“Butter knife, what a life, anyway, I’m building y’all a clock, stop. What am I? Hemingway?”
What a rip off, he thought. Never able to come up with his own lines, his own rhymes, but she had such fine thighs. With a gap. Just like he adored them. Was it over already? He couldn’t tell. She had been dancing all night like a wild girl in trance. He was barely moving his arms so she wouldn’t smell his armpit sweat. And the music so swell. And that roaring sound. She had a carnivore smile like a pretty dinosaur. She was lean, her eyes were green. And then a scream: “Get up! I need to clean up your room!”
But he was still floating. Was it her moon-like face or the housekeeper’s tight butt? His eyes finally opened. The room became brighter. The roaring sound louder. The housekeeper’s butt bigger. He slowly sat up, resting on the edge of the bed, mentally measuring the room temperature. No slippers. He stretched his neck, closed his eyes again. His hand reached out to the night table and grabbed a remote. A click. Music. Erik Satie on the piano. And he was now in the bathroom. His fingers on his cheekbones. Why can’t they be higher? But the rest was perfect. No pimples. Divine skin. Defined jaw line. A handful of hair. Sleek and reeking of smoke. And green eyes, just like her eyes.
The steam quickly took over. He just loved to stand still there. Thoughts and songs and faces and places. And sometimes a boner. What was her name? It was in London in the early 2000s. He did her in a public bathroom. Teenage vomit on the floor. What was her name? He had just gotten out of a long relationship. She was French. And thick. And she loved the Ramones. They jumped in a cab and went back to his home. What was her name? The water was dripping on his lips. Breathe in. Breathe out. Faster. Faster. What was her name? Who gives a fuck about her name! Breathe in. Breathe out. Faster. Faster. And for a few seconds the world was gone. No more light. No more sound. Just a simple touch.
He opened his eyes. Everything was back in order. The sound of the water. The steam in the mirror. And his heartbeat. And with the sole of his foot he brushed his cum down the drain. He remembered her name.
His loft had been vacated. He was now alone. The smell of cleaning products gave it an air of freshness, much like the freshness he felt getting out of the shower. He stood tall on the 50th floor of Sama Beirut. Glass walls everywhere. A 360 degree view of the sea, Ashrafieh and other less familiar parts of Beirut. The shiny concrete floor – heavily heated all year long – always seemed moist. The high ceiling and roominess made the place feel like constant cold weather. Even when the sun was beaming through the walls and onto his toned body, reflecting every line of every carefully sculpted muscle.
He lounged naked on a lonely Charlotte Perriand chaise-longue in his favorite corner facing the Mediterranean sea. There was something clinical about his posture. Like being at the mercy of a callous dentist. But there was never anyone around. And he loved it. Nothing but the numb feeling of floating in the skies. Above everything and everyone. Above the miserable lives of everyone. Above the pathetic weaknesses of everyone. Above the petty little businesses of everyone. He had worked hard all his life for this. To just be here. Envied by everyone. Detached from everyone.
Most of his time at home was spent on that chair. Like a tiny bubble in a vast wide-open space. It made him feel like an astronaut in exile. An out-of-body experience. Being alive in the quietness of death. And it was all barely furnished. Far on the other side, a dark grey Versace sofa facing a Noguchi coffee table. And nothing else. Not even a single carpet. A never-ending empty land with an indoor horizon. And then a kitchen that felt like a morgue. Stainless steel everything and grey marble tables. And white cupboards for necessary light. Terrified plants were scattered around, always alone and out of place. Trying to call out to each other, but the sound was lost in space. Like a piece of earth brought to another planet. Artificial air, artificial breath, artificial life.
The bedroom was the only area that felt inhabited. Separated by fake grey walls, there was a certain glow to it. A giant oval bed, Shaquille O’Neil size. And mirrors everywhere. Porn windows everywhere. On the wall behind the bed: missionary man. On the right side of the bed: doggy style. A giant one on the ceiling: ride, cowgirl. The mood was set by nonstop Fashion TV on a 65’’ Panasonic plasma screen. On mute. And a mini bar – Smirnoff raspberry, Perrier. Lime. And the unnecessary rest.
