Zack from Syria

Zack from Syria - student project

I was on campus when an unknown number rang my phone.

“Hello, is this Jee Choi?” said a woman from the other side.

“Yes?”

“Hi, my name is Sally and I’m calling from the Royal Melbourne Hospital Emergency Department.”

She went on saying something but I couldn't catch it because she spoke too fast with a thick accent. I didn’t know if she had asked me a question, but there was a pause.

“I’m sorry?” was all I managed to say.

“You were on the emergency contact list of Zack Najarian, that’s why we’re calling.”

She explained that Zack had nearly drowned in the ocean and was brought to the emergency room. She said I needed to come to the hospital

 

I met Zack a few months after I came to Australia to study. I got a job at a cafe on Melbourne’s busiest street. It was late at night and I was on my way home after my shift. The train station was nearly empty. On the platform, he came to me and asked if this was the right train. I looked up at the screen and said it was. We chatted while waited. He asked me where I was from. "South Korea," I said.

“I’ve never met a South Korean before.”

“Where are you from?”

“From Syria. But I’m Armenian.”

“I’ve never met a Syrian or Armenian before.”

He said his name was Zack. "Jack?" I couldn’t pronounce his name and he corrected me. "Sack?" I still couldn’t. I told him we don’t have a “z” sound in Korean. I said I was still learning English. We sat close on the train and talked until we approached my station. We said good night and I got off, although for a moment I thought about staying on and talking to him.

 

A few days later he showed up at my cafe. I had mentioned where I worked and he knew the area. He ordered a cappuccino and a meat pie, a standard order for many people. Very Aussie, I joked.

I gave him the freshest pie that was at the back of the oven display and took extra care with the milk: silky, glossy and warm, not hot. He lingered around the counter and kept talking to me. It wasn’t busy and I worked by myself. I enjoyed his company. When customers came, he would step aside. We talked about nothing in particular. Small talk, as they say.

“Hey,” I said abruptly as our conversation trailed off. “What do you do on the weekend?”

I hoped it sounded like more small talk, just another conversation starter.

“You mean this weekend, or the weekends in general?”

It depends on how you take it, I thought.

“I don’t know, maybe this weekend?” I said back.

“I’m going to see my friends or chill at home.” he answered.

“Good.” I said.

He waited for a moment and grinned. “What do you do on the weekends?”

“This weekend?”

“Yes, this weekend,” he laughed.

“I’m going to some church thing with my housemates.”

“Some church thing?”

“I promised them that I would go.”

I was living with other Korean people who I had gotten in contact with through my parents’ friends. They were big on church and had been trying to bring me to their whatever events. 

“But I’m free on Saturday,” I told Zack.

“Then maybe we can meet on Saturday?”

We got each other’s number.

 

He was a few years younger than me when I thought him older. He thought I was younger. He came to Australia as a refugee about 10 years ago. His family still lived in Syria and they hadn’t seen each other even since. He had almost finished his engineering degree back home, but it was no use here. He was trying to become an Australian citizen so he could travel to Syria, or maybe bring his family over. “They are living through war,” he said. He got a job as a salesman of first aid kits. He visited offices, businesses and homes, and sold the products. It was well-paying, but he didn’t enjoy it. He wanted to try other things but he wasn’t sure what he liked.

I complained about my religious Korean housemates, and working at the cafe. But it could have been worse, I said. The housemates were not the sort I would hang out with if I’d had a choice but they were nice enough, and I knew no one else. The payment from work was bad but at least it was something. I saw desperate students and people on working holiday dropping into the cafe and asking for a job all the time.

 

He smoked. He managed to hide it when we had the first two dates. On the third, I could smell it while we kissed, sitting on the grass under the shade, on a hot summer day.

“Do you smoke?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Sorry, I didn’t tell you.”

“What else are you hiding?”

“Nothing,” he laughed.

 

He invited me to a party at his friends’ place. They were close mates of his, some of whom were from the same country. But when I got there, the party wasn’t what I expected. It was dark and they were smoking shisha in the backyard. They drank hard. I regretted coming here. I made some awkward attempts to talk to them, but I couldn’t find any common grounds. Zack was among them, smoking and drinking. They sometimes spoke in English for me, but mostly in their language. After a gruelling hour, I made up an excuse that I had to go. They asked me to stay but I knew it was just a polite gesture. I got out of the house and ordered an Uber. Zack followed me.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I said I was okay and mumbled something like I had to be home before my housemates worry, some obvious lie.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” Zack asked again.

