They decided to meet for lunch at the Gorigo, famed for its nightly menu of meat and farm to table salads during the day. On weekends they served and fries during brunch that was her favorite. She knew she could convince Audrey of coming along, if only to entertain the idea that they were now colluding, combining forces somehow, merging their ways. “I’ve eaten there once,” she told her. “I’m sure you’ll like it.”
She arrived ten minutes early, preferring to spend the time to herself, focusing on her thoughts. Ritualistically, she had a way of doing things at restaurants that could not go out of habit, so if it was an unfamiliar place to her, she took the time to study the menu, without the rush of her friend having arrived, known what she wanted, and ordered. Even when she knew the place in and out, she still like to study the menu. It meant more for her, in a way. To understand what she was missing, forgetting the inevitable half on the menu, the half she had never before chosen to take. Plus, when her friend arrives she’d rather focus on conversation, one of them ordering a drink, the other lighting a cigarette, sharing the cigarette, ordering more drinks. They both will have quit smoking but on that afternoon will have allowed themselves to smoke one before and another after, to help prepare for ingestion and to assist in digestion. She wont have to make a decision on her order right away. That came later, observing her friend, who’ll have to, at some point, focus primarily on the menu, excusing herself from the conversation, from her surroundings, focusing with her salivating eyes the peppering of her tongue. She’ll glance over the appetizers, the daily and organic soups, the regulars like tomato basil bruschetta, onion beet soup, or thyme and coriander bluffins, prepared in little balls, crispy on the outside, the thyme and coriander sitting like flakes, burning on the palette with jasmine oil.
A waiter finally arrives. She’s surprised to find him pull out a notepad from his back pocket and a pen from his shirtfront. It would be quite strange for her to be dining alone, so he must know, she figures, that she’s waiting on someone else. Were she waiting, as he ought to know, then she would be rude to have something to eat having so recently arrived. She’ll order a water, maybe even a drink, something fresh and fruity to start, depending on the day, the hour, the arriving friend, whatever history they’ve shared, what recent meal lurks in their past, how it ended and how or why it had begun.
As he stands there, hovering over her presence, she realizes the great lengths they’ve gone to dress all the waiters and runners alike, all of them wearing the same Bennett shoes, in black and white stripes, with low rubber soles and white laces tied in two knots, matching slacks for the men and women, and prison blue shirts tucked into their trousers, all wearing the same black belt, with an orthodox buckle, and matching black aprons for the waiters, and a matching red tie. She likes what they’re wearing. It gives the place a casual sort of feeling, even though the meals are pretty well priced, a drink costing more than thirty thousand koura, at Least.
“Would you like something to drink,” he asks?
She spends a moment considering the matter. Sometimes she likes to take a coffee before the meal, even if she chooses to have one after, which she surely will, considering that she always has a coffee when she overeats, and she always overeats when she meets one of her friends for lunch. She finds that the coffee helps to open her appetite. Since she quit smoking, relatively quit, she’s become more aware of her habits, her daily intake, the things that help and the things that hurt, what makes her hungry what makes her full, what makes her tired or what sits her still. Instead, she orders a short glass of iced sparking water, from whatever bottle they choose to serve, she makes a point not to care what bottle he chooses, not wanting him to make a fuss to explain unnecessary things, simply as an order of appearing polite, or even more exhausting, of appearing well informed. He’s about to recite the specials when she stops him from speaking, realizing in his accent he’s an immigrant from the lower ward, and feeling like he’s probably not so bright, though what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in smiles. He steps away, confused, reluctant, suddenly the confidence from earlier shot, his eyes wandering the room in search of his superior, she realizes he’s afraid of making a mistake, of having to pay for it later.
Her phone vibrates in her pocket, she answered with the third vibration, knowing not to let it go further than four.
“Shu, waynak,” she asked. “How is it?”
“Nothing yet. You? Where are you?”
“Meeting Rania and Mahan for lunch.”
“Is Mahan still troubling?”
“Anyway, she’ll grow out of it.”
“Of course. You’re doing what’s right. Tab how is it? When are they coming?”
“We said three, it’s five past now.”
“She’s always making everyone wait. Where’s Mahan?”
“Sara7a I don’t know. Anyways, I don’t care. I know she’ll arrive ten minutes late. It’s fine. I prefer to have the time to unwind, to unravel. I take some time to study the menu, knowing I won’t order off the written specials anyway but they’re fun to consider. As I am reading a waiter comes over to ask if I want something to drink. For a moment I expect him to recite the special but then I realize he isn’t from here, he’s an immigrant, from one of the lower hordes, and he’s probably not so bright, but what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in smiles. I order a short glass of iced sparking water, from whatever bottle they serve, to sip on while I wait. Sometimes I like to take a coffee before the meal, even if I have one after for sure, which I always do. I find that the coffee helps to open my appetite. Ever since I quit smoking I’ve become more aware of these things. My phone is almost out of battery so I choose not to spend the time scrolling down the feed or the news bar. Instead, I go back to reading the specials, which sound interesting, and I compare the descriptions to the plates arriving on tables beside me, guessing if the patrons have ordered one of the regular meals or something off the specials board. For breakfast they’re serving scotch egg with grilled ciabatta, herb salad and tomato fondue. It’s definitely something different more creative, ahead of the times. But I know what to expect from the fondue. They might as well call it a smoked puree, or even a peppered tomato sauce. Still, it’s nice to see them feeding with the times. Gone are the days of the full English breakfast, two or three eggs scrambled or fried any way you like, with grilled tomatoes, hash browns, pork sausage, strips of bacon and boiled white beans. The number of times I have had that meal and regretted it is lost on me. No matter how refined the patron, if the place offers a full English breakfast, there are times it is impossible to resist. However, I don’t understand how people can have such a meal while traveling, at airports or rail line terminals. Now we are far and beyond the kale age and everything is different, served with a decent explanation of where it is from, even if the waiter has to memorize geographical specifications he or she does not understand. I’m tempted by the zucchini, fennel and pea soup with truffle parmesan croute, or the zaatar marinated lamb rump served with beetroot hummus and chickpea salsa, but still I’m not convinced, because I know the names sound enticing but the flavors here are not so special, and always when deviating from the plan there is the danger of deviating too far. To go off the regular menu can be exciting but it is a major risk, especially for a place that changes staff so often. Where are you?”
“I’m in Carson.”
“Is it nice there?”
“It’s alright. I’m at a restaurant down the street from the hotel. The people are kind, very friendly, nice. I bought you something today, from the hotel lobby.”
“Yes. You’ll like it, I’m sure.”
“And, what are you doing?”
“What are you having?”
“Salad bar, for now. I might have a few beers if they take their time.”
“Are you waiting for them there?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Is it nice? What kind of crowd?”
“It’s nice. The person sitting next to me is wearing a suit, the only other person. He just paid his bill. I think he ordered the jerk marinated chicken leg with sweet potato gnocchi and lime vinaigrette. When he first walked in, he looked professional, like a high street banker when we were young. But he ordered a plate of fries and I find that too indulgent, certainly for lunch, certainly in a suit. The fries are cut large and thick, so they are certainly fresh but still, too fatty. Suddenly he looked less lively, scruffy, unhealthy even. His pointed dress shoes are too big and made from a very mediocre Leather. His shirt isn’t ironed and is slightly too large, the neck draping over his shoulders unevenly. His pants are baggy, lounging at his waist. He looks more like a poor seller of cheap shirts or the host at a highway car shop.
She arrived in a rush. After her initial greeting, itself quite tired and raw, wiping the sweat from her forehead, a stray strand of hair glued to her head, she threw her arms in the air in congratulations, congratulating her on her pregnancy. The moment she blurted the words she realized the mistake she had made, written all over her friend’s face. The news hadn’t been made public, and her friend didn’t know what to say, how to react. Though it was obvious everyone knew, it made for quite an embarrassment.
“Whatever you want,” she said, not wanting to annoy her host.
“It’s so hot in here,” her niece said.
“The electricity will come back on. We’re just waiting for the generator. I don’t know what’s wrong,” she said, “I have a neighbor who takes from us, I’m sure. But that shouldn’t be a problem. To be honest I don’t care. Let them. She lives in a small cabin, between the two walls, of both houses, ours and the neighbors. The cabin is small. It’s a beautiful color, very pastel. The walls that separate her are grey. It’s really kind of nice when it rains and pours and the walls become this wet sort of milky color. It goes with her home. Anyway, I saw her just yesterday, begging for more from Saleh, downstairs. He’s such an idiot. I think the men in this country think they know what they’re doing, but at the same time, they rely on this idea that no matter what they do wrong their women will value them. Not anymore. I want Saleh to live the rest of his life, or his time with us, however long, I want him to live the rest of his life knowing there is a difference between right and wrong. He doesn’t write the rules.”
“He had no education. Can you blame him?”
“He beats his children. He’s rough. He’s rude.”
“He’s not rude. You can’t say that.”
“Not to me, but to his wife. Of course he’s not rude to me. I’ll kick him out in a day.”
“There’s nobody better out there, trust me. Misha just moved into a new building. She’s friends with Rasha, I know from her. Her concierge is much worse. Aslan, remember Abu Njoum, before Saleh? Seriously, remember him? Anyway,” she said, holding the menu in her hand, the overcast sky lighting their table, an accompaniment to the overhead light, still barely showing her luminescent best.
“I chose to sit by the window,” Tatiana said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Audrey shook her head.
“So what do you recommend?”
“I came here with Tarek last week, they had a very good vegetable ragout. It comes hek on a bed of couscous,” forming a dome with her hands, the size of said proverbial bowl. “The couscous is iced, it’s really, really good. It has like a nice curry taste, very mushy, hek a lot of strength. And they’re famous for their lasagna, I’ve had it here, it’s really good.”
“Don’t get the lasagna,” her niece, Sandra, said. “It’s always different. One time it’s wet, soaking the entire plate, the next time it’s rock solid, like they brought it from the freezer or something. I swear sometimes I think they microwave the food in this restaurant.”
“You come all the time.”
“Yeah with you and my mom. My friends and I never go here.”
“Where do you go?”
“To Surrender, to Coup d’état.”
“The food there is disgusting. I can’t believe you eat there.”
“The food everywhere is disgusting hayete, you think this place is any better. My friend works in the food testing lab, at NOU. She works in food safety. They tested six hundred restaurants in the city. Guess how many failed.”
“Five hundred and ninety two, and the last eight were all burger joints, serving only burgers or something else also very simple. The cheese, the milk, the meat, it’s all disgusting. All of it, all of it. They found feces on the counters in the kitchen, where they cut and cook. They use the towel from the mop head to clean the counters. The same towel to wipe the bathroom floor sometimes. Can you imagine? No one tells them to do it differently. They don’t know. And the storage of the food, once it comes into town. With the electricity cuts, it’s terrible.”
“I’m sure they all have generators. For instance here I’m sure they have generators everywhere, around this neighborhood. It’s all restaurants, cafes, bars. The municipality will pay for it. What do you think, they don’t also profit? The municipality gets commission from the people selling generators and from the outlets and from the tenants.”
“Still, it’s terrible. They found e coli in seven restaurants, all of them full all the time.”
“Anyways, it doesn’t matter. You can’t live your life like that, in fear of everything. You have to go out with your friends, have a good time.”
“What are you gonna get?”
“I think I’ll go with the cinnamon pepper ravioli. I haven’t tried it.”
“It comes with the truffle cream sauce?”
“With or without.”
“I’ll have it as well.”
“Oh, Ul is calling.”
She flipped open her phone, to enlarge the screen, so the three of them could talk.
“So, Ulach, tell us, what’s going on?”
“Your son wants to come back, Rania. He spoke to me.”
“Come back home or back to his job?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did he say exactly?”
“What did he say? Hayete, I’ve been dealing with this for years. All over the place. People take what they can have. If they don’t earn it, how can they live? Who does he think he is? Why do you think I called for this meeting? He’s gotten out of hand.”
“I don’t blame him.”
“I know, you blame his father. But what can his father do now? He’s lost.”
“The worst part is my mother was right.”