The warm leather creaked under his skin as he got up. A slow nonchalant walk towards the kitchen. He opened the fridge. Diet Cokes and red fruits. Strawberries. Raspberries. Pomegranate. Sometimes a banana or two. The housekeeper had left fresh grapefruit juice that he carefully poured into a wine glass. He was a slow drinker. Unhurriedly letting each sip get comfortable with his tongue. Methodically twisting it so the sour taste reaches the back of his mouth. The edge of his throat. Dangerously flirting with suffocation.
It was the first day of autumn. He looked down and realized he was still naked. Nature had been so generous to him. He smiled. It was already 1p.m. He decided to write for the next seven hours. The new novel he’d been working on was going to be another hit. Another love story. Another page-turner. Common people will be devouring it in the subway. On the train. In taxis. On lunch breaks. For Christmas. At the office. At bedtime. For birthdays. Twelve languages. On vacation. All over the world. He was remarkable at it. Digging deep into common people’s fears, common people’s desires, common people’s needs. Never taking any of them seriously. Not anymore. He mocked them. Spurned them. He pitied his characters – just like he pitied common people. He never related to any of them, he knew that common people did. Selling them a dream that wasn’t his own. He was good at it. He also knew how to sell himself: a friendly social mask, spurious smiles thrown around, telling women what they wanted to hear, faking interest in their boring lives. He mastered a variety of handshakes, voice tones, head tilts, eye squints. And a pout, well practiced and gorgeous, causing even mirrors to blush. His mind was constantly – almost literally – split in two: how he really felt, how the mask behaved.
He walked back to his favorite corner, still naked. He started writing.
When the sun had fully set, he decided it was time to stop. Almost 8:00 p.m. Perfect. He reached for his phone and dialed a number.
“Hey David, it’s me. Meet me in an hour for a quick bite. Same place as usual. And cancel whatever plans you have for later tonight, we’re going clubbing again.”
David was his best friend. His only real friend. A sharp man in his mid-30s. Striking blue eyes, constantly tanned skin, always a clean shave, a tailored suit everyday, black Wayfarers day and night. An unusual mix of brains and a fashion addiction. David was the perfect partner in crime – Kim was rarely seen without him. Had they not been such notable womanizers, one could easily mistake them for a couple. They did everything together. Lunching. Dining. Crunches. Pushups. Drinking. Clubbing. Walking the dogs. Fashion talks. Women – plastic middle-aged mothers encountered at Chez Ginette. Fresh college students picked up at a DJ party. White tourists caught in a random art gallery, or on the street, taking photos of old buildings and poor Arab men.
David reached Casablanca in white and blue striped pants, a white deep, round-neck t- shirt and a dark blue blazer with a striped collar. All Calvin Klein but the shoes: brown, croc-embossed, leather high-top sneakers. The name: Alexander McQueen. A tall slim figure greeted him at the door:
“Good evening, sir. Two seats at the bar as usual, I presume?”
“Absolutely, Antoine, God bless you.”
Boyfriends and husbands frowned as he walked in – they were tailing their women’s eyes. Classic entrance. Any other reaction would have offended him. He sat down and nodded. The bartender knew exactly what he wanted. David scanned the room for a potential prey. He noticed an older woman in heat, perfume and Valium on heels. But it was too easy, too early. He started sipping on his drink and Kim walked in, Tom Ford from head to toe. White turtleneck, white pants, electric blue slim jacket, brown Adney Twist loafers. The male crowd was confused. Somewhere between frustration and curiosity, as some of them were his avid readers. A young couple approached and asked to have their photo taken with him. What a pathetic life those two must have. Avec plaisir. David was amused by the scene, deviously winking at the girl as she struggled to stay composed and smile as the camera flash went off. Merci beaucoup, bonne soirée!
“You little bastard,” Kim said, chuckling.
“Couldn’t help it!”
“Yeah, she’s cute.”
“Definitely cute! Better than that old hag over there. She’s been checking me out for an hour. At one point, she started licking her lips and I almost threw up on my McQueens.”
“Shit man, what’s with the face paint? What tribe is she from?”
“I don’t know, you want me to ask her?” said David, getting ready to leave his seat.
“Leave her alone,” Kim giggled, shaking his friend’s sleeve. Then, turning to the bartender, “Fred, I’m thirsty!”
“You got it, sir!”
“So, what’s the story?” David asked.
“We’re going back to Behind the Green Door tonight,” Kim replied.
“So I hear. But why? It’s Friday – working class night everywhere! Think about my McQueens!”
“Man, I need to find that girl from last night. I figure she might be there tonight too. I’ve no clue where else to look.”
