneliness in him that he couldn't explain. He was home, but there was nothing for him here. He found himself thinking about the tribal territories as much as of Dina. And she was nowhere to be found.
On the 10th day of his vigil, Ali arrived at the southeast overlook and began walking around to the various vantage points and watching the white sails tacking like marchers on the Bay. He often held cameras and took pictures for tourists who flocked to the overlooks to get pictures of themselves standing before one of the wonders of the world--the ancient bridge from the 20th century that caused so many deaths in its birth and yet again saved so many lives when it withstood a terrorist attack in the 21st. A San Francisco icon, the Golden Gate stood for many things. For Ali, it meant the start of a new life. If only she would come? He thought about contacting Homeland Security and asking General Forsythe for a favor, but he knew that wouldn't happen. So he waited. And waited. And waited. It had all become rather routine. Feeding the seagulls, taking pictures of the tourists, and checking every viewpoint for signs of her.
Gazing off into the distance at Angel Island, Ali heard the seagulls calling louder. It wasn't the seagulls. "Ali! Ali Jaheed! Is that you?" He turned to see a lanky, longhaired blonde man bounding down the path to the overlook toward him. Even after twenty years, it was unmistakably the figure of his high school friend, Rob Johnson.
Short of breath, Rob called out, "Didn't we go to high school together? I saw you standing there just after I left the parking lot. As I got closer, it just looked more and more like you and I had to yell out. It is you, Ali, isn't it? ....”
"It sure is, Rob! I'd know that ugly mug anywhere! But I thought you were, ah ....” Ali stopped himself mid sentence. The good news was that Rob was alive. "Where the hell did you go?"
By now both men were hugging and squeezing each other to see if they were real. Rob answered, holding Ali shoulders in both hands and looking directly into his eyes. "That's a long story, Ali. I'll have to tell it to you someday. For now, you're looking at the Rev. Rob Johnson, a Lutheran minister, assistant pastor at St Marks's Lutheran Church on O’Farrell. When your father moved away, I lost touch. Where in the hell have you been?"
"I've been in the service. Just got out. Have been enjoying the sights here in San Francisco before I go back to my father's place on Lake Tahoe.”
"I come here often. Isn't she amazing? That old bridge has survived two centuries and a terrorist attack. I pray for her and the lives she saved every time I come by.” Rob's look of glee suddenly turned to one of deep sadness. So that's where he went. How is your father?" Rob tried to hide that look with a new, more cheerful question.
Ali's face fell. "He's dead. Just found out two weeks ago when I got back. Sure makes you think.” He shook his head from side to side in disbelief.
"I know. My mom died after a long bout with cancer in her liver and lungs. She just drank and smoked too much. Even with the cancer cure they couldn't save her. Wouldn't even let her have transplants, she was so far gone when we found out." Rob’s head echoed Ali’s gesture. Both men hugged again as if to fend off some evil that surrounded them."
"I've had enough fresh air and view for one evening. Would you care to join me for dinner at some quiet restaurant so that we can talk? I'll understand if you can't do it tonight.”
"I'd love to. We don't have choir practice tonight, so I was going to come here, grab something to eat, and then curl up with a good book. Follow me, I know just the place that's quiet and we can talk. Do you have a car?"
"No, but my hotel's nearby and I run over. Take me there so I can change, and then we can take one car to the restaurant.”
"OK, sounds like a good idea. I'll drive from the hotel. We just might get parking space closer to the restaurant.” He laughed. Ali agreed. Even with the smaller cars making it easier to park, finding street parking in San Francisco could be a nightmare. Ali always walked or took the cable cars.
Rob dropped Ali at his hotel to change and then Ali joined Rob in his car as he navigated the streets to North Beach. Fortunately, a car left a space open off Broadway about two blocks from their destination. The Green Valley Restaurant was an Old World Italian, family owned, hole in the wall located in a residential neighborhood just north of San Francisco's most heavily frequented night time tourist attraction. It was a weekday night, and the restaurant was as quiet as the streets. Only three of the twelve tables were occupied. Their waiter met them at the door carrying a small dark bottle of house wine in each hand for his new customers. It was an ideal place to eat and talk.
Wine was opened and poured. Napkins unfolded and placed. Rob broke open the sourdough bread and began to butter it. He was the first to speak. "That’s strange. I remember asking you right after it happened if you wanted to join the Army with me, and I distinctly remember that you said, 'No'. Now here you are, retired from the service, just when you had me thinking that you would never go in?"