Mahan wanted to ask what it was he did that was so inviting to their criticism it could not be quelled, it was, on that fact, the one thing about Rania she wanted to know more about, having already judged her for being stupid and dull, aggressive when cornered, louder than most, though she looked quiet and people thought she was, Mahan had observed it once, her style, if a strategy can become something like a style, the menace of a voice. She was doing it now, she thought, in front of her, doing it now while they all watched. She must have been trained, or something. Tatiana had supported Mahan when she wanted to become an actor. She must have supported her friend, when they were young, she thought, maybe she knows. Whenever someone made a joke, or said something inappropriate, counting among inappropriate announcements those that were too serious, too serious to say without proper consideration for what might be waiting after the fact is spoken, plainly said, spoken with experience, Rania had a way of entering the conversation, sort of snaking her way in, by laughing when everyone was laughing, saying something with a lot of strength in her voice only when the voices around her could be heard speaking, telling of their indifferent tries to better themselves, in whatever way warranted, and there were many at the time. I used to take my seat next to her and laugh and wait for her to giggle and acknowledge me, being her younger cousin and all, I was the one they laughed most about, because I was young, indifferent, taller than them all, the lanky student with the apple eyes, the one who preferred reading books on insects, who often told lies, for the mere fun of having come up with something on the spot, for the sake of creativity, I told them, but who would listen, and who does when you think at al?
What is it about her I don’t like, she thought? Was it the way she did her hair, always perfectly done, a light brownish hue, sometimes ironed into a dome, bug like, enormous, like the actresses on Whores and Chores, single parts in the middle, her widow’s peak matching her mother’s, and her colored nails often matching her dress, wearing primarily red, sometimes liquid, a vivid violet or tenacious blue. But she didn’t actually change her nail color that often, wearing red most of the time. Another lie, I guess. A way for me to end this and still have arms. Still speak honestly about what I’m saying, the child in the alphabet, the woman’s role. Why do I hate Rania, she thought to herself? Is it the way she showed up to Samra’s commencement in a Tutu Giro, a white pencil dress and chignon bum of hair. She sat three seats away from her, could smell her coarse perfume from there. She could smell her coarse perfume sitting three seats away, watching her, looking down, scribbling down her phone, so bored, waiting on the next Narcis announcement, scrolling down her feed, her Bulan Home, sending flatchats and brushes on BubuCum, two perimans on Provoke. What does it mean. Mahan thought, for a woman her age to look for dates, to want another man to play with. To play honestly, right, but the original idea for her was to find her sleeping, to wake her up from her sleep to play, to realize she was a middle aged woman with two children from first marriage, one of them was high and completely broke, living in a shelter for spoiled artists, the other, a marriage away from happiness, wanting nothing more than to go there, to be married, to live a life in shelter from insecurity and risk, which, according to her, she considered to be the struggles of the poor, and through marriage she would consolidate her place among them, in society, as they expected and as she would like, being the daughter of a gambler and a mother who had never worked a day in her life, wanting for nothing throughout her childhood, and of her parent’s love she could not have wanted more, such was the security she enjoyed in her family, free from the habits of the poor.
I think, if I’m not mistaken, I’ve wanted so many things for her. The reason I am there, I don’t know. So maybe, in a way, my wanting her is an excuse for her assignment. She isn’t really that old. I’d fuck her. Actually, I modeled her on the mother of two of my friends, though the two men don’t know each other. No, they stay away from each other’s pack, as the saying goes, though sayings are obsolete in winter, when winter is harsh it hits the blow. I wanted her to be some sort of power woman, with a strength of elegance and force to her, something vicious and addictive, a woman who leaves you wanting more. Rania had dreams herself, one of them being her dream to open a small store, somewhere downtown, and to sell interesting things there, like cute little handmade stuff, some bracelets, some wallets, everything handmade, maybe make them in the store, and to do something feminine with the energy, to play interesting music, soft guitar, to offer workshops and seminars and classes. A place where people go, she thought, that’s what I should be doing, but instead I spend my time ironing clothes. Actually she doesn’t, Rania doesn’t iron anymore, not since she was twelve and learned how to do it, never having to ever do it again, always having someone in her life to do it for her, and to wash her dishes, to wash her clothes, to replace her bedsheets and clean her toilets, to bring her food in the morning, clearing the table at night. These are the things you offer, the things she needs. What do you want to give her other than a bottomless wallet and designer clothes? A vocation, he thought, that’s what’s most important, that’s probably what matters most! Something he, himself, had yet to enjoy, or to endure, depending on the worker’s hour, completing a survey or something more. There was a woman I knew who looked like her, he thought. She taught body pump lessons at the local gym, and on weekends offered her own strain of Pilates, for a small group of friends. The classes were small, often three or four of her friends enjoying her garden, a small mound of grass built like a hill, rising from the villa bottom. Why does she bring them all together, then, if she leaves them in the end? Isn’t that the point, he wondered, the point of showing this now, that she ends up leaving them when they want her most, when they offer themselves to her and tell her how much it means to them to be in her thoughts, how incurable the disease is that afflicts them, wanting and wanting and wanting more, to the point of her withdrawing, saying she needs space from them, that otherwise, it will hurt, and the only thing in her life she fought arrogantly from experiencing was the sight of a cockroach on the floor, just like everyone else, and on top of that, the fear of being watched by someone else, especially if she were sleeping, which had actually happened to her twice, finding once her brother and another time her uncle sitting by her bedside, when she was nine and then twelve years old, watching her, touching themselves without their noticing, their hands just slowly drifting to the wrist of their pants, slowly and methodically, starting first by just rubbing gently the tip of their emerging cock, emerging for the most part quite quickly. Her uncle spent his life in basketball shorts, it was one of those things people know about others, like the way Tanzim combed his hair when he was young, parting it in the middle.
Mohammed had sent her a message. Not her driver, the other one, the one sitting at his computer all the time, waiting for her to come online, to chat with him, pretending that she was someone else, and him as well, pretending that he was the Tabathic, or the ancient explorer Ross. She’d had that sort of moment, by the way, where she wants to send something romantic to Mohammed, and instead ends up sending it to her driver, who opens the chat, within seconds, the moment it is sent, the two arrows on the screen lighting up, proving himself online and available, proving that he has read the text, proving nothing more. But that perhaps he had waited for her to send it, perhaps he had something for Mahan after all, though it was the writer’s first ever time to think of it, having never before thought inside her mind, from her point of departure, behind a pair of eyes clouded by eyeshadow, mascara and
colored gloss, lining her eyelashes with Arble Rocks, a swell of silver and Latin stains, kind of life chewing gum if it’s turned into a liquid and compressed along with blueberry nuts, the small little cherries of blueberry hearts plugging like gaps the absence of vanilla past, the white of the chewing gum turned liquid. She wasn’t sure whether to reply to him right away or to leave him hanging, spending the time she spent contemplating staring at her phone, at least forty two times a minute looking back at the time, reading the clock in the top right corner, judging in her mind whether it warranted a response, or at least, an opening, having that one time been proven wrong, that you can judge the message by its way of ending, though the frame only showed the last message sent, and not the one or more that could have preceded it, the writer may have wanted to say a little more.
“Why do you wear eye shadow,” Rania asked Mahan, caught staring at her phone.
“I don’t know,” was her response, though she had wanted to say something else, it just didn’t come to mind, realizing after she had spoken, having already lost Rania’s slow, intelligent attention, for better or worse, seeing as how she was otherwise entertained in the question of consuming loss, whether or not to answer him, to write at all, to read it, to respect him, to respect his wishes not to call. She had never met someone online before, so she knew beforehand it would not be serious, but still, she expected at least they meet. Or, if not meet, then at least, they could speak online, but with video, the added benefit of picture and sound relegating her imagination to its purest form, dictating what is from what she had seen, standing there in front of her, calling her out. He had put, in the comments of his profile, that his favorite position to take was that of a napkin, half open, half closed, bending his legs forward, his pole position, his knees riding over his head, offering his anus to the impending crowd. But no, that’s not Mohammed, is it? Or Mustapha or Adnan?
The waiter, Medris, stopped at their table on his way to what I presume is the bar, the classic woodwork the work of oak, the smell of porcelain doused with washing liquid, the container of the sink and the washing cloth, smelling like it had been used since opening without ever being washed. One of their tricks, the Beys, was to ask the bartenders to clean their glasses in a special salt, that could be ordered at any restaurant at a decent price, but could only be used for cleaning if it was fresh, otherwise the salt would parch, sticking to the glass, creating an enormous mess for later, needing to scrub the glasses down, or to serve them in cups of hot tea or coffee, which were often dried by hanging over the other cups, rather than toweled on the go, like ordinary.
“Can I get you ladies something else,” he asked, “Some tea, maybe coffee, limoncello, ord?”
“Bring us some tea. You want with caffeine or without,” Tatiana asked, in the direction of Rania.
“I don’t care, I have both at home, with me it doesn’t matter.”
“Pick, which one?”
“I’ll take either.”
“I don’t care.”
“Please, decide. I don’t like it when people can’t decide for themselves. It really bothers me. It’s like a tick.”
“Mahan, you’re the youngest, you decide.”
“Caffeine, then. Or no actually wait! Wait, no, I don’t know! I can’t decide! Which one do I pick? What color are they? Are they orange? I hate citrusy tea. I’d rather just eat it, you know? Even a fresh lemon, like a whole slice. I used to eat sliced lemons all the time. Why don’t we ever do that? Actually, who was I with? I was with someone, recently, who was asking for lemons, and I told him I was slicing them up and now they’re gone. Who was that?”
“Mahan? Are you here?”
“Sorry, I’m drifting. I don’t care. You pick, you decide. I’m not good at making decisions. It’s gotten me this far. So what’s the situation? I don’t give a shit about the lemons, I mean the tea. Tell me what this is about. My mother says good things about you. You guys are like, friends, or something, although I know my mother, she doesn’t really have friends, like not one. She uses people, it’s her way. It’s really a perfected method, like an art, an artless art, she’s really good at it. So, are you guys friends?”
“Your mother and I?”
“In a way. It’s not up to me to decide, Maho, it’s real life.”
“Who decides, then, if not you? My mother?”
“These things have a way of answering themselves. It’s society, you can’t help it. You try and you try but you find yourself, always, in the end, sticking to the rules. Trust me, you’re young. I’m not saying you’re naïve. You’re obviously very smart. Where did you go to school?”
“I went to Lolan?”
“On River Ridge?”
“My husband was at the lawn party, last year.”
“Were you with him?”
“No, unfortunately not. I don’t travel anymore, not so much.”
“Because of what happened?”
“I’m not scared, it’s just, I have this crippling feeling, it keeps coming back. I’m seeing someone about it. It’s painful, when it comes. It helps to cry, but if I’m alone, I can’t cry. It’s a defense mechanism. When I was young, my parents both worked, and they went out late nights with their friends, just for a nice, fancy dinner, nothing too oppressive. They were good, good parents, really cared a lot. But they went out all the time. I was an only child. Sometimes the neighbor came over, from next door. Sit Shiham. She was older than them. I think she’s still around. This was way back, when, way, way back, way before you were born. I was just a little girl then. I loved Sit Shiham. She used to always tell me to cry. She had these very large breasts, but she was very thin, almost frail, so fragile, so delicate. She never sang or played music or read books. She just sat there, by the window, smoking her cigarettes, watching cars pass by the window below. Sometimes she listened to a choir, from one of the temples. She’d buy their CDs in the autumn, when they came out in the stores. It’s the only thing she ever owned, really, that I ever saw. It’s strange, isn’t it? You go your whole life knowing someone, and then they’re gone.”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know. It was a long time ago, now.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“A long time, dear.”
She looked down at her watch.
“Please,” the waiter said, leaning over here, “Just press this button here and type in your name and the menu will show up.”
“Why is this so complicated?”
“I’m sorry, we’re trying to get it fixed.”
“This is a disaster,” Tatiana said, her eyes open flushed, the sound of her nails scratching against the tablet screen as she tapped the options, the touch screen commands reading too slow, she had been warned already by the waiter to trust the tablet’s judgment, waiting for it to remit her call, rather than pressing wildly incoherent tabs, forcing it to surrender.
