Michael Habib

Michael Habib

 

He caught the eyes of a stranger in the distance, underneath the stone dripping shower. He was embarrassed. The crowd around him was mixed. They washed their hands on the dock, under a fountain. It felt as though the stakes had been raised. He felt his fingers to his cheeks. They were red, a result of the tan. He drank some water. In the first line of showers he rested against the hot stone wall and drifted off to a miniature sleep. He twitched his neck like a snake, twitching all the while his half dreaming. His body felt cool against the hot earth. His feet were resting on the stones of a downstream hot spring. His hands hanging languidly on the cold stone of the deck. Warm water dripped down his head and neck, dispersing at his chin and shoulders, all the way down his arms and chest. He felt revived. The crowd around him was mixed. He was embarrassed to catch the eyes of a woman in the distance, down a cave like hall of stone showers, the moment he opened his eyes. He watched her bathe. Passing through the tunnels of the port, he circled the muses absorbed in their cages. The courtyard was overrun by dignitaries and their bodyguards. He didn’t feel at his sharpest. Not at that hour, between dinner and sleep. He had to decide whether he would stay up all night, circling the town, or if he would rather try for a good night’s rest. The square was swarming. Demonstrators wearing protective screens over their faces, for fear of government reprisal. Batteried light, just in case. It was impressive. He heard pilgrims were abandoning their ships before they docked, in order not to be seen coming in. Even the farmers were on strike, the harvest having been obliterated by the growing environmental disaster. He entered a cull de sac room, void of light. Some locals were paying tributes to a sculpture, the anamorphic representation of a tumor, projected in the center of the room. Surrounding the sculpture were marble sculptures of different mouths, waiting to inhabit their prize. He removed his coat, his suit, the jacket, the trousers, the belt, the sams, untying his shoes and removing the laces to be pressed and steamed, with his tie, and braces, the two ankle beefs and the high cap cuff. He sat back on the bench, the warm head towel wrapped around his neck, the sponge of the slippers. Owelmo walked past with another customer, followed by the voice of Manager Shamriz, who often crossed through the showers without notice. He noticed Makram seated on the bench, his elbows resting on his legs. He looked tired. He felt tired. They shook hands, they spoke honestly about their feelings, each of them exhausted in their own way.

“How’s your son,” Makram asked?

“He’s good!” Shamriz said, “How’s yours?”

“Great!” Makram said. “He’s looking for work!”

“So is mine! What does he do?”

“Mine’s a writer.”

“Mine’s an adult mime.”

“They’re going nowhere,” Makram said. He caught himself, from saying more. He didn’t want to come off as being unhappy with his son.

“Aren’t they?”

“He’s too sensitive.”

“Why don’t they work with us?”

“They think it’s easy, too easy. They want to be challenged.”

“They don’t know what’s coming to them.”

“The older one is better. He sees things as they are.”

“That’s good. I only have a daughter, other than my son.”

“She’s younger, or older?”

“Older, haram. Four years older, kaman. It would have been better for her to have a brother closer to her age, when they were young. She would not have felt so alone. It was difficult, to tell you the truth.”

“It’s difficult, these days.”

Owelmo returned from the end of the hall, passing by the two men and waving. It was more of a salute, like one gives to a superior passing in the hall, without having to stop them to celebrate the occasion, the coincidence having been their fault, as they were the ones passing in the first place. Owelmo didn’t think like that, he thought different. He was from Bakajo, and had travelled to the port at an age having inherited and cemented the customs of his people, it would take years for him to learn and forget them. For instance, when passing in the hall, he tended to guide his gaze away from them before having entered, hoping to admonish the chance that it was his mistake to make, to look upon the men stepping out from the showers, some of them having chosen to dry off just outside the common bath, where the slope inclined so as to ensure they would not be stepping in a puddle, like such, and the idea was theirs to accompany; whereas for those, like Kamel and Shamriz, it had been such a long drive but they eventually undertake, as all other men of their heritage, a ritual of disclosure that accompanies March in the thirteenth year of their studies, showering naked among their class on a three day field trip overseas, hosed down by teachers and their assistants, more often than not husbands and their wives, keeping their manners close and their focus on the children, so as to ensure they were not to be fined on their return from adventure. As such, it had not been their custom and the custom of their parents, and so they had enjoyed the customs of their teachers, having been brought up at school among a herd of foreigners, who acted like guards of a distant truth, a truth that was proven in the lexicon they were taught at school, where they had come to view themselves as strangers and the better half of them dead, stale and aggressive when at life at all. The strangest of their truths was of their indifference to change, their reluctance to do good for others. He had read some time in a journal of no credentials, waiting in the hallway for a doctor to retort his call, the five distinct races of man, of which he found himself strikingly similar to all. He could not distinguish which of the five were of a more superior nature, but recognized immediately in their sub categorization which had appropriated power by intellect or cleverness, and which had to resort to force, ultimately stagnating in their respective traditions, usurped sometime by a further force, an outsider possessing brilliance only known to man after discovering how to cull their diet and harvest crops. In that same magazine a boy, no older than his youngest brother, a child of nine, his parents having conceived as many children as his mother was able to conceive, and to evict them safely and without harm, two of her born eleven were stale and dumb, the first of them dying in dignity the night of his birth, his fingers coiled around his mother’s saintly thumb, the other having died in the violent process of his removal, a process that required a lot of blood, and the sort of patience to which she was not familiar. This boy, whose face was drawn up on the page, staring back at him in similar color and disposition, had no illusion of greatness however endowed, delusions of grandeur their society didn’t allow, the indistinguishable gaze that was then between them, awaiting his calling by the doctor with a calm refrain, bopping to a rhythm unheard by the others, the conscience shared in a name, dissipating with each voice scarred, chords torn asunder to surrender their wealth, beds of holy profits that were to them endowed, entrusted in their religion, by the rule of Ra, the center of attention, under the wade of Ob. It made him feel, sometimes, that his world of wants was just the crying of a beast who they resented, searching, in their dignity, for asylum. But they so much took him as an outsider as a family of seven entertains a family of ten, hollering and clawing together through festive rites, trifles of camaraderie spread among them. A trainee of his was waving to him from the end of the line, the open floor of the fitness studio draped between them, catching each other’s eyes. She had strict specifications but always worked hard, focusing mainly on her abs, her core, her gluteus, her thighs. Her shoulders were slick and brawn, her arms were defined but slender. She had dimples on her locker back, and thigh gap between her legs, though she wanted to be slimmer.

“I feel great these. I feel like my body’s transforming. I’m really responding to the routine. It’s really great.”

“You look wonderful.”

“Yeah, thank you. Honestly, I’ve been working really hard. I try to look at myself differently, you know? Not to take myself so seriously. I feel better about that. Things were really rough at one point, you know. I got really down. I don’t know what else to say, it’s been great.”

“And the work out is good?”

“The work out is amazing. On the spiritual level, I feel calm, peace. It’s what I wanted. I don’t want to be intense. And on the physical level, when I look down at my legs, I seem to have gathered a little weight around the hips, around the buttocks, and my arms have gotten slimmer, my lower back is curving slightly. I feel fine. I’m happy not to decide. Happy not to have an idea.”

“That’s great. The perfect body image is in your control. It’s what you want for yourself, not what you’re told.”

“I’m learning that now. Thanks for the support O.”

“No problem, Adam.”

He left her at the free weights section, walking languidly back to his line at the desk, watching over the day’s open hours, one eye on the four studio rooms to his left and the other four to his right, the open field of working out before him. He noticed a younger member, Ihab, struggling with some weights on the double Lock and Toke.

“Need help,” he muttered, his voice inaudible, intending for him to understand by reading his lips, reading how he annunciates.

He shook his head, prompting Owelmo to give him a thumbs up, letting him they’re good.

“Ow,” came the call from behind him, “You’re wanted at the front, someone new wants to join. They’re looking for a specific training, maybe you can help.”

“Where’s Jo?”

“Not here right now, I don’t know. Just go man I’ll cover for you.”

“Alright,” Ow said, strutting away from his friend, harboring the bench he vacated.

A voice called out from behind him, sheltered underneath the glowing lamps of the reception hall. He pounced onto the stranger with the charisma expected of him, carrying at once a naked smile. He crossed the open platform of the gym’s main floor, exiting by the stretching mats and the medicine balls. There were a few trainers with their students. Some he recognized, others he ignored. He waved to Melissa, behind the water and soda bar, the refreshments she prepared standing on stack, in a row of transparent vases. He waved to those sitting at their desks by the refreshment bar, on their laptops, their phones, staring into space, lost in absent contemplation, so much he deduced by the looks in their eyes, riding the elevator down three floors, offering with his hand the guidance of two passengers, waiting to climb inside, holding the door for them, politely, as was told to him to do by his heavy lifting boss, the superior Mr. Shamriz, waiting for him behind his box downstairs, two floors down, discounting the pool, in its own, alternate floor, extending from the reception outwards, accessed by two sets of interlacing stairs, meeting once at the bottom, once in the middle and once up top, in full view of the gymnasium overhead, the see through floor of the basketball and ping pong courts, often empty, but for the visit of members and their kids. Shamriz was waiting for him behind the desk, a pamphlet and envelope in his hand, ready to hand his new client over.

“This is our best trainer, Owelmo,” he said, introducing him with a smile, accepting him into his arms, the way a coach or a father might, and he was something of a father figure to him, living so far from his own, not having heard from them in some years.

“Hey, guys, how can I help you?”

“Hey, my name’s Jake, I’m new in town,” he said, offering his sweaty hand, a feat of his, perspiring, part of his nervous ticks, that never stopped.

“Hey, buddy, how can I help? You need a full time trainer, or what? I can offer a class, like one session, I don’t know what kind of membership you got?”

“I’m on silver.”

“Okay, so that’s two trainings the first month, then you’re on your won.”

“Yeah, but they made me sign this thing that I have to pay for five exclusive sessions.”

“Yeah, true. It’s policy now. It’s a way to support the trainers.”

“There’s a strike I heard.”

“Yeah, it could be bad. We don’t know. We’ll see.”

“So, why aren’t you on strike,” the other person said, Mark, his partner.

“Well, I can’t go on strike, I don’t have proper papers. It’s complicated.”

“But you’re employed here.”

“Yes, but kind of like a freelancer.”

“Right, right.”

“What’s up guys, you need a trainer or what?”

“What, is there a problem?”

“No, what? No problem.”

“No, we’re just getting accustomed to being here, that’s all. He said he was getting us some papers to sign, for the locker, etc. Can we get two separate lockers?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, because basically Shamriz gave us a deal, he said it’s cool for Mark to come in on my registration, he doesn’t live here, so he has like ten visits a month, a third of mine, which is perfect for him.” He turned to his lover, Mark. “You’re basically my child from now on.”

“Great,” said Mark. “How can I do the usual training I’m doing, man, but without putting on more weight?”

“How much you weigh man?”

“I’m seventy seven.”

“That’s nothing, bro. You got to be like eighty five.”

“No, man, no way. It kills my buzz, bro. The feeling I want is like this, perfect. You see,” he said, pointing to his arms on the mirror before him, slender and long.

“How tall are you bro?”

“I’m like, six four.”

“You’re too skinny, bro, too skinny. You got to do more.”

“I want to stick to this weight.”

“Do what you’re doing then, don’t add anything.”

“Don’t add weights?”

“No, don’t.

“Like, don’t add more?”

“Yeah, don’t do more. If you’re doing let’s say ninety five, don’t jump to one hundred twenty. Just don’t. Stick to what you do. Don’t do anything more. Even with the legs. It’s good you got nice legs. You work out your legs, I can see it. A lot of guys come in and don’t do anything more, only the arms, no lower back, no thighs, no calves. Do you skip rope?”

“No, I don’t.”

“It’s good for you, the best. Like swimming. Do you swim?”

“Not anymore.”

“What, no swimming, man? What do you do in the summer?”

“I go out man, I go to clubs, you know, whatever. I swim sometimes but like I basically just float. I hate swimming man, can never get it right. Water up the nose, I’m not breathing. It’s tough. They taught us in school.”

“You had swimming in school, man?”

“Yeah. You? No?”

“No way, man. My village had nothing. I didn’t swim until I was twenty five.”

“How old are you now?”

“Thirty four.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah but I’m a good swimmer. You see? Respect.”

“Right, right.”

“So what you doing tonight bro, take me out with you, I’m bored.”

“Yeah, where do you live?”

“I’m in Sarif, in the camp.”

“You go there at night?”

“Yeah. I live with my parents.”

“Your parents?”

“They gave us a room in the camp.”

“Who?”

“The administration. I don’t know. Whoever is responsible.”

‘That’s cool. What’s it like?”

“It’s okay. My mother doesn’t walk at night. They think she’s a whore.”

“Shit.”

“So where are you going?”

“To a party man, to a friends. You can come if you want.”

“Alright, sick, dope.”

