Breathless, Sabrina snaps out of her sleep, struggling to pluck her head out of the pillow. She is about to leap out of bed when she realizes it was all a dream. Darkness makes it harder for her to calm her panting heart, but as her hands land on the cold sheets, she recognizes the comfort of her bed. It’s not moving. Everything’s fine, she tells herself.
Breathing deeply, she lies back down, pressing her fingers against her temples. Ilyes sighs next to her, and she turns to him. She has a hard time remembering when his mere presence ceased to comfort her. Clutching the khamsa on her necklace, she feels relieved that after weeks, things are finally back to normal.
The first week after the earthquake had been like one big party. Not a happy one, though. Everyone who lived in an apartment building or old house had moved into the makeshift tents, made of blankets and sheets, in their backyards. No school and no work. When it was safe for people to go back home the kids started acting up. Every night, they would come up with a new story. We’re hungry! Can we camp outside again?
Annoyed as she was, Sabrina had felt bad that her kids had gone through such terror at such a young age. Most nights, she couldn’t sleep either. Once, she was half-way to the door, ready to pick up Adam, and shouting at Ilyes to get Lydia when she realized it was just Ilyes turning over in bed.
Fear is not the only thing keeping her awake at night. Just like before that Wednesday, she has spent much of her waking days and nights thinking what their lives would be like in the future. Who would pick up Lydia if they had to make a run for it in the middle of the night? How would she explain the whole thing to the kids? Part of her is relieved that she doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. But she also feels that part of her is gone. That part was gone a while ago, she realizes. She only felt whole very briefly when she first confronted him weeks ago, thinking it would end it all, but the whole world went literally upside down, and things didn’t play out as well as she had planned.
She had prepared these whole soliloquies and considered the best time to do it. Definitely when the kids weren’t around. But little did she know that when the right time came, she wouldn’t even know it.
It was a Wednesday evening. She remembers that because who doesn’t? Most Algerians would have remembered that day anyway because Real Madrid was playing Barcelona, and they had all given up their lives to watch the epic finale. Ilyes had come back home at six, giving himself an hour to change, take his afternoon coffee, and watch the pre-game speculations. He usually watches the big games with his friends at El Baraka— the neighborhood café where men sip coffee like addicts, curse like teenagers and gossip like old ladies, but he had recently bought a new TV, and he was still excited about how big and alive the game felt.
As Sabrina prepared his coffee, she couldn’t help but remember that time when she had needed the car to go to her friend Amel’s wedding. He promised he would be home by one; he was there at five-thirty. “When the fuck will you understand that if I can’t pick up the phone the first ten times, I can’t fucking pick up the following hundred?” was his apology. A position she wouldn’t have been in had she kept her job and car. Her dependency on him has been eating up chunks of her at a time and eating up bigger chunks of her love for him.
“Pas de mouskoutchou?” he asked absently as he sat for his coffee. He loved having her mushy chocolate cake with his coffee every day.
“No,” she lied, fidgeting with her khamsa necklace.
He took another sip then got up. “It is too cold, anyway.”
She just stared at the cup for some time then left the kitchen. She went into her kids’ room to see why they hadn’t fought for the last two hours. Lydia was standing half a meter from the TV, completely emerged in the Pokémon universe and unaware of the world around her, and Adam was sleeping under the little desk in the corner with the Nintendo resting on his face. Sabrina put the gadget on the desk, and carefully lifted him to his bed. She didn’t cover him because it was unusually hot and humid that day. She made Lydia lie in her bed to watch, certain she would be back up in front of the TV in no time. She closed the door and walked to the living room.
She sat in her couch reading the newspaper he had brought home while he lay on the sofa. The game had started, and he was watching more devoutly than she had ever seen him pray. I bet everyone is right now, she thought. Except for the neighbors’ dogs who were ceaselessly barking, outside was a ghost town.
“We need to get an air conditioner before the summer,” she said to no one in particular. No one in particular responded to her, either. They were watching the game.
