This summer, we will run select pieces from summer issues of ArabLit Quarterly. This short story, by author Muhammad El-Hajj, tr. author-translator Yasmine Zohdi, ran in the summer 2019 SEA issue of the magazine, available as PDF, e-pub, and in print.
By Muhammad El-Hajj
Translated by Yasmine Zohdi
As soon as I settled into the kitchen chair, she jumped on my lap.
“The little bitch! She never does that with me!”
Mistika was a mountain cat Fatma had found a few months back while taking a stroll on a beach in Sinai. A few bedouin children had been throwing around a tiny ball of fur, and it wasn’t until Fatma heard the soft, hoarse meows that she realized they were playing with an actual newborn kitten. She screamed at them and they ran, leaving the kitten on the sand in a state of near-collapse. The next day, Fatma brought her along to Cairo, checking her into a vet’s clinic for a few days before taking her home to the apartment. For weeks, she filled Facebook with pictures of Mistika, trying to find someone to adopt her, but the cat’s wild nature remained an obstacle. She’d been with Fatma for six months, hiding in obscure corners throughout the day, scratching Fatma’s hand whenever she tried to touch her, avoiding guests and eating only when Fatma went out and the apartment was empty. Only when Fatma turned on the heater during cold days would Mistika come out to sleep underneath it.
Now she was on my lap, and I stroked her head as Fatma looked on, amused.
“Perhaps you should take her, Hazem. She might bring you some comfort,” she said.
Her suggestion made me uneasy. I continued to stroke Mistika’s back, and her body relaxed for a minute before she hissed and scratched my hand. I got up, annoyed, and she dropped off my lap and quickly ran inside. Fatma laughed. “I was wrong. It seems not even the cat wants you.”
The doorbell rang. Fatma stepped away from the counter where she’d been mixing the batter for her pancakes and gestured for me to stay put. She headed out to open the door, and I heard the doorman ask for her share of the fees to fix the elevator. She told him she’d speak to the landlord about it and closed the door.
“Did he see you come up earlier?” she asked nervously.
“No, he didn’t.”
“I don’t understand. My landlord just talked to me about this yesterday. Something’s not right.”
I didn’t give much weight to her anxiety. Fatma had recently moved out of her parents’ house after years of arguing about it. She’d tried to persuade them at times, angrily lashed out at others, and would sometimes leave to stay with her grandmother for weeks or months on end. It was almost like a traditional prison-break story, where one tests the limits of their guards’ capabilities before setting out on a long, elaborate plan for escape, and where — in addition to the pain of confinement — they also have to deal with the fear of being caught. Years of living with a father intent on exercising his authority over everyone under his roof and a mother who’d lost the ability to live outside such a toxic environment had saddled Fatma with an intuitive skepticism toward the world. This was why I’d learned to ignore most of her worries, particularly those having to do with why the waiter gave her that look or why my girlfriend hated her or why whomever wouldn’t call her back.
Fatma was trying to make out some voices coming from the alley beneath the kitchen window as I opened the fridge, took out a green apple, washed it, then went back to my chair and started to eat. The crunching sound brought her attention back to me. “You’ll ruin your appetite! Who am I making these pancakes for?”
I didn’t care about the pancakes. I could feel my indignation at her earlier comment about the cat rise again within me. I left the half-eaten apple on the counter. “I’m going out for a smoke.”
From the balcony, I gazed out at Abdeen Palace. It had always stirred my curiosity. Many times, I’d imagined myself as a 19th-century textile merchant from al-Azhar who knew nothing of the world beyond the alleyways of al-Sayeda, the nooks and crannies of the neighborhoods around the Citadel, and the trip from the shrine of al-Hussein to that of Fatima. How strange it would have felt for me, then, to suddenly come across this neoclassical structure — to see it there, looming before me, irrevocably changing the route I’d taken for years? To find myself standing before it — in the heart of my own city, in the heart of all that’s dear and familiar — and feeling small, excruciatingly small?
Oh well. Extravagance always made me think of nothingness. More attempts at distraction, all to no avail. Khedive Ismail ended up in debt and exile, and my relationship with Aya had come to a similar fate.
“I’m sorry,” Fatma’s voice came from behind me.
She stepped closer, leaning against the railing as she looked at me. I smiled, and she gently touched my cheek. We’d been playing the same role in turns throughout the ten years we’d been friends; she’d take care of me, and then I’d take care of her, and sometimes we’d both be in so much pain that neither of us could hear the other. Yet the comfort of knowing we were not alone was always enough to make it better.
