The staircase was its dark self as he climbed up that evening. Nothing had changed, but then nothing much ever did. Cat pee laced the dark bends—what staircase is complete without it?—the waft of ful beans, cooking in one apartment, competed for dominance with the stench of cabbage and oozy tomatoes and chicken guts that rotted deftly in a trash can on the stairs; of the three light bulbs hanging from rusty wires on each landing, at least one needed changing, every floor up. Some floors were in darkness. Behind closed doors, TVs roared and voices giggled. It was the time of night when both sounds were common. But the steps seemed steeper, because he was used to the gentler ones of the other place. In past days, when he was a man with a fitter heart and soul, he would sweep up the floors lightly, leap over the mountains of his own mischief, and slip his key into the door. But not tonight.
He was red in the face by the time he reached the top, his cheeks the bruised bluish-red of a bashed peach. Panting, he pondered just ringing the doorbell, but it was late. She’d be asleep. He certainly didn’t want to wake her, whatever for?
Breathless and heaving, he dug his hand in his pocket to retrieve the key, and sent a scurry of items to the floor, his phone; an EGYPTAIR lighter; the crushed, all-but-empty cigarette pack; the folded money, struggling in the skimpy wallet with the picture of the boy and the prescription, the ID, and the license; the tiny pouch of pills. Finally, the keys. Flustered, he collected his things into his pocket and stuffed the key into the lock.
The apartment was still, silent except for the faint cluck of the old clock pendulum. In the hall, a night light, shaped like a minaret, flickered nervously, threatening to peter out. He thought of the light in the other place, the little blue-green fish, in the child’s room, reflecting soft rays from a smiling mouth. He found himself smiling, too, to himself in the semi-darkness.
There were smells in this place, too, locked up smells that didn’t want to be there, and certainly didn’t want to be together—the dark odor of soiled undershirts, the sickly sweetness of old medicine, the pervasiveness of rancid cooking oil. He cast an eye around the room. Part of the curtain had derailed. There was a strange mound of old newspapers, sitting like a hunched dwarf on one armchair. He clenched his fists and sighed. Next to it was the coffee table, old and scarred, graced only by a satin-covered copy of the Quran, her turquoise-blue sibha prayer beads draped across it. The middle seat of the faded sofa had the deep impression of the generous rump that spent much of its day seated there. It was too dark to see, but the pale fabric of the cushion would have picked up lint from the inky-blue clothes that rubbed against it so that it looked like a fuzzy new beard on some massive chin.
At the small, round dining table he emptied the contents of his pocket. He paused in front of the glass dessert dish there, to see, perhaps, if there were some chocolates or bonbons. He wasn’t hungry, but in the old days, the very, very old days, it was the thing to do before going to the bedroom, stopping by the dessert dish to drop candy for their little boy to find in the morning, or to pick up a little square of Turkish delight, or even cellophane-wrapped baladi gum, the waxy kind that melted and filled the cracks between your teeth so they jammed together. But there was none. Not even some aging biscuits or petit fours. There was something else, though, parked in the center of the dish, something that was ridiculously out of place, like a book in the middle of a fountain. It was a small bowl of dark green molokhiyya, thick and swamp-like. He felt the old anger mounting, when things weren’t where they ought to be; then he remembered that things were different now, and that nothing was where it ought to be, and the anger ebbed.
The small passage between the two inner rooms—theirs and that other room—was where he left his shoes. There was an open rack there, nailed to the wall; his shoes went on top; hers in the space below them. It was darker here, and he always wondered why they never put a nightlight to cast a shadow so that you knew where you were going.
Their bedroom door was just a crack open; luckily it did not creak, and she was not a light sleeper. The room was like the inside of a cozy incubator, the radiating warmth and swaddling quilt, the shuttered windows of someone who had a clear aversion to drafts, regardless of the season.
Please, we’ll catch a cold, keep the covers over us.
But I can’t see you.
It’s not appropriate—he’ll hear.
Damn him—he’s sleeping.
He’ll wake up.
He cast off his clothes and somehow felt less human for it. Then he fumbled for his galabiyya, and found it on the hook behind the door, slipped it on over his head, and let it drift down his body like a floating gray ghost. Then he lifted the edge of the cover and slid under.
There was a time when toes sought each other in the dark; soft, plump toes, hungry for kisses and conversation beneath the sheets. Tonight her feet were at the other end of the bed, submerged in their territory, entwined in their own thoughts. He was grateful for that, for they were different creatures now, shriveled like deep-fried shrimps, crisp and somehow profane.
He lay on his back and tried to focus on the nothingness of the night. He would empty his head, but how do you do that? It wasn’t like putting the trash out. There was a ceiling above him; he could not see it, but it was there. He would think about that, about the ceiling he was looking at and not seeing. But out of the nothingness came a face that was dear to him, the little boy, curled in his lap, breathing like a kitten, throwing a ball in the air.