“I was just a little uncomfortable.”

“Is it because of my friends?”

“No, they seem nice,” I said. “But all they do is drink and smoke.”

“But that’s how we relax. We don’t do this very often,” Zack said. “They are very dear to me. Some of them are like my family. We’ve been through a lot together.”

“Do they do drugs, too?”

“Some of them do a little.”

“Do you do drugs?”

“No!”

“They are a bad influence on you, your friends.”

“You just don’t know them.”

I said to him that he was wasting his time and talent, that he could get a better job that made him happy, or resume his studies, only if he had wanted it hard and surrounded himself with positivity.

“That’s why I have you,” he said. But It sounded like he would say anything to defend himself.

I waved at my Uber, while Zack was still waiting for me to say something back. We faced each other for a moment, then I got in the car and took off.

 

It was three days after that night when I got a call from the emergency room, that Zack was at the beach and had an accident. And I was his emergency contact.

I went to the hospital. He didn’t have any injuries, at least on the outside. He was to stay in the hospital for another day.

The following morning, Zack called me on the phone.

“Doctor said I shouldn’t be alone after I get out of the hospital.”

“Then where are you gonna go?” I asked, with his friends in mind. But their house was too crowded, too chaotic, he said. 

“I wouldn’t have called you if I’d had anywhere else.”

 

I asked my housemates if I could have my friend stay in my room for a few days until he recovered. They decided it was okay. They had their girlfriends come and go after all. Zack left the hospital, grabbed his belongings from his apartment and came to my room.

 

I would go to school, to work, and see Zack at home. He tried to help around the house and befriend my housemates. He would go out sometimes. At night we did our best not to make any sound while we were in bed, clinging to each other. Playing music was too obvious. It would only signify we were up to no good. If the bed started to squeak, we put our sheets on the floor and moved down.

 

A few days later, the housemates said Zack had to go. They didn’t say why but I knew they knew. They must have figured by now. They told me that this country corrupted me, they understood that it’s easy to submit to these temptations when I was alone, and what I needed was Jesus.

“What about the girls you guys bring over?” I protested. They said they were different because they went to church and they were girls, not guys.  Zack didn’t understand our conversation, but he knew what was going on.

“I’ll leave,” he said and went to my room and packed his stuff. I followed him and packed my stuff, too.

 

Soon we were out on the street with our bags, wondering what to do. Zack said he had a friend who might help us. A different friend from his usual group.

We met Jane at her house. She had been a refugee case worker for Zack when he was new to the country. From their worker-client relationship, they became good friends. Her place was small, old and pretty. Sunflowers stood tall around the fences. The wooden, unwaxed floors were decorated by different shapes and colours of rugs. Her dog was overjoyed. It’s the sort of place that makes you want to wake up in the morning and brew a pot of coffee and bring it to the garden first thing. She had her extra room listed on Airbnb but it wasn’t going well. Lucky for us, the room was made for guests. We were giddy over a pair of fluffy towels and bathrobes, and good smelling bar soaps on the bedside table. I wasn’t sure how long we would stay there but it was the most luxurious experience I’d ever had.

 

A few days later, we went to the hospital for Zack’s appointment. We were led to a room full of doctors and nurses. They introduced themselves as a main doctor, a training doctor, a psychologist, a nurse and a student nurse.

“Can you tell me what you were doing at the beach when the incident happened?” the psychologist asked after a series of standard questions by the head doctor. Didn’t they establish this when he had been admitted to the hospital? Zack said the same answer as he had said before. Swimming.

“Were you under the influence of any drugs?”

“No.”

“Do you have any religion?”

“My family is Christian but I don’t go to church anymore.”

I didn’t know he was a church person himself.

“Could you tell me more about how you drowned in the ocean, with more details?” the psychologist asked yet again.

“I was swimming but I went too far and the waves got strong. The lifeguard saw me and saved me.”