Fatma took me by the hand and walked me back to the kitchen. She’d finished the batter and started to pour it into the pan. She talked about a bunch of things all at once, and I knew she was intentionally blocking every opening in the conversation where a certain subject could be brought up. I didn’t mind. I wasn’t going to ask her anyway—not directly at least. I knew no good would come of trying to find out what she was hiding. But I grew bored when she talked about Bassem’s birthday party without mentioning she’d met Aya there.
“Fatma, why are you doing this?”
“You’re teasing. I know everything already, so why do you keep going around in circles?”
“You know Aya’s seeing someone?”
What a fool I was. I wished I hadn’t spoken. Of course I hadn’t known, but I should’ve. Damn it, Aya. A new relationship? Already? It had been only six weeks since our stormy breakup. Was that how it goes? She’d called me a couple of weeks ago, and I’d been eager to answer, but something had held me back from picking up the first time. But there hadn’t been a second, and I spent days fighting the urge to call her back to find out what she’d wanted to tell me. Had she wanted me back? Had she finally come to realize I was the only man for her? By the end of the week, I’d convinced myself that her kitchen sink was probably blocked, and she’d only called to ask me for the plumber’s number upon discovering she didn’t have it. Now I knew she only wanted to do the decent thing and be the one to tell me she was seeing someone new, and when I never called her back, she simply let herself off the hook.
“She’s seeing someone?”
“Yeah. She brought him to the party.”
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know, I’d never met him before. Do you know Hadeer?”
“He’s her ex.”
I could feel a wave of melancholy slowly wash over me. Our relationship had died months before we’d actually ended it, like a cold body lying dead in the bedroom that we wouldn’t talk about but couldn’t really ignore, either. I’d told myself it would subside after a while, that perhaps if I waited — a week, two weeks, a month, ten years — I’d be rewarded for my patience. But Aya was firmer than that. She’d hesitated for months, out of fear of what her life would look like after the end, but she eventually decided: there were no more paths left for us to tread together, because our destinations weren’t the same. Despite my pain, I couldn’t help but admire her resolve. She knew what she wanted, and I wasn’t it.
“What’s he like?”
“Well, he looks like you, sort of. Tall and skinny.”
My head teemed with questions. How did they act together? Did she touch him, or did she worry people would tell me what they saw? Was he better-looking than me? Funnier, maybe? Was he elegant or disheveled? I ordered myself to stop. There was no use talking or thinking about it. The pancakes were ready. I helped Fatma take the plates out of the cupboard and carry them out to the dining table.
We sat down to eat. The day wasn’t going the way I’d imagined. Fatma had been knee-deep in preparing for her PhD exams when she noticed that it had been a while since we’d last met, so she’d called me to join her for breakfast on her day off. I’d thought that, to make it up to me, she would shower me with food and affection and lovingly listen to me as I ranted about everything. None of that was happening. She was constantly glancing at the clock to make sure the free time she’d allowed herself for the day hadn’t yet ended, and I was consumed with thoughts of Aya and her new boyfriend.
Halfway through our pancakes, we heard the jingle of keys outside the door. Fatma tensed, but seconds later her roommate Alia walked in, followed by Hassan, an actor I’d met a few times. He’d starred in numerous independent theater productions before recently landing a big role in a film. Alia started when she saw us at the table. For a brief moment she looked disappointed, but then she smiled as she took off her shoes by the door.
“Simsim, you’re here! I thought you were teaching today.”
“I didn’t go, habibti,” Fatma told her. “Join us, I made pancakes.”
“We’ve got some work to do, but we’ll come out in a bit—”
“Nope! I want to eat now,” Hassan interrupted. He bent down to hug Fatma before taking a seat at the table while Alia glared at him. At that moment, Mistika walked out, scanning the room with her eyes. She steadily made her way toward me before jumping onto my lap once more. Alia watched, astonished.
“Simsim! Did you see what that bitch just did?” Alia exclaimed.
Fatma looked at me with a grin. “What did I say?”
“She hates everyone! How did you get her to like you?”
I was busy chewing on pancakes and strawberries, so I didn’t answer, but it appeared that Mistika had managed to break the ice. A lively conversation ensued; Hassan told us how the vet tried to steal his wife’s cat and claimed she’d run away, while Alia spoke of the beloved cat she’d left at her mother’s house. The afternoon sunlight flitted in through the old curtains, bathing our faces, and the smoke from the joint Hassan lit after we’d finished eating swirled over our heads.
