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Excerpt

Excerpt

Homeland Elegies

I.

On the Anniversary of Trump’s First Year in Office 

My father first met Donald Trump in the early ’90s, when they were both in their midforties—my father the elder by a year—and as each was coming out from under virtual financial ruin. Trump’s unruly penchant for debt and his troubles with borrowed money were widely reported in the business pages of the time: by 1990, his namesake organization was collapsing under the burden of the loans he’d taken out to keep his casinos running, the Plaza Hotel open, and his airline’s jets aloft. The money had come at a price. He’d been forced to guarantee a portion of it, leaving him personally liable for more than eight hundred million dollars. In the summer of that year, a long Vanity Fair profile painted an alarming portrait not only of the man’s finances but also of his mental state. Separated from his wife, he’d decamped from the family triplex for a small apartment on a lower floor of Trump Tower. He was spending hours a day lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. He wouldn’t leave the building, not for meetings, not for meals—subsisting on a diet of burgers and fries delivered from a local deli. Like his debt load, Trump’s waistline ballooned, his hair grew long, curling at the ends, ungovernable. And it wasn’t just his appearance. He’d gone uncharacteristically quiet. Ivana confided to friends she was worried. She’d never seen him like this, and she wasn’t sure he was going to pull through. 

My father, like Trump, binged on debt in the ’80s and ended the decade uncertain about his financial future. A doctor, he’d transitioned into private practice from a career in academic cardiology just as the hostage crisis began. By the time Reagan was in office, he’d started to mint money, as he liked to put it. (The playful attack of his Punjabi lilt always made it sound to me more like he was describing the flavor of all that new cash rather than the activity of making it.) In 1983, with more money than he knew what to do with, Father took a weekend seminar in real estate investment at the Radisson hotel in West Allis, Wisconsin. By Sunday night, he’d put in an offer on his first property, a listing one of the instructors had “shared” with the participants on a lunch break—a gas station in Baraboo just blocks from the site where the Ringling brothers started their circus. Just what it was he needed with a gas station was the perfectly reasonable question my mother flatly posed when he announced the news to us later that week. To celebrate, he’d mixed a pitcher of Rooh Afza lassi—the rose-flavored squash beverage was my mother’s favorite. He shrugged in response to her question and held out a glass for her to take. She was in no mood for lassi. 

“What do you know about gas stations?” she asked, irritated. 

“I don’t need to know the day-to-day. The business is solid. Good cash flow.” 

Cash flow?” 

“It’s making money, Fatima.” 

“If it’s making so much money, why did they need to sell? Hmm?” 

“People have their reasons.” 

“What reasons? Sounds like you have no idea what you’re talking about. Were you drinking?” 

“No, I wasn’t drinking. Do you want the lassi or not?” She shook her head, curtly. He tended the glass to me; I didn’t want it, either; I hated the stuff. “I don’t expect you to understand. I don’t expect you to support me. But in ten years, you’ll look back on this, you both will, and you’ll see that I made a great investment.”

I wasn’t sure what I had to do with it. 

“Investment?” she repeated. “Is that like when you buy a new pair of sunglasses every time you go to the store?” 

“I’m always losing them.” 

“I can show you fifteen right now.” 

“Not the ones I like.” 

“What a pity for you,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm as she headed for the hallway. 

“You’ll see!” Father cried out after her. “You’ll see!” 

What we were to see were the subsequent “investments” in a strip mall in Janesville; another in Skokie, Illinois; a campground outside Wausau; and a trout farm near Fond du Lac. If you don’t see the logic in the portfolio of holdings, well, you’re not the only one. It turned out the haphazard purchases were all the advice of the seminar instructor, Chet, who’d sold him the first. All were financed with debt, each property operating as some form of collateral for the other in some bizarre configuration of shell corporations Chet came up with—for which he would be indicted in the aftermath of the S&L crisis. My father was lucky to dodge the legal bullet. Oh, and yes, we did have our obligatory copy of Trump’s The Art of the Deal on the shelf in the living room—but that wouldn’t be for a few years yet. 

My father has always been something of a conundrum to me, an imam’s son whose only sacred names—Harlan, Far Niente, Opus One—were those of the big California Cabernets he adored; who worshipped Diana Ross and Sylvester Stallone and who preferred the poker he learned here to the rung he left behind in Pakistan; a man of unpredictable appetites and impulses, inclined to tip the full amount of the bill (and sometimes then some); an unrepentant admirer of American pluck who never stopped chiding me for my adolescent lack of same: If he’d had my good fortune to be born here?! Not only would he never have become a doctor! He also might actually have been happy! It’s true I can’t seem to recall him ever looking as content as he did for those few middle Reagan years when—on the promise of the system’s endlessly easy money—he awoke each morning to find in the mirror the reflection of a self-made businessman. It would prove a short-lived joy. The market crash in ’87 initiated a cascade of unfortunate “credit events” that, by the early ’90s, reduced his net worth to less than nothing. I’d just started my second year of college when he called to tell me he was selling his practice to avoid bankruptcy and that I would have to leave school that semester unless I could secure a student loan. (I did.) 