He knew he wouldn’t call. It was common among them, even among people he counted as friends. It was rare for one of them to answer their phones. He stopped bothering calling them. He knew, if they were interested, they would be doing well, and since they were not, they left him alone. In truth, he knew people cared for him, but for the most part, they did not take it upon themselves to make him feel at home. Not that it was their obligation. It was his decision to cross over, after all. Still, he would have liked to go out that night, if only to go to a bar and see what people were doing, what others got up to when evening called. There was a game tonight, and even though he wasn’t rooting for either of them, it was a big night for the maestros from Nabi Saleh, and their rivals, the eagles of Tal Khar. Both sides were wanting to make a statement, coming in to the tournament on the back of disappointing campaigns. Owelmo didn’t gamble, as he still heard the voice of his mom, urging his eldest brother, Peralmo, begging him not to play cards, but if he dared to share his money on the odds, he would have put his money on both of them, with the possibility of an even draw. His youngest brother, Olon, he could remember having supported them, when he was younger, always running around in their apple orange shorts, their trousers dirtied and needing wash, and the same sad story that he always told, of their captain, Roberto, with the braided rattail mullet, sort of Baggio, in ’94, stepping over the penalty and blowing it wide, forever tainting his reputation. Their town had celebrated that night, blowing open bottles of colored Colas and fizzing their straws, spraying them like champagne at a racetrack. He wasn’t able to hide the lie, his brother celebrated and in his heart he wept, pretending, for their satisfaction, that he wasn’t on their side, that he wanted Roberto with the haircut to lose, and the world forever claiming the victory of Gods over mortals who were ascending and disgraced, it dawned on him, at that young age, as it would on Michael, and a few of the boys of that common lot, a generation for whom the world was a vile place, constantly at competing odds, that he would need an idol to look forward to, who would step up to the penalty and score, unlike Baggio, the mere mortal, who was from that day forward forever ignored. But the game that evening would see the two sides squaring off for a chance to knock the champions off the podium, grabbing the headlines once and for all. They had some pretty good players on either side. They both kicked the ball back and forth, to no real effect, for most of the opening quarter. The boys out of Tal Khar were the first to score, on a great pass from midfield, splitting the center backs in half, the pass by Semilovic, onto the speeding Tavolini, both of whom were imports from the rich abroad. A solid, comfortable finish. Hamid Hamza, the captain, took the field in the thirty first minute, after an early injury to Mohammed Rasoul, their forward, sprinting, having been aught on the leg, twisting his ankle in the motion. The coach had tried resting Hamza for the second half, having just come back from injury, though most of the plaudits going his way for his theatrical composure in showing remorse in not having signed for an European side over the summer.

“Who do you support,” Hakim asked.

Makram didn’t answer. He was tired of answering Hakim’s questions. He was only with him because he was alone at home, and didn’t have somewhere better to go, to go fondling over Tatiana, or to stay at home, in bed, ashamed of the person he really was, having had very little luck in hiding it. He was always asking questions on the game, as though he would remember the answer, only to make conversation. Something a woman would do, his wife had thought, and said to Makram many times.

“Who did they just put in,” he asked.

“Hamid Hamza,” Michael said, “the captain,” feeling sorry for the friend of his dad’s, knowing his father was reluctant to answer, feeling also sorry for him for having that much to decide, to profit from his friend’s sadness by ignoring him, only to appease himself. “He’s the best player on the field,” Michael added, “he wasn’t playing because he was supposed to be injured, but people say he’s a little scared.”

“Scared of what,” Makram asked, suddenly excited, hoping to catch his son out.

“Scared of getting a red card. Missing the next game. They have three good strikers. It’s difficult to know who to pick.”

His father nodded. He turned his attention back to the game on hand. The servant Glenda entered the living room with a basket of bread and a plate of nuts beside a plate of olives. They ate with their hands, portions of the room in the dark. The game reflected the droning spool, cachets of figures dancing like elves. They put the commentary up, turning the television a jolt to keep it in view as they ate with their hands.

“How do you think the keeper’s played?”

“He’s dropped it again. You think, he needs to go off, but for who? And then he makes an excellent save to keep them in the game. He’s in their for leadership, for sure.”

“What do you think of all this talk of benching?”

“I find it a little disrespectful, frankly. He’s been the star of our country for almost fourteen years, or at least one of them, among the best. He’s the only player whose passion has never been questioned. He’s adapting his game. He’ll grow.”

“Same goes for Hamza, you think? What do you think, of his performance?”

“He’s had an assist, but they need him to step up.”

The first half ended, the commentators gave way to the pundits at the studio. One of their correspondents, Aline, had tracked down the coach, who was rushing to get inside, the rain falling heavier now, the stadium almost abandoned by the crowd, save for those with tickets on the upper lodge. The correspondent, Aline, was hunched in her jacket, and beside her, the coach, was checking for scars, drips of water that had fallen atop him.

“How do you feel you played, coach?”

“We played really well, I thought. We stuck to our game plan. We shut them out for long. They had no real touches of the ball for most of the half. I thought we did well. We almost knicked it in the end. They’ll say we were lucky, if I’m honest, I thought we were better in this half.”

“What do you want to do in the second half?”

“We want to get at them more, I’ll be telling my players. Penetrate with intent, be forceful, get in it. Too many times we’re putting in a cross and there’s no one in the box. And we want to get Hamza involved. He’s been quiet so far. We want to unleash him.”

As the second half was underway, Michael went outside, on the terrace, to check his phone. It was late, and a rain cloud was forming in the hills up north. By morning, it would rain. The sweet smell, something sweet, like the smell of sugarcane, would carry in the clouds above them, and the atmosphere in the city would change. They wore masks and goggles, and if the clouds were not high enough they wore thick rubber coats, to wash off the rain as it pummeled upon them. The smell of chestnuts came to him again, caused by a rupture on the kitchen floor, the door having swung open. In his notebook, which he refused to pry open, for fear of being caught out by his parents, or the guest, as well, of course. Stammering like a dust mite drifting in from the window, causing as little alarm. Later, he would be sitting as well, his youth having passed, looking upon his father on the penultimate dawn shared between them both, and something would pass between them that had never before; something, like the swelling of tears openly invited, umbraged by bitter pangs of remorse, that felt to Michael easy lessons, to take with him on his turn, and to his father were more clinical, expressive. In his notebook, which he referred to often, filling in blanks and calling out names, asking about the visits to his father, those late summer nights, coming upon him gracefully in the at the fountain, or at the park, reading from his little nook of pages, even if it was dark, his whole body furrowed over his knees as he clung and hung to his belongings, over the years, making better use of time. In his notebook, which he refused to offer, I read his one description of the forests that seemed to open up at night, watching over them from his window, captivated by the steaming rise. Having all but forgotten the smell of sulphur that accompanied the rain, the view that shaped in front of him was majestic enough for him to collect it many times, in trial verses of poetry he so nobly endeavored but never quite caught on, and the moon was in itself quite glum, leaving the task to his betterments, pupils already subscribed to the idea they were worth something at all, grasping the opportunity before it evaded them, having been lit only ever so light, like a glowing torch diffused by moonlight, disappearing after dusk. And the feeling had passed that he was capable. The night before the game, Michael Habib couldn’t sleep. He turned on the bedside light. He could hear his brother, Malek, in his cubicle, snoring. The sound reminded him of his father. He missed being able to sleep at home. It was the first year they were moved from sharing rooms with bunks, each their own light and bed, for the first time given lights to stay up at night, totally up to them when they slept. Each floor had its own resident assistant, who took care of the student’s needs, and who monitored their behavior, making sure they were respectful and neat. He flipped open his tablet. He didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t feel like reading. Maybe one of his friends was online, he thought. He opened Careless, to see if anyone were online. He opened BubuCum, on his phone. He opened Salvage, he opened Narcis. He opened Medium, he opened MediaSport. He browsed through some basketball games online. Some sports scores of random Leagues. He checked his fantasy team on Fantasy Dreamers. His team wasn’t doing so well. He flipped open his laptop. He didn’t know what to do. Maybe one of his friends would be online. He opened Careless, to see if anyone were online. He opened BubuCum. He opened Salvage. He opened Narcis. He opened Medium. He opened MediaSport. He browsed through some basketball games online. Some sports scores of random Leagues. He checked his fantasy team on Fantasy Dreamers. His team wasn’t doing so well. He had joined a League with Malek, Farah and Anthony. Anthony’s older brother, James, was the creator of the League. Most of his friends were in it. Michael’s team were second to last. He didn’t understand why. He tried to be smart, to outthink the odds, to think two or three steps ahead of each game. But it was impossible to figure it out. The first week of the season was the most important. The big guns never did well on opening day. He made the mistake of choosing Riad Saleh as his captain. Saleh hadn’t scored in the first thirteen League games of the season. He stuck with him for seven before dropping him for Saqr Machboos. The top three players had chosen the unknown Riaz Cardozo as their striker and captain. How did the know? The guy had never before played in the top flight. Suddenly he was top scorer, scoring eighteen first division goals in his first ever season. His team were second in the table. It was remarkable. He was nervous about the game. It was their fifth game of the season against their crosstown city rivals. Choueifat. He hated them. He hated their guts. They were always picking fights, playing dirty. It started with their coach. Coach Anderson. He was a foreigner. He knew the game well, he knew how to read oppositions. But he basically relied on two things to get the job done, and he coached every team in their school, every boy’s team actually, from the under-10s to the varsity boys. He resented Crescent Peaks, Michael’s school. He resented the community behind it, the green and white colors and the enormous falcon on the emblem flag flying over the grounds. When Michael played his first match for Crescent Peaks, in the under-10s division, he scored two quick goals in succession against Choueifat. Coach Anderson was there. He was so young but he remembered it still. In the second half, he sent the boys on a rampage to destroy him. He ended the game with two terribly bruised knees, a sprained ankle and a bleeding heart. He was terrified. He was ashamed to say it, even then as a little boy, but he was so scared of that Anderson and his pasty white face with red freckles and receding cheekbones. He looked sick and terrifying, like the beggars on the streets of Avenue Rose. Everyone knew he was dirty. He played dirty. There were even rumors the police had to get involved once, when one of the older kids, playing varsity at the time, when Michael was still on the under-14s, claimed he had been accosted with by a knife wielding Coach Anderson. Anderson disappeared for a few weeks, supposedly, to clear his head. But the Choueifat authorities couldn’t care less about their reputation. Their schoolchildren were there because they were forced to. In that sense Michael felt guilty, he felt bad for them. He knew they didn’t have what he had. Not that all the Choueifat kids were poor. Not at all. Some of the richer kids in the city went there. But they didn’t play football. They didn’t get into fights or pick fights. They were quiet, calm and respectful to adults. It was the street kids from that bitter school, who hung around outside the campuses of Crescent Peaks every day, waiting for someone to beat up. Malek had been beaten up twice that year. Anthony as well. Both of them at the same party, for Layla Najjar. She had grown up closer to Choueifat, and her parents had decided to send her there. Realizing after some point how terrible it was for her, they moved her to Crescent Peaks. She passed the entrance exam pretty smoothly. They were taught quite well at mathematics and the sciences, memorizing and drubbing it into their brains. They weren’t so good at languages or composition or history, but she did alright. Actually, Michael was the only one of all his friends who had been spared a beating. But he knew some of the kids who were so upset, who hated seeing children of privilege basking in their riches. But nobody was basking, Michael thought. People were just living and they had a right to live. His parents had worked hard to get him to where he was, he thought. Sure, his school was super expensive, and super elitist in a way, but the education was amazing and all the kids went on to some of the best schools. They were trained to follow their dreams and they exceeded expectations. They knew what was good for them in the long run as well. They were good to the community. They built houses and schools on school trips to the far east. They did community service. He knew some of the kids by name and face now. Mohammed Reda, Youssef Battal, Hazem Tunisi, Tarek Sulhat. They were all troublemakers. Tarek was the worst. Michael hadn’t realized to what extent they were envious of his condition until he had heard from his parents that all four of them had tried to get into Crescent Peaks at one time, Tarek trying twice, but failed the entrance exams. Not only that, not only did they fail completely the exams, they were miserable in their schools. Their behavior reflected that. Whenever they did something stupid, showing up at Crescent Peaks and starting a fight with one of the kids, Michael was so upset he often complained about it at dinner to his parents, who knew some of the parents of the kids, who knew the Redas, the Battals, the Tunisis, the Sulhats, knowing them all from the community. They told him about the children and how hard their parents worked and how little of their work was rewarded. The Sulhats were a different story. The Redas, the Battals, they couldn’t be blamed for their condition. Akram Reda, the patriarch, and Suleiman Battal, the patriarch of his household, they had both risen from the camps at Dar Amin. They had grown up there, were sanctioned to live there the rest of their lives, but through hard work and some ingenuity of their own they made it out. They made it out not only as day laborers but as businessmen, having proven some acumen of their own. Suleiman Battal was a technology expert. He started a small consulting service when companies were turning to digital platforms to integrate their systems online. He had constructed an entire program to facilitate the evolution. Companies need only hire him and his team would do the rest. They spent three weeks studying the ins and outs of every detail of the company, noting how everything would work a digital web of infinite proportions, where the only drawback of infinite space was knowing how to pull everything in to some coherent mechanism, so that anything that was updated or uploaded online didn’t simply disappear into a dark ebbing flow of cosmic stuff never to be seen again. Every last detail, from post-it notes to entire lectures, company memorandums to contractual agreements, it all had to be easily retrievable, which was what Suleiman had done. The Sulhats were terrible people, all of them, not only Tarek. Tarek’s eldest brother, Jihad, was the most notorious bully in the whole school district. He had been kicked out of Choueifat, New Orient Academy, Dublin Academy, and the Grammar School. He was eventually forced to be home schooled by his parents. It wasn’t that bad of an education, as Miss Sulhat, his mother, was also the Head Administrator at Choueifat. But even she couldn’t bare her son any longer, forcing him out of the school herself, for his own good, she thought, until he was kicked out of three other schools within the span of eighteen months and had nowhere else to go but home. They could have sent him abroad, but they worried for his life. Tarek’s father, Laqad Sulhat, was a total asshole in public. He was an advisor to a feudal warlord in Der Durun. He consulted between the embassies and the feudal claimant. Basically, for every rocket propelled grenade launcher he convinced the feudal lords to purchase, he bought himself a new watch. People didn’t mind how he made his money. He had a home in Pelican Tower, in the financial district of Pastoral. That was where he spent his working weeks, when he wasn’t on call in Der Durun. His family lived in a small villa on the terraced flatlands of Ras Amin. Nicer homes than the ones he grew up in, but they weren’t that nice. Even though he set his wife up with a driver and a cook, and his children with a driver of their own, both in black Mignolet saloons with tinted windows and compression technology fitted, he had a reputation for being cheap to his family, which was, among the community, really the worst crime of all, the worst sort of crime any man could commit. Marwa Sulhat, who was the only decent member of the family, who loved her family very much, was never given the money to buy herself new clothes, anything more than what she made at the school, raising the two children basically alone. She was known for puritan like costumes, with a full on waistcoat, petticoat and shift. She rotated colors, at Least. Orange, green, brown, navy blue, sky blue, black. Whatever fit the weather, she decided. When her father died, she wore black for forty days, wanting to extend further but not wanting to set precedent. She wasn’t sure how long, if she did it further, how long would be fitting. So she decided upon forty days, simply. No more, no less. Probably worst of Tarek’s character was his unflinching pursuit of Layla Najjar. They had something like an agreement. Even when they broke up, for months, she never dated another soul. Michael had been obsessing over her since the day she arrived at the school. He confided in her and she confided in him. She often snuck out of her house while her parents were fast asleep, only to visit him and talk nonsense. Sometimes they would open up and tell each other secrets. He had some deep secrets he wanted to tell, and sometimes he felt trusting of Layla. But then he would see her at a party with Tarek and his friends, and he felt somewhat distant from her. Like their ideas couldn’t match. He hadn’t ever told her he wanted to be with her. He wanted to but the time was never right. He felt like writing her, to see what she was up to. She never answered if she were with Tarek. But she wouldn’t be with him, not so late on a school night. Even though her parents never noticed what she was doing. Her father was always entertaining dignitaries in the reception room or the backyard terrace, and if her mother didn’t join them, Leaving the pack to the boys, she was in her room reading, for hours on end, with earplugs so she wasn’t distracted by the noise. Michael had never snuck out to Layla’s house except once, when he slept over at Malek’s, and Lamisse had slept over at Layla’s. Together Michael and Malek snuck out of his house, whose parents couldn’t care less, so it wasn’t really sneaking out, they could have walked out the front door yelling their goodbyes, but that would have put Malek’s parents in a difficult situation with Michael’s parents, who were overly protective and called at Least once a night when he slept over at a friend’s. They sat in the frontyard, underneath the palms, reading from a book of ghost stories. It was pretty obvious why they were there. Michael sat next to Layla and Malek next to Lamisse. They were thirteen but all of them still shy. Layla had begun to see Michael differently. She had lost a bracelet that day, somewhere on the secondary field. She hadn’t known until later, when she heard from someone else, that Michael had spent the entire afternoon, walking back over to the school afterhours, trying to find the bracelet, hoping to find it. They were all going to the movies that night, to watch Angels and Sailors in 3D. He wanted to give it to her then. He couldn’t find it. He spent over an hour, walking lazily along the grass, piercing the landscape with his darting eyes. Nobody he cared like speaking to was online. He closed his computer and sat back on his bed, pulling a paper from his backpack to read. It was an essay for his fourth class, history, after physical education. It was annoying to have a seated class after P.E. They were given five minutes to shower and change and head to the next class. It was a little ridiculous. He had tried to get P.E. right before lunch, which was the best, as it gave him a chance to shower and cLean himself well and dry his hair and get ready for the rest of the day. Even if it cut into his lunch break he didn’t mind. The time flew by so quickly anyways. People had barely enough time to eat, then they’d catch up on whatever homework they still had time to do, whatever wasn’t completely out of reach. He’d once done his entire science symposium breakdown in a lunch period. It was impressive, really. Mr. Hassan had hinted at a pop quiz. He needed to read it. He wasn’t doing so well in history, even though it was his strongest subject in the past. He liked reading about that stuff. Wars, revolutions, depressions. It interested him. Especially since everything around him seemed so relevant. Everything he read seemed to click with the times. Maybe that was the secret. That no matter how far they advanced they were always going to repeat mistakes of the past. Mistakes or blessings. A mistake for one was a victory for another. When were they last victorious, he thought? He was learning a bit through his father. He was so proud of him. He had come so far. He remembered how excited he used to get when one of the minsters would call upon him at home, all of a sudden, without calling first. He would be in his study, or in the living room for the family upstairs, watching the news and smoking his pipe. Out of nowhere he’d get a call from one of the servants, or from Michael himself, running up the stairs, calling out to his pop. Peter would be wearing his afternoon pajamas, with thick apple colored socks and slippers. What he always wore on weekend afternoons, especially if he wasn’t sitting in the garden or reading by the pool. His mother, Audrey, would run into the room, freaking out. She would quickly advise him what to wear and how to look less naked and more formal in such a short time. Nowadays, he thought, when anybody came by the house, if his father didn’t feel like it, he could pretend he wasn’t there. He’d even do it on the phone, which surprised Michael, who always wanted to talk to his friends, no matter what. He even had his own phone line installed in his bedroom, he wasn’t sure why, something about internet at the time, using a certain server. But he was able to talk on the phone as much as he liked, without bothering any of the others, who would need the phone to themselves. That was before they had their own cell phones, and before the house phone was upgraded as well, to include eight different lines, two of them streaming video. He did it most to Uncle Fattoush and Uncle Shamseddine, two of his closest friends, who were always calling on weekends to see what was up, if they wanted to play tennis or go to the club and have a drink. His father had gotten lazier of late. He stopped doing those things. When Uncle Fattoush came around the house, invited, he didn’t seem well. They didn’t talk as much. He noticed them, sitting together on the patio, smoking, pipes or cigars, whatever they felt reflected their mood, though pipes were perfect for reflection. He liked the smell of cigars, rousing through the house. The smell of pipe was difficult to deal with. It was muskier, heavier, it seemed to shroud the area in smoke without any flavor. The cigar smelled sweet, especially Uncle Fattoush’s cigars. Even his father liked to smoke cigars when Uncle Fattoush was around. But they no longer joked like they did. Sometimes they sat quiet for minutes on end, until one of them spoke, asking something very particular, that Michael was beginning to understand. He liked sitting in on their conversations, for that reason. He was starting to Learn the concepts they discussed. From what he was gathering, and what they were saying at school, things didn’t look so good. He was going to be seeing them the following night, either way. They were inviting over some of their friends. He was excited about the game, and afterward it would be cool to have family friends over. Lena Shamseddine, one of his closest friends, had told him she knew at Least fifteen people coming to see the game. She told him her older brother, Daniel, was in town and was going with some friends as well, as a gesture of support for the school. He had played for them when he was a student, had even captained the side for two years. He still held the record for fastest spring in the school fifty meter trials. Michael looked up to him and his friends. He wasn’t sure how he was doing. He hadn’t seen him around in a while. It would be nice to have them there, cheering on. Would Layla be there, he thought. Of course she would, but he didn’t know what side she would sit on. Tarek was playing as well, as a midfielder. He liked to play striker but their striker was a beast. He pushed Tarek out of the fold. He could outrun and out dribble anyone in the League. But sometimes he fell off the radar, it seemed. He’d already scored fifteen goals in four games. Against weak opponents but still. He hoped Layla would sit with their side. She could sit with his parents. Her family had no interest in the games. She had two brothers, and only one of them, the youngest, played any sports. But he was too young to play with them. Even so, her parents didn’t always show up to watch him. Not that it mattered then. It started to matter in junior varsity, with real pride at stake. Even his teachers were pumping him up. Ms. Robinson sent him a message, cheering him on. Layla was probably going to sit with Tarek’s mother, who might come to the game. If she was there, there was no way Layla would sit on their side. She was so close to Aunt Sulhat. When Layla was still at Choueifat, Aunt Sulhat was teaching language composition. Layla was one of her better students, maybe the best. She won the high stakes President’s award, out of three nominees from each grade, who had a chance to visit the President at his home in de Republique. That was when her parents decided she should change schools. Her brothers moved the following year. He called his mother from the phone in the hall. He wanted to tell her how much he missed her, how difficult it was to be away from her, but he knew she would find it strange, after everything, she would find it difficult to Leave him but to bring him home would be worse for both of them, so much he knew, having been told what to know in the first place.