But the peace was only fleeting. Fatma’s phone rang. It was her brother, Ahmad, a correspondent for the New York Times. She canceled the call, but he called Alia. Fatma sighed and took the call to the balcony. She returned a few minutes later.
“It looks like there’s another raid today.”
Alia looked alarmed, while Hassan continued to grind the hashish, unperturbed.
It had all started a few days ago with a tweet warning downtown residents that the police would be searching apartments and making arrests ahead of the impending anniversary of the 18-day uprising. Nobody knew the person who sent the tweet, so it didn’t get much attention. But the raid did happen, wildly escalating over two days. In a phone interview on a TV talk show, the deputy to the Minister of Interior boasted that the police had broken into nearly five thousand rentals in and around downtown. It was a well-known routine: The informers would turn the apartment upside down, terrorizing the residents, holding on to whatever “evidence” they came across (old protest flyers, for instance, or books about human rights), before inspecting their email and Facebook accounts. The officer would begin by scrolling through your profile, and if they found any posts against the ruling regime… let’s say it wouldn’t turn out well. One activist had a post advising comrades to keep a piece of hashish at hand, just in case: offer it to the officer and he might refrain from going through your social media and take you in for drug use instead — a much simpler charge.
“Calm down, Fatma. We’re far from Qasr al-Aini,” I said.
“Ahmad just hung up. He says they have information from sources within the MoI.”
“Well, let’s wait until we know what’s happening. There’s no need to panic now.”
Fatma turned to Hassan, still busy with the hashish. He looked up at her, and his nonchalance seemed to calm her. “Good that you have some hash. We might need it.”
Hassan cleaned off his hands and reached up, bringing Fatma to sit down next to him. He kissed the top of her head, handed her the remaining piece of hashish, then looked at me and gestured toward the door. I knew we couldn’t stay; the presence of two men who weren’t relatives would make matters much worse for Fatma and Alia.
I was putting on my coat and scarf in the kitchen when I heard Fatma call me. I walked out, and she asked me to follow her into her room.
“Listen, I’ve had these euros ever since I was in Berlin, and this hard drive has all my thesis research. I can’t risk anything happening to them,” she said. “Keep them with you, I’ll take them back when this is over.”
I placed the money and the hard drive in the inside pockets of my coat. Then she hugged me so tight I no longer found it in me to be mad at her. I gave her a light kiss on the cheek before turning to head out of the room, and she playfully punched my shoulder. I turned back around, puzzled.
“You didn’t hug me back properly,” she said.
“Well, you pissed me off, Fatma. You really did.”
“And that’s why I was hugging you. I’m trying to say sorry, again!”
“I’ll hug you better next time.”
She laughed and threw a book from the pile on her desk at me, I ducked and chuckled before running out to catch Hassan at the door.
Downstairs, in the entryway to the building, the doorman stood with a man who looked unmistakably like a policeman in civilian clothing. I whispered my suspicions to Hassan, but he dismissed the idea. Then we walked past them.
“Were you upstairs, gentlemen?”
“Yes, we were.”
“Who were you visiting?”
It was ridiculous. The doorman interrogating us with the support of a police informer. I was this close to swearing at him when Hassan spoke: “At the dentist’s.”
“On the second floor?”
“You’re the doorman, and you’re asking me what floor the dentist is on?”
Normally, Hassan’s reply would have resulted in an obnoxious response, and probably more obnoxious questions. Perhaps they would have asked for our IDs, perhaps worse. One night, a friend of mine was driving a mutual friend of ours — a woman — home from a party in Maadi, when an officer stopped them, asking for his driving license, and demanding to know their relationship. When my friend answered, he sounded bored, which the officer didn’t like. He ordered him to pull over, which my friend did. Then he put our mutual friend in a taxi and went back to the officer, asking — a little sharply — why he was being kept. My friend ended up being beaten to a pulp at the police station, after being accused of assaulting an officer on duty. At that point, the best we could do was frantically search for any acquaintances within the ministry who could help us persuade the officer to drop the charges. Such stories were pretty standard; they evoked no surprise and no sorrow. Such was life in Cairo: a gamble and a constant test of shrewdness, good sense, and self-control. That was why Egyptians always sang about the cruelty of life, and about time as the ultimate teacher. It was brutal, yes, but it also forced you to be aware of the fragility of the world —valuable wisdom that was usually hard to grasp.
Hassan took a risk by responding sarcastically, but his bet was well-placed. He bet on our appearances: our wool coats, our leather shoes, my stylish eyeglasses, and his shiny Swiss watch. The informer kept the doorman from asking any more questions and signaled us to pass.