If not fully reformed by the reversal of fortune, Father was certainly chastened for a time. He returned to his position as a professor of clinical cardiology at the university and threw himself back into a career of research, for which, despite his misgivings, he was clearly suited. Indeed, after just three years back in the academy, he found himself once again at the top of his field and on an awards dais, handed a medal for his recent studies of a little-known disorder known as Brugada syndrome. It was the second time he’d won the American College of Cardiology’s Investigator of the Year award, making him only the third physician in its history—and likely the most insolvent—ever to be honored twice in a career. 

It was Father’s work on Brugada, a rare and often fatal arrhythmia, that led to his first meeting Donald Trump.

 

* * * 

 

In 1993, Trump’s troubles were still legion. He’d gone to his siblings to ask if he could borrow money from the family trust to pay bills. (He would go back for more a year later.) He was forced to give up his yacht, the airline, and his stake in the Plaza Hotel. The bankers overseeing the restructuring of his holdings put him on a strict monthly allowance. And in the press, there was no relief: his mistress, Marla Maples, was newly pregnant, and his press-canny, now finally ex-wife was destroying him in the court of public opinion. 

In short, he was going through a lot. So it wasn’t entirely surprising to either Trump or his doctors when he started to experience heart palpitations. As Trump described it to my father, he first felt the alarming sensation while golfing on an unusually hot morning in Palm Beach; he felt something strange in his chest, like a pounding on a distant drum; then he felt faint. When he sat down in the golf cart to rest, the pounding neared, grew more intense: “It felt like my heart was being slammed around inside that big empty drum.”

A few days after the palpitations on the golf course, Trump was having dinner at the Breakers, then the premier luxury resort in Palm Beach. He hated the Breakers—or so Father recalls him explaining at some length during their first patient exam—but had to go to the dinner there because he was meeting a member of the city council who, Trump thought, knowing how much he hated the Breakers, had probably scheduled dinner there on purpose. Trump’s application to turn Mar-a-Lago into a private club was still pending, and he needed all the support on the Palm Beach city council that he could get. So the Breakers it was, even though he said the food was gross and overpriced. “Just wait ’til I get my club running. We’re going to bury the Breakers.” He’d ordered a bone-in rib eye—“Always well done, Doc. Because I don’t know the kitchen, and I don’t know what filth they’ve got back there. Who’s cooking what. Touching the food. 

The only way to be safe—steak, fish, whatever. Well done. Unless it’s my kitchen, and we’re gonna have a great restaurant at Mar-a-Lago, the greatest, but see . . . I’ll still have it well done there, too. I just think it’s better that way”—and just as the food came to the table, Trump said he started to feel faint. He got up and excused himself to go to the restroom, where he couldn’t believe how pale he looked. Once again, he felt that sensation he’d felt on the golf course, his heart rattling around as if inside the skin of an empty drum. He knew something knew needed 

It was a short distance to Mar-a-Lago—just three miles—but as soon as the car pulled out of the parking lot, he started to feel worse. Along Ocean Boulevard, he asked his driver to stop the car, and that was it. The next thing he remembered was lying on the sidewalk, hearing the waves. His driver would later tell him he collapsed facedown into the rear footwell. The driver would get out and turn him over, finding Trump’s eyes rolled back into his head. He couldn’t find a pulse on Trump’s wrist or neck, couldn’t hear a beating in his chest. The driver shook him hard, and then, just as abruptly as he’d fainted, Trump came back to. Color rushed into his face; the veins in his forehead started to pulse. Dazed, he got out of the car and lay down on the sidewalk along the beach. Listening to the steady rhythm of waves washing onto the shore, he would later tell my father, seemed to make the strange beating in his heart subside. 

Doctors’ examinations over the following days and weeks pointed to a cardiac event, but Trump’s heart muscle itself was healthy, his coronary arteries clear of any occlusion. A further battery of tests resulted in a pile of EKG strips that showed an occasional pattern the specialist in Palm Beach had never seen before. It had the vague contour of a shark fin. Even as late as 1993, most cardiologists didn’t know that this is what Brugada syndrome looks like. 

The strips were sent to Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York, where a cardiologist on staff referred them to my father, in Milwaukee. Considered the leading specialist in Brugada in the States, second in the world only to the Brugada brothers, who had identified the syndrome at their labs in Belgium, Father was accustomed to EKG strips and patients pouring into his lab from across the country—and, later, from the Far East. Indeed, Trump wasn’t even the first person of some fame whose case had come his way. The year prior, Father was flown first class to Brunei, where he examined the sultan himself in a lab that had been outfitted to Father’s specs by the time he’d touched down in Bandar Seri Begawan. Though Trump was no monarch—at least not yet—he wasn’t about to get on a plane for Milwaukee, either. So Father was flown—again, first class—to Newark, where Trump’s helicopter was waiting for him. He flew into a heliport along the Hudson River, where a car picked him up and drove him to Mount Sinai. Ushered into one of the exam rooms, where the equipment was set up for a battery of tests—the usual twelve-lead EKG, followed by a stress test, and if neither induced the Brugada arrhythmia, there was an option to inject an alkaloid through an intravenous line—Father waited for his patient to arrive. But Trump never showed. 