“What do you do when it freezes,” she said?
“Nothing, you just wait. I’m terribly sorry,” he said.
Medris was clutching the tablet at his chest. The protective screening was covering the object, plastered against his shirt. He had wrapped his hands around the tablet, three fingers on each side, the thumb holding it on the inside jacket, the pinky languid on the wayside.
“Oh, it’s arrived,” she said!
“Express option,” Tatiana said.
“All that’s lacking is a military escort,” Medris said, smiling at them, bowing.
“You’re too funny,” Rania said to him.
“Oh god it smells like lavender!”
“It does, doesn’t it?”
“These new functions are unbelievable.”
“How can they transport smells?”
“The memory is encoded in the device, formally speaking.”
“It’s becoming smarter than us.”
“Definitely more active.”
“I make sure to bike to work every day,” Medris said.
“You must, having to eat this wonderful food every day.”
“Oh, we have staff lunches, it’s far more basic. It’s better for us that way. I don’t think I can do this creativity for so long.”
“Do you live at home with your family?”
“Yes, for now. Until I get married, of course.”
“And is there a bride?”
“Not yet, Madame, no. If you know somebody,” he joked.
Both their eyes fell on Mahan, naturally, being the youngest of the group.
“Sergio loves lavender, doesn’t he,” Tatiana said.
“Does he give you guys a hard time?”
“No, not at all. He’s very kind. Very passionate, of course, so sometimes it can be a little rough, if you don’t know his way, but no, he’s totally fine, not so aggressive at all.”
“It’s getting late. I don’t want to keep you for long. Your mother told me you have a dinner to go to, so let me just run the idea by you. Basically, as you know, I was an actress. A very successful one. It’s been some time, I haven’t got back in the mix. My image is very important to me, it’s one of my most precious accomplishments, is establishing myself respectably among my group of colleagues and friends. Former colleagues, I should say. So, when I take a risk, it has to be smart. I want to do something different this year. Every year, we spend so much of our time, and effort, and resources, on delivering invitations by hand. I have a courier service I use.”
“Yes. They’re great. They’re faster than Delivery Express.”
“They really are.”
“But I’m getting tired of seeing all this waste. I want to do something different. I want to do something for the environment. Not just something, for me. I want to do something together, all of us, for each other, for the planet. The planet is in danger, can’t you tell? I mean, not because it’s super hot outside, and it’s not supposed to be. People think it’s only about weather. It’s not. It’s about toads going extinct, there aren’t enough trees being planted. It’s not science, it’s a fact.”
“So what do you feel like doing?”
“Nothing too severe. I was thinking of delivering the invitations online, so I need your help. That way, you can design them with me. I have an idea already. I don’t like spending time in front of a computer. It hurts my eyes. And I’m sure it’s bad for the skin, they’re just not saying it. Can you tell what I want by looking at these invitations? Please, be honest. Your eyes are really red by the way. Are you sick? Are you allergic? Did we order tea?”
“No, the waiter’s gone.”
“He just left, how different.”
“Sometimes they act weird. I think when they know they’re being ignored, it almost, like, gives them a green light to fuck off.”
“Are you sick,” Rania asked her?
“I’m just a little high.”
“Yes, sorry. Don’t worry, my mother knows.”
“And that makes it alright?”
“I’m not embarrassed.”
“So, are you like, drunk?”
“Come on, you’ve smoked a joint before.”
“Please, oh my god. That’s impossible.”
“I’m afraid of it. Aren’t you?”
“I was as well. You get over it, once you smoke enough.”
“Actually, do you mind if I step outside and take a few puffs. I have a joint already rolled. I hit some in the car with Clyde.”
“He’s a singer, I’m seeing.”
“Is he outside right now?”
“No, he’s gone.”
“When will he be back?”
“I’m not sure. He’s in hiding. Something serious.”
“Are you a criminal, by any chance?”
“I mean, buying drugs is illegal, I buy a shit load of drugs, but I’m not a criminal. I work hard. I don’t think I’ll go to jail in this country. The system is pretty much set up so that I never have to, unless I work really hard, like if I kill someone, but I don’t plan on doing that. I don’t know what it would be like to kill someone. I’m sure it sucks, after a while, when you think about it, later. Is there anyone you feel like killing?”
“No, not really.”
“So, I’m outside for a second.”
“Okay, habibti,” came the frown from her aunt. “I don’t know what to do with her. My sister is getting on my nerves. She’s too understanding, don’t you think?”
“Sara7a, she’s lucky. How can she compete with other girls if she’s not smart? She has to know what people are doing, how they live. When I was young, it was different.”
“I was there, habibti.”
“Ma I know, I know. That’s what I’m saying. For me, I had a role. If I chose to break from it, I knew what the consequences would be. Unless I had something going for me, but I did not. Anyway who does, except if you’re an artist or a singer or something. In the end, you know. I married the idiot.”
“I married too.”
“You have beautiful children.”
“So do you, hayete.”
“No, my children are becoming old and I’m seeing that I don’t like them. Maybe it’s normal, it’s alright. Children in the west are never liked, it’s what their parents like most about them. For us, it is different. For example, when Tanzim told you he was coming late for dinner, the other night, did you get mad? No, because you knew what he was doing. He was at work, or even if he was playing, he was being productive. Haram, he works hard.”
“Not always. You remember how he was, how he was with Ramiz, with Layal.”
“I’m talking about now. What is Ramiz doing? He’ sitting on his ass with his friends, having fun. Every day is supposed to be fun, in his opinion. La2, I don’t accept. How can it be fun if you have to sacrifice every day that comes with it? The rest of his life, he wants to live like this? Mosta7il.”
“What will you do?”
“Nothing, nothing, anymore. I’m getting married. Fuck it.”
“Uff, you are?”
“Come on Tatiana, you know.”
“How do I know?”
“You know, I was listening, when you told Mahan before I came. I walked past the table. I was going to say hi but then I heard and I went to the bathroom instead. I walked behind you, behind the flowers.”
“That’s impossible, I don’t know. Who told me?”
“Why do you trust him?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“He’s weird. Can’t you tell? Can’t you see what he is after?”
“Hayete, I haven’t slept with my husband in nine years. If Hakim has something he wants to do, let him do it. Maybe it will be fun.”
“Wallah, you’ve changed.”
“I change a lot. I don’t like sticking to my character. Aslan when I was chosen for this role, I was told to go nuts, I was told to be the most fantastic woman, but then I realized the writer has no idea how to portray my character, and in the end, he has no idea how to portray yours. He thinks the inevitable end of every thought or conversation for a woman revolves around cock or buying clothes.”
“It doesn’t, though. That’s his sport, and he’s sucking.”
“To be honest, I wouldn’t mind.”
“If we were younger, who knows.”
It hadn’t occurred to her then, saying it, that she had already said it twice, once at the beginning of the scene, though consisting somewhat outside of the pages, and once, she had said it inside her heart, and to say it a third time was something else entirely, it was really to say it again, and again, and to admit, once and for all, beyond all reasonable doubt, no more need for researching signs in the solitude of night, doubting them in the morning, the truth was out, Tatiana was finally becoming old. She had fought the wrinkles and the extended baths, the harsher back pain and menopausal warnings most of her adult life, hoping to evade the nest entirely, though not to have somehow died, but to have lived in some other way, where beauty did not define her sense of worthiness, her want for being alive. But it did, that was as factual as saying her name had been decided by the writer one surprisingly sunny afternoon in Berlin, sitting on the small balcony he had attended, his own, two bronze columns in burgundy stone closing the windows on top of him, smoking a joint, staring out onto what would one day become Highway 4, the longest highway in his novel’s history, trying to make the point that stories are often better told when the characters move, to and fro, moving like cancer in a smoking warning, visible and yet not at all. Why had he chosen Berlin, nobody knows. He knew, but he was keeping it from them, though he had admitted it was for love, that much was true, why stay, if the love had already resolved itself and the feeling of being lost no longer on him?
“How was the food,” she reluctantly asked, hoping to evade her thoughts.
“Same, it was okay. You? How was it?”
She shrugged her shoulders, something the writer had decided she could only do once, that no other character had for shrugging afforded, but Tatiana had it in her arsenal of moves, to shrug, just once, when it was most expected, like when sisters fight over a brush, or brothers come home late in the morning.
“Should we get the bill?”
“Maybe she left.”
“I don’t know, hayete. Do whatever feels right.”
“Someone nice will find her.”
“I hope so.”
“Don’t worry, she’s probably sitting outside, smoking cigarettes and laughing. What else did we do when we were young?”
“We did a lot of sitting.”
“Do you remember the spot?”
“Remember? I drive by sometimes, when I drive by the water, whenever I drive. I always drive by, give greetings.”
“Are the soldiers still there?”
“And the boys?”
The waiter Medris came quick when called, hoping to close the table for the afternoon, the last table on his list that had arrived to find him welcoming.
“The bill, please.”
“Let me get this,” Rania said.