Baba, make a sandcastle?
Two nights, just two nights.
When he opened his eyes in the morning, he felt the burden of someone who had been wrestling in his sleep, bashed up, flung on the ropes, rolled and flattened and bruised. The first thing he did was turn his head on the pillow; she had already risen. He listened for where she was, for her muffled shuffles or hissing coughs. Today, he only heard gargles, slurpiness in the sink—slushes, spits, flushes.
The curtains were drawn. He rose and pulled them back, and opened the shutters, accidentally letting in a juicy fly, along with the morning light. He looked around him at the room. He had forgotten how tired and disheveled and overdressed this place was. He reached for his clothes, glad he was alone, to dress in peace.
By the time he had slithered on his pants and shirt, she was standing at the doorway, in her white prayer scarf. His feet were still bare, the long spindly toes flat against the rug.
“I have made your tea.”
Her voice had the soft whimper of a child wrongly accused of breaking a vase.
He nodded his thanks, blinking solemnly for emphasis. She placed the mug on the bedside table, and he noted the smoky white halo on the wood from where an eternity of mugs had touched the surface, without a placemat, much to his consternation. It was another one of those things that maddened him back then.
He sipped the beverage; she had not forgotten how he liked it—hot milk, dark tea, very sweet.
They said nothing to each other. She was looking around the room intently, and for a moment he thought she was assessing how much work needed to be done. Then she reached out and scooped up her glasses amidst the bedclothes, and put them on.
He wanted to ask her if he was going to get some breakfast, but she had already left. Into the kitchen he went in search of his own food, rummaging through the fridge like a scavenger.
The fridge door had bottles of water and a squat carton of milk and a plastic tub of morta, melted butter, and three brown eggs in the egg rack. Everything else in the fridge door was medicinal—painkillers and ointments for bad knees; her molasses and herb mix for coughs; henna paste, dried out and rust-green; and—according to the label, a homemade remedy for heartburn. On the shelf were jars of petrified pickles, and one jar of dark jam, all crystallized sugar. There was a dish of meat chunks, trapped in fat-clogged broth, and several plastic bags, knot-tied and bulging, with a variety of vaguely identifiable leftovers inside: tomatoey peas and carrots in one, pasta or rice in another, something soupy and poop-brown in a third, and a fourth with the sludgy green-black of what must be more molokhiyya—or spinach. Why couldn’t she store food in containers, like other people—like that other person? He wasn’t about to ask, or to voice the comparison. The fruit and veg drawer beneath had only a clump of parsley, some floppy lettuce leaves, and two wrinkled, watery cucumbers. No fruit.
Frustrated, he all but slammed the fridge door. Then he looked up to the counter; there, in the middle was the best he could do for himself for breakfast, a small plate of lumpy white cheese and some skinny black olives. Perhaps she had left them there for him. There were some breadsticks in the breadbasket next to it, no doubt tasting like chewy cardboard. He whisked a fly away from these precious findings, took them to the dining table. She had placed today’s newspaper on the chair, clean and unmolested, the way he liked it. Perfect tea and pristine papers, not bad. Two out of two hundred thousand. Still in the bowl on the table was last night’s swampy molokhiyya, sitting there like some sort of tragic experiment still in progress. He stared at it for a moment as he stabbed at the lumpy cheese with a breadstick. In the daylight, he noticed that the molokhiyya leaves were roughly chopped, not the way he liked them, and there was a layer of yellowish-white stuff floating on the surface. Perhaps it was an excess of that vile garlic he detested, or was it mold, breeding quietly, undisturbed? On closer inspection he spotted a fly, caught in the green slime, struggling to free itself. In moments, it would be dead. He turned his eyes away from it, but not in disgust, only because he could neither scoop it out nor watch it die.
He cast off his clothes and
somehow felt less human for it.
He looked across the room to the sofa. She was not in her usual place, reading her Quran. He desperately wanted a Turkish coffee, to round up breakfast, a cup of coffee, and a smoke, but he couldn’t bear going back to the kitchen. He sighed and reached out across the table for the cigarette pack and lighter he had left there the night before. He lit, puffed. A moment later she was at his elbow, meekly shuffling, like a street sweeper loitering for a tip. She held a tray with a cup of coffee and a glass of water, placed them carefully next to the remains of his breakfast, and shuffled away. He didn’t thank her. He didn’t ask her to clear the table. She had gone, no doubt to pray, had disappeared somewhere far away, making sounds that seemed to come from another place. It was as if their two-bedroom apartment was a castle of endless floors and chambers, and she was lost down its bewildering passageways. He picked up the cup. It wasn’t chipped. It was black, with a red and gold dragon painted on it. A fine design, from another generation, one of her mother’s, from long ago.