“We have a big game tomorrow,” he said.

“I know,” she answered. “What’s your schedule like?”

She sensed the sadness in his voice, being his mother, she could tell when it was there, the sadness that overcame him twice a month, since he was a little boy, losing all his guardians.

“I have math in the morning, from eight to nine thirty,” he said, “and then a five minute break before chemistry, until eleven o’five.”

“And then lunch,” she said?

“And then lunch.”

“I’ll try to make it,” she said. “But if I don’t see you,” she said, “if I don’t see you tomorrow, I promise to send some good food for the game, just like you like. Tomato pasta with lots of cheese. The tiny pastas,” she said, “The small ones.”

“I don’t want them to make fun of you,” Michael said.

“Don’t worry about them,” Audrey said. “They’re just jealous they don’t have someone special like you in their life.”

He went through the process of his day. He knew what was expected of him. The annoying thing was getting through the day. Calculus in the morning. He ran to his locker, to grab his things for the next class. Chemistry at nine thirty five. He was hungry, and was already feeling down, knowing she wasn’t going to show up. He was looking forward to the food his mother promised. It would kill him after lunch, sending him right into a food coma, but whatever, the game was more important. Even if she sent it with the driver, he thought, and didn’t show herself, it would feel as if she had visited him, seeing the look on the driver’s face, warm and positive. He knew what was most important. Get through the day without struggling. Stay awake, fight the tiredness that wont further his dwelling in negative thoughts, because he was becoming negative, not because of the game, not at all, the game was covered, he had a hunch, he had a way he knew he was fighting it, but for negative thoughts, thoughts of Layla, of Tarek, thoughts like that, thoughts that kept him getting involved in the lost and drifting wandering of living such thoughts, becoming sometimes sad sometimes excited, sometimes angry other times not. He hadn’t done any of his work for either morning class, or for the classes after lunch as well, not having done any homework at all, having lived especially on the kindness of his teachers, who were often letting him off, and the kindness of his classmates, who gave him their answers whenever he bothered to ask. He found Layla in the hall. She was wearing gym shorts, showing off her tan. She had grown taller over summer, and if the summer proved legitimate she would outgrow them all. He found that charming in her. She was sitting with Mazen, Lama and Bab. Lama had her arms around Bab’s shoulders, hugging him at the waist. He was bigger than her, much, much bigger. She was four foot nine, he was five foot five, growing even taller since the summer. They were going to get engaged, waiting for the fall, waiting for after graduation to announce the engagement, holding the ceremony in the spring and the wedding next year, sometime in summer when the parties swing, and the rooftop bars can be rented in the morning, the beachside restaurants reserved for lunch, and the beach night parties to spend the night, dancing until moving in the morning. He greeted them, waving his hand, smiling like he was taught to smile to those who outnumbered him, greeting them from where he stood, in a safe, familiar place, without needing to stress out at all, it was already having some sort of effect on him.

“Ready for the game,” Bab asked, preferring himself to wait for shot put in spring to join any of the teams, being one of the most prolific shot putters the school had ever known. He had perfected the twist, as Coach Mario had called it, the twist of ethics, something extreme, holding the ball under his mouth, tilting his jaw into his arm so it looked like he was swallowing the cusp of his right shoulder, twitching his face to contort her claws, half of his face buried in the ball of stone, rubbing it with his hands as he prepared for lifting, tilting, jilting with his arms, curving through the air like a windmill spreads her arms, yearning, rotating, forming something like a sacred palm, the palm of lifting, the spin finally full in groove, the weight of his left foot left stilting, crashing against the ground, causing the pestles of sand to remember the way they had been ground in the house, and the last few seconds came of waiting, to bolt his throwing arm, striking like a bolt of lightning emanating from his palm.

“I guess,” he said, saying nothing more. He wanted to talk to Layla, standing across from him, but being across the aisle it would have been strange and rude to speak to her without directly involving the rest of the crowd, to speak with her knowing, and the others reflecting, that it was her he had sought all along, coming by way of the stairs, at the end of the hall, cutting the hall in half, two sides of lockers on either side, and the door to the gym just opening, the older gym that been turned, by way of the principal’s last rites, into a school auditorium, doubling as an assembly hall.

She’s sitting next to Mazen, he thought, why is it? She doesn’t even like him, he thought to himself, still in the moment wanting to ask her how she was doing, watching her from the corner of his eye, his back against the locker, his bag resting on its adjustment. Mazen has a way of doing it, he thought, he does it all the time. He’s tall, funny, handsome, smart. He has it all, he thought, but she really never liked him, but he knows what he’s doing when he’s being tall, or playing funny or being the one with answers. He has no style, he thought, but he has weapons, and he knows when to use them and when to use them, when to really use what he has in his pocket, when to really use the most of his force, the force of all his weapons, the strength of his becoming strength, learning how to procure his options by betting himself against the odds, putting himself in there position, would they, in their mind, find him hot, find him funny, loud, too smart, attractive? It all depends on what they’ve been taught. He had to break the ice, that’s all. Too many times, he always said, and he would say it like this, with a dance of his arms, like he was opening the doors to a monologue on stage, standing before an audience, “Too many times,” he says, “People focus on being kind, polite, within regular bounds. You have to break the ice,” he says, and he’s moving his arms, shaking his head like a bobbing helmet, “If you pass them in the hall, and the right thing to do is to stop and say hello, and to walk on, to know that both of you are in some way the result of this being an experiential agreement, that the two of you being involved in greeting, in finding one another at that minute at that time, is really the result of both fate and chance, the one coming first before the other, the other following suit, what’s best, more often than not what is the best result for the most amiable person becoming involved, and so, like that, you start adjusting, what is the best way to destroy the odds, to rewrite them in my like? You notice, stop, and instead of carrying on, you punch them, gently in the shoulder, if the two of you are close, and if you’re not, you say hello and you carry on keeping their attention, without their moving, holding them to the moment after all, stopping them from whatever they were doing, calling them out, saying, hey, let’s talk, and you say something wildly appropriate, like, how was the weather, did you go to the mall?”