“Not at all,” Tatiana said, waving her hand away as she offered to grab the bill, taking it from her. Tatiana had already decided to invite her, as she had invited her the last two times, wanting to even the score from the last year, when Rania managed four more invitations than she did, though they were mainly gatherings, still, she managed four and that was embarrassing, for someone of Tatiana’s worth, she should be gathering her pawns, not accepting their gifts, accepting their wants for her loving. Arriving home, she was surprised to find the servants by the gate, standing around, distressed, in conversation with Saleh. They looked as though they were gravely concerned, and the look in their eyes frightened her, always one to jump at the first set of odds that something was not right. It wasn’t the first time that a cockroach had passed into her sight. It wasn’t the first time that a cockroach had passed into her sight, of course, living where they live, where we live, being of the times. The situation is precarious. Leave a window open, the cockroach enters the house, voila. Leave some food on the counter, or a plug open in the bathroom, the cockroach finds her way into the house, scrumming around for food, indiscriminately building a nest here and there, all in all, cohabitating. Cockroaches are not a thing of the past. I remember, of course, the colours of the room, a vague brownish hue colouring the overcast halls, doused in fluorescent light, of our classrooms, before the war, when the new year came around, children returning for school, and the smell of Pieter of dung was full in the air, where we played football after school, those from the Yacoub and those from the Pillars, and those from the Seven Wombs. They arranged themselves in groups of seven and four, to denominate based on faith, those similar comprising a majority of the whole, and the remaining four a certain silent minority of the other side, keeping things equal, and calm, rearranging, I guess, the extent of the storm. A cockroach would pull out from the shelf, and all of a sudden, we’d run through the halls, pupils on the riot mad, some for the sake of musing, pursuing the slight of fear for amusement, though I don’t fear what happens to most, the sight of one of those, at that time, was serious. My mother came to school, once or twice, to warn me of an infestation, on our particular street, oftentimes from the manholes being opened, for the sake of their pursuing the extermination of the insect whole, but to cover a nest in steam is to admit your gaps openly, and so they did, run amuck on the streets like so. There was that time I brought one home from school, from choir class, to be exact, or so my mother suggested at the time, having, according to her, left the black Calsport bag open just, the disgusting creature crawling into the bag, my not having noticed it, oh, and the thought, of having carried it all the way home. How disgusting, how awful, to this day, the very thought brings total shivers to my little swine. I ran all the way up to my room, having just eaten dinner, my father standing by the doorway of the kitchen, the balcony outside, filling up his pipe, and started smoking it, enjoying what was left of our time. The thought of growing old had not yet crossed me more than once, the fear of becoming old something I had by then forgotten. I ran up the stairs, three lengths in all, taking each two footed steps at a time. By the time I opened the door fully, mostly by force, pulling the retrieving handle slowly, I adjusted myself fast enough to turn on the light, having felt, long ago, a fear of unrequited time, noticing the cockroach flattered on the wall before me, a little to the side, her sizeable whiskers stroking like tusks the plain vanilla canvas of the wall, an image forever sutured in my mind. In Mahner’s study of localized nests. This would have all posed a problem, had it been sufficient for them to survive on account of the flood, what they came to call the event, after such short notice, attributing the entire effect as an effect on their lives, a plague of sorts, a sort of cowardice. What plagued Mother Jamila at the park of fawns, when it happened to land on her biscuit, falling from a tree like a certain grace they were for the most of their lives deprived, the sense of something somehow lurking, choosing when it bite. The hour is dark, and the remaining friends hurl up in their tents, parading for the prize. But it was the first time in years, and it would pose a problem. In the past, when she had first started working for Tatiana, the sighting of a cockroach in or around the house caused an enormous stir, disrupting Tatiana’s life for weeks on end. Tatiana was out for lunch, up in the mountains at Zipra, where she often spent two weeks over the winter holidays skiing in the morning and meeting friends for warm, candlelight dinners by the fireplace, overlooking the deep gorge on the Westside of Mount Taimur. For Tatiana, a cockroach was the sign of filth, of poverty, and it had no place in her home. She had to call for help, to ask what she should do. I have to call Mohammed, she thought. She prefers hearing bad news from him. He is her eyes and ears, she thought. She feels like a mother to him, she thought, she has never felt that way to you. Maybe the best thing to do is run, like Haruna. She knows that what she is doing is best. Her first choice was to alert Mohammed, Tatiana’s trusted driver, who she knew Tatiana preferred to her. He was like her eyes and ears. She felt like a mother figure to him, even though they were almost the same age. She looked after him. She trusted his opinion, Bernadette thought. She was always inviting him inside the house, to have tea at the kitchen table, to eat from whatever had been cooked for lunch, either by Antioch, the kitchen cook, or Sabrina, his wife. She never joined him at the table, of course, but the invitation meant the world to Mohammed. He revelled in the attention, working twice as hard. She called him by phone. The phone rang four times before he answered. As it was ringing, she realized the risk she was taking. What if Tatiana were with him in the car? If Mohammed were smart enough, he would not arouse suspicion on her part, either ignoring the call entirely, or answering and playing it cool. He would pretend that he was busy and would promise to call later, pretending it were a friend, or even his wife. But Tatiana had eagle eyes. She would probably sense the change in posture, a few drops of sweat percolating at the back of his neck, watching him from behind the passenger’s side. If he made the mistake to look in the rearview mirror, catching her eyes, he would alert her, and then it was only a matter of time before he blurted it out, that Bernadette was calling from the house. She hung up the phone just as he was answering. She hadn’t thought it through. It was too impulsive. She still had time to come up with a response, if Tatiana were informed. She could say it was by mistake that she called. But then who would she be calling? Tatiana was well aware that Bernadette had friends, but how many of them would be expecting calls, at that hour in the morning, during the week? Her having called, even by mistake, was suspect. But now she had called and hung up. She had raised even Mohammed’s suspicion, without giving him the chance to protect her. He wouldn’t do so out of a likeness for her, or even respect. She was pretty sure he didn’t like her. But he would recognize that an unhappy Tatiana, Tatiana displeased with the work of one of her staff, would mean greater provisions on all of them. It would mean she would take an even greater vested interest in their lives, in how they applied themselves to their jobs, in how they performed. If they thought she was overbearing, up until that point, it would only become worse. She decided to call again. This time, she would make it obvious, from the start, that everything was alright. She would have to have an alibi for why she had hung up, since calling twice meant she had meant, originally to call. She could explain that it was a mistake, and if Tatiana were present, which she would gage somehow, she would explain that she was calling back to say everything was alright, which they might appreciate, that she had taken the time to think of them, knowing they would be worried, concerned something bad had happened at home, such as a burst pipe, or a collector coming for some debt, though there was always money in one of the kitchen drawers, which she used to pay different collectors, like the water delivery boys, the electricity, the two that came from the internet providers, the two that came by for cable and digital television subscriptions, the one of them much cheaper than the other because it was stolen, and which she could watch herself in her room. If Mohammed answered, and Tatiana were not there, or even if she were and Bernadette could not read whether or not she was present, having to make a decision on the go, taking all of it for granted, she would have to come clean as to what happened. She would ask Mohammed what would have to be done. Tatiana was having guests just that evening. Would they have to spray the house? She hung up the phone. She knew the number of the pest control by heart. Why didn’t she just call them, she thought to herself, I can call them now. If they come they can come quickly. I can ask Saleh, she thought, knowing he was keen to help, always having an eye on her, wanting to help out, trying, for whatever reason, to get himself indoors, to stand beside her, to look at her. She didn’t blame him, judging by his wife. They gave him a bad rep for leaving her with his family, but she understood. Her father was the same, so was her elder brother. The youngest brother was gay, he didn’t count. She liked him the most, he was the nicest. He would never put a woman through that, he was took kind, to leave her stranded somewhere in the mountains, with a family to look after, a family and their guests, all the housework and the social chores. She looked up Saleh’s number on her phone. She would call him, and have him call the exterminator. He knew him well, sometimes they drank tea together. Once, she had invited the exterminator into the house, and Saleh had joined him, and so the two sat together drinking tea while she figured out how to explain the situation to Madame, had she sauntered in at that moment, which, being as it was her real life, her life with Tatiana, she managed to walk in at exactly the wrong time, when the exterminator, whose name she had forgotten, had, for the first time since his arrival, risen from his seat and stepped up to the kitchen counter, looking through each box, feeling comfortable in his surroundings, looking at the festival cookies, still in starch, waiting to be made, the fresh nuts that came from the organic gardens in Dar al Shaab, that Tatiana bought herself at the market downtown every Saturday morning and sometimes Sunday still, if something she had wanted had already sold out. The phone rang twice before he answered. As he spoke, she had gotten up from her chair, standing at the kitchen counter, counting cloves, drying lettuce, making use of her hands as she spoke, having a lot to get through that afternoon, before the party started.
“A7lan, Bernitta,” he said, having never really discovered how to pronounce her name.
“Saleh, can you come upstairs please?”
“Of course. Everything alright?”
“Yes, just come.”
“Okay, sitna, your want is my destiny.”
She hung up. She spun the remaining salads in the spinning bowl, the spiraling sound of sloshing leaves had her focus when the doorbell rang. Answering the door, she noted that Saleh had not been wearing his usual morning robe, though it was still afternoon. He had changed, already, into his evening gown, at one thirty in the afternoon. He tried catching a glance at her outfit, noticing that she was wearing a pair of blue jeans he liked on her, the way it cupped her ass, just nice, that it was tight at the ankles and he liked that as well, and he was happy to see that she was barefoot, and had painted her toes in brown.
“Saleh, can you call hayda the exterminator, tell him to come, please, don’t tell Madame? How you do it, the company pays or us?”
“He comes twice a year by the company,” Saleh said, happy to be of service, “but you want him always more so I think Madame pays him a little for himself. He comes without his company knowing, maybe, I don’t know. Give him anything, he doesn’t care. From you, what is something? What should I say?”
“Tell him to come now, now, and to say nothing.”
“You found something?”
“In the bedroom.”
“Madame doesn’t know?”
“She will be so upset, Saleh.”
“You have his number?”
“Who do we call?”
“Amjad, the destroyer.”
“He’s okay but I know him. If you want, I can call the company officially, but maybe they send someone else, I don’t know. Amjad is quiet, he wont say anything. Where did you find it, what did you tell me? How big was it? Was it black or brown? Was it alive?”
“It was alive. It was very black, very big.”
“Okay. It’s the first time?”
“It’s been a long time.”
“Okay, I should call him. Khalas I’ll call him,” he said, taking some steps back, knowing when to call the conversation off, knowing how not to disturb his accomplice, how best to accommodate her wants. She looked so pretty to him, as she did most often. On the weekend, when she went out, dressing up in her most abrasive gowns. It was a surprise to him Tatiana allowed it. A show of her politics. He found Bernadette so tender, so soft, and yet, so manly. Wide shoulders, iron cuffs. He’d once seen her carry two gallons of water up the stairs, when the electricity had been cut for two days. So strong, sometimes he laughed to himself, not wanting to publically express his amusement, watching her walk down the street, six or seven grocery bags dangling from her palms. She was so smart, so pretty. And yet, so strong. That was a while back, though, he had to be honest. She had gotten used to things, how gotten better at delegating, returning from grocery trips with a child helper bearing arms, carrying most of the heavy lifting, six or seven bags under his arms. Amjad works at Saba7o Pest Control. He drives a large pink van, with the recognizable logo of a cute little rat being fed poison through a block of cheese. Beside the little rat are two tiny cockroaches, cute little drawings that show them in red, with long faded antennas that swerve around the canvas of the car. He shares his shifts with Safid, who is younger, taller, skinnier, walking with a limp, a gimp in his right leg. Amjad is tall, with a very round face, light stubble that never grows out more than that, though it looks like he has done it on purpose. He’s a little on the chubbier side, with a large belly that swims from his chest, forcing his overalls to form a little hump. For that reason, to see his cock, he has to lie in a very specific position, hanging his stomach to the side, letting it drift off of the couch. He has short, crop hair, that would grow into a huge head of hair, like a sheep, if he didn’t shave it twice a month. His fingers are large, round, fat, stubby, small. He wears the beige overalls with the logo on the chest, working six days a week, ten to twelve hours a day, sometimes doing freelance calls if the work requires. He only checks in at the office once in the morning and once at night. During his off time, when he has no house calls to make, he visits his brother Muhsin at his sandwich store, Muhsin Snack, on Rue de la Koshar. They both live with their mother, Samia, and their father, Khattaf, on the small embankment corridor of Cabinne, where the homes lie atop one another like giant intestinal tombs, the balconies drenched with drying clothes, colored patterned curtains draping from the terraces like huge leaflet vines, shielding the inside living rooms from harsh sun light, and a smog of dust that comes two to three times a year. They live on the fourth floor of the building, where they have lived all of their lives, Khattaf inheriting the apartment from his parents after they had died. The boys shared a room for some time, but having given up a servant, they’ve managed to bring down one of the walls, creating two small alcoves where the servant’s room did once reside, for each of them to sit tight. Khattaf isn’t so well, rarely leaving the house, except on walks to the nearby salon, where he watches old friends compete at cards.
On the day of this story, Amjad has six house calls to make. He is woken up at five forty five by his alarm, to make it to the office by seven. At seven, he sits outside the office, sandwiched between the large shopping mall and Cafe Sabhan, where he often eats his favored shawarma lunch, or a minced meat lasagna, a neighborhood classic. He doesn’t drink alcohol, but he smokes a lot of cigarettes, almost two and a half packs a day, driving in his truck. He snacks a lot.
He walks into the office building, crossing through the tiled hallway floor, towards the nest of stairs, the elevator with the red crescent door, barely operational, if ever at all. The caretaker of the building, Um Misbah, also known as Sit Nohad, stepped out from behind the aged white doors to her apartment, doubling as an office. The room to her apartment is small, a thin white pasty corridor. A bucket of water with a mop sits at the door, and a few pairs of old and worn out shoes resting beside it. There’s the smell of cleaning detergent, and the smell of halls.
“Saba7o sit Nohad.”
“Saba70 Amjad. What terrible news this morning, eh?”
“You’ve yet to hear?”
“I haven’t heard!”
“I saw Khashan this morning, he was very upset. They’re saying there’s a new type of cockroach in town. Is it true? Or you really haven’t heard.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised! The way people live in their homes, but no, I haven’t heard. In any case, you are like someone who gets sick in a hospital. You have nothing to worry about. We have all the goods!”
“I’m aware of that! It’s my daughter I worry about. She’s so afraid of them. I always give her the news, whenever I hear it. What do you think? Should I say something?”
“Why raise the alarm! It’s too early to tell, I´m sure. Is the elevator working?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said, stepping back into her cove.
He walked the four flights of stairs, stepping into the office. The secretary, Kholood, was sitting at her desk, stacks and stacks of files surrounding. She wore a floral patterned veil, and a sharp necktie made of Albany rose. The stench of her perfume was startling, even to Amjad, noting it right away, even though he had lost most of his senses, working with the exterminating oils for so long.
“They’re waiting for you in the meeting room,” she said, bringing his attention the small glass door just beside.
