The first time I noticed him, I was at a book fair in Syracuse, Sicily, my hand in the humid grasp of a Cypriot author I was meeting for the first time. She had recently published a novel about a family of migratory swallows who are unable to find a refuge where they could wait out the bitter winter. The images of small wings heavy with fatigue beating against harsh winds in an endless, inhospitable sky had moved me to tears.
It was spring, late afternoon, and the ground already returned the day’s heat in waves. We stood sweating under one of many white tents that covered the book stalls at Piazza Duomo, and I had just told her how my parents had married in Larnaca during the Lebanese Civil War. Whatever she said in response I can’t remember, because at that moment he entered my field of vision, seating himself gaunt and crumpled in a folding chair across the stall, wearing his hat tilted in such a way that I couldn’t make out his features. He was dressed in black, which was strange given the weather, and I remember thinking how much he looked like a shadow of a person, the idea of an old man. His presence unsettled me for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom, like a realization that I had forgotten something important. I thought nothing more of it until the next time I saw him. I was in Rome, over 800 kilometers away from Syracuse, gripping a stanchion in a swaying cabin across from him on the Metro B, telling myself that old men looked alike, that they wore the same anonymous clothes and stooped in the same slanted way, faces hidden.
“How are you?” Dawood asks me. This is our fourth meeting over two years of planned encounters otherwise on perpetual hold, the isolation punctuated by chats over text as lifeless as they were irregular. We balance on skinny barstools on either side of the small square birchwood table we share.
The TV, mounted high in a corner of the café, is turned to Rai News 24. A voiceover narrates a reportage on two years of pandemic set to images of medical personnel in white hazmat suits, hospital beds occupied by intubated patients, empty streets, tanks in Bergamo carrying away the many dead.
Truth be told, Dawood, I am not well.
But I tiptoe around that abyss because life leaves little time to be unwell; because people rarely ask to really know; because they expect that unwellness has a sell-by date and that if it persists beyond that, then it starts to stink; and because I would rather imagine Dawood’s hands on me than acknowledge the old man across the café who seems to be watching me from beneath his hat. Since when do Arabs talk about how we feel, anyway? There is always another problem, meatier, more deserving of our words. There is always a woman who says alhamdulillah when asked how she is, who sweeps the dust of her sorrows under rugs so it won’t be seen by neighbors. That is the legacy I have inherited.
“I am better,” I say, stirring a packet of sugar into my espresso. “Much better.”
Outside, a barista in a black waist apron wraps up her break, stubbing out her cigarette under her foot.
“You’re a strong woman,” he tells me. He rests his upturned hand on the table. I lay mine on top of it. The physical contact fastens me to the moment. The intimacy takes on a presence full of potential. “Resilient. You’ll get through this.”
I take my hand back. What a perfect distraction his touch was while it lasted. The barista switches the TV to a music video channel.
Dawood must see my eyes dart between him and the old man across the way because he turns to look.
“What is it?” he asks.
I can only make out a hint of a nose under the man’s hat and the suggestion of a jaw softened with age.
“What is what?” I say, looking back to Dawood.
He studies me, then he sighs. “You live too much up here,” he says, grinning and tapping a forefinger to his temple. His hair and eyes are dark, his smile is brilliant. “We need to get you out of your head more often.”
I recall how much grounding sensation I registered in that brief moment our hands were together — body heat, texture, light pressure — and I decide to stoke that potential despite the opportunism I detect in him. Skin-deep is all this is and all it ever will be, but skin has been such a rare delight of late.
“Is that an invitation?”
He smiles, feigns bashfulness. “It is if you’re accepting.”
When Dawood texts me later with a proposal — 8 p.m. at the Vignaio? What do you say? x — I almost forget about that eerie thing vying for my attention.
For two hours over dinner, floating in a blissful haze of summer heat and good wine and Dawood’s cologne, I don’t see the old man at all. Everything is normal. It is only when I come back to my apartment alone, drop my keys into an ashtray, slip off my dress and heels, and wipe off my makeup in front of the mirror that I remember.
Yet I tell myself that coincidences are abundant in this small world. The other two options — that I really am being followed or that I am losing my mind — are less appealing.
Of course, we are all a bit more fragile now, aren’t we? Though you couldn’t tell. You couldn’t tell with the way we march right back into step with whatever normal is.
I fall asleep far too late, my stranger’s eclipsed face lending itself well to dark dreams.
I am unwell. I don’t know what that means precisely, but it looks like this:
I awoke one day last winter to find myself in an alien space, a small and lightless corner in the belly of something immense and indifferent that looked just like my home but couldn’t have been, wondering how I came to be here when just the day before I was in a place that knew me as well as I knew it, where the cadence of steps on the staircase just outside our front door told me who was returning and the armchairs gave off a different sigh when filled with the light and studied weight of my mother or the carefree and trusting flop of my brother, where the bedrooms smelled of perfumed lotion or old schoolbooks, where all the fixtures we adorned our domesticity with replied to us in the same language we had taught them to speak over years of safe, unchanging habits.
I was too tired to feel alarm, so I stayed where I was and waited for something to happen, a cataclysm, a revelation, a confrontation worthy of the strangeness of my circumstance. I waited with little to divide my time into manageable files that could be filled and rearranged and talked about with others and stored away for nostalgic retrieval later. I imagined days and nights must have passed, but those long tedious stretches of nothingness might have been minutes, those merciful slumbers in which I dipped into dreams of light and color and life, hours.
I missed my home. It had such a soul to it. All that was left of it now were the bones.