“You’re talking about the girl with the navy blue Céline dress, right?”
“Beautiful, bro, beautiful.”
“Cheers,” said Kim with a genuine smile.
As the first round ended, Kim suggested skipping dinner. Dining and drinking on the same night – who in their right mind would want to do that to themselves? Fred overheard and proceeded to refill without waiting for a sign. Smirnoff Raspberry with lime for Kim, Belvedere with cranberry juice for David. No. Those were not girl drinks.
The atmosphere was shifting from serious polished conversations to extravagant laughter and clinking glasses. Outside was getting darker, streetlights brighter, roads busier. And Kim just more impatient. He shivered as she crossed his mind. Then she settled there and refused to leave. “I’ll be back,” he muttered, abandoning his seat and friend to rush to the washroom. And then he saw her. No word exchange. He glued his mouth onto her lips and led her inside the bathroom stall. Breathing each other out. He turned her around, pressed his forearm against her back, forcing her to bend forward. He was already hard, thrusting it against her perfect butt. A dogged attempt to lift her skirt, a sudden resistance. And she took control. He sat down on the toilet seat. Slow motion mode: ON. A look in the eyes. A playful smile. On her knees between his thighs. Her delicate fingers around his cock. Her face moving closer. He closed his eyes.
And then a blur. A familiar voice made its way through. “Bro, you in there?” The words echoed in his mind. “In there? In there?” He opened his eyes. “Kim?” Sweat was dripping from his forehead, tiny splashes between his shoes. Knock knock. He managed to speak:
“Dude are you alright? You’ve been in there for half an hour!”
Kim looked around. The stall was empty. Only a smell of feces rising from underneath.
“I’m… I’m okay. I’ll be out in a minute.” Still hazy, he managed to stand up, tuck his shirt in and button his pants. He rushed out, reached for the sink and drenched his face. Heavily breathing. A person walked past him. “Excuse me sir. Oh, I love your work!” Kim tried to smile. He walked back to the bar.
“Hey man have you seen her?” He asked David.
“Seen who, bro? Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, don’t worry. Never mind. I don’t know, I’m just not feeling too well. It must be those pills I took earlier.’”
“You want me to drive you home?”
“No no I just need a minute. I’m okay. Just let me relax for a bit and let’s get out of here.”
They finished their drinks and asked for the bill. David handled it, leaving a generous tip as usual. Smiles, polite words, friendly nods, handshakes and manly shoulder taps were exchanged with the staff. Outside, the Valet Parking didn’t need to see their ticket numbers. They didn’t even have any. The weather was pleasant, warm and dry. Heavy honking meant heavy traffic. Heavy traffic meant longish wait. No problem. Gitanes Blonde. “Got a light?” A first puff.
“Let’s take separate cars,” said Kim. “I’m hoping to find that girl and bring her home, I don’t want to have to drive you all the way back here with a boner.”
“Of course man, I don’t want to be the awkward guy in the backseat. Unless you want to let me in on the action?” said David with a sly grin.
“Not this time, bro. Not this one.” Kim cut him short. “I don’t know what happened, but I haven’t been this obsessed with a girl since, like, college. I can’t think of anything else.”
“Relax, man! You know you can get anyone you want. You always do. And if she’s not there, we’ll ask about her. Everyone knows everyone in this shithole.”
“You’re right, you’re right, but that’s not the point. I mean, it’s just weird, man. I mean, I’ve managed to not care about anyone for years now. Girls and love and emotional bullshit, you know? And now I feel like this is throwing me back in time or something. It’s like I’m that weak old me again. And I thought I’d gotten rid of that guy,” Kim confessed.
“I know,” David said, turning to face his friend. Then, on a more serious note, “But don’t you kind of miss it? Don’t you miss going totally crazy over someone?”
“Sure I do…”
“But I don’t miss getting hurt.”
It was sometime in the mid 90s, a grey cold February afternoon, and Kim was 17. An undergrad student in Fine Arts at Central Saint Martins. New land. New life. He’d moved to London a few months prior. New dreams. New self. He was panting, hair in his face, running late for class, never ending stairs. And then he saw her. Straight out from a movie scene. But he didn’t bump into her, she didn’t drop her books, he didn’t help her pick them up, he didn’t ask her out. They simply stopped. And time stopped. And everything stopped. And then he smiled. And then she laughed. Tragedy at first sight.