“Oh, that bad, huh?”
“Could be worse, but people are complaining. It seems there was a leak somewhere in the sewage, the situation is out of control.”
“Alright,” he said, filling a cup of water from the paper stack, stepping into the conference hall.
The conference room was small, with four white plastic chairs and a foldable wooden table they had stolen from a junkyard down the street. It was Khashan’s dream to lecture from a white board, or even chalk, but all he could manage was to glue pieces of paper onto the wall, hence the incredible mosaic of torn out papers with the glue on the corner doggy ear still on. It had become too expensive to spend their papers on such madness, so he had begun using newspapers, hanging them up with glue instead, and gluing the white papers onto the newspapers themselves, tearing out little notes, so as not to use the entire page for something that required much less, and to be able to use more for something requiring a little more.
Amjad sat next to his partner, Safid, and the other two on call that morning, Abdo and Naseeb. Their boss, Khashan, was standing in front of them, wearing, as always, a short sleeve dress shirt, two buttons open at the collar, a fake gold necklace dangling underneath, a gift he acquired from his parents upon graduating from school, some twenty five odd years before. He was a short, stubby sort of man, with a belly just like everyone else, wide fat arms and breasts pointing his nipples from his chest. His forearms gave off the impression he played drums, but he was just that sort of man. Hairy, out of shape, mildly reserved, missing four of his teeth, and a few others stained entirely black. He had a tuft of hair either side of his eyes, the remaining of his features bald. Big, bushy eyebrows, and thin, snakelike eyes, giving him a sort of commonly wry smile.
“Well, I m sure you’ve all heard. Sit Nohad cant keep a thing to herself. She caught every one of you, I’m sure, asking about the news.”
“What is all this, sir? What’s there to know?
“There’s an epidemic, and its surging, fast. People don’t know it yet. Soon they will find out. They’re going to discover a lot more than they’re commonly used. God bless them, though, they have endured a lot. Its been a difficult year, so far, for everyone. I’m surprised we’ve managed to make it this far! I don’t know how else to put it, we’re in trouble, certainly, yes. At the most we have to keep doing our job, though I’m not sure if that’s enough. There are, as always, certain complications, making this sort of thing impossible to contain.”
“Well, we all knew this was going to happen,” Safid said, always the instigator, a hater of democratic norms. “The moment that piece of shit was elected into the municipality, wanting to detoxify all of our goods. How are we supposed to do our job? How can we possibly be effective, if this is how it always goes? Ten years ago, we used Petro 9, killing hundreds of millions of cockroaches in one night. Five years ago, they changed our supply, and we started using Petro 4, lower grade, not as good. It wasn’t bad, we managed to kill a few million in our first major surge, but really, how much better could we do? And now, what, they want us to start using Petro 1, or something? Like in Samaran, or Metropol? They live with them in their homes. The insects become smarter. They learn how to escape from the poison, and their nests rapidly grow.”
“We have to work with what we are given,” Khashan said. “What do you want me to do? Fight our way out of employment? They have all the control. The ministry has an idea. They want to take back control.”
“They want everything in their hands.”
“What are we supposed to do boss? When I spray Petro 4, I see with my own eyes, I kill three out of every five. If I spray Petro 1, I’m going to leave a lot of them alive. People will stop calling us for help. I’m sure our competitors are finding a way to navigate around this. Do you really believe Younis Control, or Cleaner Control, are going to listen to this sort of rule? Of course not. Why do we always play by the rules?”
“We cater to important houses, Safid. Why do you always have to complain, huh? Do you deal with the people I have to deal with? You go to homes, you spray a little bit in the kitchens, the bathrooms, you find one or two, you don’t tell them too much about it, then you go. I have to listen to them constantly. No matter what. Even if they are happy, they call. Even if they see nothing, just in case. How many cars do we have? We are always on the road. You worry about the leg work. I take care of the rest.”
He stapled two pictures onto a piece of paper, gluing the single piece of paper to the newspaper board.
“Now, here’s what we’re dealing with so far. Normally, we are called in for three types of cockroaches, which you know very well. There are the two most common ones, and the third, which is very rare. They nest very well, etc. I don’t need to tell you everything you already know. But look here,” he said, pointing to the second image. “Now, it will be difficult to recognize the insect when you see it, to differentiate it from its cousin, but this is the situation we are in right now. You see, over here,” he said, pointing to the black and white print out, printed in low quality, with fibers showing printing lines, like the grid marks on a map, running across the image, “the new specimen we are dealing with is exactly two centimeters longer, and one centimeter wider on either side. Her back is slightly hunched, so she is even more hunched than the normal cockroaches we know. The hunch begins just above the neck, so the head kind of curls, more like the head of an ant. Its difficult to notice at first, especially if it is alive, but supposedly, I haven’t seen one myself, Samah from the bakery brought me one last night, to see, but it was dead, but supposedly, the cockroach runs in a different way, more like an alligator or something, or like a lizard, it has this very reptile form, running with its legs from side to side, unlike the common way they run, which we all know, and which most of us, though having grown accustomed, more than anything despise. Now, there have been reports of some of these insects carrying a bite, and when they bite, they leave a little mark, that bruises and after a while becomes somewhat like a gelatin form, which we are not sure but we imagine may be related to their nesting, but as most of us have taken the vaccine, its probably nothing to worry about at all. Their antennas are just as long. Mother nymphs are the ones who fly. They nest in the hundreds, and within two weeks there can be fifty thousand in one place. They were first discovered by some researchers, you know how they are. They like to go into places without mops, without sprays, without even the adequate clothes. I think that’s how they discovered the bites! I’m sure. Anyways, this is what we know. Today, you do your normal rounds. The call list is on the door. As always, Kholood will give you updates while you sit around town wasting time. When you hear of a dispatch, go to it straight away. Alright, now go,” he said, sitting down with an elegant sigh. “Amjad,” he continued, “stay behind.”
The others stepped out of the meeting room. Amjad, standing alone in his beige overalls, stood beside his boss, the suddenly exhausted Khashan.
“What’s this I hear about you frightening the Halabis last night?”
“Sir, I found two cockroaches in one room, I felt I had to tell them.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, my son, you are not in the business of honesty, you are in the business of protection. You see two cockroaches, were they dead or alive?”
“They were alive.”
“Great. And, do they leave their windows open?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Why not? But you know that if the windows are open, it is most likely a cockroach will come inside. Now, from the two, were any of them female?”
“I don’t think so. They looked like males. There wasn’t any sort of belly in the carcass.”
“And why did you have to tell them? How many times do I say, if you find them dead, don’t say anything, if you find them alive, kill them, and if you have to tell them, because they are just standing nearby, tell them they were killed by the medicine, it worked! Do you know what will happen if people believe the medicine doesn’t work? Especially now, with the changes they are introducing, pretending it will make their children more safe. What would you prefer? A cough, fifty five years down the line, or a cockroach nesting in your room, sleeping on your shoulders, sharing with you your footsteps, your food, sleeping in your slippers, crawling all over your hand, your leg. So, did you kill them at least, before showing them?”
“I didn’t have the chance. They came into the room. You know how they are. The servants watch everything. She was standing behind me, watching my every move.”
“What room were you in?”
“In the salon.”
“How did it happen?”
“Like I was saying, I was moving something, a small couch. I moved the right side with my leg. The moment it moved, two cockroaches ran out from underneath. I had no choice. I stepped on one of them, with my boots. Don’t worry, now they are clean.”
“Habibi, ya 3omri, how could you step on one right in front of the maid? What is this? Who do you think you are? Why do you carry around a four ton bottle of spray? To spray it like perfume, when you go on a date? Habibi, think next time, use your mind. Nobody in this country wants to find a cockroach in their home, but everyone, no matter what, is living with them. What is our job? We are no longer exterminating them, we know that now. We have to contain the situation, as the situation grows. Until at least we have someone else in line, leading the political charge. I, myself, I want to vote, but you know, it is not time. For now, we must sit and wait. In the meantime, when you go into someone’s home, and you find one, two, three hundred cockroaches alive, you spray the hell out of them like its 1945. Do you understand? I want you to carpet bomb those bastards, these sons of the seven sins and tribe of the lord of death. What did you do with the other one?”
“I tried to step on it as well, but it managed to get away.”
“Oh my lord. They must have been so desperate, were they not?”
“They were. I left the old lady sitting inside, weeping in her arms.”
“I cant believe it, Amjad. I really cant. I send you to the Halabis, just once, and this is how you repay me? What if the other one is still running around?”
“Don’t worry, I sprayed half the house before I left! If she is there, she is dead by now.
“Next time you find two cockroaches, I don’t give a shit, dead or alive, you pick them up with your hands and put them in your pocket, you understand?”
“But sir, what if I am sitting and discussing the receipt, and it crawls out of my pocket? What then?”
“Kill the motherfucker first! Smash it with your hands! What kind of a retard are you? Are you dumb or something? Have you lost your mind? What sort of horrible image is this, ya Amjad. Coming from you, I’m worried, concerned. What the fuck do you think, people are going to hire our company again to take care of their homes if our men have cockroaches running around on their clothes? What the fuck are you thinking Amjad? What sort of terrible situation is this, coming from you? I’m a little depressed.”
“I’m sorry,” Amjad finally said, “I wasn’t thinking. Next time, I will stomp it with my fist, and put it in my boots, right under my toes.”
“Oh, whatever. Just go,” he said, resigned their last line. “Go back on the road.”
“What are you telling me, that there are cockroaches in this house, habibi, is that really what you’re saying?”
“I don’t know how else to say it, Madame. I’m sorry to be the one telling you this terrible news.”
“Where did you find them? How many? And where are they coming from?”
“There were very many, in the attic and some on the floor, in the terrace, in the children’s living room, beside the pool. Please, forgive me for telling you this. But your house has a problem. Normally, we find two types of cockroaches in the house. The American, which we call Robos, and the German, which we call the Dutch. The Dutch is very small but it can fly. It is dangerous because it has a lot of eggs, and a mother can give birth several hundred times. They live mostly in the dark, in attics, in wet woods, they can also brave the cold, so they live inside the air conditioner, inside the sink, inside the water pipes, where it is hot, but really they like the sun, so they come outside, in spring, in summer, we see them a lot outdoors, but we don’t see them so much. They are just baby insects when compared.”
“Compared to what?”
“To their brothers, the American. This is the most difficult of all. They are very large, Madame, these ones are huge. Even for me, and I see them all the time, even for me, every day, to start my day seeing them, even for me it is difficult, and remember, I deal with all kinds of insects, I deal with rats. Last week, I dealt with two tarantulas! I had to grab them by my hand, because we don’t have the quality stuff to kill them anymore. Anyway, it’s not worth it. The Ministry of Health has alrady said so. They do not come in bunches, so there is no need to spray for them. But really, when you see a rat infestation, then you know, everybody will take the disease over letting them live nearby! But anyways, last week, yes, I dealt with two snakes as well. One in the kitchen, and one inside the cage of a cat. I don’t know how it got in there. I threw the cage away, but we had to put a firecracker inside first, and we taped it all around. The cage was closed, luckily for us, otherwise the snake would have attacked. It could have come outside from the bars, but we taped from the other side. It never reached our hand. Though it would have needed to be very fast, and every smooth, and snakes, you get used to them, you realize, when they attack, they don’t hit their target, not all the time, they hit something close to it, like somebody who plays, you know, this game inside the bars where people throw little sticks and it makes small holes, my children have a fake one at the house, they play it all the time, but actually, it just sticks to the board, no matter what, because it is fake, it’s just some rubber, some glue material, I don’t know. Anyways, I had to let the snakes go, one by one. I burned the other, in his cage. We let the children watch the cage burn. They were watching the fire. It was nice. One of them felt debris on his head, but he was only lying, begging for our attention. Sometimes, I like going into people’s homes for this reason, meeting their families, become, almost like a confidante, like a friend, especially to children. They love seeing insects being caught, they love to see them suffer. You always know the odd one out, either he’s going to be a criminal, or a faggot, he’s the one who likes the insects, he wants to help, wants to share his home, even if they are infesting!”