So what do you say, son, she’s waiting for a reply.
I need time to think, sir.
What’s there to think about, yalla, finish your coffee and tell me you agree.
But we hardly know each other—
Later, later son, you have a whole lifetime to learn who you are.
He read the paper and sipped. Good coffee, surprisingly fresh. He took his pills, drained the cup, and swished some water from the glass over his teeth and down his throat. Then he rose and took money out of the wallet and placed it on the tray.
Suddenly she was there again, just behind him.
“There was an emergency this month. I need extra money.”
“Plumber replaced the leaky pipes that were dripping on the neighbors. The bill cost eight hundred pounds.”
She handed him the bill. He didn’t have enough money with him. He nodded in acknowledgement and mumbled that he would go to the bank.
He realized that he should have asked before he came, if there was anything beyond the usual bills. He had envisioned spending the afternoon with friends at the club, where they would eat a decent lunch and talk about politics and philosophy, and tell naughty boy jokes, and drink chilled lemon in the shade of an acacia tree. It was all planned.
He had enough money in his wallet for lunch and cigarettes but not the plumber’s bill. He scraped the chair as he rose, as if the wooden legs were uttering a curse on his behalf. He headed for the door. She didn’t say goodbye or ask him when he would be back.
Down the stairs and into the street he went, to stop a taxi. The May morning was young, its heat not yet shimmering on the grey buildings. Bowabs were polishing cars and watering trees in their concrete basins. He smiled at little children as they waddled to school under the weight of massive schoolbags. His friends would be yawning languidly just now, dusting crumbs from the bedsheets after their luscious breakfasts. Or they’d be in the shower, foaming their armpits with fruity shower gels, or on their toilet seats, reading their newspapers, smoking the fifth cigarette that morning, while their wives laid out the perfect pants and T-shirt combo and clean socks and musky deodorant, for a day at the club. He realized at the street corner as he climbed into a taxi that he hadn’t done any of those things, hadn’t even splashed cologne on his face or shaved. He had probably picked up the scents that drenched the apartment and was no better than a walking trash can.
He rolled down the window and sent a collective text message to tell his friends he’d be late. Not too late insha’allah. They could order for him, his usual, and he’d be there soon enough, to catch up on their news, and their laughter, their scandals, their marital woes. There was one message in his inbox from last night.
I miss you, ya habibi. We love and miss you so much. Could you maybe get us some gateaux? He asked for some.
He smiled at it, and wrote back.
I love you more, ya albi, my heart. I love you both so deeply. Anything for my little boy, and for you, the light of my eyes. See you tomorrow night.
He wondered why things happened the way they did.
He made sure to be back late. He checked his phone. She hadn’t sent any messages to ask about the plumber’s money. She was probably asleep. He climbed the steps, his heart thudding, and lit a cigarette, turned the key. He puffed cigarette smoke in the air, as if to mask the scent of other atrocities that clung to the apartment walls. In the hall, the minaret light was still flickering. He walked to the dining room table, put down the money for the plumber’s bill. Everything from breakfast had been cleared. This morning’s fold of money had gone, too. But the bowl of molokhiyya was still there. He realized he was looking for it, not for chocolates or bonbons.
The night was long. Too long. He thought he would sleep soundly after a full day, but the room was too hot. His lunch had been heavy and very late in the afternoon. It sat like some living being, refusing to be digested, lurking and growling menacingly in his belly. He tried to banish dreams, but they came. A little boy dressed like a fish, laughing with his daddy, leaping in the air. He leaps and lands in a swamp of green molokhiyya. The little boy is screaming; he cannot swim, he will drown in this thick, green swamp. He runs to save him, extends his hand to him and the boy struggles not to let go. Then suddenly it is not the little boy, it is her face, her glasses. He wriggles and lets go of her, and she falls away, deep into the swamp, whimpering.
He wakes up, sweating. Across the bed, beneath the bedcovers, she is whimpering in her sleep.
In the morning, the tea is by his side before he rises. He sits up and sips, and decides that today he will not go out until he is showered and shaven. He has a doctor’s appointment and wants to be fresh and presentable for his checkup. He takes a clean shirt off one hanger, and last month’s pants off another. He goes through the closet looking for clean underwear and thinks about the day ahead. His appointment is at two, what is he to do till then Go for a walk, perhaps. Stop at the ahwa next to the mosque. No, no, he didn’t like the regulars there. Too inquisitive; they will gossip about him once he leaves, belch jokes about the duality that has overcome him in his advanced years. Maybe he can take the underground to the doctor’s clinic, and find an ahwa there, or better still, a fancy coffee shop, the kind that serves cheesecake and roast beef sandwiches. Yes, that’s what he will do. Breakfast in a nice air-conditioned place, on his own, until the appointed time. Ah yes! And he’d buy the gateaux to take home later that evening.