They say love lasts three years. They stayed together for two. Though their love lasted only one. She was trying to be a writer. They were young artsy intellectuals, hanging out on campus, in libraries and artist squats. And then the inevitable: teenage love never lasts. “That pseudo-writer guy is a bit too friendly to you.” “Will this pseudo-actress stop texting you?” Jealousy, suffocation, rage. They were wild kids in adult bodies, clumsy with their feelings, inept in their actions. Numerous breakups and make up sex, she was good at suicide attempts. He punched holes through the walls, barely avoiding her small face. Failed classes and sleepless nights. Drinking problems and neighbor complaints.
Until one day in the late 90s, on a grey cold February afternoon, when Kim was 19. They’d been on a break for a few weeks now – yet another one. The final one. Incubus’ Drive was on television, and the door opened. It was Rose, and behind her a tall boy with a familiar face – very rough features, though Kim had never seen him before. He was there to help her move out. And move on. Kim stood in the middle of the apartment as he watched them pack. Rose was chain smoking, tripping over almost everything. The boy looked uncomfortable, quietly completing his task and avoiding any eye contact. And then Rose broke the silence. “Alright well, I guess that’s it.” She moved close. A tender kiss on the cheek. The tall boy nodded politely. And they disappeared. And Rose never wrote again.
Kim later discovered that her lover was Lebanese – the reason why he looked so familiar – and a postgraduate student in Finance. Good family, obscene wealth. Rose had been seeing him long before the breakup. A way out of her miserable teenage love, a way into a peaceful rich marriage. A perfect plan. And it worked. And Kim never saw her again. A heavy armor around his heart. And Kim never loved again.
“Your car is ready, sir.”
“Thank you, Walid.”
The roads were jammed; Kim had a perfect way out. Windows up, Tristan Und Isolde blasting loud. Off to another dimension. The restless honking and shouting seemed like faraway pollution, desperate demons struggling to bring him back. But demons are weak before God. And Wagner was God. And Kim was elated. The only serene face in the middle of an irate crowd. The whole world surrounding him was mad. People mad at each other, people mad at themselves, the whole world mad at the whole world itself. And in the thick of it all, his smile was unfazed. A five-minute ride took him more than forty. But he was placid and peaceful. The perfect anomaly in this Friday night human race.
The entrance to Behind the Green Door was jammed; Kim had a perfect way in. His quasi- perfect face. He started walking past the long line of people. Useless fools. Countless heads turning and voices mumbling his name. Sometimes screaming it. Girls with ‘fuck- me’ eyes, boys with manly insecurities. Giant Tony greeted him with a giant smile as he reached the door.
“He-hey! Did you really leave the house on a Friday night or am I hallucinating?” said Tony with a cordial chuckle.
“Nuh-uh Tony boy, it’s all happening baby!” Kim gave the bouncer a warm, friendly hug.
“Oh, I think I know what’s going on. Let me guess, you’re here for Brangelina aren’t you?”
“Wait, what? Who?”
“Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie! They’re in Lebanon helping some poor-ass refugees and everybody thinks they’re coming here for a drink tonight. Some random guy wrote it on Twitter and shit spread like Chlamydia in Sweden!”
“Tony, you’re hilarious,” Kim said, laughing. “But nah I’m just meeting David for a bit.”
“Have a good time buddy!” said Tony, opening the door.
“Thanks my man! And hey, if you see Angelina, please tell her I’m at the bar!”
“You got it, sir!”
Stepping inside a club was like stepping out of society. A place with no boundaries, no judgment and no restraint. Animals everywhere. And Kim loved it. Nightlife was a good way for him to tolerate people: loud music, no or very short conversations. And the alcohol helped. He stood there for a second, his back to the door. Discopolis was on. Great track. A nod to the DJ. Boys and girls were leaning on the red velvet walls. Some were making out, others were freaking out. A crying teenager ran into him on her way out. No apology. A sweaty hipster devoured by acne followed her. Two pasty college kids in ill- fitted suit and tie and sleek hair brushed back – clearly Charlie-Sheen-in-Wall Street wannabes; maybe Christian Bale in American Psycho – were eying two redheads hanging out with a Ziggy Marley lookalike. Nothing too impressive, he probably offered them drugs. Someone grabbed Kim by the arm. The hostess, petite and touchy. A gentle kiss on the cheek. Cute, but please shut up. He stood on his toes and looked over the dance floor, trying to locate David somewhere near the bar. A waving hand and shiny white teeth. Spotted. He made his way through an unusually young crowd – the Friday night crowd – and managed to reach his friend.
