By Ahmed Fouad Eldin
Translated by Somaya Abulwahhab
I had not explored the apartment where I live with my wife until the Covid-19 lockdown. Yes, I’d signed the lease myself a few years earlier, and I was aware that the apartment was more than 100 m2. Yet I sensed its dimensions and the essence of the space only when I ceased to stay outdoors for hours at a time and had to live there, with her!
The kitchen, which takes up almost a quarter of the apartment, has become my personal cocoon. It is a square room; each side four meters long. It is second only to the living room in size. A modern wooden table stands in the center. It’s made of natural wood, revealing the age of the tree from which it was cut. The ripples were left undamaged by the lengthwise slicing of the logs, which were then stacked together to form the table. Except for the space where the door hangs on the wall, all sides of the kitchen are covered with shelves and cabinets. Together, they fence in the table. Mobility is possible through an aisle; or what is known to architects as a leeway.
My culinary skills never were much good. Still, every morning I rush to the kitchen to make my coffee before she wakes up and stand to the right side of the now-vacant leeway. This way, I avoid her grumbling, as she cannot stand the smell of coffee. I also spare myself the irritation of the squealing noise of her favorite kettle. But this morning, she wakes up unexpectedly early to make her milky tea.
She hurries to the front of the kitchen, and together, we form a perpendicular angle, with the sink as its vertex. We move along the same points at equal distances from the sink. At the same time, we reached the vertex. Baffled by each other’s proximity and propelled by the desire to brew our drink before the other, we both stretch out our hands, and then draw them back.
She puts the kettle aside, near the sink, and takes a step back. She loiters there until I have the water I need for my coffee. Again, we go our separate ways and stand at the furthest distance possible from one another. She fills the kettle with water, and I do the same with the coffee machine. We stand at two ends of an imaginary line dividing the kitchen in two.
I usually smoke in the kitchen, since the apartment has no windows. She usually takes her scrawny figure into the kitchen for meals, since there’s no tables in the living room. Now, we both sit at the table facing each other. The ventilation hood is not strong enough, and smokes curls all through the kitchen, mixing with the distinct scent of morning coffee. And while the scent leaves me relaxed, it makes her wince and cough. She moves back, and her wooden chair squeaks as it scrapes against the floor tiles. Eventually, she hits the cabinet behind her, blocking the leeway. I stub out my cigarette. As she eats, the noise of her lips smacking against each other, and of the food being ground down in her mouth, gets louder and louder. It’s making me nervous. I close my eyes and try to mentally escape the room. The noise persists. Furiously, I shove my chair backward and fly out of the kitchen, heading for the bathroom.
We had never shared any time in the kitchen. It was hers alone. I used to get my morning coffee on my way to work. She used to eat her meals alone, and so did I, when I got home late after work. The lockdown compelled us to share this space; something for which we had no clear rules.
We share nothing in the small bedroom, either. An imaginary line separates us in bed. My body is actually three times the size of hers. However, after some training, I could sleep motionless or move only within the limits of my section. The wardrobe is divided, too. I am allowed only a quarter, while she keeps the rest. In the living room, we each have our own space, but we never shared the bathroom.
Painting the kitchen cabinets and shelves black was her choice. It is a functional color, which reflects no trace of cooking spatter or oils. The space between the upper shelves and lower cabinets is filled with small, square brown tiles; some are decorated witih patterns of vegetables and fruits. She also chose a black marble countertop. Yet it’s not just black—it’s easy to see the different hues, and the cool marble tempts me to stroke it. If only I could sleep in this rectangular space, which feels like an open coffin. I look forward to the effect of its coolness on my flaming head and hot body. My sole fear is that I might roll off the counter and fall onto the kitchen floor, ending up trodden by passersby.
Reluctantly, today, I’ll lend her a hand in preparing lunch. She needs help with the chores, and unfortunately, my stay at home gives me no excuse to slip away. I stand on the right side of the kitchen while she remains on the left. She hands me the onions to chop. I waste a minute doing nothing, and she approaches my section, holding a knife. I get ready to defend myself, but she firmly drops the knife in front of me and leave. I don’t peel the onion before chopping it. My eyes are full of tears and my sinuses ache. Now, I have to pick off the tiny peels mixed within heaps of minced onions.
I can hear her working without looking over: the blade scraping the potato as she peels it, then the crashing sound of the knife as it slams onto the chopping board, turning the potatoes into slices, ready to be cooked. The sound of soft things hitting the chopping board frightens me. I can hear bones cracking. It must be the chicken being divided into eight pieces, as usual.
I lift my head up and give her a sideways glance. She is passionately adding yogurt, spices, and salt. I wonder where she got this passion. I do my job and move on, holding the platter of onions in one hand and the knife in the other. We both move at the same moment. I don’t see her, as I don’t look up. We crash into one another. Her platter falls, and its contents are scattered all across the floor and our feet. My gaze is fixed on the floor when blood droplets seem to fall from the ceiling. I stumble over a slick of yogurt, and it quickly turns pink. As the droplets increase, I try to move back, but my hand that is holding the knife stiffens. I leave the knife stuck in her wrist, which is now bleeding nonstop. She doesn’t cry out, not even when the knife falls and strikes the floor. Instead, I am the one who yelps, as the knife bounces back and gets stuck in my leg.
I drop the platter of onions. The intensity of the pain pushes me backwards. I hold the wound while hopping and whimpering like a child, eventually hitting my head against the wooden shelves. I catch a glimpse of her face to find her eyes in a fixed stare, filled with tears that fall quickly to the ground. She goes out, leaving me in the kitchen all by myself, and I lay my head on the cold tiles. The wooden forest of the table and chair legs rise up, a barrier that separates me from the scene of the accident.
The cold floor helps me relax. I close my eyes, trying to forget what happened, but then I see a huge white spot. It stops me from plunging into darkness. Perhaps it’s because my face is pointed up toward the ceiling light. When I open my eyes again, looking down, the floor is quite colorful. The colors merge, creating a mess that could tell a thousand tales. Only the black of the wooden cabinet still stands apart, unaffected by everything that has happened. Obviously, she chose just the right color.
Ahmed Fouadeldin is a writer and documentary filmmaker who studied engineering and media. He is author of a short-story collection titled Leeway, and his stories and articles have been translated to English, French, and Italian.
Somaya Abdul Wahhab Al-Samahy was born in Alexandria in 1983 and is a researcher and freelance translator. She is currently a PhD candidate English literature at the Faculty of Arts, Alexandria University. Her research interests include comparative literature, gender studies, postcolonial literature, and oral history. Her published contributions in the field include an Arabic translation of Prof. Khaled Fahmi’s “The Essence of Alexandria.”