Ha. What can I say? We started the Humdinger Rooftop Cinema together on the roof of my shithole apartment in Beirut. Actually, the apartment wasn’t half bad, it was really decent, and it was on the roof, so I took it like the roof was part of my apartment, and the apartment across from mine was Josie’s, and hers was pretty nice too, and she had her canvases strewn about, each two meters or so, and when I’d leave my place I’d have to walk by hers. Now, you’re probably thinking apartment, but its not like that. There was basically a bedroom, a corridor and a bathroom. In the corridor was the fridge and the kitchenette. The fridge was right by the door. It was just about the first thing you’d see coming in. The bathroom was the last thing you’d see, unless you saw the mold creeping into the hall, sprawling herself along the entire wall. Once you leave my place you had a huge fall on your right, safely held together of course by a questionable balcony rail, and Josie’s apartment door on her left. Her place didn’t have the same separation of powers that mine did, her one rom was much bigger, definitely cleaner, always smelling nice, and she didn’t have a corridor, but a long open room, that led from one window, her bed, to the far end of the wall, the kitchenette, with her door right smack in the middle. We were pretty close, and if either of us got lucky we could hear the beautiful songs right through the walls. One night we did make love. I don’t usually refer to it like that but it felt like that. It was early autumn, October, and the year would be one of our wettest, rains and rains coming down hungry and hard. The streets pile up with storm water runoff ponds and everything is wet, boots, pants, eyes and ears. Cars are so tightly bound it’s impossible not to get sprayed if you’re out walking. I remember wondering how everyone preferred siting for hours in traffic in their cars than put down their boots and hit the road clean. When a good rain comes in its as good as a morning shower, as good as a shower after deer hunting for days, cramped in a hot treehouse waiting for the sad little fucker to smell my bait. We were both teaching at the American School in Beirut, a ten minute walk from my house. I was living right off of the famed Rue Hamra, which translates into the Red Street. In its heyday it was one of the epicenters of social and cultural life for not just Beirut but the region. Like most things in the Middle East a tide of conservatism and a few devastating wars changed the landscape a little, but the area retains a certain sense of quality that denies its cultural essence has been hijacked. Sure, in the beginning, there wouldn’t have been so many cheap, low end clothing stores and fast food joints, franchises from the deep American South that can’t even sell a pie in Europe anymore. But with the right set of eyes and some connections you get directed to the right spots, and hidden in some of the cafes, the late night bars- later than anything in America except for New York- and the small, hole in the wall food joints that have become staple neighborhood institutions, an underclass of artists, artisans, activists and journalists thrive, and surrounding them the decadent, the immoral, the criminal as well. Usually these two go hand in hand in an urban situation. And they do in Beirut. Because everyone smokes a little hash, and everyone does their share of dirty drugs. And the dirtier the need the smellier the fish. I’ve seen some of the sickest looking men sitting in a packed Café de Prague only because they had what the girls wanted at the time. That was all at night. He sat on the steps near her house where usually he’d wait for her if she’d suggested him to be there when she got home from work. He preferred it to waiting directly in front of her house, as the steps had some romance to them in the way the stone stood at the zenith of a long hill and grand white doors seemingly carved of some ancient mineral shadowed over him as he sat basked in the ending summer sun awaiting her company to revive the life which he resided in her absence in utter darkness. He could make out her figure from the bottom of the hill as she approached taking long deliberate strides in agony to the weight of the sun on her body and slope that lay between them. She’d seldom arrive with a smile, only near the end when close enough to whisper in exhaustion a greeting to him and recognition of her fatigued face, perspiring form and reluctance to ever do it again. He did not know where he stood on most things but to her he felt certainty he hadn’t felt in some time. He did not know what his certainty pertained to exactly but in seeing her he would know that there were things towards her which he felt for certain. Things of love and belonging, of mystery and hope. He never said much about it to her, or maybe he had, but nothing unusual had ever come of their time together. He noticed her arrive at the foot of the hill. He had in his hand BARA flipped to the final verse. He read it to himself aloud as he watched her approach from the northern gaze of his eyes, dreaming heavenly pursuits of her form, equating it with none. He made a habit of expecting her to appear in full force of life but rarely did she do so. More often than not she seemed entirely annoyed with life. He hadn’t known her like that. She had been full of life and lightness and purity when he’d first laid eyes on her and found in her way of being a renewal of wanting to survive the dust storm of becoming. Even in his devotion to her he knew it was not eternal. He knew she did not understand him fully and his mystery to her had afforded her patience with him. Once, when he had complained that the voices in his head had been tormenting him and would not leave him alone to operate as a normal being, she told him that he was lucky to have the voices in his head for having someone listen to him, but he knew that he was the one listening to them and not the other way around. But in seeing her he forgave her everything and leapt to her presence in devotion. When she neared she took a slight pause for breath and simply stared at him with a genuine smile, which he returned with a smile and long drawn out stare to insinuate his was one of melancholy. She took a deep breath and continued towards him. As she arrived she climbed the steps and sat beside him. He felt alive. He felt imminent change to her presence. He did not know why.
“How are you?”
She lights a cigarette.
“What are you reading?”
He looks at the book, doesn’t answer.
“Is it good? What’s it about?”
He smiles without showing that he is smiling, showing instead of his teeth only his eyes, fixed onto hers, until she catches his stare and he has to deviate from hers because it is too sharp.
He looks down.
He hands it to her.
“Read this last one.”
She takes the book into her hands.
Her lips tighten. Her eyes squint against the light, her freckles glow. He is aware of her beauty. He is revived. She clears her throat. She looks back towards him. She looks down at the pages. She begins to read.