I was untethered, rattling around in that space that only grew as I shrank. And when you happen in the hollow of something that much larger than you, it becomes so easy to vanish. I was engulfed by the enormity of my new prison, and I began to regard myself with its eyes, coolly observing my insignificance, oblivious to the miracle of my private, unrepeatable universe.
I knew what I needed to do. I needed to catalogue, to prove to myself that there had once been something beyond the confines of this territory I was steadily becoming more and more terrified to venture into as my initial numbness wore off. But all I did was work and drink and get high and watch as my world bled out. All I did was run in place.
There is so much beauty to life, I would be told. But I couldn’t bring myself to give a fuck about the trees or the blue sky. I never wanted to step into fresh snow again or smell the puff of smoke from a chimney, wood burning in the pleasant hearth of a house.
I am at a Syrian lounge in Campo de’ Fiori. The light rhythm of a tabla sounds in the background. Flavored smoke hangs thick between the close walls. A minute ago, I learned that I won a poetry award, and I opened my chats to tell someone, anyone.
While I wait for my drink, while I wait for Dawood to show, I feel him watching me, a nasty itch in the corner of my eye.
With each sighting, the old man draws nearer. Now, he seems closer to me than ever, on a sofa one table’s length from mine. I can see the liver spots on his hands. His legs are crossed, his arms folded across his chest. It is when my drink arrives and I uncross my legs and unfold my arms that I realize he was mirroring me, or maybe I him.
There is something happening to me, I want to tell someone, anyone. I’m scared.
I take my drink and move to another sofa.
A few sips of arak and my shoulders fall from my ears, the sharp edges inside and all around me are filed down, rounded. The old man begins to blur.
I order another round.
Dawood arrives. He shrugs off his sports coat and takes a seat on the cushions in front of me.
“I started without you,” I tell him.
“I can see that.”
This evening is duller than our previous encounter. Has potential become so easily exhaustible? I crave a long line of incipits, just for a while, a stretch of beginnings brimming with possibility, the pop of a starting pistol signaling a run. In between our leaving the lounge and Dawood’s attempt to book me an Uber, I drift above the city, its lights sporting great big halos in my unfocused eyes, the stifling summer night not offering enough air to propel me as high as I’d like to rise.
“Look at us,” I say, gazing up at the sky. “How far away we are from home.”
I suggest we go to his apartment. He doesn’t say no.
When it is over, I can’t tell whether I’m more disappointed in his failure to divert my thoughts away from the uneasiness that has taken up permanent residence in my body or by my willingness to see if he could succeed in the first place.
Having used each other up, I leave to walk home. Dawood doesn’t stop me, but he suggests I take a cab and asks me to write to him when I’ve arrived. I delete his number from my phone.
I am running out of places to hide.
Where to now, ya asfoura? Little bird, my relatives would call me. I was always darting off somewhere, translating the words I couldn’t speak into flight. Why won’t you stay awhile? I wouldn’t have known it then, but I was developing a habit of running away from problems and becoming very good at it. I suppose that, too, was part of the legacy I inherited: fleeing, putting distance between myself and the epicenters of disasters, failed states, spent relationships. I challenged the neighborhood children to races just to have an excuse to burn up those random bursts of energy that built up inside me, all that tension passed down to me from previous generations and accumulated in the fibers of my muscles, and I never quite understood what was so awful about breathlessness. Running was in the legs: as long as you had power there, feeling out of breath was just in your mind.
At the Ponte Sisto bridge spanning the Tiber River, it is unusually quiet. Yellow lights dance on the dark water. A blue surgical mask lies at the base of a lamppost. I hear footsteps behind me and a voice that says:
“We need to talk about your father.”
Without turning to look over my shoulder, I try to run, but there is no power in my legs now, no spark to set them spinning like before. I am mired in too much alcohol and the lethargy of a paralyzing nightmare and the old man’s words. Your father. The mention summons the smell of disinfectant, the blip of heart rate monitors, the artificial inhaling and exhaling of a ventilator, the sickening sensation of time running out, of sudden plummeting, perpetuated over weeks, watching death grow to the size of my father’s hospital bed as he shrank in its grip and struggled to breathe. I cover my ears, I never want to know breathlessness again, but he takes my hands in his.
“Do you still wonder what he would have looked like had he had the chance to grow old?”
I tilt his hat back, but the shadow doesn’t lift from his featureless face, and the pain of that empty sight is immediate, like a slap.
“I’ll never know,” I cry.
The old man tightens his hand around mine, as if to say it’s all right. “We need to talk about your father,” he repeats, “about the way he smiled in his wedding photo in Larnaca, the sound his shoes made on the steps outside your front door, the smell of his favorite soap, the way he clung to conversations with you so you would linger a little longer, the simple way he imparted wisdom you would appreciate as you grew older, how clearly you saw your triumphs reflected in the joy on his face, about what he meant to say whenever he built a fire for his family in winter…”
All those months spent running in place had brought me here, to the foot of a lamppost next to a discarded mask, with my face in my hands, a spectacle at the center of a gathering crowd of strangers asking me if I need help. How do I tell them I want them to lay their hands on my skin, to press me back into myself?
I had been storing in my body a catalogue of all the wrong things: the first freezing winter without a fire, that tenebrous hearth, the regrets, the silence, the absence, the distancing, the grave overseas.
A woman crouches next to me, taking me by the hand and lifting me up. I allow her firm, gentle pull to guide me through the crowd.
“I don’t know what happened,” she says, “but I’ll listen if you want to tell me.”