He hadn’t done any of his work for either morning class, earning him a reprimand from the teacher involved. He figured he would do his afternoon work during lunch. He didn’t feel it, but he had two short exercise sheets to do.

He found Layla in the hall.

“Did you do the homework,” he asked?

“No, did you?”

“No. Shall we get it from somewhere?”

“I asked Mishaal,” she said, “he’s bringing it from someone else.”

“Cool.”

They waited for the homework. She had bought a new dress, he could tell that it was new. He liked seeing her in the dress, he liked watching her.

Mishaal arrived with the homework. They took it into the bathrooms by the lockers, where none of the teachers went, and if they did, they never checked the stalls unless there was the scent of cigarette smoke, or budur, or suror or medwakh.

“Did you do the homework,”  he asked Layla.

“No, did you?”

Mishaal arrived with the homework.

“Where’s Layla?”

“In class.”

“No,” Farah said. “She needs the homework.”

“Here it is,” Mishaal said. “I passed.”

“How much does he curve?”

“There’s no curve,” he said, “he’s a dickhead.”

“Did you study a lot?”

“I had good notes.”

“He let you use your notes?”

“He didn’t say before. Did he say it for you guys?”

“No, not at all.”

“Maybe he’ll do the same, I don’t know. He did it for us. He surprised us. It was nice. Otherwise I would’ve failed.”

“I don’t like his class. I don’t need it.”

“Why did you take it?”

“You need it to graduate.”

“No, you don’t, I ask.”

“Who did you ask?”

“Miss Jawad.”

“It’s up to the teachers man, relax.”

Anthony didn’t like Mishaal. He had known him since primary school, though Mishaal were now two years below him, having failed twice. He didn’t care about the exam and he knew Mishaal was right, but he wanted to annoy him. He wanted him to feel outdone, outmanned, outnumbered, even if he was right. To Anthony, Mishaal never reacted. It wasn’t so much his being afraid, or Anthony’s being tall. It was more in line to do with his esteem among his peers. It would be foolish to fight him, to fight Anthony, the eldest of them all, the friend to the little nomads with no friends at all, simply because they were friends with his little brother, Edouard.

Mishaal went off on his own.

“You want to marry her?”

“I do.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“Are you ready for marriage?”

“I don’t know. Are you ever ready?”

“I’m being serious, Edouard.”

“I want to marry her.”

During lunch he sat by himself on the bleachers outside the Common Field, where the green grass so naturally grows and blows throughout spring and autumn, and in winter is always drenched and wet, and the cold blooded cries of crows can be heard much softer, whispering in the gail. He tried doing some work but he wasn’t capable. After lunch he had physical education class. He changed in the locker rooms. He tried telling himself not to take it seriously, to stay away from playing any of the serious games, taking it as less than a scrimmage, opening himself up to injury for the afternoon match. But he couldn’t help it. Whenever there was a ball passing between legs, he wanted to win. There were six boys on each team and seven girls. The girls were all dressed in long trousers and the boys in short shorts. The grass felt like spades it was so warm. Three times he got the ball and three times he scored, dribbling by all the opposing players. Each time he celebrated as though it were a real victory in a real competitive sport. But it was only gym, and the others were laughing, and so was he, and they were all together enjoyed. He found Malek, Farah and Anthony, and Anthony’s older brother, James. They had created the League together. Farah was Anthony and James’s cousin, who was spending the year with them. Michael wasn’t sure what had happened to her parents, but they were never around. He didn’t ask, knowing it was impolite to ask.

“Did you see the recent update,” Malek asked him.

Michael was forced to admit.

“I did.”

“And? I’m destroying you,” Malek said.

“You still in last,” Anthony asked?

“Michael’s next to last. A friend of mine is in last,” James said, spitting out tobacco that had seeped from his joint.

“I was trying to be smart,” Michael admitted.

“Too smart,” Malek said.

Farah was the only girl who had joined the League. She made the same mistake as Michael, choosing Riad Saleh as his captain. Saleh hadn’t scored in the first thirteen League games of the season. She only stuck with him for three games though, before dropping him for Saqr Machboos. Michael gave him seven chances. The top three players had chosen Hamid Hamza as their captain and main striking option. How did they know! He was top scorer, scoring eighteen first division goals in his first ever season as a lone striker. His team were second in the table. It was remarkable.

“Are you nervous about today,” Farah asked him.

“I guess.”

“Who are you playing,” Anthony asked, pretending he didn’t know, wanting to appear like he didn’t care that he got cut from the team after first tryouts.

“Choueifat,” Michael said.

“I hate them,” Anthony said.

“So do I,” Malek said.

“Me too,” Michael said.

“Why do you hate them,” Farah asked, new to the group, having never experienced a Choueifat game before.

“They’re always picking fights,” he said. “They’re dirty.”

“It’s that fucker, Coach Anderson,” James said.

“The foreigner.”

“He knows the game well,” Malek said. “He’s smart.”

“He tells them to break our legs!” James cried, having been cut from the team himself, having gained too much weight over summer, losing the speed of his legs.

“He coaches every age group,” Michael said, specifically to Farah. “When I played my first game,” he said, “in the under-10s, I scored two quick goals against them. Coach Anderson was there, hew as coaching them. He told them to break my legs, literally.”

“Did they,” Farah asked, wide eyed.

“I had a sprained ankle afterward.”

He was terrified. He was ashamed to say it, even then as a little boy, but more so now, standing before Farah, her wide reindeer eyes beaming back at him their indiscriminate shame, he was scared of that Anderson and his pasty white face with red freckles and receding cheekbones, who looked sick, who looked terrifying, like the beggars on the streets of Avenue Rose just after the war, before they cleaned up the Refectory and the Inner Ward, cleaning up most of the colony. It was his first brush with madness, and it did not spare him the realization of what it meant, what it might mean to them, later in their lives, when deciding would become of them and make of them men, or the losers they saw sprawled out on all fours, begging for their lives, preying for some dignity, if only to dispel the truth of their not needing to be alive, standing outside of history. He could see how much Anderson hate the community at Crescent Peaks, the green and white colors and the enormous falcon on the emblem flag flying over the grounds.

Walking to the next class, she asked.

“Are you really not scared of them?”

“I’m not,” he said. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“Their coach sounds like a terrible guy.”

“He’s just depressed,” Michael said. “We’re used to it. They don’t have what we have. It’s why they’re all upset.”

“I don’t know if that’s simple.”

“I think it is. Why else would they want to fight all the time?”

“Maybe they’re really mad.”

Seated around the dinner table.

“What does his father do?”

“He’s a piece of shit.”

“Who is he?”

“He advises someone at an embassy. He doesn’t live with them.”

“Where does he live?”

“He has a house in Pelican Tower.”

“In the financial district?”

“Yes.”

“Where does his family live?”

“In a small villa in Ras Amin.”

“On the flatlands?”

“Yes. A house with a terrace. And a cage with a parrot that sings. You can’t miss it. His wife has a driver. His name is Mahmoud. Everyone calls him Mohammed. He is half deaf, missing sight in one of his eyes. And she has a cook, who lives at home, and a maid, Bernadette, who everyone knows.”

“And his children?”

“They use the same driver.”

“How does he treat them?”

“He treats them well.”

“What are you saying, then?”

“I need more time with the story.”

“How much longer do you need?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Do they have enemies?”

He called his mother from the phone in the hall. He wanted to tell her how much he missed her, how difficult it was to be away from her, but he knew she would find it strange, after everything, she would find it difficult to Leave him but to bring him home would be worse for both of them, so much he knew, having been told what to know in the first place.

“We have a big game tomorrow,” he said.

“I know,” she answered. “What’s your schedule like?”

She sensed the sadness in his voice, being his mother, she could tell when it was there, the sadness that overcame him twice a month, since he was a little boy, losing all his guardians.

“I have mathematics in the morning, from eight to nine thirty,” he said, “and then a five minute break before chemistry, until eleven o’five.”

“And then lunch,” she said?

“And then lunch.”

“I’ll try to make it,” she said. “But if I don’t see you,” she said, “if I don’t see you tomorrow, I promise to send some good food for the game, just like you like. Tomato pasta with lots of cheese. The tiny pastas,” she said, “The small ones.”

“I don’t want them to make fun of you,” Michael said.

“Don’t worry about them,” Audrey said. “They’re just jealous they don’t have someone special like you in their life.”

“Is Layla coming,” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

He saw Layla coming up the stairs, on the other side of the field. She had on her mother’s jacket, a luminescent red, warming her in the cold, and an apple colored hat, a white pair of mittens, leather, designer, and two pairs of riding boots to keep her warm. He hoped she would sit with their side. She can sit with my parents, he thought. He knew she had come alone, knowing the Sulhats were not there, and her parents no, keeping away mostly from proceedings on campus, keeping to their own. How old is her brother, though, he thought to himself, pulling up his socks, tying the laces of his right foot boot, his better leg, though his left wasn’t all so useless, able to pass and shoot with both, and at times, use either foot to dodge defenders, at which he was quite good, solid in his attack, something he took pride in without having worked so hard to come upon the strength. In training, he pulled a cobra on a defender’s legs, I believe it was Alex, and the players laughed. They asked his brother if he had trained for it, if he had ever trained to pull of that stunt, moments later, no more than four passes between, pulling a one eighty spin move on the goalie, taking a penalty in the eight second rule, grabbing the ball from twenty five yards out and pursuing, walking into the net, raising his arms, proud to have scored. The asked if he had practiced all summer, he said no, his brother doing the talking, whistle in hand, happy to be helping out in his off time, back to where he felt comfortable most, competing on the field, even if he was only doing the leading, assisting the charge, watching from outside the ropes the battle unfolding, he celebrated when they scored and when they conceded he threw up his arms, rushing off his feet, alongside their coach.

“Time to warm up,” Ramiz said, his shots and laces tied, his green school hoodie over his top running up and down the length of the field in a series of smocks, Mansour, an alumni, and friend of the team, called for him. He was standing to the side of the bleachers, wearing his traditional dress, a shroud of white garbs, and a spool of thread as a helmet. He had his phone and wallet in one hand, the headphones from his telephone tied to the neck of his dress, on a hairpin, just by his throat, where most of his interaction was made, a way on his phone. He walked down the steps leading to the side of the field his friend was on, waiting for him. He passed families already settled in hope, watching for sincere enjoyment, cheering loved ones on, and for them it was enough to warrant their being there, it was enough satisfaction, but for him, he thought, it’s not. For him there had to be more. Experience. Realizing his thirst, he rescued out for water from a cooler of bottles strewn off to the side, pulling apart the lid, pulling a bottle in hand, the wetness of the ice drowned box cooling, the sun had been radiant all day, and the hour of magic was just upon them, a few hours of glare, the silence of cars, the humming of a metered silence just outside the campus walls. The two shook hands. They hadn’t ever shared the shirt officially but informally they had, many times, played alongside each other. In a sense, they recognized that he was the better, younger, more agile, but Mansour, though slow, was smart, and making up for torrid defending by using his legs, destroying his opponents. Add ot that, that he could score from outside the box, was what he relied mostly on. He doesn’t run to do team service, breaking legs for fun.

“They’re going to try and injure you,” he said, managing a most basic frown.

“What do you mean,” he asked, “shu azdak?”

Having graduated four years before, it was natural for Mansour to feel protective over him. Michael had trained with them the year but wasn’t chosen, sent back to the juniors to help them out, ending the season winless, having amassed all of three goals, four for the team the entries season, two of his coming against their statewide rival, DUG. He scored another four goals, the hat trick coming throughout the match, the game started slow, they were faced with going early behind, rallying on the attack, their captains spurred them on, scoring two goals in quick succession, pulling their rivals, pegging their rivals back. At one point in the game, he escaped dismissal, crashing purposely into an opponent, shattering his hip. It was a clear sending off, if not more, fit for criminal injunction, though only a minor, responsible still.

“My cousin is on the team,” he said.

She liked him. He was nice. But she wasn’t into him. He had shown up at her house, with roses. charming, at calm. Dead serious, in a way she liked, in a way that she had always wanted in her father, but no. But, at some point, she yawned. It was strange of him, she thought to herself, strange what he did that night, the night she had remembered, coming into the line, buying a bag of pretzels and a jar of breadstick chocolate bars, a bottle of water, paying with her card, signing off on the receipt with her own black pen, her favorite, in her pocket. She had fifteen at home in a jar, and two of them in her wallet. As Michael was warming up, his socks knee high, his shorts and laces tied, his green school hoodie over his top, running up and down the length of the field in a series of mobile stretches, Mansour, an alumni and friend of the team, called for him. He walked down the steps Leading to the field. He was wearing a white traditional dress and slippers. He had his phone and wallet in one hand, the earphones of the telephone dangling in a mess. They shook hands. He had never played with him officially but they played informally all their lives. Mansour wasn’t the best athlete but his movement was smart. He was an intelligent player. He could score from outside the box just by knowing where to put it. He didn’t have to run to do the team service. He always happened to collect the ball at the right place and the right time and put in the perfect pass to keep the attack going. He had graduated two years before. Michael had trained with them that year but wasn’t chosen, sent back to the juniors. Mansour walked with him to where they could talk without being listened to.