“Do you know what BARA is…”
The beautiful walk I made every morning always gave me something fresh to consider. I never left my house angry or upset that I had to walk down Hamra, down towards AUB, down Rue de Mahatma Gandhi, aptly named, passed the rising crowd of bars and burger joints, themed clothing stores and hippie smoke shops, past the guy who everybody buys their rolling paper from, who causes a traffic jam a kilometer long, onto the famous Rue Bliss, where it looks like an American shopping mall food court exploded and implanted itself within the ruins of post-civil war Beirut. I never thought I would live off Mahatma Gandhi street in Beirut, but it happened. And every day I took my routine walk, past the falafel guy who wasn’t open yet, and past the famous DVD rental place that downloaded films before they were even out in theaters in most the United States. I would walk onto Bliss and take a left and head down the long, winding road towards the sea, and I always felt like I had come a long enough way to come close to something, every morning taking that turn, not five minutes into the walk, taking that left turn and a few steps down the long, winding road and there she sat, the great and beautiful sea, what David Abulafia calls a sea with many names. Every day I walked down that hill, a hill that leads directly to school and directly to the white expanse, met by a rousing breeze rising from the shores, thinking back on where I had just been, thinking of my parents huddled up there in the great state of Missouri, my father moving into a one room house in Joplen, my mother continuing on with her life, I would think about the first day I applied, with as ignorant a mind as can an American have, to my post in the middle school, teaching social studies to 7th and 8th graders, and I’d stumble down that long, winding road, stumble down until I could finally see it, hiding behind the shadows of a university wall, and I could feel my nostrils open up and the air seep into my lungs, feeling the weight of the week, the night before, the hours to come, feeling all of it combust into a little particle of jazz, a small, smooth, five note scale jumping up and down in her own ruins, her own party of rhyme. A lot of those days, and this came especially with my friendship to the mad raving lunatic Arbid, to Josie, to Nicola the aging homewrecker, and to Adam, salt of the earth Adam, I spent those mornings walking down that hill drunk and high, my eyes bloodshot red, I never needed glasses but I got myself a fake pair without prescription just to have an excuse to put something on. This was before I cut my chops, and so my hair went all the way down, blond like the revolving sun, all the way down to my back, and the smell of me walking into the elite private school, with hash under my nails and my overly sensitive bowels, always made a neat little scene, but I always felt home. The walk back was different. Uphill, tired, too much coffee, just need a drink or a joint. In the morning I always felt like I had something to give, something valuable to bestow upon my students. By the time the bell rang for the end of the day I was just surprised I survived. That day I was walking home and the rain was harder than it had been so far that year, and I noticed that I was stopped in front of a liquor store, one of those steel walls that open with girth and inside is a hundred cases of beer and every bottle imaginable to the hungry eye, and I bought a bottle of cheap whiskey and a bottle of cheap wine and head off home. I was supposed to have a friend of mine come over, a talented viola player for the conservatory, Imad, who was forced to leave his hometown with his brother when the Syrian civil war reached their town in Sweida, and he ended up living with a thirty five year old Brazilian dancer, being himself only nineteen. But he canceled. I already had the booze and I wasn’t going to wait, or let the bottles sit there for another day. There’s no shortage of alcohol. I can consume what I want. I still had a piece of hash left over from a few nights before, when some of the older guys from work came by and we smoked all night playing shitty country songs and getting drunk. An age old American tradition. I got upstairs and rolled a joint and lay down on my bed counting the mold spots that had scattered away from the whole, like black snowflakes on a mud stained wall. I held the joint in my hand for a while, and I guess I passed out for a few minutes, but then I heard a loud scream and my eyes opened wide and I knew Josie was outside on the roof and something had happened. I got up as quick as I could and rushed outside, almost slipped myself and took a tumble over the balcony but I held myself on the rail. I had forgotten to throw on my boots so my socks were soaked right away and I found here there almost in a louder pool of tears than the flooding roof, upset that she’d fallen and broken over a new canvas, and some of her groceries lay scattered on the floor. I picked up her things and helped her up, my hair in a loud mess and my feet drenched and really to be quite honest I wasn’t even thinking when I held her hand how beautiful she looked with her hair wet and her own shoes off but she did, and I noticed it only when I had her up and her things around my shoulders and we were laughing and she was between laughing and crying and I got her to under the tarp and we stood to the side and she was leaning on me the way friends do but in the cold she was a little closer and she had her head on my chest so the top of her head was in my neck and I remember realizing that I was smelling her scent for the first time. I didn’t know that much about Beirut. I still don’t. I had been there a year already but I felt like anytime something new came to pass it was a refreshing reminder that I wasn’t in Missouri anymore. But it never mattered. Standing there day in and day out on the roof of a six story building in the heart of the capital, seeing in the distance the mountains on one side and sea on the other, the whorehouses underneath on the street with their sixties design neon lights and their greasy bouncers smoking two, three packs of cigarettes a day. Smoking the best hash in the world among a herd of Americans and Irishman and journalists who wanted to do more than serve coffee in a Paris cell. Falling in love with a girl who speaks three languages and is learning two more, whose read the pageant poetry of France and Italy and laughs at my insistence on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as the American novel. Feasting on food, on drinks, on shit poetry and a brewing war outside. Feasting on the politics, man, the politics. The kids who got along until someone said the wrong name. The kids whose parents drove them to school in tinted BMWs and had their maids clean out their ears as they stepped out into the road. The kids whose parents did their science projects and whose moms came to parent teacher conferences looking for a foreign lay. Every day, something new flickered in my eyes and I saw for the first time where I stood. We ended up in my room, stoned, listening to Neil Young on repeat, her telling me about her lost brother, burning away his youth, and his good teeth, in a slum somewhere in Marseille. I told her about my parents’ divorce, my excitement at being abroad, at being away from the things I know, the things I can expect. She’d been in Beirut four years longer, and she had a look in her eyes that said, Just wait, you’ll see, it’s building a temple for your heart now, but then it becomes a hole, and everywhere you look everywhere you turn there’s that same dark hole, and you’re gone, gone, gone away from the light, and you’re never going to wake up again. After a bottle of wine and half a bottle cheap whiskey, six or seven beers and at least five joints, Neil Young on the radio over ten times, and the sudden emergence of three leaks in my apartment, she got up from her spot on the floor, huddled underneath all my blankets and pillows, her head resting against the corner wall. She got up and she looked at me and she smiled and she said, I’m going to bed, and when she walked away and she turned around in the end I wondered, I thought, Why didn’t she just stay here, why go over there, why not go to bed here? And before I knew it, before I could ask myself why, why, why, I was lifting my closed fist to knock on her door, and the door was already open and the air pushed it through, and I was standing there with my blankets on top of me and my hair over my eyes, and a joint still in my hand. Standing there, and she was there on her bed, looking over at me, naked, and for the next few hours, no matter what happened in the city of chaos and loss, all I know is we were together, in bed, making love. I went to the cinema that day for the same reason I was going to be alone the following day, because I wanted to experience what it was like, again, to be melancholic, like when I was young and afraid of yarn. It was a strange time for me, walking towards the lousy cinema, my backpack on my back, feeling like in the entire world I was alone. Aged and disgraced, locals bottled around me, swallowing their guiltless hearts in a pound, smoking from dawn until the following morning. Restaurants were glittered with lonely men drinking from bottles swallowing their pride, and young groups of women on the prowl but boring, looking more than they played the part, learning from the web what was cool and not, where to eat and how to look good starving. The music played from beside the park, and I walked towards the cinema with my back to the fence, pausing between breaths to draw in the silence, recognizing now, after so long, the meaning of quiet when you can first design it, the meaning when the spirit is not popping off, and the quiet blows her charming secret, like a snake that bows before the charm, knowing to who she is bowing. I didn’t know if I should call so soon after recently meeting up. Getting together like this has its boundaries. I try to respect the people I’m with. I put her in the conversation to know what she is about. To know what she is doing, when I am out there, thinking, trying to find the bread. Like the fact that I am always thirsty, but I drink only when it is convenient. What does that say about us?