“Do you spray your home, Semih?”
“Of course I do, Madame. I spray my home twice a week. What the hell? Of course I do. What kind of question is that? Have you ever seen a cockroach give birth, Madame? Have you seen what hell they provoke? I once cLeaned out a flat, it had two hundred thousand cockroaches inside it, at Least. It was two floors. It had been cLeared during the war, used as some sort of bunker. It wasn’t underground, but beside it was a huge, very huge water tower, that was being used, during the war, to store bodies. Do you remember? It was a terrible time.”
“On the corner of Ras Shahid.”
“Right on the corner, before the turn that brings you to the statue. It is a theater now, for some foreigners, some fo their friends. They are always doing things at night. Sometimes I see them. They have big white screens and they sit and they watch. It isn’t very interesting. I know some people are uncomfortable, having them there. What do they do it for? Nobody needs them. I asked Abu Ali, the man responsible for the grocery downstairs, his brother is Abu Karim, the concierge next door. I ask him, why did they choose here of all places? He says there is a plan in the works, by some foreign forces. They are trying to seed them out. They want to uproot everybody. I said, then you know what, I will never Leave my home. Let them try to uproot me! I will stay where I deserve! Every day, I come home, I remove all my clothes, I put them in the washing, and I throw my pants in the sink with some Bettol, something very, very toxic, and I add this chemical, it’s called Rimol, it comes in plastic packages, it’s very bad for the skin, I put it in the sink. My wife asked me once, do you need to put it in the sink where I clean the dishes? I said, what do you want, you want me to put it on the sheets where you sleep? She was not convinced. Sometimes I wash it myself, in the shower. I shower my body in cold, cold water, first, to clean the skin, then I use alcohol, and I rub it all over my body, to make sure I am clean, again, then I use soap and extremely hot water, until it burns and my skin turns red, then I wash it away with cold. That is how I shower, every day. But then again, my job is filthy. It is really one of the worst! I step into the sewers, sometimes, for two, three hours. The only life I see is a cockroach, or a rat, or sometimes, a gigantic fish, it comes out of nowhere. What is my plan? I kill it. I kill everything that comes in my way, with my sprayer. We have a joke, we say, an exterminator went to the office, to buy himself a gun. It doesn’t make sense, if you don’t know what it is like. I feel invincible, sometimes. It is like a chemical weapon.”
“Tell me where you found them Semih. I’m getting very uncomfortable. And what is the situation now, what is going on?”
“There is an infestation in your attic, Madame. There are hundreds of them. Like I said, the American, it is the worst. It has, what we call, a double neck. When you snap the head, another one grows. And the wings, they are able to shed once every day, so sometimes, the medicine only latches to the wings, and not to the skin or the head, or the feet, which are the most precious, so then it gives them back the odds, of living again, of surviving the medicine. It is terrible, you know, when that happens, because you think you have won, then suddenly there are more than before. This always happens with them, with the new weapons we have. We are not allowed to spray what they call carpet spraying, we have to spray in specific places, like potholes, manholes, vines. So on the street, they are allowed to come to life, to breed as much as they want. It is something for them, really, that we are in the situation we are in now.”
“Oh my god.”
“I am sorry to depress you. But I have to tell you. I was introducing the cockroaches that we normally find. In your case, Madame, we found both of them, but we also found a third one, you can call it like the new age cockroach. It is the most frightening of them all. It can sing, and it can dance. It has a very strong hissing sound, that we are not accustomed to here, in this part of the world. Whereas the others lay fifty to sixty eggs at a time, this one lays five hundred. It is accustomed to living in the wild. Because you have a garden, it is permitted to grow. There are maybe ten thousand of them right now, and more are coming. I don’t know what to say. It’s terrible, so terrible, in fact, I am terrified myself, by the whole situation. But we must stay calm. Even if they are everywhere, they are only bugs, at the end of the day, and they have no alternative but to produce. It is our job to view them through another lens. Somewhat like a science. To see them for what they are, accept them, and do with them as we please. That is what we are told at the academy. They train us in that way. I did seven months training in Deir Azur. Do you know what it is like, over there? People use them as weapons. When someone has a problem with you, they send you an infestation! Really! They are cracking down on it now. Because everyone was disarmed, after the war. So you can imagine! How it is, for them there. They have no weapons! But still, they want to fight. What do they do? The first thing that comes to mind! Spoil the home. They don’t have other means. It is something I understand. Everybody has a story with them. We hate them, for some reason. I don’t know hwy. They are ugly, of course. And they are vicious. And these new ones, they bite. They are not harmful, but sometimes you have a rash. It makes the skin feel very cold, and it turns blue for a second. It doesn’t sound bad, because at first, it’s not. The blue is something nice, actually. It is like a very pleasant color, something you do not associate with them. But then everything changes! The blue turns to a very dark brown, and finally, it is orange, and there is sort of like the underbelly of the cockroach, plastered on the skin. It is believed they pass on some wax, that is like a bleaching, to mask their form. It comes to their color. It is very grotesque. Something I hate seeing. There was a child, a young boy. He had a similar problem, very recently. He was found with three bites, all on his leg, and one near bite on his chest. They discovered it through him, actually, the slimy wax. Others, they are hearing about it on the news, they are embarrassed to report it! Who want sot report a sighting in their home, letting alone, that it used a weapon? Terrible, terrible stuff.”
“HOW do they get into the house?!”
“They come from everywhere and anywhere. If you Leave a window open, one of them comes. If you Leave a faucet open, without dropping the small plastic plug. I mean, why do you think we have these stupid plugs? Huh? You think it’s ever about water? Of course, it’s from keeping them out! And nobody listens to me. People are lazy, Madame, people, I have Learned, are lazy.”
“I tell them what to do, they don’t listen! Then, I make a house call, to their home!”
“But I have done everything in my power, my entire life, to keep this mess from occurring. What in the world could have happened? Explain to me? I don’t Leave any window open. I don’t Leave any hole unplugged. Tell me, how else can this happen? We check all of our bags. When I return from traveling, my driver and the maid, they take my luggage and they clean it outside of the house. I have a small apartment, in Saboun el Ras, where they take all of my things, twice a year, and they clean them with insecticide, and with pesticide, whatever is the different. They take all of my clothes, everything, everything,” speaking those words with verve so that her curly hair waved in the air.”
“Wait, let me finish. Let me, let me now finish, because I know you like to talk a lot, and because I have a lot as well to say. For me, suddenly, I am very, very disappointed. I don’t know in what. I don’t know in whom. But I have to get to the bottom of this! Because for me, what you are telling me, is that my home has to be destroyed and dismantled, entirely, blown out of its roots, and be put up again. If this is really what you are saying, then tell me the truth. Tell me to my face, this is what it is right now.”
“That is your call, Madame. I am just telling you what I know. The news is going to hurt, of course. It will take time to sink in. But you have a problem. It is not life threatening, Hamdillah, but it is not good. No, a situation like this is not good. Where have you been? Have you not seen any of them, ever? There must have been at Least one hundred this year alone, that have come out of their sockets and died.”
“They come through the walls? No, I have not.”
“They come through everything and anything, Madame. Like I said, when they come into the house, they are there forever. You must protect your walls. We build strong walls, but we do not know how to use them rightly. It is like the situation at Deir Azur, where I just was. Nobody remembers their name. They are having to rebuild everything. It is frightening for them. Frightening for me, as well. It is difficult over there. People are being stopped at checkpoints. What for? At Least this is a problem for which there is a solution.”
“How can there be a solution, ya habibi! There are hundreds of cockroaches in my fucking house!”
“Wait, wait, now, Madame, let’s not jump to conclusions.”
“What do you mean conclusions?”
“I still haven’t filed my report. There could be less, there could be more. I still have to check the patio, and the cellar, and the three attics above the rooms, the small boarding cabinets.”
“Could there be some upstairs?”
“As I have already said, Madame. I am sorry to make this announcement.”
“It’s a beauty,” he said.”
“How much did she get it for?”
“The car. Something like this. How much do you think it is worth?”
“I’m not sure,” Mohammed said. “Why would you ask something like that?”
“It’s an honest question,” he said.
The inspector was terse, speaking, in Mohammed’s opinion, out of turn. What need did he to mention her belongings? It was crude of him. They were hers, and hers alone. He felt protective over her, and as she felt so protective of her things, he felt protective of them too, if only to oblige her.
“I really don’t want to spark any fear. I know how you feel about them.”
“Try not to use their name.”
“I won’t. Trust me, I’ve been told that before.”
“So what is your assessment, then?”
“I think you have to be honest with yourselves about your situation here. Ya3ne, I’m not here to scare you, not at all. Ana, for me, there’s no difference what you do. I get paid by my company, no matter what. I don’t really care either way, in terms of my benefit.”
“Let’s talk seriously, my friend, enough of your pleasantries. I know you’re being kind, but please. Talk to me for real. What’s going on? What’s the situation here? I didn’t think we would ever have this problem. I thought, I felt, as if we’d guarded against this, for so long, I never thought it could happen. So, please, you have to understand, you are saying something very heavy here. I don’t mean to sound desperate. It’s not your fault. I don’t know whose fault it is. To be frank, it must be the servant’s fault. One of them, at least, must pay for this. Don’t you think, Tatiana? That someone is at fault? Who is it, then? Have you had time to reflect about this? What could have gone so possibly wrong, for it to end up like this?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. You tell me. Is there something you know? Shall we ask Bernadette?”
“Call her, let’s see. Who knows!”
The two men shrugged their shoulders, looking each other’s way, apologetically, with a sense of friendship between them, sharing their vows as men.
Bernadette was called for and promptly entered the room.
“Listen, I’m going to ask you,” Tatiana started, “I’m going to ask you, and I need to tell you the truth, I don’t want to hear any more of your bullshit. I have seen the way you are whispering with Mohammed behind my back, the last few days. I was wondering when I would hear about this, from you, whatever you are stirring. But now I know. So, we have had a cockroach problem for the last few days and you didn’t tell me? Who the fuck do you think you are, my butler? Who the fuck are you, huh? Who the fuck gives you the right?”
“I am sorry, Madame,” Bernadette answered, “When I tell Mohammed he tell me don’t tell to Madame what is happen. I swear I am no in the wrong. Please can you forgive for my trouble? I didn’t mean awake, do wrong.”
“Bernadette! What are you saying, ya 7marra inte! Ya kelbe! You found one cockroach and you didn’t say!”
“God will not be forgiving,” Ulach said, “God will not shed his grace on this.”
“She told me, before. This must be hard on her, for sure. It is hard on all of us! What do you think, I enjoy coming around to your house, seeing you in this state? It breaks my heart. I do this because I have to. Somebody does.”
“And we are so grateful for your role, really.
“Partner, she has endured thirteen sessions of Acute Paranoiac Rehabilitation Therapy. How do you think this feels to her? She is, she is totally destroy, totally, totally absorbed in this madness. It can bring the madness of her, honestly. You haven’t seen the worst. Just wait for the night. Tonight, it will be difficult to sleep.”
“So you have decided to sleep at home?”
“Yes, of course. What? Why? Is that not right for us to do? What’s the problem then? Are they here right now?”
“No, I think that’s fine. I mean, at most, you will find some dead tomorrow morning, but nothing you don’t see anymore! How it has become!”
“Really, so dreadful. You must see a lot of homes. Wait, some? What do you mean by some?”
“There’s nothing for us to worry about,” he said, introducing a hypnotic calm.
She returned into the room, her heels introducing her forward crawl.
“I was just telling Rustom how grateful we are for his work, aren’t we, hayete? We couldn’t be more proud of the work you do, for us, for society,” he reiterated to his friend. We often think of you and think, how brave of him, how cruel of us, to watch him doing this, not to do it ourselves, sometimes. Don’t we, Kattie Bear?”
“We do, Ulu. We do.
She sipped from her tea.
“It’s going to be hard on the boys. I don’t want to tell Aliyah.”
“She’ll be too afraid. She won’t be able to sleep all night. Everything that moves will frighten her. She’ll end up having to sleep in a box, a totally white mass of bare walls.”