We finally walked out onto the street. I patted my inside pockets, making sure Fatma’s hard drive and money were safe inside, while Hassan lit a cigarette. We walked across downtown, surrounded by a seemingly endless stream of police cars on their way to break into the private spaces of other people, the most unfortunate of which we would hear about the next day, when news about those who’d been detained reached us in the form of Facebook posts.
I didn’t really have anywhere to go. My apartment had been cold ever since Aya left, my mother was in Alexandria preparing for her retirement, my sister was in the States with her husband and their daughter. I thought of someone else I could see, but quickly scratched the idea. Hassan interrupted my chain of thoughts by asking if I wanted to play a round of backgammon at the ahwa. I shrugged, and we made our way back towards Strand. Amr was on shift — he was downtown’s most elegant head waiter, with his crisp white shirt and swift, graceful movements. He nodded when he saw me, the friendliest gesture he’d shown me ever since I started frequenting Strand ten years ago, but his expression changed as soon as he noticed Hassan behind me. I ordered a shisha and a cold sobia despite the chilly weather, and Hassan ordered a coffee. By the time Amr returned with our drinks, a police car had stopped on the other side of the street, and a force was descending to make its way into the adjacent building.
“What’s happening, Amr?”
“Downtown is on fire, pasha. It’s been like this for three days now. Yesterday they came and went and came and went. Then they camped out at the ahwa for four full hours, drank their fill, and left without paying for anything.”
“Alright. Bring us a backgammon board.”
I glanced at Hassan before we both silently started sipping on our drinks, trying to ignore what we’d just heard, until Amr came back with the backgammon. For years I’d tried and failed to memorize the Persian names for dice that ahwa-goers in Cairo used with such ease, a fact Hassan didn’t fail to remark on. He made another comment about me being a beginner, right before he dealt the final, humiliating blow that ended the round. He almost closed the wooden board — there was no fun in beating beginners, after all — but I insisted we go for a second round. As we played, he kept directing me to the triangles where I should move my pieces, but I refused his advice, because it came from a condescending place, and anyway I didn’t want a victory that wasn’t earned. I almost got him that time, but he won again. My phone rang as soon as we were done. I looked at the screen and got up to take the call outside. Hassan reached out to close the board, but I signaled him not to, and made my way out.
“Why haven’t you been calling me?”
It was complicated. Incredibly complicated, actually.
Dalal and I had met at the movies. I’d been watching a really bad Kurdish film and decided to leave halfway through. She followed me out and told me I’d forgotten my backpack. I took it and thanked her, but she didn’t go back inside. She ordered a coke and stood drinking it at the cafeteria. I approached her, saying I had a feeling I’d seen her before, and she reminded me that she’d been to mine and Aya’s place, once, when we’d hosted a mutual friend’s birthday party. I was surprised — I wouldn’t have thought I’d forget a face as beautiful as hers. She said she’d heard me curse the director under my breath in the theater, and I laughed and apologized if I’d ruined the film for her. “Oh, no,” she said. “It’s a shit film.” In a few minutes Aya had returned from the bathroom. She nonchalantly greeted Dalal, then we were on our way. Weeks later, I ran into Dalal again at a bookstore in Zamalek. She told me her grandmother had just died, and I talked of my fear of death–particularly the thought of my mother dying–and my eyes had watered. She suddenly asked if I liked carrot cake; I said I did. She ordered us a slice from the bookstore’s cafe, took a bite then almost instantly spit it out onto her plate: “This sucks,” she said, and we left. At home, I told Aya about our encounter. She raised her eyebrows without a word. That’s when I thought perhaps it would be wiser not to run into Dalal again.
We did run into each other once more, however. That time, Aya and I were going through a rough patch; I’d left our apartment and was staying at a friend’s place. We hadn’t met for ten days, but the wedding of two of our closest friends forced us to appear together in public. Aya was already there when I arrived. I kissed her, and she left me and headed for the dancefloor. I scanned the room for the bar, only to see Dalal standing there. The coincidences that had brought us together before had stopped once Aya had raised her eyebrows, but some plan beyond my control had led to that moment: me watching Dalal lean against the bar in a sleek black dress that emphasized her beautiful body. I was surprised — I wouldn’t have thought I’d forget such full, smooth thighs. I walked toward her and hugged her as though we were good old friends. She seemed as happy to see me as I was to see her. She chided me that we hadn’t met for months, I chided her that we hadn’t met for months, and we agreed to meet for breakfast two days later. That morning Aya left me, and Dalal and I spent seven hours together.