“I’m surprised you answered. I thought you were screening me.”
“I’m sorry. I was.”
“Did you see my name on the ringer?”
“It’s a new app on my phone. I got it so I can talk to you. Are you annoyed?”
“Of course not. I’m sorry. I’m just low.”
“Our parents are having dinner again.”
“They are. I don’t know how I feel about that.”
“Does it upset you?”
“It does, but I don’t know why. I know I’m supposed to see better. I see through it. It hurts. The feeling is low.”
“We should hang out. Do you feel like seeing a movie?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’ll be good to get out of the house. I was browsing earlier. There’s a new documentary about The Ghosts, their life and times. It’s supposed to be really good. It’s directed by Ughos Krauft.”
“I don’t really know directors.”
“He’s really good. He has this way of changing stories in the middle of a scene. It’s what he’s known for. Going different lengths to make his point. We studied him a lot in school. I didn’t like him at first but he grew on me. He grows on you, I think. It’s like that with most of the directors I admire. It’s not easy at first. I don’t know. You don’t know him? Have you seen Three Boats and the Host’s Interior? It’s really strange. Supposedly the actors weren’t given any liens. They just do what comes to mind, but they spend so much time together preparing that it always works. I don’t know what’s so special about it, but they say its one of his best. For me, it’s the story. It’s not the story of a man, or his lover. It’s the story of hope. I like that.”
“Does it make you happy?”
“I guess. Why do you ask?”
“I feel like I should say it. I want to say that to you. I came up with this plan, to say everything as I feel it. To cherish my voice.”
“He’s really strange.”
“What do you mean?”
“He does this thing, when he’s really serious. He goes into a mood. It’s really strange.”
“Honestly, I don’t know how else to say it. He’s out of control. But it’s like he gives it away, in a way. To feel something. I think he has a serious problem with love. He loves so, so well. He’s generous. But he starts asking me to do things. I get it, he’s scared. He’s in there, alone, working. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. If I’m supposed to do it, or if I’m supposed to try getting away, somehow. Or getting him to move past it. For me, I come from a meditation background. I get it. But he needs control. For me, I’ve never understood why people want to give up control. Why they want to give it away, to someone else, by doing it, searching in the external world. Baba Rahman calls it the void, I call it the blanket. It’s a blanket for him. A kind of cloud. And it’s lethal. It takes everything away. All his silence, his superior. He gets super excited, and then suddenly, everything about him is gone. And of course he sexualizes it. It’s all about sex. He goes from reading Duro to painting The Anus, or The Anus Stare. It’s hard. I don’t know why he does it, but I know it’s where he has to go. Somehow, it’s empowering. He can be lazy. Not lazy, scared. He can be scared and goes quiet. The feeling is lost. I think it scares him, and he needs to drive away, to pull a wedge somewhere and stay there, until the quiet is gone. He calls them the muses. They come and go. There he is, then he’s gone. And then it’s quiet, for me, as well. It makes me sad. I try to stay present. I practice the oaths, under the face of Ra. I believe in the qualities of the elastic. The pressure is gone. He gets horny, and he shows up with his cock, and he stuffs it in my face, like I have something to do, because he wants to get his dick sucked, or he wants to get fucked in the ass. He bought a vibrator from Rania’s. He paid for it online. It was so embarrassing. I saw her the other day. She didn’t say anything, but I knew she knew, because I saw her looking at payments on her laptop, people’s names, some dates. So obviously, our names was on there. It’s funny, I don’t know. I like what she’s doing. It’s nice. People want it around, of course. It’s not enough to get by, but she’s not struggling. But does he have to buy it from her? I want to be modern, like him. I’m not traditional. But it’s hard. To see him with a plug in his ass. Enjoying it. He becomes so weak. He wants to play different games. We use different names. He becomes a character.
“What kind of fantasies are you talking about?”
“I don’t know if I can say.”
“You can trust me.”
“I know I can. But, I don’t know how much I can trust myself. There are so many things I want to say to you. So many things I haven’t said. All of this time, I thought I knew you. But it’s not true, because you don’t really know me, do you? There are so many things that are different for us. Things that quicken the heart.”
“Why do you talk like that?”
“Are you listening to me? I’m trying to tell you what I know. Finally, what I know. You won’t be proud of me anymore, like you say you are.”
“I’ve always been proud of you.”
“No, it’s not that. You can be proud of your son, the way any father might be proud of their son. You can be proud of him for accepting to exist in your name, which I have always done. But there are things I have done, things I must do, things I believe that are contrary to you. Don’t you understand? You’re proud of me, but you don’t know who I am.”
“We all have these fantasies, you know? I just cant understand, why it comes to this, or why it comes to that. When I first started out, I thought I was trying to answer a question, to settle a score. It’s not like that at all. Art is inferior. The real world is constantly settling scores. I’m part of it. So is the machine that won that night, owning our bodies. For it to score. We gave it to them. They didn’t want it to end like that. I heard some of them, arguing outside. It was just a few fireworks, nothing serious. But someone took it upstairs, and it went from bad to worse, from there. We all have twisted fantasies of ourselves, of who we are. Isn’t it? I don’t think I’m the first, or he’s the last. To think like that. It comes from somewhere. In our system of thought. Our biology.”
“What kind of fantasies are you talking about?”
“I know I have always had my power inside of me, not form the outside world. Different people work in different ways. I am no different. Actually, with time I realize I am like everyone else, only more disgusting. I don’t like to see myself evolve. In some way, I am lacking in that. I don’t know. Is it contrary to what I have said before? Are you listening?”
“I’m listening. I’m here, Thomas.”
“It’s just my way of inhabiting the planet, inhabiting my body. You know? The body is scarce. That is why we have religion. Why we praise the immortal. The finality of things. I want to bring it to a lucid point, you understand? Where I am saying something and doing it at the same time, and not choosing to be one or the other. This is the raw intelligence I want. To be alive, to do well. To be like each other. To forgive. To play cards. To accept if I win or if I lost. I want to be more accepting. You understand what I mean? I want to be more like him, the elect, the mother ra, the sage of the four banners, Mashallah. But there are ways I cannot be like him, ways I have to adjust. I am learning. This is art. It is this learning curve. That is where I start. Inside of the bubble. You know? The bubble is large. It can be more like him, but it is also dark. Duro says the passage is linked to the heart. Must I believe him? He curls the world into a ball, like a kitten does with her fur, like a woman does with a yarn. What if I am that woman? In my heart, I see things that aren’t pure. I see things outside of myself. Visions.”
“It is part of your vocation.”
“The visions are strong. They give me pain and pleasure.”