“Shit man,” said Kim. “It feels like prom night!”
“Shut up and look behind you.”
And then he saw her. The same girl from last night. The girl who was lean and whose eyes were green. And with the most beautiful thigh gap he’d ever seen. The music changed to Uffie’s First Love. Unbelievable. Perfection in a sea of fools. And she was real. David saw her too. She had to be real. Ravishing in a dazzling short black Balenciaga dress – the same one that Joan Smalls wore on the runway. And she was prettier than Joan Smalls. A flawless mix of class and lust, looking young and healthy. A surreal princess. Too delicate for these people, too perfect for this world. Just like him. A younger female version of him. A divine combination. And Kim was born again. And for the first time in years, he was willing to let go. Inexplicable. His heart was pounding. He was willing to get hurt. Voodoo spell. She started moving in his direction. He pulled himself together and leaned against the bar. Lean and wait. Sleepy eyes but not too much. And a slight pout.
“I thought you didn’t go out on weekends,” she said.
“So you do remember.”
“Aha.” A pause. “So what’s the occasion?”
“You,” Kim smiled, maintaining eye contact.
“Ha! But I never said I was coming back tonight.”
“I was hoping you would.”
“Unless you were stalking me,” she said, playfully smiling back.
“I tried, but I was too wasted!” Kim joked. Her smile slipped into an honest giggle.
She gazed away and her smile faded, then she looked down and bit her lips. Kim didn’t say anything. He stared into her eyes until she looked back at him and spoke again: “So, what do you want?”
“My drink of choice for tonight.”
“Ha! That’s not what I meant. I mean, what are you trying to achieve?”
“Good question. World peace and no more dying children.”
It made her laugh. Like girls on dates do. Tilting her head and rolling her eyes, fingers in her hair. Her other hand almost touching his arm.
“Kim! I’m serious!”
“Hey! You remember my name!”
“I’m serious, what do you want?”
“You remember my name. That’s all I want.”
“It’s enough for now,” he smiled.
“And what about you? Do you remember my name?”
He rested his hand on her lower back and pulled her closer. She played along. He wanted to introduce her to David who was no longer near the bar. Kim looked over and saw him dancing with a drunken rag-dollish girl, between the DJ booth and the pole. It made him smile. Friday nights could actually be fun! He turned back to Soraya, ordered two piscines. And then two others. And then many more rounds. Champagne was flowing, the conversation was flowing. She was such an entertaining character. Smart and funny. Pleasant and witty. They talked about nightlife. They talked about life. About the people of Beirut and the people of Europe. About Kanye West being annoying. About Miley Cyrus being too much. About Madonna needing to retire. The growing number of refugees. The alarming bombing situation. Brangelina’s trip to Lebanon. And the piscine; such a Frenchie concept! A light social conversation. Typically a nightmare. And he actually enjoyed it.
Everyone was tired of Get Lucky but the DJ still played it. “If you wanna leave I’m ready,” Pharell sang. Perfect timing. She held his hand on the way home, his desire grew stronger. Still no first kiss. He parked his car. Called the elevator. Tension on the rise. A fifty-floor ride. Still no first kiss. A minute later they were in the apartment. Rushing straight to the bedroom. Closing the door and grabbing each other. Quickly losing their clothes, waltzing from wall to wall, bumping into furniture, collapsing on the bed, falling on the floor; a broken mirror. A never-ending first kiss. She felt his hand sliding between her legs. Goosebumps. She pushed back his face, a concerned look in her eyes.
“Kim… we have a small problem.”
“What’s wrong?” Kim asked, trying to catch his breath.
“I… I’ve never done this before,” she confessed, looking away in embarrassment.
It took him a few seconds to absorb the information. His heartbeat slowed down and he instantly lost his erection. His first virgin. A part of him just wanted to drive her home. He didn’t want this kind of responsibility. He was worried about damaging her. About the consequences. About a hundred things. But another side of him was turned on like never before. An archaic hidden part of every human male. An eternal fantasy of being the first. Of having full control. The empowering position of the master. And then it hit him.
“Wait. How old are you?”
“How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t know… Twenty-two? Twenty-three?”
