A violent burst of rain jumped Jen Gilbert on her walk back to Holborn, pinning her underneath a narrow doorway on a sleepy street she didn’t know. Choosing to wait out the downpour, she watched as loose sheets of newspaper blew by like tumbleweeds and the sky turned dark and gave up on the afternoon. For ten minutes, she braced herself against the wind as it stung her cheeks red and flicked rain in her face like a total asshole. After the rain soaked through her worn boots to her socks, she noticed that she had been waiting next door to an open coffee shop with a loud neon sign, and was embarrassed.
She carried a canvas bag weighed down with a laptop and hardback Italian textbooks and as she hustled into the shop, the bag swung hard into her thigh. Inside, she glanced at the chalkboard menu and ordered without any particular enthusiasm for drinking coffee, but with great desire to linger indoors.
“Can I just get, like, a black coffee? A small one.”
The woman tending the shop looked so unreasonably put out by this request that Jen wondered if she had committed some terrible cultural faux pas, like not knowing ‘black coffee’ was Cockney rhyming slang for ‘you whore.’
“Just black coffee,” she clarified, in something less Brooklyn than her normal accent. The cashier nodded and took her money while still appearing to think of the transaction as a major burden. It was obvious now to Jen that this woman would probably have closed up shop had she not arrived. The place was empty but for the two of them and the white noise that hissed softly from wall-mounted speakers. It was only just past six and, come to think of it, maybe that was too late for drinking coffee to be proper, thus the cashier stinkeye. Not that this was good reason to judge: for all the cashier knew, Jen needed the evening caffeine because she worked as a bartender or night garbagewoman. Who cared what she thought either way. Jen had put down her two pounds for a cup of coffee and this stranger would see her for who she really was - an unemployed American on a student visa who stood a lanky six feet tall and was dripping rainwater onto the floor - and deal with it.
Jen relaxed into the back of a leather couch at the furthest possible edge of the room. To be indoors during a rainstorm; that was the real victory. That was a win over nature. She unpacked her bag and laptop on the coffee table by her feet, clearing a space between the thick design magazines of hard paper stock and single letter titles. The cashier brought her the black coffee in a large white mug with a tall spoon inside, balanced upon a saucer that was too small and said nothing when Jen obligingly thanked her. Jen set up her laptop, her purchase having entitled her to fifteen minutes of free coffee shop Wi-Fi, and entered the Wi-Fi code printed on her receipt: GR8COFFEE. Online, she browsed Facebook and the Guardian and New York Magazine simultaneously. Sono degli Stati Uniti, she thought to herself in measured, self-conscious Italian. Dove posso travare caldo discoteca? Hesitantly, she tested the coffee and found it to be okay.
She opened her Gmail inbox in a new window. The only new email was from her friend Beth. Beth had quit school in London three months earlier and gone home. Home for Beth was New York, from where she had sent Jen this email at two a.m. Beth’s time. With no subject line, the message read, in its entirety:
What’s the point of anything?
Jen had just begun to puzzle out Beth’s weirdness when a second email arrived in her inbox. This one, which also lacked a subject line, was from Jonah Gilbert. Jonah Gilbert was Jen’s elder brother by four years and her only sibling, whom she had hugged goodbye at JFK eighteen months ago, leaving him with wet eyes and her eyeshadow smeared all over his collar. Since then, she and Jonah had spoken - exchanged emails, more accurately - maybe once every two months.
Can you skype? Call me asap.
Technically, yes, her laptop was able to use Skype, but it was too old a model to have a built-in camera or microphone, and though unrelated to its Skype-running ability, the keyboard didn’t have all of the keys. But for Jonah’s sake, Jen logged in and fished through her bag for her iPod earphones with the internal mic. She was alerted to the incoming call from Jonah before she had even the earphones in. After disentangling the wires from her earrings and the buttons of her jacket, she accepted the call.
“Jonah?” she said, holding the mic up close to her mouth.
“Jen?” The video on Jonah’s end claimed to still be loading, but looked pretty dead.
“Yeah. Jonah? Hey, are you... do you have the camera on?”
“No,” he said after a second, “my thing doesn’t have a camera to begin with.” Jonah sounded unclear and far away. The audio quality wasn’t great either. Jen high-fived her brain for thinking this.
“Yeah, mine doesn’t either.”
“Okay, so listen,” Jonah began.
“I have to warn you,” Jen interrupted, releasing the mic from her fingers, “it’s ridiculous that you’d want to talk right now, I literally... I literally have only like ten minutes to talk you. I’m sitting in some coffee shop ‘cause it’s raining outside and I’m on fifteen minutes of Wi-Fi. Less than that, now. So I’m just saying, I’m just warning you, I can’t talk for long.” Jen looked for the woman behind the counter. She had vanished.
“That’s cool, I only need you for a minute.”