“2001 Bab El Oued Flood Victims Still on The Street,” read one title on the French-speaking newspaper. Sabrina read about this family that was promised housing, but were still living in the ruins of their age-old colonial house for over a year and a half. Her mind trailed off to Bab El Oued where she had worked for years at a translation office. She once translated a love letter from Italian to French where a forty-seven-year-old woman was seeking a soulmate in an Algerian guy.
She had worked there since she graduated and loved her job. Her co-workers had become family. Sitting in her couch that evening, she longed for those sunny days she would go with Amel to buy hot, spicy Mehadjebs from the small dirty box of a shop on the narrow alley behind the office building and walk ten minutes to the seaside where everyone brought their lunch to eat in the cool Mediterranean breeze. It was their daily ritual which they only missed due to bad weather or, later on, terrorist attacks.
Sabrina also did live interpretation and often got to work in exciting places across the country and in Italy, translating for Italians and Algerians at conferences, meetings and fairs. That was the highlight of her career because she traveled at least twice every month, finally made enough money to buy a car, and she got to meet Ilyes.
It was during a pharmaceutical conference in Oran where she was accompanying an Italian CEO. She had spent the entire morning telling him about the products Saidal was working on while he absently nodded. Several times, she caught Ilyes checking her out. She watched him as he walked in and out, whispering in people’s ears and showing them notes on crumpled papers. His blue suit was cheap, but new and well-ironed, and the shiny silver watch he kept shaking around his wrist told her that he was one of those men who spent an hour getting ready in the morning, whistling at their reflection in the mirror. She liked that. She suddenly realized that she had missed a whole part of the presentation, but Marco either hadn’t noticed or couldn’t care less. She was glad when it was finally lunch time, and all the big shots were taken to the VIP lunch banquet. She stayed with Amel and other interpreters in the conference room.
As Amel went to freshen up in the ladies’ room, Ilyes showed up with three lunch boxes. He took Amel’s seat, kept one box for himself and handed her two.
“You must be hungry,” he said with a hint of a smile. He didn’t have a tie, and the top button of his white shirt was open showing a gold necklace. He spoke in French, so she couldn’t tell if he was from Oran or not.
“Ah, no, thank you,” she answered shyly. “I’m not hungry.” Her stomach gurgled in protesting betrayal, so he grinned while still holding out the boxes. The smile revealed a dimple on his cheek. He was handsome.
Embarrassed, she thanked him and took the boxes. She started with the juice, sipping on it as gently and femininely as she could.
“You must be thirsty from speaking all morning,” he said. His tanned skin highlighted his green eyes, his clean-shaven beard brought up his high cheekbones.
“With time, you get used to it,” she responded. His eyes were locked on her.
When Amel returned, she instantly saw what was going on, so she picked up her box and made herself scarce.
“Algeroise?” he then asked.
“Hussein Dey,” she nodded, and quickly regretted mentioning the exact town.
“I’m not far,” he finally spoke in Derja. “Fort de l’Eau.”
He asked her if this was her first time in Oran (It wasn’t), whether she had been around (Yeah, a little), and if she had been to Santa Cruz (No). He offered to take her out there in the evening. She pretended to hesitate a little, but when he suggested to bring her friend along, she said she would consider it. He took it as a yes.
After the conference, they drove up a steep road winding around the mountain, revealing bits and pieces of the city at each turn until they got to the top where the Virgin Mary stood majestically over the arches of the Spanish chapel, her arms open in an embrace for the city and the sea alike. The view was breathtaking. As the sun dropped below the clouds, the city and port came to light, a cosmic glitter covering the flat plain that extended to touch the summer dusk sun. When Sabrina felt Ilyes’s hand gently holding hers, she wasn’t sure how long it had been there. Without looking at him, she pressed it firmly.
“You son of the bitch!” Ilyes hollered at the TV, jerking Sabrina back to reality. “How can you miss that?”
“I want a divorce,” Sabrina said out of nowhere. She then remembered that the kids were in the next room, but it was too late. The barking dogs outside fell silent, the soccer fans stopped their cheering. Even the commentator sounded more interested in what was going on in their living room. Ilyes turned to her, eyes bulging out and eyebrows knotted together.
“I can’t take this anymore,” she said, louder now.
