“It doesn’t look like I thought it would,” K told me.
“This is just the suit they give you to try on,” I said. “The real one will be nicer.”
K (not his real name) looked at the mirror and frowned, unsure. We were in a tux rental shop, and I was giving him a crash course in American formalwear, which ought to tell you something about how dire his situation was. K is my neighbor, new to the states, and headed to his high school prom. He had casually mentioned that he knew nothing about prom, one thing led to another, and I ended up going with him to pick out the limo, the corsage, and now, the tuxedo.
“Does it fit alright? That’s the important thing right now.”
“I don’t know,” he said, craning his neck to see how the jacket fell down his back. “I saw it differently in my head.”
“It looks good,” I insist.
K is from Baghdad. He’d moved to the U.S. with his mother and his two little brothers after the Taliban shot his father’s head off in front of his eyes. The Taliban had wanted money, his father had refused, and that was that. According to the story he told me, he ran through the streets, his father’s blood on his hands, until he found a U.S. soldier and did not stop screaming at him until the soldier came back. His family ended up on a plane bound for America in short order. That plane landed in Dallas. And then they got on a Nebraska-bound bus. And now they are my neighbors.
And now he is trying on tuxes for prom. I understood his plight — he’s the only Iraqi boy in a Midwestern high school. He has a lot to prove. Honestly, I did not believe there was a nice enough tuxedo in all Nebraska to suit his tastes. There certainly wasn’t one at the rental store, but I did not tell him that.
“Should we go look somewhere else?” he asks me, right in front of a pretty, young sales clerk who doesn’t hide her distaste for his idea.
“I don’t think it’ll be any different anywhere else,” I tell him. You know how rented tuxedos are: The vaguely vinyl-esque sheen they have; the way it can never quite shake that “borrowed-from-an-uncle” fuddiness.
He spins in front of the mirror a few times as if expecting magical transformation. I give what I hope is a friendly shrug to the sales woman as if to say “what can you do?” My smile is not reciprocated, and I’m not surprised. We’ve been here nearly an hour. I’ve counted four groups of other customers cycle through in the time we’ve been here.
This whole business of showing love and kindness to ostracized groups has turned out very different than I thought. My head had spun with the idea of dazzling him with my expertise, like a father teaching his son to light a campfire. I had, as I often do, confused my desire to love thy neighbor with my desire to be seen as a good person. Turning friends into projects.
Of course, I want to look like a good person. To show off how, in an age of fear and suspicion, I have chosen the way of inclusion. It’s a very fine thing to post on Facebook, but realistically, it’s nothing special. It’s a little time-consuming and, occasionally, might cost some money. But on the whole, it’s nothing to brag about. Welcoming immigrants into our country is only the first step, after all. Once they’re here, the real work of being kind begins.
Along the way, I suppose I had ended up loving my neighbor after all, not as part of a grand, interesting affair but just as a human. We rarely have opportunities to show the sort of sweeping displays of courageous love that make for good stories. It will have to be enough to love a little. To explain why to go for a wrist corsage instead of the chancy business of pinning it to the straps of her dress. To give tie-tying lessons. To explain that you only button the top button of the jacket.
He wanted to look like James Bond. I wanted to look like his surrogate father. We will both have to settle.
The morning after prom, I walk out on my porch with a mug of coffee and wave to K, who is smoking apple hookah on his own porch. “How was it?” I ask, hopping the little fence that separates us. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Sort of boring.”
I sit down and ask him to tell me about it. We are, after all, friends.