“Hey, asshole. I’m talking to you.”
“Why haven’t you been calling me?”
“Well, we’re talking now, aren’t we?”
“Are you serious?”
Dalal had that authoritative tone sometimes, and I liked it. I liked the idea of a woman wanting to possess me, much the same way she liked it when I called her after we’d parted at night, to make sure she got home safe.
“Alright, I’m sorry.”
“Well, I’ll consider your apology. I’ll let you know later if it’s been accepted.”
My relationship with Dalal was evolving in different directions. When I met her the day Aya and I broke up, I’d been planning to spend two, three hours with her, talking about nothing of consequence, before I took a train and went back to Alexandria for a while. What happened, however, was that I spent the entire day with her, moving from one spot to another on Road 9, from morning coffee to lunch to shisha at sunset. I cried, I made jokes, I felt my existence weighing on my chest, I felt as light as a helium balloon, and I told her everything about everything, as though I’d known her ever since I was a fetus, as though we were strangers who’d just met on a train.
In the weeks that followed, we spoke every single day, for hours sometimes if we didn’t meet, but we always met. I’d left my friend’s place in Maadi and, after Aya decided to move out, I’d gone back to the apartment I had shared with her. It wasn’t always comfortable being there, but facing the ghosts of your past can be a useful exercise, sometimes. I would take Dalal on nightly excursions across the neighborhood: we’d start south, near the Orman Gardens, and walk to its northernmost parameters — the end of Al-Batal Street, where there was a Baskin Robbins. We’d grab some honey chipotle chicken from Chili’s on our way, then head to the waffle place in front of the Czech Embassy. We’d pass by the edges of Dayer al-Nahya, dismissing the hostile looks we got from the boys and men lurking on street corners. I would walk, and I would watch Dalal walk — that walk that looked as though she’d just invented it, as though she’d whipped together a collection of movements by different creatures. How does a cat walk? Or a fox? Or a mare? More seriously: How does beauty walk? How does radiance? I was delving into something I couldn’t quite fathom with every step we took together.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at Soha’s, come pick me up then.”
She was firm. It was the kind of firmness a person was capable of only when they knew just how powerful they were. I considered letting her down, but I really wanted to see her. I imagined she knew what Fatma had told me about Aya, and that was why she’d called me. It was as comforting as it was unsettling. It was heart-warming that she was trying to take care of me, but I felt a twinge of anger stir within me. I didn’t want her pity. But God, I missed her. I hadn’t spoken to her in two days. I’d dropped by her work earlier in the week when a friend of mine who worked at the same place winked and said it was weird that Dalal saw more of me than he did. I got defensive, but his remark made me uneasy, and when Dalal approached I’d grown a little sullen. She asked me what was wrong, I told her, and she called him names and said he was just jealous because he’d asked her out a couple of months back and she hadn’t shown much interest. Her response filled me with even more questions, but I didn’t voice any of them. I left early that day, and I hadn’t spoken to her since.
“Okay. I’ll pick you up.”
“I’ll call you when I’m downstairs.”
I went back into the ahwa. Hassan had closed the backgammon board, and I was about to reopen it when he said he wasn’t in the mood to play. While I was on the phone, the police had come down with someone he knew from the building across the street, a drummer in an up-and-coming indie band. I asked if he wanted to leave, and he said yes. He got up and headed outside to make some calls — friends, human rights lawyers, and journalists, I guessed. The same old, boring routine. I paid for our order and left the ahwa. Hassan was still on the phone, and he asked where I was going. “Mounira,” I replied softly, and he said he’d join me. I wanted to object, but he’d already shifted his focus back to the call. Oh well, why not? I walked, and he followed.
The trip from downtown to Mounira used to be easy; we’d just walk down one long, straight street, starting at Hati al-Geish all the way to Mobtadayan, taking no turns all the way. It was in that street where I stood, one hot August day in 2008, watching the flames and the smoke rise from the parliament building, and thinking about the death of Cairo. What did it take for an old, battered city to fall and rise no more? Perhaps that was the problem; Cairo was far too restless, each time she started to surrender, her imagination prompted her to act, feverishly. Oh, how she promised, and how she betrayed. We were making our way down Mohamed Mahmoud Street now. Police presence was even heavier there, and I bitterly remembered those who’d been killed beneath the walls, on the sidewalks, on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. Were we more stubborn, or was the dream?
