“A couple things I’ve written in the past were from the perspective of a middle-aged guy, so I wanted to try something different,” Joel Sayres explains.
His risk certainly paid off. Sayres says that “180 Nights” was born out of experimenting with different perspectives—using individual circumstance, dissonance, and instability as a lens for larger conflict and patterns. His story focuses on personal and family turmoil, as well as themes of alienation, powerlessness, and loss of home. He incorporates colliding cultures within the storyline.
“I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, and recently I’ve tried to focus on it more,” Sayres says. “I try to carve out that time and I want to continue to develop as a writer.”
A Haverford College history major who worked as a legal assistant in Washington D.C. before law school at Yale, Sayres now focuses on patent litigation as an Associate Attorney at Faegre Baker Daniels. He enjoys working in the legal profession because it allows him to think critically and help his clients achieve their goals in creative and effective ways. When he isn’t practicing law or writing winning fiction stories, Sayres can be found hanging with his wife and two dogs.
Her husband was checking me out. That’s the only reason she looked over from the aisle of books in which they stood, tracking his glare like this wasn’t the first or tenth time. He must not have noticed you. He let his eyes fall and rise, rolling over and through my still trim figure. She pinched his arm and whispered curtly. I suppose her one flaw, her misjudgment of men, remained consistent. Her gaze caught me for a quick second, then let it go. She looked old to me, her face marked up more than I thought eleven years could do, the green in her eyes faded and dull. It was only a second. But I think she saw who I was.
When I first met her, my world was brick and chaos. I was tall for an 11-year-old, and although my father’s girlfriends told me how pretty I was, their words were as worthless as the Swiss dinar my father still kept in a cigar box. They fawned over my full black hair, my “doe eyes,” calling me a Persian princess. He could date here in America, and not just Kurdish women. All kinds of women. Each eventually came to know my father, and that’s when they left, flashing a smile to me from the doorway of my bedroom if they happened to catch my stare on the way out. It pains me that some of them still hold a place in my memory while my mother, who bequeathed me my beauty, who escaped chemicals and slaughter in Halabja only to drain out below me in a Jersey City hospital when I was less than a minute old, does not.
Her death set my father on his descent, which ended only a room away in our Bayonne apartment but a world away from me. He fed and sheltered me, perhaps as a duty to her. He did not care if I went to school, so I did not. The one window in my room looked into the brick of the adjacent building, and if I angled my head right, down to the cracked cement of the alley below. So, my only true view was through the TV that my father put in my room to keep me away from him. At the time, nothing but images of my parents’ homeland, blasts of cluster bombs, tracers across the sky. Although I rarely left my room I could feel the stifling blanket of New Jersey summer approaching, could see the sweat collect on my skin, could sense the movement of our walls inward as I watched mechanized infantry plow through the desert in April 2003.
By this time, men would also come to our apartment, for my father no longer kept his work outside. These were not friends or countrymen. They were hardboiled, purposeful men.
“Hey Fero, who is that?”
“That’s Fatima, my daughter. She’s fine, she stays in her room. Come on, let’s talk in here.”
While they would deal on the other side of my wall I would hold Koyo, the stuffed elephant my mother bought for me before I was born, and try to think about a different place, a different time, but nothing ever came into focus or color.
Then the men and girlfriends stopped for a few months, and I learned that my father was seeing someone new. Someone for whom God would make me wait. When Ms. Sera finally appeared in my doorway, she didn’t pull her purse tighter, didn’t stand stiff and breathe dirty pleasantries on me while we both put in our time. Instead, it was as if she picked me up in her sight, turned me around in the air, and knew that although hardened, I was a tethered and damaged child, stunted and atrophying while my father committed felonies outside my door. She came and sat at the edge of my bed, tilted her head to the side so that her black hair caressed her shoulders, her jade green eyes radiant against subtle crows feet, and asked if she could tell me a story.
It was a story about a little girl in a lighthouse, her mother sick and her father gone, who must signal ships in a storm. Against all odds, she saves them all. Ms. Sera drew the story out, recounting it with life and sound, so that it seemed we were there for hours. My head sank into my pillow, my body lost all weight, the apartment dissolved around me. I was next to blue coastal waters, climbing the tower. Below me, the sand was clean, unscarred by vehicle tracks, rusted out drums, or blood from recorded beheadings. That was the first night, you understand, that I knew there was something else in this world. The first of countless nights that she would sit on my bed and bring me out of Bayonne, out of my life, into things that I did not know.
The stories were everything and anything, from every country and culture. Forty thieves, a scorpion killing a frog, a spider saving a pig. Impossible, absurd things. They veered into the unknown; veered into her. Stories of growing up and leaving her country. Stories about young romance, commitment, loss.
I went to school again, if only to kill time until she would appear. When my father told me she was moving in, I cleaned the apartment to make room for her presence. I had nothing to offer as a welcome gift except the last tie to my mother. As she came into my room after unpacking, I took Koyo from under the covers and handed him to her, then put my arms around her neck and pulled her down towards me. At first only her head bowed, stiff and straining, but then her body gave way and she took me in an embrace that filled my room, until I thought the window would burst and the walls break away, combusting with what I had found.
Our routine continued, even as I sensed tension in the apartment. One night I asked her why she told me stories. “Fatima, amor, that’s a tradition from which I have simply borrowed.” She told me about tales within tales, legends told across generations, 1001 Nights. Stories intended to keep you alive, to look forward to tomorrow.
“Because you want to find out how it will end, amor.”
I knew things were not going well with my father, as she learned more about him, what he was. The kindness between them drained like bath water, leaving a film that clung to my skin as their days grew shorter. One November night she did not finish her story. As she rose from the side of my bed and kissed my cheek, I asked her why. “This one is long and complicated,” she said. “It is best if we finish it later, when we have more time.”
I did not hear the front door close behind her that night. I woke to my father’s cursing, and then the crashing of thrown furniture. After he left I tiptoed over splintered wood to their bedroom. Her things were gone except for Koyo, which she left with other trash on the floor.
Like a child will do, I believed against all hope that she would return. At night I would sit up in my bed, arms crossed at the door. I wanted her to see that I was angry when she came in. Then, after sufficient apologies I would forgive her, and we would continue as we had been.
In December, I stopped staring at the door and turned back on the TV. The Iraqi dictator was being pulled out of a hole in the ground. The following year it was my father’s turn to atone for his sins, as the police burst in to end his empire, a young officer training his semiautomatic on me as I twitched from the sound of gunfire in the next room.
I will say this. She must have planted some seed in me, some nugget of strength, because I bounced through the system well. I accepted my foster families, graduated from high school, received a degree in English from NYU. I met a man who sells smartphones, a man who loves me, whom I married last year in the Church of Bayonne.
The test showed two pink lines eight weeks ago now. As I said, still early enough to attract glances. Today, hers was quick and was not followed by a second. I thought about going over there, to tell her what she had done to me, had done for me. Instead, I paid for my book and left.
The first story in this looks like a good one. It will be the second story I tell you, tomorrow night. What I’m telling you now, amor, is the first. And we will go from here, one every night, for 180 nights until you arrive.