“The idea of suffering is not always the same. Does it effect your way of life?”
“It has become my way of doing things. Stepping in to this dualistic form, combatting it, sometimes being on one side, being on the other, combatting it the way teams play in sports. I like the theater. I love it, actually. Honestly, I go all the time. Last week we went with our friends, the Habibs, to the upstart on Jupiter’s Cross. The checkpoint was empty. We fled right through. It was dark and quiet. Peaceful, serene. This is how you think of it, that is how I see it. It was quiet and dark, peaceful, serene. There was total serenity, total ambience. Everything was awake without words. There was no language. We drove through the abandoned port, driving up to the theater. There was a small crowd outside, smoking, having some drinks. We expected not to find somewhere to park so we gave it to the valet, you know, so we could go inside. We bought one ticket each, which paid for our drinks, the first cocktail or two rounds of shots, from a bottle of schnapps at the bar. I didn’t think anything of it. I saw the paintings. Yes, they were crude. It was done alright. I heard some shots from the bar upstairs, and then it lost control. I think there were several people sprawled on the floor. Several bodies. I don’t know how much. I didn’t count. I didn’t see it right away, it happened so fast. There was two of them, for sure. I saw one of their heads, and the other, he had an orange cap, he came in from outside, but the first guy was there to start with. It was strange, that it happened that way. One of the reporters I knew came up to me. She asked if I was alright. I said sure, of course I am alright, because I didn’t know how she was looking at me, like I was to blame, somehow, for their loss, for those no longer with us, even though I was there, I was doing my part, and I could’ve been killed as well, I just didn’t see it, the bullet that cuts the fag in the hole, the bulletin, they said he was from Deir Azur, or from Lake Palm or Pomegranate, one of those, who doesn’t read, can’t spell his name.”
“Do you feel like joining?”
“What are you guys doing?”
“We’re going to the movies.”
“You know I don’t go to the movies.”
“I know, but it’s nice to ask.”
“I can’t stand those places.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Honestly, they’re disgusting. How do you even go there?”
“I try not to think about it. Not all places are like that.”
“What kind of movies do you go to,” one of them asked.
“Nothing, don’t worry about her. We can go on our own.”
“What? She hasn’t told you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want to go to the movies,” he asked.
“No, that’s fine.”
“Wow, that was quick. I didn’t think you’d shoot me down so fast.”
“Sorry, that was rude. You’re right. But no, still. I don’t want to go.”
“That’s fine. I just thought I’d ask.”
“Who are you going with?”
“Sarah. Sabine. You sure you don’t want to come?”
“I’m sure. Just call me after.”
“Okay. I will.”
“We used to go all the time. I used to go all the time with my family.”
“The Local, on Boulevard de la Semaine.”
“I love that place. It’s so sad it closed.”
“What happened to it?”
“I think it was just badly run.”
“It was. It was always so dirty.”
“Trust me. That’s why.”
“Really? Did something happen?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Now you have to tell me.”
“You don’t understand. You don’t want to hear this. It’s disgusting. We used to go all the time.”
“But never again?”
“Did you see a cockroach or something?”
“How did you know?”
“Oh my god, it happened to every one. I had one crawl up my leg while I was there.”
“Stop it! That’s disgusting. I’m disgusted.”
“What happened to you?”
“Oh, it was so bad. I don’t know if I feel like telling it. I’ve spent my entire life telling this story.”
“We all have a cockroach story.”
“It was so traumatic for me. You don’t understand. I could never go to the movies again after that. Whenever people wanted to go I had to leave. It was terrible. I hate thinking about it. We were a big group. You know Rana Chakeeb and Saleh Hussein?”
“Their parents. And the Marounis as well. But they didn’t have their kids. We were always going with them. Once a week, at least, especially if there wasn’t football. But honestly, nobody was as serious about football then. Not even Rana’s parents, who are obsessed.”
“I know. I watched some games at her house last year.”
“They’re insane. Have you seen their jersey closet?”
“I’m sure it’s all Amin. He pushed Sandra towards it.”
“Still. It’s crazy. Anyway. So we were there. Um Chakeeb made all the food that day. They brought them in white plastic plates. It was really cute. We had these small mosaic bowls my mother used. We had to buy cutlery and stuff, but they had forks at the door. We were eating there all the time. Did you used to go there during the day as well?”
“Never. But I know. There was food everywhere. It was disgusting.”
“Food everywhere. Everybody cooks at home and brings it with them. I drank soda that day, but the men were drinking red anise. We ate tabbouleh with our hands. There was somebody smoking a cigar. It was like a picnic, except in the dark. I dipped my hand into a plate of hummus, and a huge cockroach, like honestly, it was the size of my hand, crept out from under the plate. It didn’t even run, you know? It wasn’t even scared. Like it knew it had more control over us than we did on them. Honestly I had no control. I lost it. I ran and I cried. Saied Marouni saw me. He laughed at first, and my mother got pissed. She was mad at him for doing that. It was rude. But she was also on her way out. And afterwards we heard he had already seen it. Or there were two. I don’t know. Imagine, being in the cinema and a cockroach running up your leg. That’s disgusting. I can’t. Supposedly it ran up his leg. I don’t know what to believe. It’s disgusting.”
“That’s the worst. You can’t in this city. You can’t. You can’t sit in the dark and play. You have to look out for them.”
“We spray our house every six months.”
“Ana I know from my mother. I spray every two months a small spray, and every six months like you a big spray. But we have to spray all the house all the time. Also because we live in a villa. It’s different than a building. Like, as much I love my house, it’s annoying actually. It’s impossible not to see one. They can always find a way. If you leave a window open, khalas, you’re fucked. They come in somehow. And we have a roof and a garden, with lots of trees. No, no, it’s ridiculous. I dream about them every night. Every single night. I know it’s ridiculous for me as well. It’s not a way to live. I cant stop thinking about them. Cockroaches, all the time. They’re in my mind, all the time. I thought when I moved away I would be free from them, but now I dream about them more. It’s almost like it was easier to be around them, because now the shock is even more, when the idea comes to me, when I see one, when I hide my face because they’re on TV, I can’t help it, I’m scared, and the feeling is worse now that they’re no longer around, even though I know they are, we just don’t see them, they’re changing all the time, and they keep up with everything, they know how to make it in and out, it’s impossible to stay away from them, especially when it’s warm, and we want to be outside, we want to keep our windows open, we want to take long showers in the heat, cold showers, emptying the drains. They always come from my sister’s room, haram. Her room is by the stairs leading upstairs, to the roof. And from the maid’s room, downstairs. It’s unbearable.”