When Soha’s building appeared in the distance I brought out my phone to call Dalal. It had died. I held it like a dead fish, not knowing what to do with it, before putting it back in my pocket. I squeezed my brain, trying to remember Soha’s apartment number, but my attempts were cut short when I saw a lock on the gate. I turned to Hassan, who was still on the phone. I signaled him to be quick, and he hung up a few seconds later. I asked if he had Dalal’s number, and he said he did. He scrolled through his phone for a moment, then said he didn’t after all. I gazed up at Soha’s balcony, willing her to look out. I tried to open the gate, although I knew it wouldn’t budge. I asked Hassan if he had Foad’s number, a mutual friend. He searched until he found it and called him. He was on the phone for three minutes before he came back saying Foad had lost his phone and still hadn’t restored most of his contacts on the new one. I looked at the gate again, helplessly. I was about to turn around and leave, but Hassan stopped me saying, he would make one last try. He dialed and waited.
“Sheero! How have you been?” Then: “Are you alright? What’s wrong?”
He gave me a concerned look as he spoke. I told him to ask her for the number and get on with it, he signaled me to be patient. It seemed I had to wait until Shereen was done complaining. I was leaning against a tree by the building, waiting for Hassan to finish, when I heard the gate squeak. It was Dalal.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Dalal appear somewhere — approach from a distance, come out a door or descend a flight of stairs — but a strange comfort grazed my heart at the sight of her. My smile widened as she hugged me. I went on holding her until she comfortingly patted my shoulder and let go. She turned and said hello to Hassan before coming back to stand next to me.
“What took you so long?”
“I came right after we hung up, but the gate was closed, and my phone died, and Hassan couldn’t find your number, and Foad lost his phone so Hassan called Shereen to ask her for it but here you are.”
“Oh, is that Shereen he’s talking to?” She was already moving towards Hassan, asking him to hand her the phone. He gave it to her and asked me for a cigarette. I gave him one before I lit one for myself, while Dalal continued talking to Shereen. She moved closer to me, took the cigarette from my hand, and inhaled as she held my gaze. Then she returned it and continued pacing and talking. I was a little disconcerted. I looked at Hassan out of the corner of my eye and glimpsed a subtle smile playing on his lips.
“Give me a second, I’ll ask them,” Dalal was saying.
She asked if we wanted to go over to Shereen’s. Hassan instantly said he would, while I whispered that I didn’t even know who Shereen was. She waved a hand dismissively and told Shereen we were on our way. She hung up and gave Hassan back his phone as we started moving towards the corner of the street to find a taxi. I was walking next to Dalal, our arms touching as her body swung the way it always did, and I could feel my temperature slightly rise. I couldn’t tell what was going through her head. Her voice carried a certain urgency, but there was a lightness to her step. Perhaps she’d had some wine at Soha’s, I guessed, but she didn’t necessarily seem drunk.
In the taxi, Hassan sat next to the driver, while I sat next to Dalal in the backseat. She poked my arm and gestured towards the dashboard with a grin. The driver had plastered a photo of a boy and a girl who I assumed were his children. They stood in a way that reflected an aesthetic embraced by the people of Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods, the boy’s chin resting on his fist, his elbow resting on his raised knee, his foot in turn resting on a red pouf in front of them, while his sister stood behind him, his hand on her shoulder. The background was a pale, blurred version of the foreground, and to the right of frame the boy appeared again in the same pose, this time on his own, from another angle: his chin against his hand, the solemn look in his eyes more pronounced, as though he were contemplating the prospect of peace in light of expanding settlement activities in the West Bank. It was surreal: the specters of the children across the photo, the odd composition, the eclectic space itself, and the hues in the backdrop, which ranged from light pink to bright blue. I laughed at the absurdity, and yet a strange beauty emanated amidst the repetition and the excess, which kept my eyes glued to the picture. It was its inner rhythm, perhaps, or how it was structured so that the girl’s hand on her brother’s shoulder echoed his chin on his fist, his elbow on his knee, his foot on the pouf. I looked at Dalal; I knew she’d appreciated the same things about it. We laughed softly, enveloped by an intense feeling I decided was gratitude — that we were who we were, that that picture was plastered on the dashboard.
We got off in front of an old-looking building in Manial, near Abbas Bridge. Hassan suggested we buy some snacks before we went upstairs, and then he disappeared into a supermarket on the corner, leaving me and Dalal alone. She moved closer until she was standing next to me.
“I missed you,” I said.