That night, in the room at the Plaza Hotel that had been arranged for him, Father’s bedside phone rang just as he was falling asleep. It was Donald himself. What follows is my approximation of their conversation, shaped by Father’s recollection of, above all, the man’s solicitousness: 

“No one seems to know how to say it, Doctor.” 

“Nothing new there.” 

“How do you say it?” 

Ak-tar.” 

“So Ak, like in Oc-topus.” 

“That works.” 

“But is that how you say it? Where you’re from?—Where are you from?”

“Pakistan.” 

“Pakistan—” 

“And we pronounce the name differently there.” 

“I’m talented. I can say it right.” 

“So we say Akh tar.” Father reverted to the native kh guttural sound that no white American in his experience had ever been able to master. There was a moment’s silence on the other end of the line. 

“Oh, that sounds hard. I don’t know about that, Doctor.” 

Ak-tar is fine, Mr. Trump.” 

They both laughed. 

“Okay, okay. Ak-tar it is. And you call me Donald. Please.” Trump then proceeded to apologize for missing his appointment. Disarmed by his warmth, Father demurred. Trump asked if his room was big enough: “It’s New York City. Hard to feel like you ever have enough space. But I had them put you in a nice suite. Do you like it? We redid those rooms when I bought the place—” 

“Mr. Trump—” 

“That hotel is a masterpiece, Doctor. The Mona Lisa. That’s what it is.” 

“Mr. Trump—” 

“Call me Donald, please—” 

“Please excuse me, Donald, but I didn’t come to New York to stay in a nice hotel. I came here to help you. I’m not sure you understand how serious this problem with your heart could be. If you have Brugada, I’m not exaggerating when I say you are a walking time bomb. You could be dead tomorrow.” There was silence. Father continued: “I’m flattered to receive the royal treatment from you, Donald. I am. But I just came from Brunei, where I treated the sultan of Brunei. He is a king, and he was on time for his appointment. Because he understood that if he doesn’t get it taken care of, he might be dead tomorrow.”

“Okay, Doctor,” Trump said blankly after a short pause. “I’ll be there. What time?” 

“Eight a.m.” 

“I’m sorry I missed it today. I’m very sorry, Doctor. It wasn’t respectful of you. Or your time. I apologize. I mean it.” 

“It’s fine, Donald.” 

“You forgive me?” 

Father laughed. 

“Okay, good. You’re laughing,” Trump said. “I’m sorry about today, but I will be there tomorrow. First thing. I promise.” 

 

* * * 

 

Early in the campaign for the 2016 election, when there was all the anatomizing of Trump’s character and his style—and the speculation about his real chances—one thing much repeated was that Trump did not know how to apologize. As he careened from one lie and ill-advised faux pas to another, it was endlessly remarked that the man seemed incapable of saying he was sorry, even when it might have helped him. To admit you were wrong meant to show weakness, and this, it seemed, ran contrary not only to his every business instinct but also to the very rule of his being. An unmistakable contempt for weakness is what I gleaned from every boardroom firing of The Apprentice I ever saw. Invariably, the contestant who ended up on the other side of Trump’s jab-and-sack signature line, spat out onto Fifth Avenue, forlorn, ferried—via black limousine—far from the Olympian suite near the top of Trump Tower, where the remaining aspirants sipped Champagne and celebrated the wisdom of Mr. Trump’s choice; invariably, that contestant was the one too willing to share blame, too willing to admit that a team failure was probably just that, failure of a team, not of a sole individual. In his on-screen role, Trump’s bewilderment over such displays of levelheadedness and camaraderie struck me as bizarre. Was it really possible he believed blaming someone else to save face was a legitimate business strategy? Of course, we now know it to be much more than that, something closer to the summum bonum of the Trumpian Weltanschauung. It’s likely that the real role he played was with Father that night on the phone—and the next morning, when he showed up to his examination on time with two cups of coffee and a small white gift box containing a love life! lapel pin, which he hoped Father would accept as a token of his contrition. My father would never forget the gesture. 

To think: all it took was a worthless trinket Trump probably pilfered from the gift shop at Trump Tower for Father to feel justified, years later, in dismissing all that chatter about the man’s not knowing how to apologize: “If they only knew him,” he would hiss at the pundits on TV—and usually by way of yet another reminder about that lapel pin: “If they knew him, they wouldn’t say these things. They would know they were wrong.”

Homeland Elegies
by by Ayad Akhtar

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316496421
  • ISBN-13: 9780316496421