“Is that what you want from her?”
“How could I? How could you think so? Haven’t I also been brave? Don’t you know how this bothers me?”
“You are brave, but you are not responsible. Where were you? Why did it come to this?”
“Let’s not digress,” he said. “—-, is this about money, somehow?”
“I don’t think so, Istez. You are right to think so, in this city, everything is about an exchange! But, I haven’t been told of this. However,” grabbing him by the arm, “I must tell you, people are taking measures against this. It is not right to speculate. There is foul play here, of course. Not on your part, no. But on the government’s part. They are not protecting your rights, as citizens. And you are fine citizens, I must confess. Allow me to praise you, just one time. I am so grateful to you, and to your hospitality, and to your lovely wife, Mr. Bey, you are so kind. Now, what would you like me to do for you? I can present a contingency plan, of course, I can also recommend to you some options, handed down to me, from above, just this week we have had several cases, more so than usual, and people are acting fast.”
“What do you have in mind, friend?”
He pulled at a clipboard from inside his bag.
“You pay, according to my boss, you pay for the monthly subscription of services. What do you think, because of the situation we are facing now, you will upgrade to the same monthly subscription of services, but add to it the special Festival package which includes, for only ten dollars more every month, emergency services, so that at any time, during the day, the night, no matter, no matter what in the hell is going outside, and in our country, this could mean so many things, we will come to you, no matter what. We have seventeen thousand bottles of infestation vaccines stored, in a remote location, stored underground, in sort of like a bunker, or something, incase of emergency. God forbid, there is another war, and we cannot import the product in three months, and, God forbid, may his blessings rest upon your house in all his good and stead, someone were to find not one, not two, but, let’s say, as it is a war time, and when the drums are hot, they are rotten, they bring with them song and death! And no remorse! In your house, you may find, two hundred cockroaches!”
“Not in this house, young boy. How dare you? Do you know how much I have done to safeguard against this moment.”
She left the room, returning moments later with some receipts she had stored.
“I was told I was going to be upgraded, either way. I have paid for three cycles so far fro your services, according to which, in our contract, it states, very plainly, that those who have paid for so long are entitled to their business to be upgraded, their services to be raised. What do you think about that? And you come into my house seeking to seduce me, with your wit and your charm and your sales tact? Who do you think you are, my father? Why should I buy something precious from you, when I am entitled it already? I know what work is needed to be done. How long have you cared in this business for? Huh? Answer? For how long? How many homes have you visited? How many wives have you coerced? Let me tell you something, habibi, I have been doing this for years, for decades, and before that, I was standing beside my mother, may god give her strength, supporting her in all her battles, and most of them were with you! We thank you, we are so kind to you, because we need your services. There are twenty other companies just like you, and they all do the job. What, in the end, you think the cockroach is fucking smart or something? You use the same spray everybody uses, and that’s all. You have the nerve to step into a manhole that is infested and spray your toxic shit, that’s the only difference between us. I don’t have the nerve. It is true. So I need you. But you need me as well. Stop asking for my money. Go, do some work. Show us some results. Then we can discuss about money, who earns and what not. You are like the disease itself, striking after hours. This is the worst house call I have ever experienced! I want to speak to your boss!”
“Let’s not speak too emotionally. It is only one insect, not more. I assure you.”
“But what did you say about the marks?”
“Yes, I noticed some trails in your closet. It is not for sure, but they seem to be like old tracks, it’s fecal matter, really. It’s the insect’s waste.”
“You found this in my closet? This is very disconcerting. What am I supposed to do? How can I sleep in this house?”
“You will have to wait until the end of the inspection,” he said. “Then we will know what it is best we do. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, not yet. We have to see the full force. If there is a problem, we will deal with it. Some things can’t be helped. We have to be careful, what sort of hopes we have.”
“And where did you see it?”
“The maid called me in. I found one dead in the bathroom, as I told you, and another dead in the kitchen, by the door to the maid’s room, which, I guess, you know, it isn’t so bad.”
“And the one alive?”
“It was alive, yes. It was in the master bedroom. It must have come in from the backyard.”
“Oh my. What can be done? Are we able to deal with this?”
“As I said, it was only one. If it was a stray, you are fine. If not, you will have to ask for more help. We will bring another wagon from the office. Salim,” he said, addressing his man, “go to the car and bring one of the special boxes, the new ones we were given today, not the blue box, that’s old, the newer ones, you will know them. Do you have the keys? Here, take them. Go, go fast. Don’t take so long, now, doing what I ask you.” He turned back to his employer. “He is new with you. I don’t really know if that’s his name. He works very hard, but he’s a little slow.”
“Aren’t they all? I pity you, having to work with them.”
“They come here sick, untidy. We have to help. They are our brothers, at the end of the day.”
“Well, we all have our thoughts.”
“Yeah, yeah, those are waterbugs. People are always mistaking them for cockroaches but they’re not. They don’t leave trails, they walk real slow. They fly, for sure. They fly for miles without having to stop. They can come into a home on the eighty fifth floor! Zoom, right in through the window, like a pepper of spray. I don’t know if you got windows open that high but whatever. You ever see that episode of Catching Kangaroo? They played it for like an entire summer. It was really great. The children discovered some water bugs in the basement, like, five or ten of them. They started holding these races. And at first, nobody would come. They hated them. But the kids started to build a farm. Anyway, it’s getting out of hand, I guess I should stop. I just, I get really excited when I think of that episode. You know, it was a different time. They just don’t make television the way they used to! And those shows, man. But yeah, so waterbugs are different. Sometimes they don’t move. They sit for hours in one spot. A cockroach is always moving. It’s always on the hunt. Ready to fast, ready to feed. It’s always hunting.”
“How do you expect one of these bastards, from the whores of the PLS, the underfilth, like, the belly fat of stranger’s, of a faggot whore. How do you explain this situation to him, who lives in his own compound? You tell him I am necessary. You make him fear his life without me there by his side, protecting him from whatever grief is there, to meet him. Awaiting him, like the pain that he is forced to endure in taking a bride, knowing, she will be kept from him, one day, after all. Or they will be kept from each other. Am I right, or am I wrong? Tell me, truthfully, what do you see, where do you see control?”
“I see it in the weapons, my friend, not in the interior, like you. You see things differently.”
“And me, how am I to see things in my life? I haven’t had the experience you have had, as you say, witnessing, this great divide you speak of, like, you are an expert on the subject.”
“If experts were! Why the sadness, why are you so sad about it? Your condition is fine, you will live a long life, and you will be spared the indignity of failure, by not amounting to much. What could be better for you? To live like them, in temples, moving from door to door? You see and breathe the workings of their spine. It is not enough for you? Think of them like brothers, who you protect. Is there anyone in your life you care for? Anyone at all? This is your only problem.”
 It wasn’t the first time that a cockroach had passed into her sight. But it was the first time in years, and it would pose a problem. In the past, when she had first started working for Tatiana, the sighting of a cockroach in or around the house caused an enormous stir, disrupting Tatiana’s life for weeks on end. Tatiana was out for lunch, up in the mountains at Zipra, where she often spent two weeks over the winter holidays skiing in the morning and meeting friends for warm, candlelight dinners by the fireplace, overlooking the deep gorge on the Westside of Mount Taimur. For Tatiana, a cockroach was the sign of filth, of poverty, and it had no place in her home. She had to call for help, to ask what she should do. Her first choice was to alert Mohammed, Tatiana’s trusted driver, who she knew Tatiana preferred to her. He was like her eyes and ears. She felt like a mother figure to him, even though they were almost the same age. She looked after him. She trusted his opinion, Bernadette thought. She was always inviting him inside the house, to have tea at the kitchen table, to eat from whatever had been cooked for lunch, either by Antioch, the kitchen cook, or Sabrina, his wife. She never joined him at the table, of course, but the invitation meant the world to Mohammed. He revelled in the attention, working twice as hard. She called him by phone. The phone rang four times before he answered. As it was ringing, she realized the risk she was taking. What if Tatiana were with him in the car? If Mohammed were smart enough, he would not arouse suspicion on her part, either ignoring the call entirely, or answering and playing it cool. He would pretend that he was busy and would promise to call later, pretending it were a friend, or even his wife. But Tatiana had eagle eyes. She would probably sense the change in posture, a few drops of sweat percolating at the back of his neck, watching him from behind the passenger’s side. If he made the mistake to look in the rearview mirror, catching her eyes, he would alert her, and then it was only a matter of time before he blurted it out, that Bernadette was calling from the house. She hung up the phone just as he was answering. She hadn’t thought it through. It was too impulsive. She still had time to come up with a response, if Tatiana were informed. She could say it was by mistake that she called. But then who would she be calling? Tatiana was well aware that Bernadette had friends, but how many of them would be expecting calls, at that hour in the morning, during the week? Her having called, even by mistake, was suspect. But now she had called and hung up. She had raised even Mohammed’s suspicion, without giving him the chance to protect her. He wouldn’t do so out of a likeness for her, or even respect. She was pretty sure he didn’t like her. But he would recognize that an unhappy Tatiana, Tatiana displeased with the work of one of her staff, would mean greater provisions on all of them. It would mean she would take an even greater vested interest in their lives, in how they applied themselves to their jobs, in how they performed. If they thought she was overbearing, up until that point, it would only become worse. She decided to call again. This time, she would make it obvious, from the start, that everything was alright. She would have to have an alibi for why she had hung up, since calling twice meant she had meant, originally to call. She could explain that it was a mistake, and if Tatiana were present, which she would gage somehow, she would explain that she was calling back to say everything was alright, which they might appreciate, that she had taken the time to think of them, knowing they would be worried, concerned something bad had happened at home, such as a burst pipe, or a collector coming for some debt, though there was always money in one of the kitchen drawers, which she used to pay different collectors, like the water delivery boys, the electricity, the two that came from the internet providers, the two that came by for cable and digital television subscriptions, the one of them much cheaper than the other because it was stolen, and which she could watch herself in her room. If Mohammed answered, and Tatiana were not there, or even if she were and Bernadette could not read whether or not she was present, having to make a decision on the go, taking all of it for granted, she would have to come clean as to what happened. She would ask Mohammed what would have to be done. Tatiana was having guests just that evening. Would they have to spray the house? Before she knew it, her phone rang. She stood there amidst the calm and clamour of nearby construction, the vibrating waves resounding through the insulated walls. She answered the phone hesitantly. It was Mohammed. He sounded calm. What do you want, he asked her, in his usual, indifferent tone, a tone he reserved for Bernadette and any of the other inside staff. Is Madame with you, she asked, her voice shaky, nervous, though she tried as best she could to deny that fact. No, he said, she’s not here with me now, why? Is something wrong, he asked? No, she said, nothing’s wrong. Then what is it, he said, sounding annoyed. Where are you, she found herself asking, not knowing exactly why. She hadn’t meant to ask for that kind of help. She could do the cLean up herself, if that was what it amounted to. But it dawned on her that she was asking for help, not only for his opinion. I’m waiting for the Madame, he said. We’re in the mountains. She was at a loss. She didn’t know what to say or do. Should she come out with it, it would Leave the decision up to Mohammed whether or not to reveal to Tatiana what was going on. It would take them a few hours to be back in town. If a decision was to be made that required more than just removing the cockroach, cLeaning the area with antibacterial and anaesthetic soaps, it had to be made soon, otherwise Tatiana was likely to walk in on the operation. Furthermore, Bernadette considered whether or not she was willing to pay for the operation herself, simply to avoid dealing with Tatiana. Once, while Tatiana was away for winter, Bernadette discovered a cockroach the size of her thumb rushing across the marble floor of the entrance. She figured it had come from outside, which was a blessing in disguise. It meant that the house was sufficiently removed from the threat, from their appearing through one of the pipes, in one of the seven bathrooms in the home, or from one of the two kitchens. But it posed another threat. It meant that the cockroach had come from outside, and had not yet died. This was a deeply troubling fact. How could she know how long the cockroach had been in the house? Had it just arrived? Had it come in from a gap in one of the windows, through one of the screens. Tatiana had rules to ensure that could never happen. She urged Bernadette and the others to