My relationship with Dalal confused me. I was still longing for Aya, but whenever I saw Dalal I couldn’t control what I felt. The easiest way to describe it would be what Alberto Giacometti said after being hit by an automobile in 1938: “Something has happened to me.” Something was indeed happening to me. I’d spend hours in her company and hardly feel the time pass. At night, consumed with grief over Aya’s departure, I’d call her, and—although she’d been sleeping—she would soothe me: firmly, gently, her voice lush and deep, like the green of the Nile and the endless indigo of the Cairo night. I needed her the way nights needed company, yet I’d push her away sometimes, and she’d lash out. We were constantly negotiating our closeness. I’d tell her I was upset, that maybe it was better for her to run away from me and toward clearer things; she’d steadfastly answer that she was a big girl and didn’t need me telling her what to do. I’d pull back and she’d dive in, then she’d withdraw, and I’d scurry back to her, terrified. She’d receive me with tenderness, and her certainty would scare me, so I’d wiggle away again. But she’d always bring me back. I exhausted her the way my mind exhausted me.
“Is that why you haven’t called me in three days?”
“I want to tell you something.”
“Aya’s seeing someone.”
I hadn’t planned on telling her, I just found myself saying it, and for a moment I was annoyed at the way I’d blurted it out. She looked hard into my face and said nothing. I lowered my gaze to the ground; she stroked the back of my head, burying her fingers in my hair. I glanced up to survey the street, looking out for any other souls lost in this wintry inferno. It was empty. I thought of resting my head on her chest, but Hassan showed up before I could. “Let’s go,” he yelled from a distance, and made his way into the building.
Shereen was waiting at the door to her apartment. She’d probably heard the elevator and had come out to see if it was us. Dalal hugged her and went in first, then Hassan.
“Hi, I’m — ” I started to say, but before I could introduce myself she’d shaken my hand and started to walk in. I followed. It seemed that she’d just moved in: it smelled of fresh paint, and there were sparse furnishings, a dining table and chairs still covered in plastic, home appliances in their boxes and wrapped-up rugs in the corners. A large black-and-white portrait of a woman who appeared to be in her forties dominated the scene. Her short hair was partially covered with a scarf, her expression solemn. An ornamental wooden cross stood in another corner of the room.
“What would you like to drink?” Shereen asked. “There’s vodka, rum, whiskey… I think we should go with whiskey, no? I have an unopened bottle of Glenfiddich.”
She came back from the kitchen with four scotch glasses — two in each hand — and the bottle under one arm. I was about to tell her there were safer ways to carry them, but I noticed her eyes were red and her lips were trembling slightly. In that exact moment, the bottle fell to the floor, the crash echoing across the space. I watched the golden liquid seep through the old tiles as Shereen kept repeating: “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, it’s alright. I’m sorry.” She knelt to clean up the broken glass, and when Hassan got up and tried to help her, she looked up swiftly and snapped: “Don’t! I’ve got this.” She brought out a broom and a dustpan and started sweeping the shattered pieces in fast, nervous movements, still muttering: “It’s alright,” before she suddenly burst into tears. Everyone was still and silent for a moment. Hassan had a bewildered look, while Dalal took the broom and dustpan from Shereen’s hands, set them aside, and held her close. “What is it, habibti? What’s wrong?” Shereen’s sobs grew louder as Dalal continued to stroke her shoulders soothingly. That’s when I noticed the glow on Dalal’s face and realized that she, too, was crying.
Dalal was still wordlessly consoling Shereen, tears on her face, when I heard an abrupt whimper from behind me. I looked at Hassan, and he quickly buried his face in his arm, wiping his eyes. I couldn’t believe it. I walked out to the balcony. That wasn’t how I’d expected the night to go. I gazed out at Abbas Bridge, watching the incessant flow of cars in the distance. The city was heavy, like a dead elephant’s corpse collapsed on a line of ants, and the air felt like rods of stillness lodged in my lungs.
“I can’t imagine what you must be thinking,” Shereen’s voice came from behind me. “We’ve only just met, and I’m suddenly blubbering like a child. I’m sorry.”
“No, please,” I said. “You wanted to spend some quality time with your friends. I’m sorry I imposed.”
“Not at all. I’m glad you’re here,” she said. She stretched out her hand: “I’m Shereen.”
“Well, I know who you are, too, but I thought we were pretending it’s alright and nothing happened inside, and we’re just meeting now.”