“I get it, I get it. I hate them as well. Once, in our old apartment, I was sitting on the computer at home. The desktop, you know, with the swinging chair behind it, and the open window, it looked out onto the lawn. The weather was grey, it was dark outside, but it was daytime. Honestly, it wasn’t that dark, so I’m surprised it happened, ‘cause for me, we were always trained, they come in the dark. They come at night, and when it’s humid. Not when it’s dark and cold, and in the middle of the day, about to rain. You know? When you can smell the fluid. And I was typing in the chair, and all of a sudden, a small cockroach, one of those baby ones, where you can’t even see the shell, but the antennas were long, like really, really long, and they touched me, that’s what I felt.”
“That’s what I hate most about them. The intrusion. They come form somewhere else.”
“There’s something extraterrestrial about them.”
“There is. It’s like a recurring dream. There’s no stopping it. No matter how terrible.”
“Even if you hide in your room you’re gonna find one, over the course of some time.”
“Crawling under the bed.”
“One fell from the ventilator of an air conditioner once. Like the central unit walls.”
“I hate it when they fall. The sound their body makes, it’s like a wet, thloppy sound, like a slop with a thuh sound to it.”
She asked her if she wanted to join. She didn’t. Not because she didn’t feel like it. She would have. She liked the idea of going to the movies. It always seemed so foreign and interesting to her, seeing it in movies. Seeing people watching films in a film was interesting to her, she said, and they thought about it for some time. But she never went to the movies. Not anymore, she said, not since she was two or three and had gone with her parents and after that day had decided never again, not in a million years, not even if it were her own theater and she ensured nothing of the same would happen ever again. What happened, she inevitably asked, having waited for her to reveal it before realizing she had gone silent, waiting to be asked, wanting. Then she realized she wasn’t interested in telling the story all over again, as she had spent most of her youth telling it to her friends and their parents when she was over at their house and had to explain on the go while they were driving to the theater why she couldn’t be involved, begging them to drop her off at home, or even to leave her on the side of the road, it didn’t matter, whatever it would take to keep her away from the dark just that time, she could even promise to get over it and do it sometime in the future if she was forced to again, but just then she wasn’t able, it was asking too much, and she thought she was going to have to suffer through it, crying all the way, until finally she’d find herself at home, at her own doorstep, crying into her mother’s arms, who was always home waiting for her to come back, wanting to warm her heart. What could have happened, she asked, and she told her finally without giving too much thought or putting up a fight that they had been at the local theater during the day, one of the theaters that had been open long and they were always going, and they had gone with their families and the Chakeebs were there and the Hussein’s as well, and the Murtaddas and the Marounis. They were all there and they were always going, it was a tradition to go once or twice a week, even if they were forced to sit in on the same film, it didn’t matter, so long as they were all involved. Um Chakeeb would make food for all of them, and they would bring their plates and platters in small and large mosaic bowls, with cutlery and cups for water and whatever soda they would have that day, and the men would drink anise and complain there wasn’t ice, and they ate tabbouleh with their hands, dipping strands of lettuce into the large salad bowl sitting in between them all, occupying fifteen or so seats in the middle of the house. The others were eating as well, and smoking cigarettes, and some of the people who were smart would bring their own shisha and smoke it in the aisle, and smoke all day even after the film were finished, as though it were their home or somewhere like a park, for them to sit outside and talk about different matters while eating at their lungs, and out of nowhere, she was dipping her hand into a plate of hummus, when a large cockroach crept out from under the plate. It stepped out without any seriousness to its movements, like it knew it would never be caught by any of them, even though, by that point, Saif Marouni had already screamed, and she was halfway out the door by the time it happened, that they heard so many people screaming and she fear on her father’s face for the very first time, because it was like they were stuck in the room as everyone ran, and they noticed there were cockroaches everywhere, one to a hand, some of them flying and she could hear them fall, smacking against the wall, their feet trembling on the porcelain wall. She really didn’t know what to say. She wanted to comfort her, she seemed upset, shook, even though it was so long ago, and it sounded like the sort of experience that lives on in the head, causing the trauma to slowly unfold, growing and growing as the years go by. She could understand. It was a horrible thing to happen, when a cockroach suddenly appeared out of nowhere. She told her about the time she was at home, sitting on the computer, before she owned a laptop, she was sitting on her desk, and suddenly a cockroach, albeit a baby one whose body was too small for the darkness of her shell to show, instead the glimmer of a reflecting canvas as her antennas struck her on the arm. It was a terrifying moment, she said. She cried out, and in that moment she realized what it was she despised so heavily about the insects, that sudden intrusion, like the nightly terrors of a recurring dream, that she knew was too terrible to have but there was no stopping it, unless she could somehow manage to skip sleep, but that would be crazy, and what sort of life would she have, she said, if she feared them to the point of total evasion, for even if she shielded herself in her room they would appear, somehow, at least one or two over the course of habituating years, crawling out from under the bed or falling from a ventilator in the middle of the night, the sound of their body hitting the wooden table waking her up, or the sound of their fling right into the glass, a lightweight impression of an ignorant bird. Mahan had made her way to the Cinema 3 that day as well, finding it in her heart to meet up with us, coming to the part of playing actors like they are our friends, and we have known them for so long it is natural to set the world alight with our portrayal. The small theater on Port Shahad, the screening. The festival was going well, but she did not know, at all, that it was running. She had been late and for many mornings was rushing in and out of work, forgetting where she was going. A week she experienced food poisoning once, and also was developing a cold. The water had cut in the building for two days, and for three days in a row she was cold from oversweating, sweating under her blouse when she put it on outdoors, surviving in the cold. The weather did not effect others as it effected her, and so in some way in she is special in my imagination. It works like this, she si the root of the thread, the place where our thoughts are come and gone, present at once at last, giving over to what is given to the best and worst of the performing arts. She liked the theater, preferring it to the multiplex at the National Library, on a quiet neighborly street. Townhouses surrounding the massive complex, featuring its own spa and indoor park. Of course that had its perks, and for tourists it boded well for them, to the city through the eyes of a multiplex. Much like the Star Cinemas dispersed around all the large shopping malls. The Cinema 3 was small, petite, more of a stomach than a shoulder, and there was always only two people working at the desk, sometimes on weekends they hired a third, to help out with ticketing or at the concessions. The person at the door selling tickets, and the person who stamped the tickets, usually rotated their duties at the concessions, depending on how bored they were that day. For that reason the films were always late to begin, whenever there were more than eight people for a screening, making it impossible to know what to do first and for whom, how to prioritize what and when. Mahan made her way to the Cinema 3, the small theater on Port Shahad, for the screening. She liked the theater, preferring it to the multiplex at the National Library Main Hall, on a quiet neighborly street, with townhouses surrounding the massive complex, featuring its own spa and indoor park. Of course that had its perks, and for tourists it boded well for them, to the city through the eyes of a multiplex. Much like the Star Cinemas dispersed