“I mean, I need you always.”
Jen frowned. “Are you alright?”
“I’m good. I’m in Somalia.”
“What? No, you’re not.”
“Yes I am. Well, I’m only on the border, technically. I’m supposed to be going to Mogadishu for work and we’re just being held up here for some reason. I don’t know, I think it’s fine. It must just be a security thing. Actually, you know, I think I might still be in Kenya? Legally. I should double-check. I’ve been at a refugee camp in Dadaab for a while, up until this morning, and I’m moving over to a facility in Mogadishu for a bit. It’s in Kenya - Dadaab, I mean. Anyway, I’m posted up here at the border and while I’ve been waiting I started talking to this guy who’s stuck here hanging out for a bit also, and I was telling him all about you and I told him to ask you out and I think he will.”
“So is there a way I can get him in touch with you?”
“Wait, this is really the reason why you’re calling?”
“Yeah, so Facebook, maybe?”
Without any video Jen found it difficult to gauge her brother’s sincerity. “This by you is urgent? Calling from Somalia thinking that maybe you found - maybe! - a dude I would go out with?” At times she thought of Jonah as less of a brother and more of an Improv Everywhere project.
“Well, he seems like a good guy,” said Jonah, unfazed and weirdly earnest, “and Mom and Dad would like him and he’s a doctor too, which is interesting, and he looks nice, you know, I guess, presentable, and both of you like travel and he speaks different languages so you’d have things in common and he is recently single and he’s open to being in a relationship. Uh, not an open relationship. A normal one.”
“Wow. You have sold me. I am getting on a plane right now.”
“Are there any questions you want me to ask him?”
“No. Literally none. But, hey, you know, I like that you feel like you need to actually legitimately scour the world to find me a boyfriend; like, thank God you found him, right? Thank God you found The One Guy.”
Jonah thought this over - or at least, Jen assumed that’s what the silence meant. “What don’t you like about him?” he asked.
“What don’t I... Jonah.”
“Are you seeing somebody?”
Jen hesitated and felt silly about doing so. “I mean... not really.”
“What does that mean? That means no.” It did mean no. “What’s the problem, then? I’m keeping an eye out for you. I always do.”
“That is not a thing you have to do.” Jen wondered what else Jonah supposedly did for her without her knowledge. “Don’t feel the need to do that. I do alright, dude.”
“Do you do doctor alright, though?”
Jen sipped the coffee again, which was starting to taste less offensive. “Are you really in Somalia?” she asked, setting the coffee down.
“Technically it’s the border.”
“Why?” Jonah had left New York last year to work for Doctors Without Borders, although Jen supposed that was not necessarily why he was in Somalia. Allegedly in Somalia.
“You know, the usual. Taking care of measles and shit.”
If only Jen could will the video feed into existence so she could verify all this - like if she could see Jonah hold up a newspaper with the word ‘Somalia’ on it. “Are you safe? Seriously. Are you being safe?”
“You mean, like, am I using protection?”
“First of all, gross. Second of all, don’t get cute with me. You’re in Somalia. Somalia.”
“I’m not getting cute, honest to blog.”
“Ugh, you’re garbage.”
“Actually, did you know that, statistically, more Americans die every year being crushed by vending machines than are killed or captured in Somalia? That has been reported. In journals.”
Like talking to a brick wall if the brick wall were also a dick. “Do you have any other settings besides deadpan?”
“You understand I’m not talking about vending machines that fall on people, right; these are the machines that smother you with a pillow.”
“You are the weirdest.” Jonah paused. Every time one of these pauses went on a little too long, Jen grew alarmed.
“So this guy...”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah.”
“He’s a doctor, a real one; an MD. He’s got an MD in emergency medicine from UC Davis. He’s American. He’s from Sacramento.”
What’s the endgame here, she thought. “I’m not moving to Somalia for this dude,” she said with a modicum of sternness in her voice.
“Also he’s Jewish.”
“Good for him.” Jonah didn’t seem to care about the modicum of sternness.
“So he wouldn’t have to convert,” he continued.
“You want me to marry this guy now?”
“Well...” he equivocated, “only if you wanted to.”
“I’m not that desperate to marry another Jew that you needed to go to Somalia to find me one. I’m not that desperate period.” At this, the woman behind the counter rematerialized. Jew watch or something, Jen figured.
“You wouldn’t want to marry someone Jewish?” Jonah asked, as if a voice could raise an eyebrow.
“No, who cares?”
“That’s not important to you?”
“Not really.” She could tell that the more aggressively she stonewalled him on this, the more baffled he would get.
“I’d want to, if it was me. I mean, if it were me. It would mean something to Mom and Dad, too.”
“Good for Mom and Dad.”
“Huh.” This was more disappointed than baffled, and less fun.