Ali thought for a moment and decided to lie a little. "Well, I never thought I would either. But you know how things were. My dad was out of a job and all the colleges tightened up their requirements for scholarship. There was so much anarchy, some even closed down. Being Pakistani American, I was looked upon with great distrust by almost everyone. My father finally decided that the only way I could afford a college education and clear the family name was to enter the military service and prove it. I joined the Marines, and here I am, twenty years later, retired and a civilian again.”
"I thought the military was so desperate for career soldiers that they no longer honor twenty year retirements. You were there a long time. What rank did you reach?"
"I quickly passed Officer's Candidate School and entered a very special hazardous duty tour that guaranteed me twenty year retirement. It also allowed me to move up rapidly in the ranks, so I'm now a Lieutenant-Colonel, Retired."
"Whoa! That's not bad. What about college? Did they screw, ... (Rob bit his tongue) you on that?"
"No, I managed to pick up a bachelor's and master's along the way--computer science. But that was a long time ago, so I don't think it would be of much use to me today. For now I'm just going to live off my retirement at my father's place in Tahoe and travel around. Eventually, I'll settle into something else. Now, what about you? You disappeared on me when your mother needed you the most. What was that all about?"
"I was just so angry. Angry that my dad had left us alone. Angry that I wasn't doing well in school. Angry at what happened in the Capitol. Angry because every girl I tried for went off with somebody else. Mom was the worst. She just smoked and drank a lot and nagged me about everything, including getting a menial job to help her pay the bills. But I had a mentor, and for a long time I thought he was the answer to my prayers.”
"John White was no mentor. He was an evil manipulator.”
"How you know about John? I never told you about him?"
“Soon after you left, your mother asked me to find you. I wasn't going anywhere or doing anything anyway, so I told her that I would try. I found out about John by looking at the history of your visits to the Aryan Nation's website and your e-mail. I followed you to Arkansas.”
"What? You did? I never saw you or heard anything from you?”
"I got very close. Got past the surveillance and into the compound. I was so scared that I was going to trip a booby trap or that the dogs would smell me. I saw enough of John White’s preaching to know that he was a psychopath and worst of all, I saw you, hanging there, upside down, naked and bleeding. If I had had the Marine training that I have now, things might have been different. But I got scared and got out of there before what I saw happening to you happened to me. Man! I thought you were as good as dead!"
"I was.” Rob stopped picking at his food, put his fork down and began rubbing the temples of his receding hairline with his fingertips. Just the thought of it had him pale and weak again. He sipped some water and continued, ... "I was. That night John left me for dead like all the others. Fodder for the pigs, ... (He hesitated, as if he had said the wrong thing). But someone cut me down and got me healthy enough so that I could bow to him. Once I started doing that, things were different. Gradually, I became one of the chosen few.” He hesitated again. "You know. I never told anyone this before. Not even an analyst.” He eyed Ali warily.
"That's okay. I won't tell anyone. The Stockholm Syndrome. They told us about it in the Marines. Most people will give in to their captors just to survive. Like you, they soon become converts too and follow unquestionably the evilest of men. Hitler did that to the whole German nation. But they’re some who always resist. Eventually, they bring down evil people like John White. Is that what you did?"
"Not exactly. Oh, I didn't think what he was doing was right, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. I began to think that if he succeeded in gaining control and becoming President that everyone's life would be much better because he would eliminate all the racial strife and other aggravation this society has to put up with. His simplistic worldview made sense to ordinary people like me. But, now that I've got a degree in psychology and studied for the ministry, I can see how wrong he was, propagating evil under the guise of the church. I wrote a paper on the Stockholm Syndrome in my first psych class at San Jose State. I can’t tell you what a relief that was. At Pacific Lutheran we engaged in role-play to prove how powerful it is. Cults use it. Fraternities use it. Old boy networks use it. Hell, even Corporations use it—excuse me." He laughed and then turned serious. The wine was working on his inhibitions.
Rob took another sip of wine as if to brace himself for what he was about say. "And then there was that embarrassing videotape where he announced that I was going to succeed him and then committed suicide.”
"He did? I never heard that.”