around all the large shopping malls. The Cinema 3 was small, petite, and there was always only two people working. Sometimes, on weekends, they hired an extra, to help out with ticketing or at the concessions. The person at the door selling tickets, and the person who stamped the tickets, usually rotated their duties at the concessions, depending on how bored they were that day. For that reason the films were always late to begin. Whenever there were more than eight people for a screening it posed a little problem. It made it impossible to know what to do first and for whom. Working that day was Michael, a baby face with burning red cheeks and thick golden locks of hair falling over his eyes, like a small angel in a sculpture. His nose was small and cute, and his lips were wide and impeccably red. Behind the glass shield selling tickets was Marwa, with long violet hair, bleached just recent, and her nails long and glittered, alternating between violet and pink. The glass was dirty, losing a sense of its transparency. The idea of working behind the booth frightened Sarah, who couldn’t imagine enduring the summer heat in the small black box. Without an air conditioning, which would itself be terrible in such a confined space, and the sound of a fan would be exhausting for the ears in the little black cage. And always some nuisance adding to the part, like the constant falling over of a poster glued to the wall. She was glad not to have that job, for sure. She didn’t mind working at the bookstore, having space to roam, and at night being able to go for walks during smoke breaks. At the bookstore, they had a small garden outside, that could be accessed through the backdoor of the small kitchen. She hated going there alone at night because there was always a cockroach or two swimming around on the concrete, lost in a worming daze. But during the day the space was beautiful. Sunlight shone from noon until sunset, directly on the terrace. They were lucky. Two other gardens just like theirs did not have sun, because of a break in the skylight from two opposing towers, but the opening left by their imposing structures was just enough to blanket the garden in light. There were two people in front of her. An oversized man with white and yellow stains on his oversized navy blue T shirt. She couldn’t see the front but presumed it bore the logo of a sports team, judging by the way it had deteriorated, like it had been worn week in and week out for a recurring occasion, and the material reminded her of a shirt her brother always wore on weekends while watching games, only for good luck, not that it ever did anything, because his team was always losing. He didn’t look the kind of guy to be interested in the films on show, but then again, she remembered the character in Delillo’s story, the one with the oversized man who watches three to four screenings a day, religiously, taking notes in a book like a penitent scribe, preparing for a confession in the afterlife. He looked the part, certainly. He had hairy arms and his hair was thin and white, curling out of the arms of his shirt and crawling onto his neck, a patch of white hair sticking out from his body like the sort of naked beasts walking around water parks, with sweat collecting on their body hairs, a grimace on their face from overheating. He was breathing loud and she could hear every breath, in and out like a meditation. Every few seconds he would sneeze. She couldn’t help hoping that he was watching a different film, or that at least he had allergies and needed something to eat, like her, some popcorn or nacho curlers that would drive the cold away, such as when she would wake up sneezing and coughing, rubbing the nuisance of her eyes that felt like they were glued together, thinking she had gotten sick, again, only to realize she had allergies to something, either the horrible weather or the terrible air conditioning in the house. Mahan watched them. They seemed to know each other well, as though they understood what the person wanted and what the person had already done, like when he took care of paying for her ticket yet knew right away she would pay for the drinks. It interested her, that they seemed to operate on that level. It was like a partnership. She didn’t know whether to get something to eat. She was hungry and didn’t want to spoil her dinner. She wouldn’t mind having some popcorn to herself, especially since she was alone and wouldn’t have to worry about having any stuck in her teeth after the movie, or looking like a pig throughout the entire film. It would be nice though to be with someone else, she thought, laughing and giggling if the film were stupid, cuddling or locking arms if it was slow, one leg hunched over the others, making out. She enjoyed watching others watching films, it was part of her reason for doing it alone. Observing them alternate between deep and focused concentration to the occasional mouth gaping yawn. People had a way of transforming and her idea of them changed. Sometimes it was easy to tell at what moment someone was uncomfortable with the person they were with, and it was always interesting to see who in a group of people was the least comfortable at all, either with something happening onscreen or with the others, or even, sadly enough, with themselves, though that was very rare to catch inside a theater while it was probably the most obvious to catch outdoors.
“Why babe? I like working the night shift. It gives me time to relax. I feel better that way. There’s never more than two people to serve.”
“People still come to the space? I haven’t heard of anyone coming in a while.”
“A little bit. Not like before. The movies aren’t good, aslan. They’re too drab. Everything takes long, it takes forever, and then it just cuts. It’s just like a half. I’m sick of the cinema, but I like the groove here. Na7na we’re upstairs. I don’t even see who goes into the movies. The café is nice. You should start coming back. Bring Zizo, bring the boys. Yalla! Come!”
“Yalla soon,” he said.
He enjoyed working the night shift. There were often just a few couples and a couple strays, and the occasional aficionado with too much on their plate, taking up too much space and causing a slight disruption of smell. But it was a decent enough job and he enjoyed it. Sometimes if the film were empty he’d cut inside and catch some of the thrills, sitting in the third or fifth row, if the theater were no more than a hundred seats, which none of the theaters were, as they barely dented the thirty mark, at best. When he did manage to get a showing in at the National Theater for a special screening, he liked sitting on the balcony further in the back. It gave him the feeling he was part of something larger than themselves, something they would hold on to and recognize at a later time as having meant something to them. He couldn’t be sure if that’s how the others who were there every night at the Cinema 3 felt, if it was something larger than themselves that they were enacting, but in a small, humble way they were, and they probably knew it. There was a reason nobody came out to see the films at night, even though in his parent’s days, supposedly, as that was what they told him, and what he had seen in certain films of that golden rockabilly era, all of the fun happened around the movies and every boy and girl could be found there, watching something or just hanging out, or watching a film outside. There were so many buildings in the city and so many bare open walls, why couldn’t they just draw up a screen on one of the walls and invite the public for a night outside? It would never happen. They were too spoiled, iffy about just about everything. There were some patrons who came during the day on weekends with their kids, and they pulled out wads of antibacterial washing cloths, wiping down their seats and those of their children. He understood why, they couldn’t be blamed for wanting to take care of their needs, but there must have been a time, long before he was ever born, where people weren’t so prepared for everything, and it probably happened that they were less scared and more able to enjoy themselves doing whatever it was. They each paid seven dollars for a ticket. She handed him a ten dollar note, to make change and take enough for the ticket, but he refused, explaining that he wanted to invite her all along and had finally gotten his chance. It surprised her, as he had never really taken control. He handed the clerk the money, accepting the change in his hands right away. He did something she found odd, just then, counting the change he was given. It had never occurred to her to do that before, to count the money she had gotten back from someone she had just paid. His parents must have done it, she thought, it was the way he was raised, to be urgent over money, even in front of others. She almost wanted to ask but realized what a ridiculous idea that would be.
“Do you feel like having popcorn?”
