The following story is fictional. While the characters are figments of my imagination, their experiences are based on real-life situations.
“Welcome to the OmegaStar Annual Company Picnic!” proclaimed a colorful banner strung between two posts of the park pavilion. The bold June sun bathed everything in light and heat. Sounds of chatter, laughter, and the rhythmic thud of a basketball on pavement were cheerful and welcoming. As he neared the covered picnic area, Sam recognized two of his colleagues by the barbecue pits. With their fair, slightly sunburned skin and nearly identical outfits of t-shirts, cargo shorts, flip-flops, and backwards baseball caps, Dan and Jim looked like they might have been posing for a photo entitled “American Summer.” Chatting amicably, they gripped beer bottles in one hand while balancing oversized BBQ tongs in the other. A meaty, smoky fragrance emanated from the grills.
“Hey, Sam,” said Dan cheerfully, tipping his beer bottle in greeting.
“Sam, my man! Welcome!” said Jim robustly. “Brats and dogs are almost ready.”
Sam wasn’t sure what “brats” and “dogs” were, but a glance at the grill revealed dozens of hot dogs and plump sausages sizzling side by side. They smelled delicious, but Sam had to hope there would be another main dish on the menu; otherwise he’d have to settle for whatever he could find on the veggie tray.
“The volleyball game starts right after lunch,” continued Jim. “We’ve got to get revenge on the sales department this year. They whipped our butts last summer. I hope you know how to play.”
“Well, I played a little bit growing up,” said Sam, “but my sport is actually soccer.”
“That’s okay,” replied Jim. “At least you’re fit. Last year we had two players who complained the whole time about their arthritis and sore knees. They could barely move through the sand, much less hit the ball. Thank God they retired.”
Sam headed over to the folding table labeled “SIGN IN.” A middle-aged woman, whom Sam recognized as the secretary to the company president, was fussing over meticulous rows of canvas tote bags. Each was labeled clearly and organized alphabetically by first name.
It wasn’t hard to locate his tote. Right in the A section, between “AARON” and “ALEX,” he found “ABDUL-SAMAD”
“Excuse me. Do you have a pen?” he asked the secretary.
He took the marker she promptly provided and altered his name tag, drawing a thick black line across the ABDUL- and the -AD, leaving only SAM in the middle.
“Sorry, Sam,” she explained as she observed him. “I printed out the name tags based on the names people have on file. You know, officially. How do you pronounce your real name?”
“Ab-dul Sam-ad,” said Sam, slowly.
“What does that mean?”
“Servant of the Everlasting,” said Sam.
“Oh. Hmm. Well. That’s . . . nice. Now Sam, you know Mr. Barnes wants everyone to enjoy themselves at the picnic. But he also takes the day’s activities very seriously. He wants us all to participate fully and to really engage with each other. This,” she continued, as if reciting a carefully-rehearsed monologue, “is not just a day of food and fun. It’s about bonding and workplace pride. It’s about celebrating the success of OmegaStar.”
“Okay, thanks,” said Sam, suppressing a grin of amusement as he dutifully peeled the sticky name tag from its plastic backing and smoothed it onto his shirtfront.
Looking up, Sam was happy to see his closest friend at work, Alejandro, sitting at a folding table under the shade of a large oak. Alejandro worked in I.T. with Sam, so that was one thing they had in common. He was also, like Sam, an immigrant. Although from different countries, the two men were both outsiders who were adjusting to a new company as well as a new culture. Alejandro was from Mexico City and had started his job at OmegaStar one week after Sam, just shy of two months ago.
“Amigo! Come sit in the shade!” called Alejandro enthusiastically, patting the seat of an empty lawn chair next to him.
Sam walked over and gratefully lowered himself into the chair.
“Hey, Alejandro. How long have you been here?” asked Sam.
“Almost half an hour. You are a little late, hombre. Imagine you being later than the Mexicano! Ha! Good thing Mr. Barnes didn’t see you arriving so late.”