clog the windows with plastic wire or balls of cloth, in any gaping hole, either between the frames or underneath one of the doorframes, where something so clever as a cockroach could grapple its way inside. Had someone left he door open, she thought? Was it her? It hadn’t ended well. A conflict ensued among the working staff, each blaming the other for their negligence in attending to the home’s sanitary practices. Bernadette blamed Mahmoud, Tatiana’s driver at the time, for bringing in shopping bags from outside the house without clearly inspecting them beforehand, and for Leaving them around after dropping them off, without paying attention to them as they were unloaded, something he was not required to do but that could have saved them a lot of drama. He obviously blamed her for projecting her own faults and shortcomings, and those of her staff, who numbered four at the time, including Bernadette, there was Lulwa, in charge of laundry, Christiana, in charge of cleaning the toilets twice a day and cleaning all the rooms, every single day removing all the furniture and sweeping and wiping so as to ensure there was not a speck of dust left in the rooms nor a single unturned crevice for which a cockroach could hide. There was also Ethiopia, who was responsible to take either of their positions were any of them to get sick, or to take Leave, as Tatiana hated the fact that they often decided to take their biannual Leaves at the same time, all of them wanting to go away for the summer, taking three months off, most of it unpaid, and Tatiana didn’t want to have to teach someone from beginning to end, so she preferred to have her substitute live in a separate home, in an apartment in another part of town, working part time, but always available, also to come in on weekends and days off if she were needed. She was known around town and was often borrowed by other houses, who had one of their maids run away or whose maid had taken vacation. Eventually, after a series of passionate discussions, they put it up for a vote, whether or not to tell Tatiana, which they all agreed was the most important decision they would ever have to make, concerning their present and future employment, the outcome of which could determine whether or not they were given positive references after being fired, or whether or not Tatiana would give them an easy release, as most of their friends had told them, and some of them experienced first hand with former employers, the fight for release of contract could take years, and it was often in the best interest to run away rather than Leave it up to the goodwill and due diligence of the employer, who for no reason but to make life difficult for someone over whom they could assume control would make it impossible for them to find work, to obtain a new residency visa and a work permit to go with it. At Least running away they could start a new life, though they would have to live in fear forever. As Ethiopia was not a permanent member, they decided to Leave it up for a vote of two thirds, between Mahmoud, the driver, and Bernadette and her two assistants. Other temporary hires like Antioch, the cook who often came by for special occasions, who was also Leased out on Tatiana’s watch, and who was given a steady salary by her, in order to ensure he was free at any time, along with his wife, his sous chef, Sabrina, and the bartender Ariel, who she often hired in tandem with the cooking staff, did not deserve a vote themselves, so they would not be informed and called to the house, in order not to make a fuss. They could be alerted over the phone, but why bother them? It was thus decided that three of them should vote in agreement, and a vote of two versus two would Leave them the opportunity to lobby their interests and vote again, because a deadlock was not going to work, something had to be done, even if it meant doing nothing, that could not be determined by a locked vote. Mahmoud stood firm on his proposal that they inform Tatiana of the developing incident only after ensuring the pest control management were well informed and whose team was already in place securing the house, who were always on guard anyway, expecting to be called at Least once a month, having memorized every homeowner’s repetitive lies of finding hundreds of cockroaches running around the house, simply to act pre-emptively, though they were too concerned with their reputation to seem cowardly, or even germaphobic, which they all certainly were, they could not admit outright that they wanted to act pre-emptively, having to concoct some sort of apocalyptic scenario in which the pest control team had to act fast, urgently needed. The idea sounded decent enough to Bernadette, but she couldn’t imagine what would happen if they were to disrupt Tatiana on her travels, reveal to her the misfortune of a cockroach running around the house at free will, the incident all the more complicated by the fact the cockroach had actually disappeared and had yet to be found and disposed of. Mahmoud argued it was their moral obligation to report the appearance and disappearance of the critter. Bernadette could do no such thing. Emotions were further inflamed when Mahmoud, complicating matters, insulted Bernadette, suggesting her reluctance to reveal the truth was to be expected, exactly the sort of moral lacking Tatiana so hated in people from her country. The tie was locked between the two of them, as Lulwa and Christiana could not decide and refused to vote, fearing for their lives regardless of the result. One mustn’t forget what happened to the two who preceded Christiana and Lulwa. They knew they would be held directly responsible, seeing as how they were at the bottom of the chain of command. They wouldn’t only be fired. Their papers would be rescinded. They would probably spend some months at an internment camp in the Lower Ward, the most frightening place on earth. Tatiana, a merciless woman when cornered, would make sure to transfer them, using her connections with the Chief of Police, Saraoullah Zibrin, who was over for lunch at least once a month, to the interment camp at Platform 5, a camp used primarily in the inspection of migrants, hoping to cross the border to better themselves, and their life. A camp where immigrants without papers disappeared for months.
“We can ask outside help,” he said. “I knw someone who will help,” he said, “It is eas. He will come, spray a little, it will be fine.”
“Who can we ask?”
“Maybe the gardener can spray even, he has insecticide.”
“You need proper spray.”
Mahmoud suggested they seek outside help, either from Lucky and Shad, the two gardeners who often worked around the house but who had not done any work recently, who were probably somewhere nearby doing something for someone else’s garden, and from Minti, the accountant who handled all of Tatiana’s financial affairs and who could be found in a highrise apartment several minutes drive away, who was always on hand to help out Tatiana and any of her staff, who was well liked by all of them and took the time to congratulate them all on their birthdays, stopping off at the house and handing them their salaries and their bonus checks, if there were any, though it had been a while since that were applied. Bernadette didn’t like the idea of involving the gardeners. Their work was primarily outdoors, and their connection to Tatiana was if anything minimal, to be kind. She only ever watched them work while taking her breakfast on the balcony terrace outside the master bedroom, the Spade veneer windows opening up onto the stone and marble façade, with morning beds carved out of pure marble, and an umbrella that hovered over the plank, that could be pulled to the length of her liking, and a partition in the centre of the terrace housing a little pond, where oftentimes a swan could be seen washing herself in the cool and filtered river. Tatiana hardly ever spoke to either of them. She had never heard Lucky’s voice, as he was only really the understudy to Shad, who had worked at her home, and all her other estates, going on two decades, tending to the mangroves at the Northside entrance, the tangerine grove and the flanking cherry orchards, that rose and conspired by way of irrigated tunnels and a field of sunflowers that sat beneath Tatiana’s morning eyes like a plantation of jewels, swooning her hardened shell to pLeasure. The rosebushes at the entrance, the fig tree that sat dominant on the Southside hill, the weeping willows that hung over a manmade lake, sagging in a swampy summer, and the lavender, the jasmine, the pine that rose like a castle wall surrounding the estate, fenced off the world with a standing forest, barricaded by two towering lines of gates made of bronze, meeting at the entrance to the grounds, where Minti often sat with his walkie talkie in his hand tailored Tutu Giro suit, where the man himself explained, in good humour, that wearing a wider collar accentuated his strong, American jaw, his choice of tie, and the swimmer’s frame of his shoulders. He bought all his suits on Tatiana’s expense, at Tutu Giro’s classic hideout, beneath the Miami sports bar on Pastoral. He had never known such luxuries, so when he first entered the Giro establishment, offered a choice of wine or beer at the entrance, or a simple sparkling tonic on ice, followed by an assortment of appetizing finger foods, with the aim of getting his mind and body in the right comfortable sort of state to spend the right amount of time being tailored by a master, he knew he had begun a new chapter in his life, one of hierarchy and possession, Leaving behind the Dennison sneakers he owned for seven years, and the ten pairs of socks he used interchangeably, bought at Minky’s in District 9, the wholesale shopping district, rarely coordinating a matching pair. The decision fell to Minti, as he held a place in the Tatiana hierarchy unmatched by anyone else. He wa also well refined, and looked the part, having paid for his accounting degree by working as a lifeguard at the City Lawn country club and fitness spa in Dar al Shaab, where Tatiana had first met him. His face, a perfectly symmetrical oval, neither square nor round, in that elegant way where his lightly toned hair, shaved at the sides but more voluminous on the crown of his head, a style made popular by the actor Adam Morose, accentuated his thin, straw like nose and the magical recess of his cheeks, bent above his gentle, pharaoh like lips, sloping at the ends giving the impression he was, at all times, pouting, was really the face of an angel. He thought of deflecting the power of his swing vote. He didn’t like the idea of being involved in something so incriminating as a vote behind Tatiana’s back, but he had been drawn in and that was that. Tatiana had always voiced her displeasure at mutiny, even among the staff, voicing her displeasure at those who tried to make headway in their careers through portraying the faults of others. He knew he couldn’t step out of the discussion, but he suggested they consult, as well, Hagob, the errand boy. He knew the idea was of no use and would never be entertained. Hagob, as a member of the staff, was like an informant to a detective’s squad. He spent as much time away from the house as he did within it’s borders. He was an agent who they sent into the wild to gather supplies, but who could just as easily disappear for months when he wasn’t needed. Though it required a certain genius on Hagob’s part, for example, to acquire a weekly subscription to Silvermace magazine for Tatiana’s reading pLeasure after the parliament censors were put in place, he was never part of the interior family. He wasn’t there, for instance, when the flood of District 4 seeped into the aquifers that fed the neighbourhood’s water, Leaving them without water and electricity for three days. He was absent when insurgents broke free from Mishrif Prison and the city was on lock down until Commander Ismail’s regiment fortified the city district by district. In summary, Hagob was a member of the staff, but he rarely suffered on the rare occasion of their suffering. He would probably escape punitive measures on Tatiana’s part for the emergence and disappearance of the cockroach, unless of course she decided to collectively punish them all, in which case the vote was by all means already decided. Did they wish to lose their jobs? Minti was happy with his work. He rarely had time for a relationship or a social life, but it didn’t matter. He had an exit plan and was working toward it. He knew he would not commit to the estate his entire life. Bernadette, who had always harboured a desire to get married, was by now unmarriable. And she couldn’t afford to start over at another house. Each year saw her pay increase incrementally, even if just a slight fraction of what she was owed. She would start at the bottom at another home, risking it all. And so it was decided, on that fateful afternoon, where the sun’s violet feathers Leaked into the home, copper shelves and ceramic oak windowpanes, a collection of bird cages dispersing streams of light onto a wading pathway filled with daffodils that emptied into the garden, that they would not speak of the incident ever again. That if the cockroach resurfaced, which of course it very well might, it would have to be taken care of and disposed, somewhere outside the grounds, so that Tatiana would hear or see nothing of it. In the event it re-emerged, the person to whom it appeared was to dispose of it quietly, without alerting any other members of the staff, so as to protect them from further knowledge and to ensure the issue remained under wraps. The plan was quietly implemented, as an order of survival, accepted even by those who opposed the decision. The staff agreed it was for the best, agreeing to keep the issue from those whose connection to the outside world could prove alienating, dangerous to the entire scheme, as they might, in a drunken stupor, or out of sheer boredom, reveal to an outside audience the brief incident that uprooted the estate for an entire day, the sudden emergence of the cockroach drawing such a spell of disbelief and terror over the vanguards that it must have been, the rat would think in their drunken glare, the result of some sick, fetishistic joke, attracting the attention of ill bent spies on the part of Tatiana. The plan had gone surprisingly well. It was never spoken of, the incident never repeated. There was never, to anyone’s saintly eyes, a cockroach within the premises of their home. It was natural for some of them to wonder, at some point or another over years of lying restlessly in bed staving off violent dreams involving cockroaches coming at them from all sides, scurrying their way into their hair, their clothes, nesting and infesting rooms like rats in old time brothels, if the cockroach had survived that afternoon, or if, as some of them often thought but never mentioned to anyone else, if it was possible, by the setting of such precedence, their taking a decision not to inform Tatiana, that a few other cockroaches had emerged within the home since that afternoon, and due to the decision taken that day, if the person to whom the cockroach emerged had quietly and without consulting anyone else disposed of the little critter themselves, empowered by the decision of that afternoon.