“Sure, why not?”
“You do! Great. I was worried. Some people hate eating popcorn during a movie. Especially if the film is like, worth watching or something.”
“Are you kidding? I love eating popcorn with a movie. It’s the best.”
“I do it all the time. Like, every day almost.”
“I think there are two types of people. People who need something to do, in order to concentrate, and people who can only concentrate if they do nothing but concentrate on the thing they’re focusing on.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“What class are you in?”
“I’m in the first class, definitely. That’s how I got into drawing at first. In school. I had nothing to do. And no way to focus except to draw on my notebooks and try to listen to whatever was going on. I could really keep track that way though. I don’t know if I ever made the connection, though. That it was those two forces, working together.”
“I take notes on my smart phone all the time. I did it in school as well. I proved it to my professors by asking relevant questions, staying involved. They got it in the end. I think it works. It’s either that or Adderall. Or copious amounts of weed. I mean, I did those as well, but not as frequently. I guess I’ve done a lot of drugs. Is it alright for me saying that? I don’t know. This is strange. I feel like we’re supposed to get along. You know when you have that pressure? And suddenly it becomes really tough just to speak at all? Do you smoke joints, ever?”
“Not as much anymore. I used to all the time.”
“So, should we get popcorn?”
“Yeah, let’s do it.”
“Which one? Small or large?”
“There isn’t any. I would’ve asked.”
“I don’t care. You decide. Are you going to get a drink?”
“Maybe a beer?”
“I can’t believe they sell vodka here, at the theater. Why would someone need that?”
“I can see myself needing that at some point.”
She wondered if she should just eat from his or buy her own. It was getting so confusing over orders and bills. She reached into her purse to pay. He held her hand. Gentlemanly enough, she thought, but when he let all he said was, “Are you sure?” She nodded frantically, not knowing what to say.
“Sure,” she said, “Of course.”
She realized it was the first time, since they’d met, she’d thought of him so distinctly, placing each of them in a caste and developing an idea from there. He must have had such a different childhood, she thought. Always wondering about who was going to pay, always having to pay himself, always counting the money when it was given to him. His parents must have done it, she thought. I’m sure they count the money when someone gives it back to them. The gas collector, the newspaper guy.
“By the way, what should we do after?”
“I don’t know, we can go to Montand, if you want. It’s really nice there. We can have a coffee before the film at a small café upstairs. In the summer it opens on the roof. It’s small, very charming. The coffee isn’t so good, but its not bad. The food is alright. It’s super simple, super smart. A salad nicoise or a steak and fries, but the steak is really good, you know? The wine isn’t bad at all. Do you drink wine? I never drink before a film. I try to wait for afterwards. I try not to drink anything at all. It either gives me cramps, or I’m totally fucked because I sit in the middle of a row and then I have to use the toilet. I hate asking people to let me pass. It’s one of my worst fears. When we go to the Supper Club, on Rue de la Coco…”
Mahan settled for a fizzy lemonade in an olive green can, asking the helper to open the can because she didn’t want to ruin her nails, which she had just taken care of, though she realized it was a silly thing to do, firstly because she wouldn’t be able to ensure it were clean, and secondly because she would have nothing to wipe the can with and certainly there were no tissues nearby that could do the trick, except for in the bathroom but that was an even harsher suggestion, as to go into the bathroom itself was to walk into the line of fire, where from most of the bacteria stemmed. The theater was small, as expected, patrons entering from the rear to the back of the room. Mahan continued down onto the fifth row, at the small but relevant tilt, choosing her seat in the middle of the hall, a third away from the screen. She knew it wasn’t the best seat in the house but that would mean there would be no surprises and nobody else would join. Even though it was pretty empty people were always showing up late. The speakers were already on and she could hear a little buzz, some sort of static, like the dusty eardrums on a vinyl, the needle’s aging prick. The screen was not yet on, but the curtains were drawn, she could see them pulled to either side. The trailers were short and sweet, three for films to be shown in the theater and two others for films that would not be shown but would be distributed online. In between each trailer there was a commercial. One of the films, by Mirella Jarrar, touched upon some mystical tricks and it looked interesting, like she had embedded herself among natives of a mystical tribe. The great actor Sasha Peru was involved, and she entered a trance at some point, turning in circles like a dervish dancer. Another of the trailer was for Ruba Layali, featuring the final effort in her trilogy, The Maker’s Suitcase, the Deep, and Open to Casualties. The film was shot in a very wide lens, she could tell, because the scenes were wide and sparse, the landscapes bare and huge, the daylight rough and stifling, the midnight harsh and cold. As the film began she was entranced by the spectacle awaiting her, by the movement of the frames finding themselves onscreen, it gave her a rush of excitement every time, no matter how young or old she was always going to love that feeling, of sitting in the theater with a bag of popcorn in one hand and her legs curled up on the chair, staring into the colorful void. Krauft was old school, a pioneer in the art of retrograde, and few did it better than him. He shot all of his movies on film, preferring it to digital, supposedly, for the sound while shooting, saying it intimidated the actors, which she was to be true, because once when she was younger, and the few of her and some friends were offered a place on a movie set, to enact a social scene, she was preparing to enter the scene for the first time, not having been given any lines but acting as a group, and before she walked onto the set the camera was rolling, and there she was, standing there like an idiot, staring into the camera while it emitted the sound, like an underwater gurgling, something like the quiet meditation of a crocodile whose heart beats once every minute. When the film began she recognized the voice of the narrator before the frame even opened. It was a surprise. She loved the voice. The narrator. She knew it immediately. A voice that sank through her skin, touching her heart. A voice she had loved once, years before. This is not my story, he says. This is the story of a band who has taken over my life. I know some bands are eternal. They will figure in the national myth. Myth, I know, is eternal. I caught the face of a girl in the passing crowd and the rest is my story.
After the film they went outside and sat on one of the benches across the street, the museum of hope on the other side of the road, next door to the Refectory, a stewardship of local pretenders of anarchist rule, overlooking where hills rise in the west, flowered with homes and their skeletal tombs. A construction site gurgled across the street, cutting through the hill like a tunnel, the columns of a building soon to collapse watched over by workers, all of them in their hooded robes, blue for managers and the rest in black vests. They looked like a local pest platoon.
“What do you feel like doing?”
“I don’t know. You?”
“We can have a drink at the Rose Talar. What do you think? It’s nice out there now. It’s a bit cold. The roof will be nice and misty. We can sit in the house and smoke lagooms and yore.”
“I kind of feel like a walk, I don’t know.”
“I feel like a walk as well. Let’s walk there. Are the trams still running?”
“No, but it’s nice. We can walk along the tracks until the foot of Avenue Rose.”