“It’s a picnic,” said Sam. “Isn’t it, you know, casual?”
“Ha ha ha!” boomed Alejandro’s deep laugh. “Nothing’s casual at OmegaStar, you know that. Like, this picnic is mandatory, not optional. And all the activities are mandatory, too. Oh man, I hope lunch will be ready soon. I have a lot of hunger.”
“Just say, ‘I am really hungry.’ Not ‘I have a lot of hunger,’ Alejandro.”
“Who are you to tell me how to speak English, amigo?” laughed Alejandro. “You are the one who keeps saying, ‘Close the light. Close the water.’ It is ‘Turn the light OFF!’ It is ‘Turn the water OFF!’ Ha! I knew that when I was just un niño!”
Sam laughed good naturedly along with Alejandro. The two were always teasing each other about their linguistic mistakes. Each claimed to have a stronger grasp of English, but in reality they were both equally competent.
Alejandro narrowed his eyes and stared at Sam’s chest. “Is that your real name,” asked Alejandro, pointing to Sam’s doctored name tag. “Abdul-Samad?”
“Why do you call yourself Sam then?”
Sam shrugged. “It’s easier.”
“Hombre, people ask me all the time, ‘Can I call you Alex? Can I call you Al?’” Alejandro squeaked the questions in a syrupy voice, then continued in his regular tone, “And I say, ‘No way! My name is Alejandro. My parents did not name me Alex, or Al. Deal with it!”
“It’s too much trouble,” Sam tried to explain. “‘Sam’ is easier. People ask too many questions. They can’t pronounce my real name, they want to know what it means, and then when I explain it to them, they don’t even know what to say.”
Just then, a loud blast of an air horn broke the gentle background noises. Mr. Barnes, the company president, stood on a picnic bench and waited for all his employees to give him their attention.
“Welcome to the tenth annual OmegaStar Company Picnic,” he announced. “We have many enjoyable activities planned for today, and I look forward to seeing each and every one of you participating fully . . . and having fun, of course. Lunch is ready, and afterwards we will start the team-building activities, beginning with the company-wide volleyball tournament. See you on the court, and let the best department win!”
“Let’s eat!” said Alejandro, jumping out of his chair.
Sam followed with less enthusiasm, suspecting that he would not find much that he could eat. Sure enough, the pork- based hot dogs and bratwurst were the only main dishes, and Sam had to content himself with a bunch of carrot sticks, a dollop of flavorless store-bought hummus, a handful of potato chips, and a scoop of fruit salad. When he opened the large coolers of iced beverages, he found that three out of four of them were full of bottled beer.
“Have a brewski?” asked a tall, young redhead whom Sam did not recognize. His name tag identified him as “Justin.” He held a bottle of beer out to Sam.
“Uh, no thanks,” said Sam.
“No, no, no,” insisted Justin. “You gotta have a beer. Trust me, man. Team building exercises are a lot more bearable if you have a buzz on. Come on, um. . . Abdul-Samad.” He had squinted like Alejandro had done, trying to read the doctored name tag.
“Really, I don’t want one,” protested Sam, waving away the bottle that Justin was trying to press into his hand.
“Are you an alcoholic or something?” asked Justin with interest. “My uncle’s an alcoholic and he won’t drink. Look, sorry dude. If you’re an alcoholic, you don’t have to take it.”
“I’m not an alcoholic,” whispered Sam, exasperated.
Colleagues who were standing nearby had begun to listen to the conversation with amused interest. Sam could feel his olive-toned face reddening. It was easier to take the beer. He would just hold it, like all the men around him. Hold it, like a prop in a play. It would make him fit in. He wouldn’t drink it, of course.
“You’ll thank me later,” said Justin, with a wink. “See you on the court, dude.” Satisfied that Sam finally had a “brewski,” Justin ambled away with a grin and a slightly wobbly gait.
“Let’s eat!” announced Alejandro, appearing at Sam’s elbow. His plate was piled high with hot dogs, bratwursts, and variety of side dishes.
