THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE - 28 FEBRUARY 2014
Last fall, I moved from Beirut to Los Angeles with my wife, Kelly, a journalist, and our 4-year-old daughter, Loretta, who one evening was ready to get back on her bike.
The sidewalk stretched out before us. We could hear the steady pulse of traffic on Lincoln and Venice Boulevards. The timing seemed perfect: just before dinner, no chill in the air — a moment to show Loretta how to enjoy her new life in America. Look, honey, you’re safe now!
For half a decade, we lived in places you wouldn’t dream of riding a bike. Loretta was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the fearsome summer heat prevented people from walking anywhere, let alone cycling, and strict Islamic rules about modesty made it impossible for a girl to do much of anything. Then Kelly took a posting in Baghdad, and while she covered the end of the war in Iraq, Loretta and I stayed in a rental apartment off a busy tourist street in nearby Istanbul. Outside, cars swerved and street musicians sold heroin. Loretta, meanwhile, learned to walk. Then we moved to Beirut.
Lebanon was beautiful; we had the mountains, the Mediterranean and a large tribe of journalists and their families. Our first Christmas there, we set up a sad little plastic tree that Kelly shipped overland through Syria. Under it, we placed a pink Huffy bicycle, which I carried from a grocery store on my shoulder, laboring slowly through the pounding Beirut traffic.
At first, Loretta rode the bike in the living room, tentatively, gaining speed. Later, she tried the wheels out in the small courtyard in front, pedaling between parked S.U.V.s, but then the city was lashed by months of spring storms. By the time the sun finally emerged, friends and colleagues were dying in Syria. We couldn’t shake the feeling that we should get out. The civil war next door was washing over the border, bringing with it a wave of assassinations and car bombs. The pink bike sat in a corner, gathering dust.
When we moved to California in September, we traded bombs and bravado for a 100-year-old house in Venice Beach, and one of the first things we did was get Loretta a new bike. My wife pined for the reporting she left behind. I was mostly relieved, but also disoriented by everything that seemed to come so easily for people in a place like L.A. Then, on a beautiful Southern California evening, our daughter said she was ready to ride.
“Daddy, I’m scared,” Loretta said, quivering. In front of her, the sidewalk rose at a sharp angle, the concrete cracking where a tree’s root had grown too large.
I was getting ready to tell her about adversity and patience and doing your best when a police chopper threw on its spotlight, casting our father-daughter moment into sharp relief. The pilot sat above us, hovering.
I was frozen, with a hand on my daughter’s arm, ready for some kind of judgment. To natives of Los Angeles, perhaps it was no big deal to be lit up by an airship on the hunt for evildoers. To people coming from the Middle East, where such machines portend a whole new level of state coordination and where murder and mayhem aren’t remote concepts, such a moment felt significant.
I shaded my eyes from the harsh beam of light and wondered if life would ever feel normal again. Had we made a mistake coming to L.A.? Had we tried hard enough to make it work? With Loretta sobbing and begging to go home — whatever that meant — I put her in my arms and held her.
The next morning, Kelly and I stood in the kitchen, bleary-eyed, drinking coffee. Neither of us had slept well. Somehow, our quiet new life couldn’t compare to the sounds of the Middle East.
On Twitter, someone said the helicopter had been looking for a suspected prowler. In the morning sun, I swore I heard another chopper hovering, this time right outside the kitchen window.
“Jesus, this feels like Baghdad,” Kelly said, eyes wide, looking out the window for the helicopter.
But let’s be real: Venice isn’t Baghdad.
In our new home, in our new life, we lie under clean sheets, preparing for the good dreams to come. If we listen closely, although I haven’t yet tried, apparently we can hear the sound of the waves.
This piece was published by The New York Times Magazine. Read the original here.