The white neon lights of Rue de Champagne glow as though it has just been built, even though it was beyond disrapport, the original buildings were being destroyed, and new artificial houses built in their place, mammoth constructions that come apart twofold, dwarfing the fading lighthouse sitting in the back of the district, once a towering monolith of hope, and the two opposing temple towers of the two city radios, where one has extended and the other parted, choosing another district and another road.
Passing the flower shop on Rue de la Sep Salib, she decided to step inside.
“Have you been inside before,” she asked.
“No, I haven’t.”
“Come, check it out.”
“Marhaba,” she said, as the door’s soft jingle sounded.
“Marhabtein,” Um Ali said, sitting beside the doorway. She was holding her husband’s hand, Abu Ali, who was enjoying his seat with leather padding, while Um Ali sat beside him on a plastic stump, a white piece of plastic that sat on three spines, where one of the spines on the back was broken. Whenever she visited, she felt the same feeling, that of suspense, for the chair to crack any minute, having to cope with the excess of her weight. They were watching a cycle of daily shows they watched every morning into the afternoon, and in the month of Festival, while fasting, late into the night, after breaking their fast around the cashier counter, dressed in their morning clothes. They watched Teleblast Munoz, at noon every day, a gameshow involving a maze where people go home with toasters, and the winner settles for a fantastic car that cannot be sold or reclaimed.
“How are you, Um Ali, how are you Abu Ali?”
“We’re fine,” Abu Ali said, speaking in all honesty.
“Are you really? That’s great.”
“Things are going okay. Don’t ask Um Ali, she will just tell you the same. It’s useless, asking each of us at the same time, as we see only most of each other, and nobody else. Nobody is coming around these days. People are not interested in hanging with us. What can you do? We’re getting old. My son, Ali, he is so grown. He doesn’t come around himself so much anymore. I don’t know. The state of things is bad. The state of things is strange. Or maybe I am the one who is strange, as I am now old. I don’t know. Everywhere I look, there is a stranger. I have become a stranger on the street.”
“It’s not that bad,” Um Ali said, “we have to be thankful ya Chakeeb. At least for him,” she said, speaking towards her, shifting in her multicolored robe, riding up her sweaty thigh, the size of which weighed a fortune, “he doesn’t do any of the work anymore. Look, he is old. He is useless when it comes to these things. Abu Ali, how hard have you worked in your life? Don’t you realize you worked yourself too hard? These things make a beast of mountains. Carrying cartons all day and night. He used to deliver sixteen barrels of water a day, to the neighborhood, at least! That was before the war. Shu kenno yishrabo bil harib ya Chakeeb? And now, look at him. This is what the world makes of men, men it has empowered before. Myself, look at me, I’m not excluded. Someone has looked at me in vain. Both of my feet have infections. They have become so large, they are infected. The infection is growing, it is getting worse. I tried every medicine, nothing works. I tried Stimirol, Dimirol and Panasillo and Panadillo separate and together, and I tried to do six days of physiotherapy, the nurse came to the house, it didn’t work. This was on the government’s pension, mind you, but from what account? I don’t know even, but I’m sure it’s mine. Anyway, thankful and thankful, I am not allowed to wear shoes, even if it goes until winter. You know how long it has been. My big toe, the nail is completely gone. So there is a bandage, and it is full of blood. I have to change the blood every few hours, I mean, change the, what do you call it, the wrapping sheet. It is impossible for me to do it. If I do not have help, I have to wait for someone kind enough to pass by. And then what? I’m ruined. I have to ask for help. Do you know how long I lived without asking anyone to help me? And look at me now. It happens to you, when you get old. You are young and beautiful, thank the good prophet and the field of swords.”
She bought two chocolate bars, “For the walk,” and a pair of cigarettes from the open basket. “They sell them in pairs,” she said, “it’s better than packs. Do you smoke at all?”
They laughed, he took her by the arm. They felt, as each of them did that night, that it was better to be together, than to walk alone, guarding against strangers in an awful state of mourning.
“What time is curfew,” she asked.
“Usually it’s eight to four, but they might push it until later.”
“What time is it now?”
“Nine forty five.”
The streets were relatively empty, and the people quiet because they were trained to be soft and tender and taught to go to sleep at night. Beneath the veneer of quiet there was something. Here people have their secrets, she thought.
“We can have a meal at the Patisserie Montage, on the roof of the small gallery on Boulevard Dodo. I wanted to make a stop after the meal, to Petit Orlo’s. I don’t know. Have you been there? It’s such a nice concept store.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“You haven’t? You have got to go. I bought these shoelaces at half price. They’re for sneakers or boots. They’re water resistant. Most strings are. But they don’t get bothered by water at all. They never get wet. Look, touch.”
She grabbed his hand, bringing their march to a stunting drop, her hand dragging his body forward.
“My laces are always getting wet. It’s annoying to dry them when I get home.”
“Where is the store?”
“It’s by an old flower shop, Baba Ali’s.”
“Yeah, it closed. A new concept store opened up in its place.”
“Really? That’s so sad. Is it nice at least?”
“The owners were in a flea market, it’s their first real store.”
“Which flea market?”
“The one on Pere Malaise.”
“Tab is it nice at least?”
“It’s a small shop, disconnecting of the original rooms, that they use as a permanent kitchen and like bar. They play a lot of music there, they have their friends hang out. It brings a lot of life to the place, to the street. They even give children lessons, teaching them how to bike. It’s a group of friends, you know? But it’s not that serious. It’s changing the street for sure. Next door, a new tenant is building a candy store, and the owners stilled owned the building, though I heard most of the family has totally moved on. Only the eldest daughter, what’s her name?”
“Yeah? I forgot as well, but go on.”
“They have good products. Hala Milan, Dima Savant. Some of the sneakers on sale are one of a kind. Vintage, like twenty programs. They even have a Maximus Knife, form one of the earliest settlers.”
“Did you get anything?”
“I got a cutting board. It’s small. It was cheap, like twenty bucks. It’s theirs. They made it. I don’t even think it was on sale. I just liked it, they set a price. It had probably been used. It doesn’t smell like onions or anything. It has a few lines.”
“It’s good to buy things for the house.”
“I like that sometimes.”
“It keeps the body warm. You know? The house warm. The liquid. I usually go to Khan’s. Do you know it?”
“I buy there once a month. Something simple, small.”
“Like a toaster or an avocado cover.”
“Hek, something simple, something small.”
“Hala2 the quality isn’t the best but it works.”
“Eh, exactly. Ana I love to buy a bottle of coconut water after I go running. Btarfe3 the one on the beach.”
“Eh bas it’s closed.”
“What? Who said?”
“I sweat, ask Jimmy now. He’s with Rabah. He knows.”
“Are you serious? Haram, it was the best.”
 The contestants answer questions on categories they decide. Mostly questions about animals, famous books, lost cities, never about debt, rent or sex.