Kashka from Baghdad rents the upstairs apartment across the alley from my family's cafe. I don't know much else about him, at least not for certain. He must have a job in the city, a good one - or at least good enough to afford all the wonderful clothes he wears, three-piece suits and spotless white shirts and shiny leather shoes and perfectly fitted trousers. Most days I see him making his way to and from the bus stop with a briefcase tucked neatly under his arm. Other times he takes a monogrammed suitcase with him instead, and days or weeks pass before he returns. He isn't like the other people in the neighborhood, who struggle day by day to scrape by, who don't wear tailored suits or take long vacations. He shouldn't have to live here, but he does.
Kashka visits our cafe a few times a week. Often he brings a friend along with him, though Kashka usually does all the talking. He tells my father good morning, orders two coffees and two pastries, and compliments my mother's cooking after the first bite. He and his companion always sit at the same table by the front window, lingering over their breakfast as they read the newspaper, trading the sections until they've read every word. Then they get up and begin their day, leaving behind their spare change for me when I clear the dirty dishes away.
My parents learned Kashka's name somehow, and call him by it when he drops by, but none of us have learned the name of his companion yet. He never volunteered it, and we're always too busy to chat with customers during the breakfast rush. Everything I know about him, I learned from the time he looked up from the funny pages and smiled as he met my gaze. There was a gap between his front teeth, and his eyes were very green beneath the shaggy curls of his dark hair. From then on I thought of him as Green - and began to pay much more attention to him.
Yet I didn't fully understand the connection between Kashka and Green until the day I spotted them in the alley behind the cafe while I took the garbage out. The dumpster concealed me from view, and something made me stop there as they passed. I watched as Green took a key from his pocket and opened the back door of Kashka's apartment. Kashka's hand lingered in the small of Green's back before he turned and set off in the direction of the bus stop. Smiling, Green watched him go, then disappeared into the home that I now knew they shared.
Suddenly a lot of things made a lot more sense. I understood the whispers in the park and at the corner store, and the knowing glances my parents sometimes exchanged when Kashka and Green sat down together at their usual table. What I didn't understand was why people like them would choose to live in a place like this. The city Kashka travels to each day is busy and vibrant, full of restaurants and museums and concert halls and art galleries - and, most importantly, beautiful luxury apartments where the neighbors won't whisper or spread rumors about the occupants, because no one actually cares what goes on behind the door. I can't think of any reason they'd want to live in a sleepy, boring neighborhood at the end of the bus line when they could have so much more. And yet they stay.
Because I can't explain them, I'll admit I've become an expert on Kashka and Green. Probably it's wrong (or at least strange) to watch them as closely as I do, but my curiosity wins out every time I try to make myself stop. They'd expect me to remember what they order at the cafe, but they'd probably be taken aback if they understood how much more about them I've learned just by watching them. I know which bus Kashka takes in the morning and afternoon, and I can tell when he's running late. I recognize each shirt in his closet, and the three different suits he alternates between, and I know that on Tuesdays he takes everything to the cleaners to be picked up two days later. I even know that he always stops to buy flowers on his way home each Friday night. Something tells me they're a gift for Green.
Green is more of a mystery to me. He doesn't have a strict daily routine like Kashka does, and some days he doesn't seem to leave the apartment at all. I've spotted him in an odd assortment of places: mailing a parcel at the post office, browsing in a bookstore, buying stationery and ink from the little shop around the corner from his apartment, strolling alone in the park in the late afternoon. I picture him as some sort of artist, a painter or a writer perhaps, filling his days with imagination until evening arrives and he welcomes Kashka home. Or maybe that's just what I want for myself.
Anyone paying enough attention out in public could observe the same things I've observed about Kashka and Green. But I know more about them than that, because I see things no one else in our neighborhood does. My family lives above our cafe, and my bedroom is the only one with a window facing the alley. When I lie in my bed and hold my head at just the right angle, craning my neck against the pillow to peek through the gap between my curtains, I can see into Kashka's window but he can't see me. (Or at least, I could see into it if he ever left the shades open.)
Every night before I go to sleep, with only the dim yellow glow of a streetlamp filtering through the dirty panes, I look out my window to find out what Kashka and Green might be doing. Quite often, the apartment beyond his blinds remains dark and quiet. Maybe Kashka is working late, or on an overnight business trip, or maybe he and Green have gone to bed early. But other times I spot tall slim shadows moving inside as Kashka and Green go about their evening, doing whatever they do to pass the time. On those nights, I sometimes try to stay awake until their light goes out, but I almost never manage it. Instead that rectangle of white light goes hazy before my vision as I drift away into wild dreams of what my life might be like if I were with them.
The best nights happen in the spring and the fall, when the weather is mild enough for people to keep their windows open, but not yet so hot and sticky that everyone needs to sleep next to a rattling fan drowning everything out. Sometimes, when the wind is calm and the bustle of the surrounding streets has faded into a dull peace, I can hear music from Kashka's house. It carries on the evening breeze through the tattered screens, a whisper of strings and a sigh of saxophones and a singer passionately crooning a melody I almost recognize.
As the music plays, I watch their shadows behind the curtains and see how they bend toward each other. I think I hear other noises beneath the faintly echoing tune: silverware scraping against plates, glasses clinking together, water running in a sink, a low hum of long-lasting conversation shot through with soft delighted laughter. The sounds I hear later once they've shut the light off, the gasps and sighs and moans, so muffled as to be almost imperceptible...well, maybe I'm just imagining what I want to hear. But even if it's only my imagination, it's enough to keep me awake and to shade my dreams with fantasy when I finally fall asleep.
For as long as I can remember, I've understood who and what I am. Now I also understand that Kashka and Green and I all have something in common. Before, I thought I was the only one like me - or at least the only one in my neighborhood. Things are different in the city. But now I know they can be different here too. If Kashka and Green can thrive here, laughing and loving, building a life together, what's to say I can't do the same?
I still don't want to bus tables and wash dishes in the same town I was born in all my life. As soon as I can, I want to ride that bus into the city and find out who I can become when I'm there. But if my plans have to change and things never work out that way, all I have to do is look at Kashka and Green to know that joy is present wherever I end up. Even here, even now, they know the way to be happy. Someday soon, I believe, I'll find it too.