“I don’t know. It’s a cultural thing, too, though, don’t you think? Shared background or understanding or whatever?”
“Either you believe in it or you don’t.”
“Yeah, but, you know...” Jonah and his pauses. “I don’t know.”
“What?” she persisted.
“I’m not going to have this argument with you, by the way. Like, maybe this argument isn’t priority one when you’re at some fucking border crossing and I only have five more minutes to talk to you.”
“It’s a moot point, anyway, because Robert’s Jewish.”
“You know, moot means that the point can be debated. I think you’re confused.”
“I think you’re avoiding the subject of Robert.”
“Let’s talk about what you’re doing for Thanksgiving.” Jen had been asked specifically to bring this up with Jonah, not that she expected to get much of an answer out of him.
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” he said. That was what she had expected.
“Mom has sent you so many emails,” Jen said. “You don’t even know. You don’t even know because you do not even look at them. She is complaining to me about how it is impossible to hear back from you. You are the subject of like a full ninety percent of the conversations I have with her.”
“I do read her emails,” he said mildly.
“Yeah, not that you reply to any of them. I guess maybe you would if you thought you found a hot doctor for her to hook up with.”
“I didn’t say he was hot. I said presentable.”
“Oh, not hot? I’m not interested then.”
“I’m giving him your email address.”
“Are you going home for Thanksgiving?” she tried.
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. I am. I’m going. For two weeks.”
“You don’t have, uh, classes?”
“Nope.” She drank from the coffee mug and the tall spoon smacked her in the cheek.
“Hey, say something in Italian,” he said eagerly.
“No. Are you gonna come home or not?”
“I don’t know if I can. Honestly. I’m on a mission.”
“Ooh, pardon me, lieutenant commander. Jeez. Roger that.” She moved to salute but thought the coffee shop woman might find it weird. Maybe she was finding all of this weird.
“That is what they’re called,” he said, unmoved. “They’re called missions. I didn’t make that up.”
“Oh, sorry.” She was a little bit sorry about making fun of it, too.
“But Mom is freaking out about you.” She quickly changed the subject. “You worry her. You can’t do her the favor? It would make her year. And I want to see you.”
“I want to see you too,” he protested, “I want to visit. I just don’t think... how many minutes do you have left? Of Wi-Fi?”
“Like five. But I can buy a second coffee,” she offered, although she suspected that horrible hovering woman might not let her.
“What time is it there?” he asked.
“No, dummy, where you are.”
“It’s six twenty.”
“Is that in the morning or in the evening?”
“In the evening, dummy.”
“That’s too late to be drinking coffee.”
“Mind your own business.” She slurped the coffee loudly into the mic.
“I’m a medical expert.”
“A jerk expert. More like.”
“Good one,” he said sarcastically, probably upset that he hadn’t thought of it.
“Why can’t you come home?” she tried one last time, using her plaintive voice.
“I...” Jonah thought around for the words. “Well, I can’t. I just got here. I’m not even here yet, technically. I’m on the border. I have a job and I can’t always just go home or whatever. I’m, you know, I’m busy here.”
“What, how long are you going to be there?” she asked, worried now.
“Six months?” she practically shrieked at her laptop screen. “Jonah, I haven’t seen you in more than a year.”
“I know,” he said. “I know that.”
“How are you going to be safe in Somalia for six months?”
“Don’t worry about me,” he said, which Jen felt pretty strongly was not the right answer.
“How am I not supposed to worry about you?” she said, bringing the mic back up to her mouth, “I don’t hear from you for months - nobody does - and I have no idea where you are and I guess it turns out that you’re in the most dangerous parts of the world. I don’t know what it is you’re doing or if you’re being safe or taking care of yourself or whether other people are looking after you. You have to look at it from my perspective. I don’t know anything except that you’re in danger. I have to know that you’re okay. I have to know that if I haven’t heard from you in a while, that you’re still okay. Do you understand what I mean? I need to know that. I need you to tell me that.” Her cheeks were flushed now. She was truly pissed at him for putting her in the position again of needing to mother him.
“Yeah,” he said quietly.
“I do worry about you,” she repeated, gently insistent.
“Okay, I get that, and I’m just saying that you don’t have to.”
“But you’re living in refugee camps?” she asked hopelessly.
“In Dadaab, yeah,” he said. “But MSF has a building in Mogadishu. In the city. We’re staying there.”
“Okay, so what’s that like? Does that have running water?”
“Yeah, hot water, absolutely. Clean water.”
“And, you have, like... a proper bed?
“Yeah, there’s real beds. I mean, I have a roommate, but, you know, I’ll live.”
“And they take care of you?” Jen closed her eyes.
“Yeah, there’s decent food, there’s TVs and shit... it’s fine. It’s like a crappy motel, pretty much. Or a dorm. I eat better here than I did in college, actually.”