“They’re going to try and injure you,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“My cousin is on the team.”

“He’s playing?”

“No. He’s on the bench. Substitute.”

“Alright.”

“He says they want to hurt you.”

“Why?”

Michael didn’t want to seem afraid, but as soon as Mansour had told him he swallowed in his throat. He knew they worked that way. They played off vendettas. That was how they were coached.

“Because you’re the best.”

“What about Mateo,” Michael asked.

“They will hurt him also. But he’s not so important. Come on,” he said, “What is the team without you?”

Coach Zaman walked onto the school field with his players, wearing the school’s green and white with the falcon emblem on their chests. He wore a suit to all the games, especially those attended by the whole community. Some people made fun of him, laughing at the way he took his job so seriously, but still they appreciated it when they were able to show pride in their school, their colors, their kids. He wanted to send the right message to the students, and to the parents. He didn’t want them to think he didn’t take his job seriously. Of course, he had tried at managing in the professional divisions. He even trained as an assistant under Captain Shahid for St. Vincent, when they played in the second and third divisions, relegated twice only to return both times. He spent four seasons as his pupil. Learning under the ropes. He got his coaching badges from the Federation and thought he was going to make a run for it. But then it all changed, beginning with tryouts. Coach Zaman showed up to practice early. The field was still empty. The boys were yet to arrive. He thought of going over the drill sheet one last time, preparing for the assignment. He didn’t have to. He’d been doing this now five years, he could relax. Sooner or later one of the kids would show up and two would be sent to collect the equipment, the drill sets and the two roped bags of balls. They stood on the bleachers watching the practice on the field.

“I’m thinking of making Michael captain.”

“What about Mateo?”

“He’s young. He can have it next year.”

“Whatever you think is best.”

“What do you think of Mateo so far? He’s good, no?”

Personally, I was impressed by Mateo. He has something different about him. Like he wants to take charge. Did you see the way he dribbled past Samjod, just before you blew the whistle? He embarrassed him, the best defender in the League. He picked him apart.”

“He’s great, isn’t he? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll think about it. Maybe I won’t announce until after the game.”

“Coach, he’s excellent, he’s absolutely great. It’s terrifying how good he is. We’re going to be cursed.”

“No, it will be fine. We will manage expectations. It will be fine. They are just happy to play. We have to excite them. How was it last year? How did they manage to win? I’ve seen Choueifat, from League football. They know what they do. And when we go up against Dur’han, they’re going to win. I can already see it. These boys are no good. But they have a few fighters, I like that. I like Tamdil, I like Samjod. I like Muhthir as our keeper. He gives us an edge. He’s bulky and strong but he’s also fast and Lean and can pounce on the ball, and has an excellent first touch, and an excellent pass. I like him. I like what Samjod offers in the middle of the park. I’m thinking of playing him in front of the back four, or a back three, I’m not sure. We can do both, depends against who. We come up against a lot of weaker teams. Who do you think is the weakest?”

“Our Own English High School is one. They’re terrible. They don’t even wear shorts. They wear long slack pants. They’re natives, from Pen’war. They run like they’re running on glass. They run like fags, basically. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that.”

“You already did.”

“There’s Gymnasium 1 and Gymnasium 2 and sometimes we come up against Gymnasium 3 in the cups. They’re shit as well. We beat all of them five to zero, easily. Even if we played our girls. And then there’s the Rosary School. They’re spoiled brats. They play their weakest kids against us. They’re in a League higher for the cup, which is something big, I guess, it’s bigger for them than the League, because they play a lot more international. We get a weaker side, because they’re afraid we’ll hurt them.”

“I like Radwan as a winger, don’t you think? And Michael and Mateo in the middle of the field, Michael a little advanced than Mateo when we play weaker sides, so he can take more shots on target, he’ll inevitably score, his shots are always on target, and Mateo likes to dribble it in the goal, we need him to be more creative, and against stronger teams, we put him in place of Michael at the top, just behind the striker, commanding the triangle with the wingers involved, so he can cause panic around the box, and get in on fast corners. I want Michael’s aggressiveness reserved for big games. I don’t want him getting cards during useless games. I know he has a tendency to get upset at any unfair call and to make a big challenge. How do we get in his head?”

“We just have to tell him. He listens quite well.”

“I know. He’s a really good kid, and a good captain. I don’t know why, but I feel I have to give it to Mateo, I don’t know why. Maybe to kickstart him, to get him going right from the go, so he doesn’t take too long adjusting to his new role. I don’t know. What do you think of putting it to a vote, to his teammates?”

“No, that’s a stupid idea.”

Tryouts, last practice before cuts. Running some drills.

“You guys have to take this ball, and run it through the cones. You don’t have to be fast, just show some control. Alright, guys, come on, let’s go.”

“I want to see ten twenty meter sprints in a row, alright, let’s do it faster this time. To finish you sprint to the end of the park, alright? The team who finishes last has to do another sprint, or choose to do fifty push ups, it’s up to you. I’ll cut down the fifty to ten if you do it in good time. I’m not here to punish you bastards, I’m here to deliver your dream. I was told you don’t have the guts of winning, that you have no control. I’m here to confess, I believe in you. Let’s see you guys run. Alright, boys. Do this for the team, you have to Learn to be strong. Nobody wants you to win. It is like this in life. Still, you will take charge.”

The boys ran their allotted sprints, none in record time. The time slot showed they were slower than they had been, each of the five common rows, the ten players standing in their line, waiting for their skills to show, their heart and their passion, raging for the Rotaro. Michael ran the length of the park on his final sprint. He was the eleventh person in charge, taking charge of his passion, holding himself to the whips and pressing, pressing, pressing hard, making like a champion, becoming strong. He knew he was going to be the captain, no matter what, even if he didn’t try. But he had to keep trying, to show that he wasn’t softer, that he wasn’t so much more soft. They pressed their hands behind their heads, opening their caving chests to resuscitate their breathing. Some of them fell to the floor, others rushed to grab a drink of water.

“Alright boys bring it in.”

They rushed to the center circle. The fifty four students aged 14-17 sat among the coaching staff, Coach —- played with his phone while he waited for them to show. Coach — stood with a clipboard in his hand, waiting for the group to settle. After a few shushing cries, rising like a chorus right before the coach spoke, the crowd fell silent, listening as he spoke.

“Alright boys now it’s time for a scrimmage. We’re mix things up a little bit. I want you,” pointing to Habib, “with Antoun and Freddie, and Antony and Sehnal on the opposing side. Mateo, you’re the captain, choose which of the two pairs to pick, and pick three other players, and then Michael you choose another three, and the rest of you come with me, divide here into two lines, there you go, perfect, now Mateo chooses five and Michael five, you can decide amongst yourselves whether you want to do one by one or take plenty, and the rest of you are subs, I’ll put you in as I like. I’m going to coach the shirts and coach Samson over here is coaching the skins. Rolling subs, of course, and we’re playing with a weak offside. I want to see pressing and ball movement, alright, pressing and passing along the flanks, keep the ball out of the middle of the park. The guys we’re playing next week are fast and they like to dribble, they play all of their game in the middle of the park. I want to see you push and push hard. Anyone wants a break, do the right thing, don’t make a mistake and stick your neck on the line. It’s been a long summer and it’s time to get fit. Put your game face on.”

“Now I know it’s hot out and you’re tired, but you have to show me some strength and perseverance, alright? This is our League, guys, you play for champions. Do you want to represent the green and white? Are you ready to play for the shirt?”

Down by 3 at halftime.

“He practiced free kicks all summer.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow. How disciplined.”

“When he wants.”

“In football, we call this a game to win. Down by one, means nothing. You come back, you score. Down by two, you fight, but two anybody can do. Down by three at halftime, that’s a game to win. Are you ready to take control?”

Security was intense, not least because of the Habib’s presence. Ambassador Johnson and Ambassador Reeves were also present, their children playing on the opposing team, a squad composed mainly of foreigners, compared to Zaman’s own. He had so many parents to please it was exhausting, adding to their appeasement the appeasement of their children, and the appeasement of the school administration, the faculty at large, the bastard athletic director, who didn’t care about winning at all, simply keeping people happy, keeping the teams involved in the highest Leagues possible. There was always a risk Mr. Macintosh’s tactics wouldn’t work, that one of the teams would finish last too many years in a row and end up relegated. It was an important game for them. Even if all the parents were there, he couldn’t please them all. The number 9 on the opposing team was deadly. He had scored fifteen goals already that season, in four games. They wouldn’t be able to mark him zonally. He would have to put one of his toughest most durable boys on him, to mark him throughout the entire match. He needed his own number 9, Mateo, to step up. Even though he always hogged the ball, these were the sort of teams he was prolific against. It was a bit ridiculous how little he passed, he never passed. When they played Choueifat, the eternal losers, bullies actually, he got caught in possession three or four times too blatantly for Zaman not to do anything. He had a solid midfield matchup. Michael Habib, the vice captain, was going to play more centrally. He felt it brought out the best in his game. He could dictate play on offense, playing triangle passes and then putting in a killer pass over the top of the defense. That was going to be their tactic all day, otherwise they’d have to run at the opposing defense, head down, shoulders down, gunning for goal. But they weren’t the savvy dribblers the team used to have. Zaman put it all down to the live streaming of so many professional games, all day all week long. Players were suddenly playing at a much higher level, simply for having watched so many games. The teams lined up. They checked their studs, to see if there were any with metal on them. In the stands, Tatiana Bey had joined her friend Rania Maluf and Rania Nassar to watch the game. Rania had wanted to support her nephew, the young Michael Habib. His parents were also there, Audrey and Peter. Peter was on the phone, looking oddly upset. Audrey was handing out water bottles to the children down on the field. She had brought with her a cooler of sliced oranges and tangerines. She did it for almost every game. Tatiana had actually graduated from the school herself. It was funny to be back. She thought everything looked so cute and familiar, so ordinary. She had been away so long, it seemed. She remembered her brother. She felt like calling him but she knew he wouldn’t answer. He hadn’t answered her calls in some time. The game started slow. Ten minutes in Mateo showed why he was always picked first. He might lose the ball seven or eight times recklessly, but then he received the ball halfway, was pressured by a defender, who he easily circled around, first holding him off, just as he ran onto him to make contact, letting the ball drop two inches in front of him, taking a Leap forward and carrying on with the ball, skipping quickly by one then another defender, having evaded all three tackles in the space of ten seconds, he cut into the twenty yard box, the final defender having no choice but to square up to him, two meters apart, he juked left, cutting his foot under the ball, setting it up perfect for a shot that went through another Leaping defender’s feet, right under his legs and through the heels, cobra, curling into the far corner around the outstretched keeper’s arms, into the back of the net. The crowd went wild. The opposing team were quite stunned. It was a remarkable move, something that couldn’t be taught nor tried in training, simply instinctual. Daniel had put ten bucks on Mateo scoring within the first ten minutes. His friend, Alexander, who didn’t know a thing or two about football nor about betting, had agreed to match his ten in opposition. He paid him reluctantly. The opposing team’s coach was pissed, clapping mockingly, racing up and down the sidelines. She liked him. He was nice. But she wasn’t into him. He had shown up at her house, with roses. charming, at calm. Dead serious, in a way she liked, in a way that she had always wanted in her father, but no. But, at some point, she yawned. It was strange of him, she thought to herself, strange what he did that night, the night she had remembered, coming into the line, buying a bag of pretzels and a jar of breadstick chocolate bars, a bottle of water, paying with her card, signing off on the receipt with her own black pen, her favorite, in her pocket. She had fifteen at home in a jar, and two of them in her wallet.

“You play rugby?”

“I’m a hooker. Sick pass. Very good. You should watch me.”

“Alright,” she said, “I don’t mind. Are you one of the fast guys?”

“Are you kidding? I’m so fat. I have strength, babe, but I’m slow.”

“Yi, baby. Tawallit.”

“Hek, haraket.”

“Tab when’s your next game?”

“Hala2, it’s coming up,” he said, “in the fall. Two weeks,” he said, pointing his hand downward, in a strong and rigid brush of hair, showing that he was serious.