Sam followed him back to the table under the oak tree. They settled themselves in, and Alejandro began to devour his food.
“Oh, man! This is pretty good!” he said between mouthfuls.
Sam could not feel so enthusiastic about his vegetarian lunch. He looked up from his plate and could see a group of female colleagues sitting at a table across the way. Sam couldn’t help but notice that, in contrast to American men, whose shorts tended to be very long and baggy, American women seemed to prefer their shorts to be as tiny as possible. Laughing and chatting, the young women dined under the shade of a large umbrella. They crossed and uncrossed their long, tan legs. They flipped their shining hair and waved their manicured nails gracefully as they gestured and emphasized. Suddenly one of them squealed and started swatting–very ungracefully– at something in the air.
“Don’t hit it, Amy!” commanded an annoyed feminine voice, “You’ll make it mad, and it’ll sting!”
Amy kept waving her arms and squeaking, “Go away!”
Sam watched the little drama dispassionately, waiting to see if Amy would get stung. He was guessing she would. Some people were so dumb. You’re supposed to leave bees alone. Everyone knew that. Absentmindedly, distracted by the spectacle across the way, he took a swig from the bottle in his hand.
“Ugh! Gah!” He immediately spit the bitter brew out onto the grass next to him. Alejandro set down his hot dog and merely looked at Sam with raised eyebrows.
“That’s disgusting!” spluttered Sam, wiping his mouth. “Why does anybody drink it?”
“You don’t like beer?” asked Alejandro with surprise.
“No. Ugh! It’s horrible!”
“That’s not the first time you try it?” asked Alejandro, sounding shocked.
“Yeah, it was,” admitted Sam.
“Wow. Really?” Alejandro was nonplussed.
“Yeah. We don’t drink alcohol in my country,” explained Sam. “Well, most of us don’t. If my mom were alive and saw me drink a beer, she’d probably die of shock.”
“If my mom saw me not drinking una cerveza at a picnic, she’d probably die of shock,” commented Alejandro with a chortle, taking a swig from his own bottle.
Sam sighed and grumpily speared his fruit salad with a plastic fork. The watermelon, cantaloupe, and grapes barely helped erase the bitter aftertaste of beer. Even though he usually enjoyed Alejandro’s company, today Sam found his groans of pleasure as he ate his way through a mountain of food extremely annoying. Watching Amy tend to her bee-stung hand gave Sam a tiny hint of perverse pleasure.
Eventually it was time to play the first round of the volleyball tournament. Tossing his empty paper plate into the trash, Sam headed onto the sand court. Dan and Jim waved him and Alejandro over to talk about game strategy, and Sam was disgusted to find Justin ambling over to join the huddle. The young man stood a little unsteadily and talked very loudly. He kept glancing at the group of young female employees, clearly hoping to be observed and admired.
Finally Mr. Barnes arrived, looking very authoritative with a whistle, a ball, and a stern game face. Quickly, every employee got into position. They knew that they were expected to take “team building” seriously. The opposing team finally served the ball.
Sam could see immediately which colleagues actually knew how to play, and which ones were out of their element. Some seemed genuinely afraid of the ball. Justin was determined to demonstrate some impressive moves, but he tripped over his own feet, invaded his teammate’s positions, and botched several plays. Jim and Dan kept rolling their eyes and shaking their heads in frustration.
Sam, a natural athlete, was able to help his team with several solid plays. After about fifteen minutes, he decided that he would try to spike the ball, too. He wasn’t sure he could jump up high enough from the deep sand, but he was going to try.
“Set me up, Jim,” he said out of the corner of his mouth.
At the next chance, Jim set a perfect ball to the middle of the court, right in front of the net. Focused and determined, Sam summoned all the strength in his legs. He extended his right arm and prepared to slam the ball down into the opponent’s half of of the court. But at the apex of his leap, he felt a totally unexpected SLAM that sent him crashing down.