He can’t find his underpants on their shelf. Nor in the drawers. Finally, he finds several pairs at the back of the closet, cramped in a shoebox like a family held hostage, suffocating behind the out-of-season clothes. He curses to himself, his heartbeats gather force, and he wants to yell in her face, but she is coughing, violently, in the bathroom. For one, she won’t hear him if he calls out to her. Then of course there isn’t much point bringing up things that she won’t address, now that he is just a wayfarer.
Not that she ever did.
Her bathroom cough lasts a long time, so he goes to the hall to find today’s newspaper. It is waiting for him, folded nicely on the dining room table. And still there, as he expected, is the bowl of molokhiyya. He imagines something lurking in its depths, watching him. Perhaps there are many things waiting in the thick blubberiness, unforgiving things that looked upon him with contempt.
She emerges from the bathroom at last, and whispers good morning. He mumbles back, eyes on the rug, tells her not to make breakfast; he is going out straight after his shower. When he looks up she has already gone.
Alone in the bathroom, he shaves, and decides to have a leisurely shower. There is plenty of time. The water comes out in broken spurts at first, like a reluctant motor threatening to die. Then it becomes an energetic burst of rain that makes the old shower head rattle. He talks to himself beneath the downpour. He isn’t unreasonable. It had been difficult for them both. Yes, of course, he understood that. Devastating. But that didn’t mean she could curl up into herself, forget her duties as a wife. Not forever. He hadn’t forgotten his duties. He had played out the days and months and years, and been supportive to himself and her. He had endured a lifetime with her that was in every way mediocre except in grief and guilt. He had stayed when most other men would have left. And he paid the bills. That’s why he came—isn’t that what a real man did? And after all this time, there wasn’t a tremor of gratitude. She took no interest in his presence. In fact, she stayed out of his path, the way someone might avoid a raging trailer on the Ring Road.
He dries himself off and dresses, sniffing at the shirt for any hint of wood rot or mothballs. He squirts some cologne on his chest and chin and brushes his thinning hair to one side.
The apartment has an odd stillness. The hall is empty. Perhaps she is praying in the bedroom. He peeks inside—after all, he should let her know he’s leaving— but she isn’t there, nor the kitchen. There is only one other room, the one that had been out of bounds to him, since the child had gone, her private sanctuary, as it became. He turns the knob and with old dread, steps inside. He realizes that he hasn’t been inside for a long time. The bed is neatly made, the curtain hems are straight. The windows are shuttered, but the room isn’t stuffy. It smells of recent wood polish and floor cleaner and something else, something like the sweet powder sprinkled on freshly bathed babies.
He makes out her figure, kneeling on the floor of the dark room, sniffling, her sibha beads clinking in her hand, as she recites—no weeps—words of supplication. Without turning around, she speaks to him.
“Why did you come in?”
“I couldn’t find you. I guessed you would be here.”
“You didn’t remember. Today’s the day. But you think only of life. Never of…death.”
She weeps openly, eyes down on the prayer mat, her large frame wobbling, as if caught in an earthquake. He mentally calculates the day: May 10th, a date he had tried to blot out of his mind for years. A nap on the beach, a little boy making sandcastles too far in, an angry wave that swallowed his little body whole. He trembles.
“What am I supposed to do, when it has been twenty-five years? No one can keep sorrow alive for so long! Am I supposed to cling to grief?”
“A true parent never stops grieving. But oh no, he wouldn’t want to be remembered that way, as something you have to struggle to remember. But you, you let go of him the day we lost him!”
His heart hammers noisily in his chest, a heart that had been tightly squeezed, like agonized hands, wringing themselves woefully in guilt and sorrow. He feels he might topple over and leans against the heavy door to keep his balance.
“That’s not true! You know what it was like for me. You think everything is about you—you and your pain. But I had pain, too.”
He touches his chest, and the pain is real.
“Ah yes, pain indeed. Is that why you go and start another family? What about me? What about my family?”
“I never went anywhere. I thought we could start afresh. I stayed and waited. I waited for you to come home. But you never did. You stayed out at sea. For years and years. As if you preferred to drown with—”
His breath catches in his throat and he realizes that he hasn’t said his name in a long time. He feels sick. “Don’t dare say his name! You never loved either of us. Nothing we did was ever good enough for you. At least he was spared a life of intolerance and criticism, while I had to live through it.”
She is overcome with tears.
“I am leaving. Just remember you left first. Long ago. Long before God reclaimed our child.”
He turns and staggers out of the room, out of the apartment, like a drunk man, not looking back.
He pelts down the dark stairs. Out of the apartment building he hurries and into the street, gasping for air, like a fish washed ashore, or a child suffocating in the ocean’s depths, or a fly struggling to breathe in a congealed swamp.