“Kim,” she said abruptly. “I’m sixteen.”
It was worse than the virginity part. The one person he’d been fantasizing about for the past 24 hours. The one person that made him feel vulnerable again. Sixteen. Sixteen years old. A child. Not even legal. She shouldn’t be here. This shouldn’t be happening. What if someone saw her getting in his car? What if someone sees her leaving his building? “Literature’s Biggest Star Convicted Of Underage Sex.” Journalists and scumbags everywhere. No. His reputation was at stake. His career was at stake. His whole life was at stake.
“Okay, no. Listen. I’m sorry. We can’t do this.”
“Hey! What if I want to?!” She was offended.
“Soraya, you’re sixteen. Your first time shouldn’t be with a guy twice your age that you randomly meet in a club. Are you out of your mind?”
“You’re not just a random guy, Kim. I know you well. My father used to say you’re way too overrated,” she joked, momentarily releasing the tension.
“How nice of him!” Kim chuckled. “And he doesn’t say that anymore?”
“Well, actually, he passed away two years ago.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Kim was deeply confused. He felt concerned, disgusted – a broad range of conflicted emotions. Nothing made sense anymore. Her fragile side brought him closer to her. Tenderness overtook lust. He wanted to hold her tight and protect her forever. She stood up and walked towards the window. She looked outside for a few seconds, gazing into the city lights. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her naked body. He started to feel aroused again. No, this shouldn’t be happening. The alcohol wasn’t helping. She walked back to the bed and kneeled in front of him, rested her forearms on his thighs and brought her face closer to his. He needed to put an end to this without hurting her feelings.
“Listen, why don’t we just hang out? We don’t need to rush, I’m not going anywhere. We’ll see each other again. Let’s just take it slow, you’ll have plenty of time to think about this.”
But she wasn’t listening. She moved her body forward and kissed him, her fine breasts against his toned abs. She felt him getting hard again, put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him to lie down. He felt something warm around his cock. She was going at it. Like a clumsy sixteen year old. Eager to please but obviously clueless. Her hands out of sync. Her teeth too present. Her lips too dry. Her head making the wrong motion. And suddenly, he was turned on by her innocence. He gently stopped her, held her head between his hands and looked straight at her. He had a slight smile, his eyes were tender and loving. She realized she had it all wrong. And blushed.
“Teach me,” she murmured.
Kim sat still and looked at the ceiling. Their reflection was dramatic, like a religious nude painting from the Renaissance. He knew it was wrong. He knew he was about to fuck up. He was fine with it. No matter the consequences. At that moment, he decided to let go. He looked back at her and sighed.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Butter knife, what a life, anyway, I’m building y’all a clock, stop. What am I? Hemingway?”
It was a Saturday that felt like a Sunday, 11:07 on his Audemars. The first day of winter. He opened his eyes and looked to his right. She was still here. Three months had passed, Soraya was still here. Lying naked and beautiful. Her brittle shoulders and perfect neckline. Her head resting on the pillow, her thin hair caressing the sheets. Her skin was flawless everyday. She always smelled like she was untouched, even after a long night of sweat. He laid his hand on her hip and softly kissed her under her ear. The sun was timid behind the clouds and the sheer curtains. A nostalgic feeling.
It was the most emotional autumn he’d had in a very long time. Soraya had broken him down and rebuilt him. He was still his cold cynical self to the rest of the world, but she was his utter weakness. A sixteen-year-old girl. A secret relationship. And he adored her. The mirrors made her feel uncomfortable, so he had them removed. She loved to watch reruns of Gossip Girl, so he watched them too. She wanted him to name the character of his new novel after her, so he changed the character’s name to Soraya. Boys roaming around her were never taken seriously – she was in love with a real man. An intellectual. And she admired him. She looked up to him. Her grades at school got better. She discovered she could write. She started keeping a journal – their whole secret was carved in it. He helped her write a short story. She gave him ideas for a new book – in the voice of a teenage girl, giving him full access to her teenage mind.
She could only sleep over on the weekends – pretending to be at her best friend’s, or when her mother was out of the country. They left Beirut almost every Sunday. Driving south, north, to the seaside, to the mountain. Savoring autumn’s perfect weather. And perfect nature. Away from the gossip, away from the jealousy, away from the bourgeoisie, away from the city. And it felt like it could go on forever. It was all too pure, too good, too natural. They excluded themselves from the world. No family, no friends. Only their own little bubble. Devouring the present. Waiting for her to turn eighteen. A future apart from each other was unimaginable. Me and you against the world. Not a single fight or disagreement. Not a single isolated incident. They were happy.