“What the –?!” yelled Sam. He looked around and saw Justin crumpled in a heap nearby. After a moment Sam realized that Justin had tried to spike the same ball and had collided with Sam in midair.
“That set was MINE,” yelled Sam.
“Dude! Relax!” ordered Justin, who was rubbing his head and grimacing in pain. “I thought it was for me.”
Mr. Barnes walked onto the sand. “Are you both okay?” he asked his employees.
Justin was looking around, trying to see if he was being observed by anyone. “Yeah, I’m fine. No problem. I’m not a wuss,” he added, shooting a condescending glance at Sam.
Once the initial shock and anger wore off a bit, Sam realized his right ankle was throbbing. He tried to stand up, but his leg crumpled under him. Jim caught him before he hit the sand a second time.
“You’d better go sit out for a while, Sam,” said Mr. Barnes.
Jim helped Sam limp over to a bench in the shade.
“Bad luck, Sam,” he said. He bent over a cooler and quickly filled a plastic bag with ice. “Here, put this on your ankle. Well, we have no chance of winning now. The rest of the team sucks.”
“Can you go trip Justin for me?” asked Sam with a wry smile.
“It would be my pleasure. But the guy doesn’t need anyone to trip him. He’s falling down all by himself.”
Jim rejoined the game, and Sam sat sipping water and holding the ice pack on his swollen ankle for the next half hour. He half-heartedly watched his colleagues battle it out on the court. His team began to lose badly.
After a while, a wounded player from the opposing team came to sit in the shade next to him. Limping and wincing, she plopped onto the bench next to him. Sam didn’t recognize her. Her name tag said “Emma.”
“That idiot!” was the first thing she said.
“Who?” asked Sam.
“Justin!” she replied, pronouncing the name with venom. “He smashed my toe! I’ve never been injured by someone who is supposed to be on the other side of the net. He must be completely drunk or incredibly stupid.”
“I think both,” said Sam. “He’s the reason I’m here, too.”
“I saw that collision,” she replied. “Looked painful. How’s your ankle?”
“Not too bad, now. The ice helped.”
“My name is Emma. I don’t think I’ve met you yet. . .. “Her eyes scanned his name tag. Then she focused on his face, and her eyes got a far-off expression. “I had a friend named Abdul-Samad a long time ago,” she said, almost dreamily.
“Really?” Sam was incredulous. He had never met an American who had ever heard his name, much less had a friend who shared it.
“Years ago, when I was a little girl. In Morocco. Rabat, actually. My dad used to travel a lot for work, and my mom and I used to go all over the place with him. I had two playmates who lived near our rented riyad— Sukaina and her twin brother, Abdul-Samad. We were about seven years old and full of mischief.” She chuckled, apparently recalling some long-ago adventures. “Your name brings back so many memories.”
“Wow,” was all Sam could think to say. He was really looking at her for the first time. With her strawberry blonde hair, freckles, and blue-green eyes, she could not have looked physically more different from the women of his country, and yet there was something so familiar and comfortable about her. Sam suddenly felt that he knew her very well.
“Which department do you work in?” she asked, interrupting his train of thought.
“I.T. And you?”
Sam laughed weakly. “I’ve been supposed to meet with Human Resources for a long time now. I’ve been procrastinating. I didn’t understand the health insurance options and I messed up my application.”
“Oh, I can easily help you sort that out. Come by the H.R. office on Monday. Mornings are usually crazy, but I can find time to sit with you in the afternoon.”
Just then, Alejandro walked over and joined Sam and Emma on the bench. “We lost our first game,” he announced with mock sorrow, “thanks to you getting injured, Sam.” He punched Sam’s arm playfully.
“Thanks to Justin being an idiot, you mean,” countered Sam.
But Alejandro was distracted. “Hello,” he said, beaming a wide, white smile at Emma. “I’m Alejandro. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you.”
“Hi. I’m Emma,” she answered politely, but then quickly looked back to Sam.
“Where did you get that ice pack? I think I need one for my toe.”
“Jim gave it to me, but I can get one for you.”
