Where to Now, Ya Asfoura?—a story by Sarah AlKahly-Mills

15 July, 2022
Noor Bah­jat, “Grav­i­ty,” Sys­tem’s Plan­et series, 100x100cm, acrylic on can­vas, 2017 (cour­tesy Noor Bah­jat).

 

 

Sarah AlKahly-Mills

 

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.

Noor Bah­jat, “Self Hug,” Love series, 62x62 cm,  acrylic on can­vas, 2022 (cour­tesy Noor Bah­jat).

 

 

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.”

 

Arab identitydeathescapismGriefLebanese civil warmadness

Sarah AlKahly-Mills is a Lebanese-American writer. Her fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays have appeared in publications including Litro Magazine, Ink and Oil, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michigan Quarterly Review, PopMatters, Al-Fanar Media, Middle East Eye, and various university journals.

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