“So what about when you go out into the field? Do you call it the field?”
“Yeah, but basically I really just go to an office every day. It’s more boring than anything.”
“And they’re keeping you safe, right?”
“There’s plenty of security. The police are great and they take our safety very seriously.”
“And the... patients?” She didn’t know what to call them.
“Literally the worst thing that can happen is a kid gets his diarrhea on me. That’s as bad as it gets.”
“Oh, Jonah,” she said, burying her face in her hands.
“I’m okay,” he reassured her, “I’ll be fine. And I’ll see you in six months.”
“Sure,” he said.
Jen wasn’t even sure where she would be six months from then. “I’ll still be in London, I think.”
“I could come to London. That would be fun. I could do that.”
She smiled. It was a nice thought. “Okay, so tell me about this guy,” she said.
“Tell me about Robert.”
“What - oh, yeah, so, right, okay, he’s a doctor, like I said.” Jen brought her legs up onto the couch and held the cup of coffee close to her chest while she listened to her brother.
“He’s a doctor of emergency medicine from UC Davis. He is thirty and he turns thirty-one next year. He’s from a Jewish family in Sacramento and he’s the oldest of four kids. He has three sisters. Younger sisters. His dad is a psychiatrist and his mom is in real estate or something. He once had to save his granddad’s life by doing CPR! The granddad is dead now. Not because of that. Heart attack or whatever. He’s into Mad Men.
“This is his second mission for MSF, I think. He’s really into travel and he can speak French. And English. Obviously. He runs, like, marathons and stuff. He ran the New York marathon once, recently, too. He’s into history. I think he is very outgoing and smart and he speaks really fast. He has a deep voice though, not nasal. Like a mind going a mile a minute, he’s one of those guys. Not a vegetarian... he likes Mexican food. He voted for Obama. He doesn’t have any children and he doesn’t smoke. He seems to drink socially and oh, yeah, well, he smokes socially when he drinks... also socially. I don’t count that though, the smoking. He doesn’t like dogs. I don’t really know why.
“He really seems to care about issues and stuff. I mean, obviously, since he’s out doing this, but he gets intense when you talk to him about what we’re doing. A little bit, anyway. A little bit worked up and he starts going off and you see that he actually believes in something. He’s sort of droll and dry but not in a douche-y way. I think he’s a good guy because I really made him laugh at least a couple... at least four times. Oh, he likes Arrested Development too.”
“How long did you talk to this dude?”
“What? I don’t know, like twenty minutes? Anyway, the reason that I thought of you is that I think you would really do best with someone who you respect and you admire. I think you’d want someone who you find challenging, in a good way. And I think he’s the same. You’re all of those things, too; very capable and independent and... he has a sort of restlessness and ambition to him and sometimes I think you do too. So I was telling him about you along these lines, talking you up, and he was interested, you know, he was asking about you.”
“What did you say to him?”
“I said that you’re one of the real ones.”
Yes. Jen never felt warmer towards the faceless Skype icon that represented her brother. “Yes,” she said, “you can give him my number.”
“Or my email address, or my Facebook, or whatever you want.”
“Okay, good.” She heard him relax. “Common sense prevailed. I feel really good about this.”
Jen checked the time in the corner of the screen and was positive that fifteen minutes had gone by already. “Jonah,” she said, sitting up, “I really want to keep talking to you but I honestly have to go, and not only because of the Wi-Fi thing, I have to be somewhere tonight and...”
“Yeah, no, I get it.” And it sounded to Jen like he really did.
“Please be safe,” she urged him, “I love you so much.”
“Um... do you want to hear a joke?”
“What? I guess so.”
“Alright, you have to say to me - you have to ask me, ‘have you heard of the hunchback of Notre Dame?’”
“Have you heard of the hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“It rings a bell.”
“Alright,” she said, “go you.”
“I just thought it up like half an hour ago,” he bragged. “Actually, though, to be honest, I’m not sure if I’ve heard that before somewhere. It might be, like, a classic joke. From olden days. But I think there’s also a chance that I’m the first person to ever have thought of it.”
“You’ve got to call me or email me or whatever,” she said, very quickly, as she knew now for certain that the fifteen minutes were over and she could lose him any second. “Let’s talk soon, okay? Promise.”
“Okay. We will. Hey, say something to me in Italian.”
“I love you. Please take care and don’t die.”
“I won’t. Die, I mean. And I love you too.”
“See you soon. See you home.”
Jen’s Wi-Fi connection lasted just long enough to see Jonah’s Skype account go offline. Slowly, she drained the remainder of her coffee and collected her things to leave. It was still raining outside, but from where she was standing it looked a little lighter, at least. As she came to the door, she paused by the counter.
“Thanks,” Jen said to the woman, “that was lovely.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, and Jen believed that she meant it.