“I don’t want to trouble you.”
“No, no problem at all.”
Sam hobbled over to the ice chest. On a nearby picnic table, he found an empty plastic grocery bag and filled it halfway with ice. He tied it up, brought it back to Emma, and eased himself back down. He was sure Alejandro had narrowed the distance between himself and Emma on the long bench, because this time it was a tight squeeze to fit back in his place.
“Abdul-Samad, my knight in shining armor,” Emma said with a bright grin, accepting the ice pack and placing it on her foot.
Alejandro gave Sam a knowing smile. “Ah, well, I have to be going,” he said, waving vaguely to the wide expanse of park. ¡Adiós!” He winked at Sam, who found himself blushing for the second time that day..
“So, where are you from?” asked Emma.
Sam opened his mouth to answer, but their conversation was interrupted by Mr. Barnes, who approached the bench and asked in his emphatic voice, “Are you two going to be well enough to participate in the horseshoe tournament?”
“Sadly, I don’t think so,” said Emma. She said it with only the merest hint of sarcasm, but Sam felt sure he could sense it. He tried not to smile. Apparently Mr. Barnes didn’t sense any disrespect, though.
“Yes, that is sad,” he said imperiously. “It’s a very important event. I strongly encourage all employees to participate fully in the day’s activities.”
“Well, maybe you should encourage them to drink in moderation, as well,” suggested Emma, fearlessly. “Justin will probably decapitate somebody soon, at the rate he’s going.”
Mr. Barnes looked at her in surprise. He seemed at a loss for words, which was very rare for him.
“I see,” he said, with a furrowed brow. “Well . . . I hope you both recover soon.” He strode away.
“You’re not scared of him,” said Sam in admiration. “You’re the first person I’ve seen who talks to him like that.”
“Well, he is my boss,” said Emma, “but he’s also just another human being. Like my dad always says, ‘He puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like anybody else.’ Besides, I get the feeling he actually doesn’t like it when people kiss up to him all the time. I think he prefers people who have a backbone.”
Sam looked at her again. Beneath her very soft, feminine appearance she was clearly smart and strong. It was a very attractive combination.
“So,” said Emma, “Are you a practicing Muslim?”
Her frank question took him by surprise. He couldn’t think of anyone who had ever asked him that before — definitely not a young American woman. It required him to examine himself all of a sudden. Was he a practicing Muslim? He had just accidentally drunk some beer and had caught himself ogling some attractive women … and here he was, sitting and chatting with another woman who intrigued him in a way that was not strictly professional. How should he answer that question?
“Ummm. . . “ he started, fumbling for the right response. Emma could tell he was taken off guard.
“I don’t mean to pry,” she explained. “Growing up, I met lots of different kinds of Muslims around the world. Some of them were really strict, you know. No dating. No drinking. Headscarves and all of that. And others were really casual about the whole thing. I don’t mean to judge you, either way. I just wondered.” She looked at him with her guileless, clear eyes.
“I guess you can say I’m . . . half-practicing,” offered Sam. “I mean, I believe in Islam, for sure. But after my parents died . . . and then I moved here . . . I’ve been kind of . . . lazy. It’s hard to practice here in America. It’s so much easier just to . . . blend in. You know?”
Sam was shocked by his own candor. He usually avoided the topic of religion or his own current ambivalence, but here he was baring his soul to this stranger. Her blunt question had spurred him to be honest with himself about his level of commitment to his faith for the first time in a long time. How had Emma managed to disarm him so quickly? Why did she make him feel so at home? So willing to think and to talk?
“So,” she continued with an arch smile, “Does ‘half-practicing’ allow you to date?”
“Um . . .” Sam let out a noise that sounded, to his horror, embarrassingly like a giggle. He felt pretty sure what she was asking and why. He felt like so much depended on his answer. He knew what he wanted to respond. He knew what he should say. His brown eyes met her tranquil blue-green ones and then he suddenly realized what the answer would be.
…To be continued