She felt his warm breath against her neck and slowly opened her eyes. A siren called from a distance – like they do all the time. But it was unlike any other time. It was different. Something had changed. The world felt different. The sun vanished entirely, the room sank in severe darkness. They looked at each other gravely, pale and anxious, and before they could mutter a single word, a phone started ringing. It was Soraya’s. “Hello?” And she said nothing else. Tears kept falling on the bed sheets, leaving their marks on her divine cheekbones. Her small, full lips were shaking. Her hands were trembling. She tried to speak.
“My… my mother… there’s been an accident.”
“Baby. Don’t worry. I’m here for you. Put on your clothes, I’ll drive you there right now. It’s going to be alright.”
The Saturday traffic in Ashrafieh was bearable. They got to Hamra fairly quickly. Then all the cars stopped moving. All the roads were blocked, there was no way out. They decided to walk, no other alternative. They left the car on the main road, somewhere around the massive Fransabank building, and headed towards Jeanne D’Arc Street. He held her hand tightly as they speeded past random shoppers, students rushing to AUB, women on their way to lunch, businessmen going to a meeting, shady Hamra men watching everyone – just doing what they do. He held her hand for the first time in the city. He held her hand for the first time in public inside the city. He couldn’t bear seeing her in pain. It meant more to him than any reputation, career, judgment, society. Me and you against the world.
Policemen and Red Cross volunteers were gathered around Soraya’s building. A swirling mass of grey, and red uniforms. The entrance was guarded by an agent stopping people from walking in. But Soraya’s face made it clear – she was family. She was the daughter of the deceased. They rushed up the stairs to the first floor. The door on the left was open. The apartment felt like a scene straight out of an unpleasant dream. A terrible dream. Cops and doctors were bustling around. The windows were open, the wind was blowing, curtains were flapping violently. Everything in slow motion. Everything in yellow. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the furniture, the people, the air – all different shades of bland yellow. All sounds were muted. Only the terrifying vibration of the wind. Sometimes a whistle from the other side. Soraya kept moving forward, Kim right behind her. An eerie sense of familiarity took over. Maybe this unusual Soraya in her own home, a pile of books thrown around, perhaps – he knew them all by heart. Or the all too familiar smell of incense. Cold shivers and cold sweats. Soraya seemed hypnotized, sleepwalking, refusing to wake up. Not willing to believe. She reached the bedroom door. Her mother was in a peaceful sleep. A notebook was open on the night table next to her. It was Soraya’s journal. Her mother had read everything. An empty bottle of sleeping pills on the floor. She won’t be waking up.
And suddenly it was freezing. Soraya’s body was numb. Steam escaping from between her lips. Glacial and unable to make a move. A never-ending flow of tears. And nothing else. Kim held her tight, hiding her face in his chest. He didn’t want to her to endure it. To look at her own mother’s dead body. Cruel, cruel vision. He drowned his mouth in her soft hair and closed his eyes. She was sobbing. He let out a few tears. And this gripping familiar incense-smell. And it lasted forever.
Suddenly, he got curious. He hadn’t looked at the body yet. A little hesitation. Soraya’s face still in his chest. He looked over her head towards the bed, laying his eyes on his lover’s mother. And then he saw her. Her face was slightly wrinkled, but still as beautiful. Cruel, cruel vision. His knees got wobbly. “Alright well, I guess that’s it…” Her last words. He wanted her to speak again. “Alright well, I guess that’s it…” Rose. It was Rose. His Rose. His only Rose. A tragedy at first sight. Lying down and forever gone. Sixteen years had passed. Sixteen. A child. Not even legal. What? “My… My mother… There’s been an accident.” His mind was devoured by horror. He held Soraya’s head and pushed it back to meet her eyes. His green eyes, just like her eyes. Cruel, cruel vision. Soraya. A younger female version of him. With better cheekbones. Perfect cheekbones. Her mother’s cheekbones. Rose’s cheekbones. Until one day in the late 90s. Around sixteen years ago. Soraya. Oh God, no.
And at this precise moment, he would have traded anything for the prospect of death. The future looked dark, very dark. Me and you against the world.
“Hold me,” she said. “Promise you’ll never leave.”