Later, years later, she would experience the same sensation, watching a game of rugby in the Colony of Reds, the marching band playing “The Rotaro”, the marauding players dressed in their most outrageous gowns, those not playing supporting looks of clowns, wide eyed and serious, most of them looking like they were stoned, though they were younger then, oblivious, starting to sort things out. She hadn’t ever been to the stadium before. When he had mentioned going to the game, she thought he had meant going to the National Stadium for a football match, or to a basketball game even, which she had done twice before, once with her cousin when they were younger, Baha’a, who was obsessed with the Sporting basketball club, and once when Sporting were playing an international team in a quarterfinal of some tournament, and the entire city flocked to watch them play. She had never watched basketball before, but it was easy to catch the drift. The players were trying to get the ball in the net. They did it in different ways and she quickly realized that different players of differing heights had different skills they offered. The small guy, she had never forgotten him, he was the smallest member of both teams. She could still see him in his huge JayJo shoes with high Velcro straps, the red and white emblem shining like the shoes had just been bought. They were all pretty stylish, she realized, and he was wearing a white knee brace that rose from his ankles and disappeared under his shorts. He was wearing number three and had a perfectly bald head, like he hadn’t even decided to shave but it had happened naturally that he went completely bald. She realized later he was the son of the coach, who was also bald, but who had retained two tufts of hair either side of his eyes, so he had a cute white ball sticking out of his head on either side like the tail of a rabbit. She didn’t find the coach that cute though. He wa swearing shorts, which looked odd, since he was so old and had varicose veins running up his legs. He had a lot of energy though and it was strange to hear how crudely the two coaches spoke, yelling at referees, who she found adorable in their black and white uniforms, and yelling at their own players for better or for worse. But she had never watched a rugby match before. The stadium was smaller than the football stadiums she had seen from outside. She hadn’t even known it was there before, skipping past it all her life. There were two rollable bleachers set up on either side of the field, presumably for both sides of fans, but she hadn’t figured that out yet, figuring it was up to them which side they wanted to sit. Daniel took control and led them to their seats, deciding where they sat and on what level. There was a nice feel to things, a nice feel to the place. It was quiet still and the lights of the stadium were on halfway. They would only turn on full blast before the game started. The teams arrived as they took their seats. She saw them coming off the bus, the players on both sides knowing each other it seemed, greeting one another, acting friends. In their imagination, they played and wept and sang like it was a cup final in District 1, at the height of the modern game. The bus could fit up to sixty people, but it had no more than twelve fans, all of them wives or daughters or sons, come to see papa play. From the start, the game was poor. Judging by the atmosphere in the park, it had good beginnings, but before the first whistle things started to fall apart. The team manager at St. Andrews, a solid athlete genius who took pride in his diplomatic qualities, came out onto the field, before receiving instruction or permission to do so from the officials, prompting an immediate outcry from the opposite set of fans, basically the three injured players of the Reds. The team manager, for his part, argued vehemently his innocence, while also inturning to the officials the original purpose of his visit, to plead for some amenities for the boys in the locker room, notably, toilet paper. But the infraction cost the manager both insult and dismissal from the game. He returned to the bus upset and wondering. The atmosphere among the fans slowly livened up, as the supports exchanged bites and the occasional smoke. When one group ran out of beer, or a couple needed napkins to wipe their hands, the other offered some up, until someone showed up with more from the nearby market and offered some back. Among them was Ninja, the owner of Tutu’s Records. He drank mostly beer, rolled super thin joints. He had joined the team three times but always ended up quitting. He wasn’t that bad and he had technique, but he couldn’t help wanting to drink every night and get hammered until morning. It worked out in the beginning but the years change. The league was slowly developing, thanks to their friends at the ministry. Ramiz decided to go out for some beer, for the game, he said, implying a sort of vengeful appeasement to the group. There was a small kiosk down the street from the stadium where people bought their drinks and their nuts and bags of chips and chocolate bars as well. Layal didn’t care. She was, according to Ramiz, doing something to her nails, as though she were sitting at the kitchen table, where she often sat early evening, after they’d all come home, dozing off a buzz, delaying the precious inevitability of another drink, another joint, maybe a hit or two of blow. Daniel was focused on the game. Layal hadn’t noticed but he was keeping score of every play, every move. She didn’t know it at the time but he was betting on the game, and he had put a bet that his favored team would lose by three tries, and that the fullback on the opposing team would score the last try, to cap the game off. He was set to make some money on the accord, though not much. But he had gotten together with some old friends, who played, as he did, while they were at school. He put his bets on the professionals in other leagues, mostly basketball, football and sometimes even tennis, but the rugby bets were just a way for him to have fun, and to take bets he wouldn’t normally take, the risks not so high, the rewards even lower. Layal couldn’t believe she was at the game. It wasn’t until the whistle blew and the two teams were on the field that she realized she knew some of the players. There was a friend of the family, young Salim, who didn’t look at all like a Salim but more like a Stephen or a Clyde. He had short crew cut hair but with a slight undercut on one side. She knew him well, he was always joining them for Sunday lunches in Dar al Shaab, where her grandmother still lived, even though the neighborhood was getting worse and worse and most of the original tenants had flocked. He was stylish, and the moment she recognized him she recognized his friend, Karim, fatter and chubbier and more active with his mouth, calling out to the different players and giving them orders. She was so surprised she thought of calling her mother, but the idea quickly sank from her thoughts, realizing she had upset her mother before leaving the house and didn’t feel at all like calling her, hearing her whine and complain about what she doing out and with whom, and why they were going to a stupid rugby game when she had no career for her to live, no reason to be up in the morning and yet she was staying out all night, playing music for her friend’s parties, still drinking like when they were young. She focused her thoughts on Salim. She couldn’t believe she was watching him play. He looked terrible. His legs were too thin. Unlike the rest of the players, whose shorts spread tight against their muscular thighs. His shorts hung over his legs like a cocktail umbrella just half closed. His legs had no shape, they seemed to fall from his waist. The player opposite him, Number 11, had thighs that probably weighed more than him altogether. And yet, he showed spirit. On one of the first plays involved, he received a pass too far behind him, or he had run too fast, anticipated it too fast, because the ball tipped against his fingers as his body spread in two directions, his hopeful hand desperately avoiding his body’s forward motion, the colossal arms of his opposite number crashing into him with the impact of a train. The sound made her cringe and jump back in her seat. A wet, slapping sound, the sound of his bones hitting a brick fall, his neck snapping back and his chest heaving. He didn’t make that catch, and the ball never came his way again for what felt like a long while. On defense, he seemed to get involved in tackles but without having to do much, coming in as second or even third support on an already sealed tackle. Layal didn’t know how to judge his performance all too well, but she could tell he was avoiding being involved. He could probably make a case for himself, that he wasn’t supposed to risk stepping out of position, or that he didn’t avoid doing anything expected of him, but if he really wanted to play, to take part, he could have easily done more without rising shirking his responsibilities as a defender. For example, he never once, in the entire first half, took the role of hooker and scooped, which was basically his position’s most regular offensive, giving the creative unit some time to think, to evolve, to get themselves in the game. After a lousy run on defense, that could last minutes on end, they would be tired. He made one important save though, which wasn’t such a bad move. Layal noticed him do it, which meant it was probably more important than an average play, which was totally expected and of little significance. What he had done was totally expected, but it had significance. Therein was the difference. The other team was on fifth, and they chose to punt, and the ball flew about sixty meters back, the fullback chasing the ball as it hung in the air, for a long five point six seconds. He had enough time to stop, take two steps forward and one step back, leaning on his back leg, lurching his thigh and lower body back, as though he were doing a sideways squat, opening his arms and chest, the ball, smacked him through the arms and flew right over his head, taking six bounces on the spread of ten feet, almost touching the byline before he dove and snapped the ball with his hands, cupping it between his legs. He had half a meter to the outside of him to drill him out, and the men came flying in to topple him. He juked, once, to the right, the slightest lag of his leg would have left him sprawling across the gravel courtyard. But it was such a natural move, so instinctual, he burst on his back heel into a full sprint, but he only made it seven yards. Layal was so impressed. His eagerness did well to compel the crowd, clapping and cheering in dissonance. The team did well for the remainder of the half. They were down by two scores, the person next to her had explained. Daniel wasn’t watching, he was busy on his phone. She hadn’t ever seen him so removed from the group, from her. But then she remembered he had rolled a cigarette for her twice and had gone out to buy her chocolate, which made her feel nice. But then she remembered he had only gone out to make an important phone call, he said, and maybe wouldn’t have gone out to buy things for her if that wasn’t the case, if he wasn’t already going out to buy things for himself, or not to buy anything but to talk on the phone, which he was again presently doing, watching him pace back and forth from afar, a concerned look strewn upon his face. Ramiz had gotten to know a family of three, the mother and father and the baby in their stroller, watching the game from the opposite stand. She couldn’t be sure what they were talking about or why Ramiz was there. She hadn’t ever seen them before and it didn’t seem like they were the type to share the same interests. They had no style, according to her. The man was wearing a large sports jacket, with huge arms that wrapped around his body like Styrofoam, with huge sweat pants and running shoes. He had on an old baseball cap and wore it tight around his head in the normal way that had been done before it became uncool. The woman was wearing a similar sports jacket and a similar hat, and tight blue jeans with holes at the knees and striped holes at the thighs, and also some fake diamonds and stones attached to the pants, that seemed like they had been glued on, though it was obviously part of the style, an intention she could never understand. Ramiz was much cooler than them both and even though he would never admit it he had a sense of style that everyone knew. He knew when to wear loafers and when to wear shoes, and he knew how to rock polka dots more than anyone else. When he danced, he unbuttoned his shirt a little at the neck, and when he was eating lunch he had it buttoned to the top. He tucked in his clothes and they were always hand pressed, even if it required him having to do it himself, which he did from time to time when his mother kicked him out of the house, though they had been on good terms for some time. She wasn’t on good terms and the idea wouldn’t go away. She was tired of hearing her mother’s voice at the end of the night, stomping to her room through the hallway doors with a sense of shame and sadness in her croaking voice, urging her to do better for herself, urging her to do more. She was tired of all her mother’s talk of marriage and family and the need to make one of her own, to step away from their comfortable life and to know how hard she had worked to raise them all. What happens when it all disappears. I’ve been trying to get back there for four or five years now, ever since I left. I know its different. I’m sure everything is different. You can’t walk into the past. You walk into something new, something you’ve never seen. After Beirut I moved to Washington, D.C, for a coupe of years. I have a sister over there. She’s good to me, watched out for me over the years. Before Beirut I spent some time there trying to figure things out. It ended in me hiding out from the law for a week, after being hunted by federal law enforcement agencies for beating the shit out of some guys. Three of them came after me outside a bar, and I knocked one of them out. I’m pretty well trained in boxing. It helped. Beirut was mayhem when I got there. A year after the last Israeli war. You can’t just say war, there’s many, different ones, involving different people. I got my first taste a year later. I moved into a two bedroom flat in Hamra, after a friend of mine left, I took his room. Was living with a good English guy who had become a good friend. We were a good community. We stayed close. The street in front of my house turned into a small, elite warzone. Snipers on the rooftops. Gunmen on the ground. It ended after a week, and it wasn’t that bad, there weren’t mortar shells or anything, no tanks, no airplanes, just thugs with assault rifles and machineguns, snipers taking their hits. I collected about a hundred bullets, walking behind some of the guys while they fired off their rounds, taking cover when they did. I never wanted to be a journalist, I don’t have the nature for the craft, I was just interested in the whole thing. Surprised too. Surprised to see how fast things spiral out of control. It’d been a tough year, school closures, a thirteen month strike in the downtown area that ripped the already fragile economy to shreds. Some assassinations, the norm. And then it took off, and it seemed like on the verge of collapse, people remembering the wounds of ’75. And then it ended, and we were back where we started, smoking joints instead of working, drinking at the Captain’s Cabin, going to rugby practice, trying to win our war. We made it to the semi finals that year and got duped. The problem with the Lebanese rugby league of which I was an admirer is that the administration is involved in all aspects of the game. The referee was none other than an Armenian by the name of Danny, a gross talking trickster with an English accent, eyes that recede into his face, big bushy eyebrows that hide the snickering bastard’s thoughts. Impossible to read, impossible to surrender, the little, wily dick controlled everything. What steroids the boys could take, what meds the games had on hand. He even took a coaching role with one of the teams, when they lost their coach, probably because the whole thing seemed rigged, but then he backed off, went back to coaching the nationals, playing the president of the league like it was his little game of chess, propping up a coach here and there, destroying him when he got tired of the guy running his mouth. Not like he had actual power, and any one of those guys could’ve given him a lick in the face and he’d be long gone, but the fucker proved himself intelligent, and when a coach started acting up, he started to referee some games, to manage the situation. He’d give a few bad calls, the guy would run his mouth on the sidelines, freaking out, and he’d suspend him for a couple games. The players would react, one or two might even charge at him in centerfield, threatening him with violence, provocative measures you know. He’d suspend their asses too. Some of the younger guys would quit, citing their grades or their injuries as the reason, but deep down everyone always knew, it’s the look in a guy’s eyes, thinking he’s not going to go down this road, he knows what this is all about. It’s dirty. You could smell the dirt from a mile away. But it was also a great gift to our lives. Waking up at seven, eight on a Saturday morning, hungover, still drunk, head blasted, grabbing a pear or an apple on the way to the bus, hoping you’d have time to take a shit before the game starts, always late, always running, some of the boys packing whole organic lunches, the younger guys, most of them treated well by their families, still living with their parents, showing up with sandwiches, fruits, smoothies. The most important commodity on a team bus is the toilet paper. We always had a couple guys who brought it in, who carried it on hand at every game, no matter what. Waking up those mornings, I never had time to shit, but I took a shit nonetheless, you have to. During one of our more terrible seasons, we were down on players and our coach played with us, a middle aged man with too kind a heart, lived most of his life in Australia, repatriated to touch down on his roots. He joined the squad for a game, played pretty well, halfback, took minimal hits, until one play, we were near the try line, and we snapped the ball quick out of his hands, I was playing hooker at the time, and I admit to being pretty slow, I got it to him and he snapped it out to one of the forwards to power in for a try, and when he got hit he took to the ground real fast, and at halftime I remember hearing from some of the guys he’d shat his pants. That season was tough. It was always a blessing to show up on Saturday or Sunday morning, even when our spirits were low and we knew we would get crushed. But twenty minutes before kick-off, stretching with the team on our side of the field, jerseys on, mouth guards on the ears, looking over some of the guys around you, everyone coming in off their own highs and lows, their own troubles, their own success, Friday night, love, sex, drugs, whatever you want to have as long as you make it to the bus, and I remember just staring over at the guys, all of them seemingly in a state of peace, a quiet peace, nobody nervous, none of them scared, and we’re sitting one thousand one hundred meters above sea level, a clear blue sky and a middle of the range sun gliding with the autumn winds against our faces, and everyone breathes in a sigh of relief, a sigh of suspense, a sigh of something they now want to do. Real grass, none of the turf bullshit that’s ruining the way the ball touches the ground, the way your knees take off, the way you slide. Wet grass surface, decent maintenance, patches of mud, patches of dirt, patches with holes so big your cleats get lost and you can sprain an ankle. No matter what happened to us during the week, we made it out to the pitch, all seventeen, sometimes thirteen, sometimes only the nine required to play. We had guys blown unconscious, with one big hit, their eyes rolling to the back of their head, their hands contorting in mid air, in the midst of a seizure, and the next play I snap the ball to a forward and he runs into the crowd of predators eyeing their prey. Guys dislocate and crack the same bone on the leg. Guys get two teeth jammed into their gums, and two others beaten out. Guys with a ruptured artery and a broken leg, in a cast for over a year, with an infection that nearly kills him, and he’s at every game once he’s back on his feet, watching, cheering us on. Real fucking men, and most of them were boys. I was older, supposed to be writing my masters thesis and growing up. Fuck that. It was beautiful. We were never the biggest, sometimes the fastest. Never the strongest, sometimes the bravest. The only team that disallowed more than one graduate on the team. The only team whose average age was less than thirty, probably the age was around twenty one. We got creamed, we got beat. But we also won, and we made it to the semi finals one year, and after a terrible year the next, we made it to the finals again. The first year I played was that beautiful season. The year that determined a lot of the next couple years. I had just moved, and like I said, Beirut was mayhem. By the time spring came around and I had my feet on the ground, feeling like I was building a home, the little scuffle took off, and everything seemed to bite at the nails, people expecting the worst. They wanted the worst, they like the drama. Beirut is a mix of potholes and fancy shoes. I never felt foreign, never felt like an American in some overcrowded, strange land. I moved there the years after the Israeli war, which is what they call it, a lot of them, who don’t see the different races as being different from one another, deserving different lives. The kids I spent most of my time with called it the Israeli war, the Israeli aggression, the failed Israeli invasion. It’s always strange coming back to the states and people asking about it. Asking about being in Beirut, like I was out in the jungle. How do I tell them I ate so damn well? How do I explain how many friends I made? How do I relate to the women I left behind, in a dispatched feeling of unknown, all of them wanting to get out, dying in the fracas when the doors are shut? Everyone always asked me how I could live in a place so dangerous. I always want to ask how they live in a place so fucking cold. How do you live so far from the swimmable sea? Our field at school, at the university, was no more than fifty meters from the shore. Fifty meters from the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes when one of our guys would kick the ball on fifth down, high in the sky, and all the eyes and bodies that aren’t gunning for the ball are motionless, eyeing the little rotating egg, two eighty millimeters, four hundred and something grams, lit up and disappearing by the stadium lights, the scattered clouds dispersing the evening rays of the moon, watching it descend like a fireball of white, turning in its historic dimensions, passing cloud to cloud, figment to figment, and if you’re standing the one way, your back to the lowlying gate and the street courts, you see the ball descend and in the distance the hills of Beirut, and far back from the perimeter of the school, the four or five staircases that carry you up the hill, from lower campus to upper campus, the presidential house, the rise of buildings, and un your imagination you know past the historic, mismanaged skyline is the first row of mountains you see from the sea, and from your other side, dazed in your dizzying collection of bursts and sounds, gravitating toward the little egg falling from the sky, you stop and smell the wet leaves on the sacred trees, lining the campus for decades, and you stop in wonder, in amazement, a hundred meter sprint, ten, eleven, twelve seconds from where you stand, the great and glorious Mediterranean, in all her darkness and glory, in all her ruptured limbs and illusion, the mask that crowns the little slice of land rivals call home, and far, far away you imagine, the absent horizon, the crescent moon, the navigating wayward sea vessels edging closer and closer to shore. This is where it started, a hundred meters from my feet. Where these pious and peasant souls lost the fruit of their labor. Figments, gigantic figments, drawing closer and closer to shore. It was a gift. Since then I’ve lived in Iowa, I’ve lived in D.C., and moved around stateside looking for work, looking for an opportunity, in all honesty, just trying to pay my way back, figure something out, do what I can to live there. My grandfather lived right across the street from where I used to live. He was famous for his kindness and his wrestling and boxing skills. He set up a dump gym on the roof of his home. I remember standing on the roof my building, joint in my hand, after an hour or two of reps with some of the guys, peering down over the steel and wiring, over the chaos we escaped down below, imagining him and his bench press set up under the almighty sun. He got me into boxing, taught me to move my feet. And if it weren’t for him I wouldn’t have found my home. This is where he met his wife. As soon I was there, loading my bags into a poor old man’s car, smoking like he needed it to breathe, ripping me off in his disfigured smile, like the cigarette was attached to his mouth, like his muscles couldn’t ease into a solemn stare, or something without his lips creasing, his cheeks digging into his jaw. I don’t know if too many people knew where Iowa lies in America, and I forgot about it pretty fast. Beirut man, it was a dream. Everyone always asks how you can live in a place so dangerous. I always want to ask how they can live in a place so fucking cold. When you see the variations of the food chain, it’s hard to come back to that quiet, blissful ignorance we call America. The dream is about closing your eyes and sticking your dick in a someone’s mouth. The real coldblooded Americans who get what they want are the ones who do it eyes open. The little things I remember doing differently. Experiencing it in a different way. Some days it was like a circus. I could go three, four days without doing anything but feeling like I was standing on my head, running backwards through the woods, drowning, deep, deep sleep. We drank at Captain’s Cabin. An old timer named Andre ran the place he inherited from his father. Forty years its been there, an establishment in the neighborhood, gone through it all, through everything. He hasn’t changed a thing in the place, which accounts for the roaches each the size of a tomato. Sometimes on Sundays I’d go over there with some of the guys, different times they were different people, and Andre would do a grill out in the garden if the weather was nice. We’d probably each have eight or ten beers before the sun was down. I drank a lot in those days, and we got pushy, but I kept myself under control. The local kids liked to get in fights, to prove themselves. I stayed away from that. It’s unpredictable. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. One minute you’re throwing a punch to a couple guys, the next minute a truck rolls up with six dudes in the back carrying AKs. Not that it happened but you hear stories, and you know it happens in certain circles. But I never got into real trouble. Not like that. We smoked a lot, burned a lot of joints. Its easy to get but sometimes the kids you know go dry, and when it gets real dry people get possessive. I always got my hands on some and if I didn’t I headed over to a friend’s place and he’d likely have some. But it was difficult to get some of the local guys to let you buy a piece. They preferred to give you something for free, as a gesture, generous friends they are. They also knew if you buy off them once you’ll probably expect to buy again. I would buy for ten, twenty bucks at a time. They bought for a hundred, two hundred. Stocking up on the goods, a syndrome that’s developed over the years. I never did get my thesis done. Not in Beirut. I was supposed to be writing but I never got around. I tried. I tried working in different spaces. Tried working sober, tried working stoned. I had a punching bag in my living room set up. That usually kept me pretty occupied. By the time the sun rolls down, in winter that’s five o’clock, the boys start calling, the girls are sending you messages. I didn’t have too many girls lined up, ever. It was pretty hard actually, being an American, being that most of the girls really like to flirt but it takes a while to get into bed. I guess like some of the guys I focused more on drinking, on the conversations, on the pick up fights, joking around. I did see a girl for a while though. Crazy fucking bitch. I’m sure now she is insane. I was sure at the time. But hell, she took me in, treated me like her family. I love her for that. Her kindness. She had this enormous nose, beautiful, like a long, drawn out walk down a mountain, and these big, oval eyes. She was tall, thin, could do pretty decent reps in the gym. A laugh you hear over a valley. She could drink pretty well too. I don’t really know if we ended on a good note. She moved to the states at some point and we saw each other for a while, I’d go up North, sometimes Boston, sometimes New York, stay with her, we’d have a good time. But nothing really goes like it does over there. It’s lighter there, lighter under the sun. There’s less expectation. You know where to go. you know what you’re getting yourself into. The best times we had, we’d find ourselves up and awake and already rolling into the day pretty early, Saturday, Sunday mornings, the weekends without a game day, summer weekends, early fall, we’d pack as many of us as we could into some cars and roll up to Batroun, to Amchit, to the beach, to the cliffs, diving into the sea, smoking joints overlooking the horizon, drinking beer and anise, eating everything well prepared, fresh, like it was picked off a tree just for us. You never know when you’re around, in a good thing, you never know when its gonna end, but it does. I wasn’t thinking about my leaving, I didn’t let it bother me, but at some point I started to realize it was inevitable. It broke my heart. Leaving the boys, leaving the squad. Leaving the memory of my closest friend, a good man. Daniel Eagen broke into Beirut like a phoenix crashing into a volcano. Most of the pack split up over the years. Some of the boys got married, like old Mike, the king of the wolves. A very good man himself, but a troublemaker with the ladies. I think we were all pleasantly surprised when he disappeared into the good life. Harvard graduate all of a sudden. Married, kids on the way. How did this man, who used to talk about ripping a girl’s ass open while she was too drunk to notice, who once fucked a girl so hard in the ass she shat all over the bed, all over the floor, shit everywhere, and he just rolled her over to a little spot on the bed where he could rest and curled into it, and in the morning she woke up so embarrassed, so disgusted, couldn’t remember a thing, she threw out the sheets and left. This man, who used to hand out wolf pills, a term used for Chinese over the counter sex pills, one for stamina and one for an erection, hand them out like they were cigarettes. He fucked every girl in the country, some of them twice. But the best part is, the thing that made old Mikey a legend, is the fact that with Mikey around, he didn’t just get himself laid, he got everybody laid. And he got everybody drunk. I don’t remember where he’d been before he came back to Beirut a man on a mission. To rejuvenate rugby league. To tear open every girl’s pussy and leave his blessing for the eventual bride to be. To initiate a pack among the boys. We were known as the Wolves. That’s the team name. The American University of Beirut Rugby League Team, the Wolves. Before it fell apart, before the AUB team became the Redbacks, and the Wolves a pathetic, embarrassing franchise squad that couldn’t host more than nine players a game, there was the Wolves, and there were the boys with the beautiful faces, Darren the Australian, Mikey the savage, and Pikey the Irish. I played with Darren and Pikey and it was my honor to do so. Mikey brought us all together, he coached the team after a fallout with the players left the team without a manager. Nobody wanted the job. Troublemakers, they called us. Our vice captain, craziest guy on our team, who used got stomped on the face by a Judo Olympian protecting one of our boys, he had a lot to do with people’s hesitation. Probably the best thing to happen to us. The year the streets turned violent. The year Lebanon finally got a President. The year we made it to the semi finals and got duped. After practice, it wasn’t just drills and go home. After practice, if the mood was high, we’d all head down, twenty, twenty five of us, across the gateway and into East Beirut, to Cloud 9, the bar that brought out the very envy of our being. A classy joint that was inevitably trashed the moment we stepped in, but Mikey knew the owners and soon they were our friends. It was a good place to get things started, to start a revolution. To build from the ground up. Pikey still hadn’t gotten a job, and in one of the last games of the season, before the playoffs, when we were wiping teams out by forty, fifty points, breaking through the line like they were our children, he hurt his arm pretty bad, but the guy was shit broke and the school makes you sign an insurance waiver at the start of every year, go figure, for the footballers get the highest medical treatment, and rugby players get nothing. He hurt his arm and soon enough it grew, his thumb was broken and the whole thing looked like it had swallowed a squirrel or something. He played on, the genius, broke through the line ten or twelve times a game. The best passer of the ball. A union player who comes into playing league and realizes how much fun it is. How easy it is to push the ball around. We called him Pikey on account of his dark skin tone. Plus, he didn’t really look like a Daniel. Love comes to those who wait. We all waited. That was the year everyone was shacking up. Shacking up for a night was easy, finding something different, something bigger, that was tough. Especially when you’re surrounded by thirty yelling, screaming, smelly boys trying to look like men. Some of the older guys, like George, a surgeon in his thirties, who to this day I am impressed dared to risk his surgeon hands for six or seven seasons of rugby league, who was one of the fittest guys on the squad but who spoke as slow as he ran, and he was by far the slowest guy on the squad when it came to breaking a sprint, he was one of the guys who enjoyed the growing camaraderie, who had been there for years when it was just a bunch of drunks and fat losers trying to get in shape. But before I could pull my head out of the toilet, before I could pull two words from my mouth, Pikey found his maiden, Rita, one of the staff at Cloud 9, the darling, darling waitress, the angel of our blessed lives. It happened so fast, before he knew it, jobless, armless, he was leading us into the semi finals with a lot of lady luck on his side. I took big hits, real big hits, and I dropped my shoulder too many times and sometimes had to pay for it, but I put in my hits as well, but no man matches the intensity of that Irishman. No man I have seen since. Spring arrived with the promise of what she leaves open. Sometimes you get what you imagined. Two weeks before the game we beat Jounieh by forty something points. Demolished them. Put their heads in the ground. Something happened. The wily douchebag took control. Darren, a man well into his forties, whose kids were at the game, leaped into the air thinking we had won, thinking we had scored. It wasn’t to be man. It wasn’t to be. We ended the year on a damaging low, but something had started, something enormous. We knew if we held the squad together we could be crowned kings the next year, without anyone having a say in it. We supported the other guys and they won the cup, beating the undefeated Immortals in their sleep. I guess you could say it was a good end to things, a good change was coming. Mikey had left the squad. Pikey left the country, not without a fight, but he had to go, promising he’d be back. And soon enough, Darren was gone too. Then it was us, with the memory of what he started. And the elder statesman, Karim, Mounir, Ramsey, guys that had been there since the beginning, they were forced out too. Graduates don’t play. Good thing I never wrote my thesis. I still had another year. It was getting late. She was suddenly bored and tired of the scene. The second half was going to start but she no longer felt like watching. She had a sudden feeling of sadness well up inside of her. She knew the feeling well and once it stuck it was hard to forgo. The number 9 on the opposing team was quite nervous actually. He was young. A good captain. But he lacked consistency, obviously. He needed to give more in some games. Only he realized it. And his parents. Who could tell he had more energy than he was giving. When he played with heart they won. He led by example. Great example, only when he tried. It wasn’t all his fault, however. A good striker required decent delivery, some through balls, some crosses, balls to the feet, quick angled balls to the byline. He wasn’t getting the delivery. Zaman surprised them by sending his boys on all out attack. They usually played counter attacking football, sitting deep, soaking in the pressure, hitting them on the break, but he was smart. He knew they weren’t prepared for a super high press, not giving the other team any amount of space. The game was scruffy for a bit, and then it mellowed out. Both teams tried a few shots from outside the box, without really testing the keeper. The difference between the two teams was beginning to show, slowly, slightly. Control, control in possession. Zaman’s team were trying too many long balls, too many incoherent passes. The other guys, they stuck their model. They were given the freedom to dribble, to roam, to play the ball out of danger. Zaman’s boys couldn’t play a high press all day. They were already exhausted. The other guys played with their feet. Mateo was running too much with the ball, and sometimes got caught. Demir put some crosses in, three in a row, two corners. Nothing serious challenging the keepers on either side.  It was a good game for him, one of the best. He took passes well, playing along the flank. The field was cool that day, and the change in temperature benefited him, as it did most of his teammates as well, the full of their ranks having been born abroad, where the sun was much cooler and the days were long. All along the field some of the parents had set up stalls, selling clothes and old records and snacks and donating the money to charity, selling goodie bags and toys and donating the earnings there. There was a booth from one of the parents selling stacks of cards, with the names and faces of all the students drawn up inside, each and every student in the district whole. A gesture, they were saying. Something that allowed them to feel smart and whole. Some of the parents, joined by faculty and staff of the school, laid out blankets and rugs and clean, fresh jars, cups and mugs, donated to refugees, and shelters for the common poor. They would not see their faces but from the eye of the screen, until they were some years on land, living just beside them, and then they would have done away with their marks, buried deep inside them, traumas that bend when the end is nigh. He collected the ball somewhere in midfield. You could tell, when he played, the way he moved around and passed, whether he was watching any games on TV, or if he had the sole intention of playing off guard, relying on improvisation. Not that movement had to be learned, once it was his there was no stopping the process of his movement coming to grow, and his knowing where to be as he was wanted, and to be known was in that moment slow, he moved with the air of a magician, passing the ball, holding the thread, navigating the string of passes inevitably leading to a gorgeous goal, the ball coming to him halfway in the park, turning on his right shoulder, gathering the ball with his left leg, sprinting, as two defenders converged, one of them the opposing captain, sprinting right on past them, stepping right over the ball, heeling it with his right, a little toe poke sending the ball forwards down the wide right flank, the chase was on between Demirhan and Golen, each of them vying for the ball. The score, at that point, was still a draw, and the team coaches were ready to provoke a change, each of them eyeing their options. It helped that they allowed rolling substitutions up to a certain point, whether agreed beforehand or in the league’s official doctrine, six in the game and two for an extra time. They were young, but they hadn’t wanted to spoil them. Still, there were people on the board who thought the same of it, and those who thought it different, asking why it was they had so little achieved in order to be granted such reprieve, up from four substitutions to six. It was the sort of detail the older generation focused on, the Kanaans for example, who made such a fuss, asking over and over again in the last board meeting, why do they change it for this generation, things like that, why are they making it easier? There was a laugh in the crowd. A man who had outlived his third divorce. The insults rang, such as it was in their time, the urgent feeling vocal and proud, stepping outside the norm of the crowd, with no one able to stop them, calling out for this or that. The game carried on like that for a while, until he found himself in said possession. He slowed down as he approached the box, almost to a halt. The ball was kicked down the line, so that the winger Demir was heading down the wing at full sprint. He had to stop, just barely, pull up on his heel, and to leap, like a dancer, onto his other foot, to follow through and make the cross with the left, a perfectly hanging ball, hit with real intent and force, curling over the goal posts and passed the keeper’s arms, the guile of Habib seeing it through, heading onto goal. It was a sick display, for anyone. But for him, it felt good. To have played between the lines most of the half, not having to do much to add to the game, keeping them in possession, one pass after another, keeping the ball moving on. It was a favoured expression of their coach to ask, why do you run with the ball, let the ball do the running, being more of a demand than a question of course, though they still preferred to do the running, playing a heavy dribbling game, something that annoyed Habib, having more or less been trained in the style of Levalin, and Drohkjaer and Connisson, putting in place the simplest pass, just to keep the ball moving, pushing forward and sometimes back, holding it around the centre court, passing it between the sweepers. A possession based game, which did well to his qualities as somewhat lazy, though when the game changed pace he changed on course, keeping to his character, keeping the ball ever alive, passing it on between them. He liked to attack and did it well and was deadly in the final quarter, something that was known to coaches of the other teams, who had studied the players on the opposing squads, if only to get to know them. It was the sort of style out of favour these days, but to those whom it was right it played a certain purpose, to keep the story going on, to keep them moving through chapters, rather than getting lost in a single line, running up and down like howards, chasing their shadows in a pen, or hens let loose on a crowded street after having their necks divorced. He was sure not to celebrate the go ahead goal, and they returned right away to the way they were playing, seeing out of the half at the perfect score, not having conceded, having been warned on the other team’s scoring galore, once they opened the floodgates. They had planned to stay solid at the back, no matter what came to them, even if it kept them from going forward, they had to protect their goal. The second half was more or less the same, there was nothing in the beginning between them. Someone pulled a leg onto Habib’s, just before giving away a throw in. It looked, from the side, like nothing wrong, but the players quickly retorted. They were soon to receive yellow cards, four of them in total, two of each of the opposing sides, one of them the captain. Michael had stayed away from most of the fight, even though it involved the challenge onto his ankle and the lead in onto his thigh, pulling up his knee to hurt him. It was intentional, of course, they both knew it, both of the players walking away, knowing to react was to be sent off. Referees were told to be quick to judge, and to keep the players from turning violent. This after a scare the last week at the grounds of the all male Leigh St. Todd’s, a member of the staff having been caught with a knife, having dissected the potential of using it. The day was overcast and a chill of cold caused their resolute fans to brave the surging solace of the passing clouds, hovering on such short notice. There was a feeling among both tribes that they would win, the one on one side feeling more adept at challenging for the title, while the others, being on short legs, were the underdog team vying for a spot among the gods, among the notables of their district. Michael himself had never won a league, having won Regionals just once. But champions of the district had never come, though his school had somehow lived like champions, they were more often than not running on empty pride. Still, it boded well for them that day that he came to play, as did Mateo and Demir. They were putting balls into the box one after the other, powering them from way outfield or drawing defenders to the byline. One notable move between the two saw them gather the ball off a failed corner, the player, Zamalek, of the opposing side, deciding quite wrongly to play it short, putting it in front of the opposing teammates, who were actually caught out of possession, coming back into play after being offside, taking almost an hour long! It was good of them to be there, it turned out, the ball coming onto their feet, the same idea coming to them, Mateo flicking the ball with the top of his toe and he curled around the emerging defender, who by his spin move was by now totally gone, the ball coming straight to Demir’s feet, he jerked once, then twice, dropping both his shoulders, changing pace at least two to three times, catching the defender so off guard he actually caused him to fall. It was the sort of football you had grown accustomed to seeing on the Northern front, but not here, at home. Demir cut inside, passing the falling man, keeping the ball in front of his legs, dodging the trailing player. He put in a pass for the surging Habib, who had cut right through them, crossing between them. The field opened up and the attack was off, the emerging Habib, having passed the defense, kicking the ball thirty meters to run onto the box. The very thought of hurting his leg, of pulling up with a hamstring would have done him wrong, and so in such times he had total notice, keeping his eyes glued to the open prize. As soon as he collected the ball he laid it flat for his teammates, the urging Demir touching it just once on to the now emerging Mateo who was in the box and happy to put in the score. But lo and behold it was ruled offside, and the score was back to one zero. On the other end, after they had almost scored, the most random shot from outside the box provided the team’s advantage returned to an even state, and the two opposing sides came into the stretch feeling poised and disappointed. Anderson’s men that it had come to this, that they had so much disappointed, while Hamdan’s men were more for the den of lost hope, having for so long so outrageously leaded.