“Take what?” he half-shouted as he sat up on the sofa. She was frightened. Not by him, but by herself, and by what this conversation would do to her and her kids. Her stomach knotted. More so, she was relieved that she had finally let it out, and that they would have to deal with the problem now. “What the hell is going on?” he asked.
This isn’t the life I want, not the marriage I had dreamed about, she wanted to say, as she had planned to over and over again, but that suddenly sounded like a cheesy line from a Mexican telenovela. She tried to come up with something more concrete— a sound reason that she could blame on him, but it all faded away. A flock of birds took off the cumquat tree outside the kitchen, screeching.
“Is this about going back to work again?” he demanded. Yes, that was part of the reason, she thought, but she didn’t need to respond to that. He knew exactly what was going on, and that was why he was alarmed. The look on his face was that of a cheating husband when confronted by his wife. The dogs went back to barking, frantically this time as if they wanted to rip the entire neighborhood to shreds.
“It’s about everything,” she cried, cringing at the pain showing in his green eyes as he realized she was serious. Divorce had never been brought up before.
“Look,” he said with a shaking voice, but before he went further, the thunder came from a distance. It started far in the east, and got louder as it approached, as if buildings tumbled to the ground at its wake. When she shouted, “Earthquake!” the house had already started to shake in all directions, threatening to come down on them. They both jumped up and ran to the kids’ room. Frames came off the walls, and glasses and plates were knocked off the shelves. Glass broke all around them and doors trembled hysterically. The TV slammed down on the floor, shattering. The two-meter corridor leading to the room felt like hundreds of miles as Sabrina rushed dizzily to the door, dust falling off the roof.
Her head went numb when she tried to open the door and couldn’t. Lydia was screaming inside. Ilyes told Lydia to step away as he kicked the door repeatedly and uselessly. Sabrina kept moving the handle up and down until it finally opened. Lydia ran for them, and Sabrina handed her to Ilyes and told him to run. She rushed across the room to Adam who was still lying in his bed, crying. She grabbed him and ran for the bedroom door. The small TV fell on her foot, but she had no time to stop. Just as she was almost at the door, the swaying wardrobe crashed down and blocked their exit. That was when she finally let out a scream so loud she felt her guts bleeding. But the rumble drowned it all.
Then Ilyes crashed the window open from the outside. As Sabrina threw Adam into Ilyes’s arms and climbed out herself, the shaking paused momentarily, then took up again. They huddled in the middle of the backyard away from all the buildings and tried to calm the kids down while she prayed the earth wouldn’t part open and swallow them up. Sabrina had thought it was the end. But the second one wasn’t as bad.
Lying in bed now Sabrina is thankful that their experience wasn’t near as bad as some people’s. Her poor friend, Amel, had seen her entire two-story house flatten to rubble. Her husband had broken a leg, and her mother-in-law had died. She had stayed in a tent in Sabrina’s backyard until her husband was discharged from the hospital, but then they had returned to Corso because they had to be there if they wanted to be allocated a house. When Sabrina called her last night, Amel said they would be moved to new apartments today, so Sabrina offered to go down and help.
Sabrina gets out of bed and walks to the kitchen where she makes coffee and savors it in the quiet. She showers and changes then writes a note for Ilyes to “Watch the kids until I’m back,” and sticks it to the bathroom mirror. She remembers a time when she would leave him romantic notes there.
She doesn’t blame him for any of that. It’s not like he forced her to stay at home or anything. He had just kept telling her to. At first it was because of the terrorist attacks; he said it was too dangerous for her to go every day. She agreed with him, but she still felt like part of her was gone. Two years later, she started teaching French at a nearby high school. It was also dangerous for her, but the whole nation was in danger by then, and she didn’t feel any safer at home anyway. When Adam was born, however, his heart was weak. By the end of her three-month maternity leave, they would still rush him to the emergency room about once a week. So when Ilyes suggested that she stayed at home to take care of him instead of leaving him with Lydia’s babysitter, she didn’t think it was a horrible idea.