"You must have been under very deep cover. It was in all the newspapers, and television beat a path to our door. I'll never be able to live that down. Throughout the investigation the guys clammed up and they ended up with no case against anybody. We buried John and Frank took over. That's when I left. I couldn't stand Frank and his buddies for what they did. I can forgive them now. But I'll never forget"
"Of course you'll never forget. I saw what they did to you. They were fully capable of killing. I thought that they were going to kill me.”
"There's worse. I killed for him. What’s worse is that I never turned myself in. I'm living with that hanging over my head for the rest of my life. I wish you could have got me out back then.”
"I just couldn’t. It wasn’t in the cards. And I've killed too. It's no better or worse. The world has always been against itself and people die. You shouldn't be blamed for the control a psychopath had over you. It's what you're doing now that counts.”
"I guess you're right. I'm getting great satisfaction working with the kids. Our choir is the best in the City. I've got several teams playing soccer in Golden Gate Park and basketball on city courts. It's very rewarding. Some day, maybe, I'll become pastor of St. Mark’s. I hope you'll have time to come over to the church and see what we're doing.” Rob was finishing his scaloppini with gusto. There was a relaxed smile on his face that Ali hadn’t seen before.
Ali answered truthfully this time. "It looks like I'm going to have plenty of time. I may become a nuisance around the church before I leave. Like I said before. Once I leave here I’m not sure what I'm going to do. But let me give you the phone number in Lake Tahoe. The place is big enough. I might let you bring kids up camping or on a retreat. Anything's possible now that I'm retired.”
Ali thought carefully for a minute, looking at his homemade apple pie with his fork playing in it. "I haven't told you everything, you know?” He looked up.
"That's okay, neither have I.” Rob had that pensive look of someone wanting to say something more, but couldn’t.
"I'm here to meet someone. She was in the service with me. I'm going to ask her to marry me. She's Orthodox Christian and I'm Moslem. Will you marry us?"
"Now that is a pleasant surprise. Of course. I love to do weddings. Couples are so creative where they have them. But I will not do one with you two skydiving, scuba diving, or in full combat gear.” He laughed again. His relief was obvious. No more secrets tonight.
"No, I had something like sunrise on Lake Tahoe in mind.”
After that Ali and Rob had dinner together often. Ali visited the church several times and enjoyed roughhousing with the kids on the soccer court. Ali continued to run out to the Golden Gate overlook every evening and became a fixture at breakfast in the Edward II.
September moved into October and still no sign of her. He wasn't giving up hope, but he began thinking more about her being dead or unable to meet him. It was still warm and clear, but each day grew shorter and it was dark when he finally gave up for the evening. He wondered if he'd told her the wrong information. Maybe she was going to another overlook? Maybe her anniversary date didn't match his? Every day it got all little cooler, a little darker and he got more worried. Maybe he shouldn't have thought of this stupid rendezvous thing in the first place. It clearly wasn't working, .... He thought about staying until Christmas. He thought about contacting Homeland Security.
October 13th was like all the other days. Ali got in his jogging outfit at 4:00 p.m. and by 4:15 p.m. found himself high kicking in a circle on the overlook. He had turned each evening into an exercise routine so that he cold keep his mind off what was happening.. He had begun to attract the attention of tourists who took pictures of him as he high kicked, did flips and worked up a sweat during his routine. He made a lunge, shadowboxing an imaginary foe, when he saw someone doing a flip to his right. He turned quickly and raised his arms as if to fend off any coming blow and came face-to-face with her, all four of their arms raised in defense. She was laughing hysterically, but that expression quickly faded as she dropped her arms, and then jumped up, tackling his midsection with her legs, nearly knocking him off his feet, and, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, closed in for the kiss.
As Ali held her tightly to him, kissing her and looking into her eyes, both cried softly and murmured each other's names. The tourists couldn't help but gawk at a scene right out of Hollywood. Some were even taking pictures and videos.
Ali was first to speak, swinging her from side to side. "What took you so long, Dina? I've been coming here for over a month. I began to think that I'd made some terrible mistake!”
"Oh Ali. I arrived in Dulles yesterday. I came here soon as I could! I didn't even stop to see my parents in Houston. I just called them and told them I was home safe and that I would be stopping here first and then come right to them. We've got one night, Ali. My biological clock is ticking. Let's make babies!” She was smiling through her tears.
The small crowd gathered closer around and cheered. Ali carried her off to her waiting car. He wouldn't let her feet touch the ground.