“Did anyone else put a bet on Mateo lashing out and getting a red?”

Alexander laughed.

“These guys think they’re legit footballers, eh?”

“He practiced free kicks all summer.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow. How disciplined.”

“When he wants.”

“Are you hungry,” someone beside them asked.

“What do you feel like eating? Is there anything here?”

“I think we can order something.”

“Yeah? Can we?”

“Sure. They’ll bring it to the gate.”

“Is Tacos Cheap still delivering?”

The ball went out for a corner. There were three minutes left in the half.

“Should we go out for a smoke?”

His friends celebrated the victory all night, sending each other messages of congratulation, chatting on Dembe and Narcis all night. Some of them went to Matar’s for a beer. His father was an ambassador and had a beautifully stocked bar. His parents were away for the week and the servants promised not to tell. They were proud of the boys, everyone was. It was a surprise victory, even though they were good, they had never beaten Choueifat. Everyone was proud. Michael came home to his parents, seated at the dinner table. His father had removed his working suit and was already in his pajamas. His mother was dressed up, ready to go out for a few drinks with her friends after dinner. He could tell by the smell of his mother’s perfume, preferred for evenings out, and the smell of her hairspray, a toxic citrus. Michael was asleep in bed, trying hard to stay asleep though he was woken up every fifteen minutes by a mosquito flying into his ear. He wanted rest but could never find it. There was nowhere for rest to be found. He got a message and then a phone call right away, both of them from Wajih. He was on the beach with some friends, waiting for sunrise. He wanted Michael to join. To sneak out fo the house and join them. Michael didn’t mind sneaking out, he did it all the time, not to get away or do something smart, just to get some fresh air, as he was never bale to sleep. There was a way he could escape without alerting anyone in the house. He could climb out from the basement window, that looked out onto the garden. From there he could walk around the bend of the house where his parents could not hear or see him, and exit through the second door. He wanted them all to be friends. He wanted them to be friends and to be friends they had to stick up for one another. To do so was to do it right, to focus on the love they shared, by being together. When one of them was hurt, they must all hurt, he thought, and so if I hurt I have to show them how much I am hurting, but not say anything out loud, as I am told, but to suggest with my heart what I am saying. He stood outside the window of his friend’s house, waiting to call, waiting to see him come up from the roof, a row of cypresses forming a hedge underneath his bedroom window. He saw him, pulling the curtains, standing at the window, staring out. He called, letting the phone ring twice before hanging up, calling again just after, pretending it was the first time blocked, and the second time he was really calling, knowing he had been put through, knowing Michael was sleeping, wanting to wake him up. He wanted to wake him up, wanting to see him. He wanted him to be tired, when they saw each other, so then he would feel like the one grown up, the one who was never tired, always present.

“Hey bro,” Mustapha said.

“Hey buddy.”

“Sorry to call you in the morning,” he said, his voice fading out while the sound of a car passed by him, the thought becoming clear in his thoughts, the thoughts and the final memory, the two of them sharing space, where the reality struck, of his standing there, outside his window, waiting for him to answer the call, having answered, having spoken, he could hear, so violently, the chain of his thoughts, he could hear himself breathing, he had heard all of his words, feeling that his voice was, in the most obvious way, nervous, excited.

“What’s up man?”

“Some of us are going to the beach,” he said. “You should come.”

“Now?”

“Yeah.”

“How the fuck?”

“Sneak out.”

“I don’t know man.”

“Michael, you have to. We’re all going. I want us all to be together, man, I have to say something. I have to tell you guys, together. I need you all there, I want us to be together. We have to be strong, Michael, we have to be strong together.”

“I know.”

“Everyone wants you there, man. Everyone wants you there.”

He had to sort out his strategy, for sneaking out, though he knew his parents couldn’t care less what he was doing, at this point in time they had a general lack of faith in them that could not be shaken, though taken off the toll was always in Autumn his stellar performances on the field, his years always ended up the same, by spring he was well of course to passing, skipping most of his school.

“Alright, man, alright. Okay,” Michael said, the idea suddenly dawning, that he had to get out of his bed, at what had finally appeared to be three thirty in the morning. “Are you going there now?”

“Everyone is almost there.”

“How are you going?”

“I’m walking, from my house.”

“I can meet you.”

“No, I’m almost there. Come, walking.”

“I will. I’ll see you there.”

“Peace.”

“Peace.”