But she never got used to being dependent on someone, especially that Ilyes, she sensed, felt he should be doing all the decision-making since it was his money. Last year, she wanted to buy an air-conditioner, but he decided to change his car, and promised to buy an A.C. the following year. Then two months ago, he came home with a new TV. Small things like this have been eating up chunks of her and of her love for him, pushing them further and further apart.
“I’ve arranged for Mahmoud to come see the damage this weekend,” he had said casually over dinner last night. “He’ll tell us what we need to do to repair those cracks.”
Something about the way he emphasized “us” and “we” and the way he looked at her expectantly told her that this wasn’t about the construction. It was more about forgetting “we” ever had that conversation before the earthquake. She just nodded silently.
Sabrina starts the car and heads out to Corso. She feels like all the drivers on the highway share her state of mind. No one over-speeding or zigzagging or racing each other like they always do. Death still hangs in the air. As she gets closer to Corso, it’s even worse. Piled roofs where buildings used to be, with crumpled bars sticking out of the sides and rubble covering the roads. Here and there, a two-story house barely stands on its bent pillars, like a thin child holding his pee, as if ashamed to have survived the massive demolition.
If it weren’t for the ancient eucalyptus tree on the corner, Sabrina wouldn’t have recognized the street where Amel lives—lived. Dust piles onto her windshield as she drives past the ruins and adjacent green tents. The place is buzzing with loaders and excavators sweeping the rubble. A truck filled with broken furniture, mattresses and a dented fridge drives past her, followed by a white Clio with gloomy faces inside. These are not the faces of people going to new homes, Sabrina reflects.
Sabrina parks next to Amel’s car outside what appears to be their tent. She sees more trucks and vans being loaded with shabby furniture. Big muscled men in uniform idle around, alert as if they are expecting trouble. Her body goes tense. Amel emerges from her tent in the purple pajamas that Sabrina gave her and a white scarf covering her hair. Her face is gloomy, too.
“It’s all a lie,” says Amel with a broken voice. “They’re not taking us to apartments. They’re taking us to trailer camps in Reghaia.”
Sabrina knows that is not exactly ideal. “But it’s temporary, right?”
Across the street, a filming crew is setting up a camera and a journalist stands with his microphone rehearsing his lines.
“Yerham babak, Sabrina. That’s what they said to Bab El Oued victims over a year ago.” Sabrina remembers the article she read on the newspaper minutes before the earthquake. “The problem is,” Amel adds, “developers are already planning to build apartment buildings here. We’ll never get our lands back.”
“Then don’t go!” Sabrina urges, the blood boiling in her veins. “Stay out here. This is your home!”
“We could stay here for years and it wouldn’t change a thing. If fall comes upon us, the kids will suffer in these tents.”
Amel sounds beaten. She must have repeatedly had this conversation and found no other solution but to give up.
“At least the trailers will protect us from the cold until they move us to new apartments. Plus, we don’t have papers proving this land belongs to us anyway. We never thought this would happen, and these businessmen are taking advantage of the situation. While everyone’s in shock.” She looks away as she wipes away a tear.
“Today, as the nation still heals from its most devastating catastrophe in decades,” the journalist hollers in formal, poetic Arabic against the whistling wind. “Hundreds of victims and their families move to new homes, leaving grief and devastation behind. Today is a new era for those families. A new era for Boumerdes. Works have already begun to clear away the impact of the earthquake and start building a new vibrant community.”
Sabrina’s phone goes off, disturbing the gloom overcasting the street, so she hurriedly silences it. It’s Ilyes. “What can I do for you, Amel?”
“Pray for us.”
On her way back, Sabrina drives right past the signs leading to Fort de l’Eau, and before she knows it, she is in Bab El Oued. Amel’s words still ring in her ears. These businessmen are taking advantage of the situation. While everyone’s in shock. Ilyes has been calling ceaselessly, but she couldn’t care less. He probably needs the car. He always does. If they hadn’t had to sell hers to pay for rent and new furniture, they wouldn’t have had to share one car.
She parks in a narrow back alley and walks to the old dirty box of a shop. She buys two hot Mehadjebs and walks to the seaside to enjoy a peaceful snack. She is fidgeting with her khamsa necklace when Ilyes calls again.
She throws her phone into the Mediterranean.