She listened and nodded. “I have to say it’s quite unlikely that you would have drowned at Williamstown beach. That’s where you went, right?”

“Yes.”

“Have you taken any drugs in the past month?”

Zack was silent for a moment. “Yes.”

“Can you tell me what they were?”

“Cigarettes. And weed, sometimes.”

“Any hard drugs?”

“What is hard drugs?”

“Such as crystal methamphetamine, also known as ice.”

“Yes, I did that, too.”

“How often would you say you did ice?”

“Maybe four or five times.”

“In the last month?”

They went on with the questions and answers but I excused myself and left the room, angry, and also humiliated, because I started crying in front of everyone.

I waited for him in the lobby. He came out after some time.

“You fucking liar,” I said to him, still crying.

Zack said sorry and rambled on excuses. People gave us looks so we went outside. I kept saying ‘liar.’ He kept saying sorry and so on. He said he had depression and anxiety. He talked about Syria and his family. And the stress he was getting from the sales job. None of those could be an excuse for using drugs, and we all had issues but we coped with them in other ways, I said.

I called him a liar one last time and walked away, cursing him in English. Liar. Junkie.

 

I found a new place and moved out from Jane’s house. A few weeks passed when I saw Zack again. It was late at night while I was working and he was with his friends. They didn’t look like his usual Armenian and Syrian friends. They were a mix of white, Middle Eastern, Asian guys. Probably gays, going to club to club.

They came into the cafe drunk, rowdy and hungry. They ordered pies and sandwiches and coffees and hot chocolates and chai lattes. They hogged the tables and started a post-party feast. Zack came to the counter and asked me how I was. Good, I said.

“I’m so sorry that we are loud,” he said, sounding more giggly than sorry.

More people came in and ordered more food. It was suddenly busy and Zack’s gay friends were even louder. Other people told them to be quiet but they wouldn't listen. 

“Shut the fuck up,” one guy said. 

“Fuck you,” another said and threw a pie at him. They jumped at each other and threw punches. Tables and chairs thrown, but thankfully they were made with wood in case for these happenings. Some guys wrestled on the floor. The police who were patrolling saw this. I grabbed Zack and shoved him in the walk-in freezer while the others ran away. Some were taken to the police car. Everywhere was mushed pies, spilled drinks and something that looked like tomato sauce or blood. After everyone was gone, I went into the freezer.

Zack looked like he was about to die. "It's so cold in here."

“I think you can come out now.”

I reached for his arms and rubbed them. He put his head on my left shoulder, chattering his teeth. His arms went around me. We kissed, our bodies trembling, but the cold was unbearable and came out.

The police came back and asked me questions. Zack kept coming in and out of the freezer with boxes, pretending he was working.

 

We saw each other for a little while, but it was clear that he was not going to stop using drugs. No matter how he saw it casually, I didn’t want anything to do with them. He had to be clean, or I couldn’t be with him. After a few more attempts and disappointments, I stopped seeing him and blocked his number.

 

I met a lesbian girl at school and we bonded over Lady Gaga. We became close and she introduced me to the Melbourne gay scene. Every Thursday, this grungey bar in the city hosted a night only for gay people. They called it ‘Thursgay.’ There were a number of gay clubs around the city but it was one of few places where gays and lesbians could mix. The night was highlighted by a lip-sync competition emceed by a drag queen. Occasionally I would meet someone and spend the night with them, but none of those led to anything substantial. I started using dating apps thinking casual sex became my thing, but I realised I always wanted them to be my boyfriend afterwards.

I still wonder at the meeting of Zack, the late night station, the train ride together. He came to find me and we went on a date. We’d never said anything about being gay but he pushed a little bit further, and I pushed a little bit further. Maybe he could tell from my mannerisms. But I certainly couldn’t tell from his.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so hard on him. There are indeed ‘recreational drug users,’ my lesbian friend told me. She’d done them a few times. Zack and I could have been in a relationship and still let each other be.

Or I could have been corrupted by this country and given into the temptation. That sounds more like it from the stories I’ve heard. It always begins with trusting your partner or friends. Then it’s a downfall.

Then there are other stories I’ve heard. The first relationship never works out, they say. So this was going to happen sooner or later. I don’t know about Zack’s number, but for me, it was my first.