She chuckled and took me by the arm back into the room. The floor was still glistening with whiskey, but the shards of glass were gone. Hassan was coming out of the bathroom while Dalal was trying to find a mop. Shereen disappeared into her bedroom for a minute, came back with a piece of hashish, and placed it on the table.
“At least we know this won’t break,” she said with a small smile.
Hassan brought out a pack of rolling paper from his pocket, but she shoved it aside and brought out a glass covered in a piece of plastic film that she’d pierced with two holes: one for the pin with the hash, the other to inhale.
The glass made its way around while Shereen turned on the BBC to watch the 10 o’clock news. It was filled with the usual catastrophes from around the world: a huge fire somewhere in Asia, a plane crash, a mass grave that had been discovered somewhere or other. Hassan made a joke about the apocalypse at which no one laughed, even though we were all pretty stoned. He looked offended. He rose from his seat on the floor and said it was getting late and he had to get home to his wife. He headed towards the door with a loud “see ya,” and left.
As soon as he was gone, Shereen asked if we were hungry, and I said yes. She ordered a rucola pizza from a place in Zamalek. I objected, saying I didn’t like my pizza with greens on top, but Dalal covered my hand with hers and said I would love this one in particular, before setting her head on my shoulder.
Shereen hung up and lit a new piece of hash attached to the pin, then placed it inside the glass. She took a whiff before she put it back on the table, waiting for more smoke to gather. She turned to Dalal.
“Why did you bring that guy with you?”
“Bring him? You two were on the phone when I saw him.”
“I know. Well, he’s alright, I don’t know. Do you know about that girl he’s seeing?”
“He’s cheating on his wife with this girl, a theater director or something.”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it? Lecture him about right and wrong?”
“I don’t know, but it’s bullshit to be honest.” She took another whiff from the hash glass, coughed, then stretched on the floor and went on: “It’s bullshit. And the world is bullshit and I’m so over it and I really want to travel somewhere but I have no money and I don’t even know what use it is leaving if I’m going to come back to Cairo anyway. What use is anything, really? We’re alive, there’s no cure for that.”
Dalal said nothing, and neither did I. The only sound in the room was the BBC’s weather forecast, predicting heavy rains in London and snow in Istanbul and another sunny day in Dubai. Dalal put her head on my thigh; I placed a hand on her shoulder. I looked into her eyes, overcome with tenderness, as smoke clouded the glass on the table.
The shrill sound of the doorbell shattered the moment. Dalal and Shereen each got up, rummaging for their wallets, while I opened the door, paid the delivery man and returned with the pizza. The hash had left us ravenous. I opened a can of beer, gulping down slice after slice, nearly unaware of the rucola leaves I hated. When we were done eating, Shereen got a phone call, after which she told us she was going to a house party in Garden City. She asked if we wanted to join, but neither Dalal nor I showed much enthusiasm.
Dalal asked if I was going back to Dokki, where I lived. I said yes, and she said she’d go back with me. Shereen told us she would be passing by Dokki to meet her dealer for a new bottle of Glenfiddich and that she could drop us on the way, but I said I wanted to walk. She took my hand, and this time brought me in for a kiss on each cheek. “I’m not crazy,” she said in a low voice. “I just had a rough day.”
I nodded in understanding, Dalal gave her one more hug, and we left.
It was drizzling when Dalal and I walked out of the building. I had always loved how it rained in Cairo. In a city of heat named “The Oppressor,” I couldn’t help but think the sky wept for us, the inhabitants of that sorrowful place. Dalal asked if we should get a taxi, I said no. We walked to the street corner and turned left onto Abbas Bridge, heading toward the Giza Corniche.
“So, how do you feel?” she asked me.
“I feel okay.”
I didn’t want to talk about it. I pretended to rummage for my cigarettes in the pockets of my trousers, then my coat. I looked up to see a man selling chickpea soup staring at us. He leaned in and whispered something to one of his customers, who looked at us in turn with a yellowish grin on his face.
When you’ve lived in Cairo for years, you acquire a thick skin and a steady indifference toward anything that doesn’t classify as an existential threat. That didn’t, however, stop me from thinking I ought to walk up to that bastard and punch him in the nose. I glanced at Dalal. She, too, was looking at the chickpea seller, and to my surprise after meeting her eyes, the man and his miserable customer turned away, their staring session cut short. She reached out for my pack and pulled out a cigarette, placed it between her lips, then brought a lighter out of her purse. She lit her own cigarette before tilting it up to light mine with its smoldering tip. I leaned in and inhaled deeply, letting the smoke out in exasperation.
“I got the scholarship.”
I looked up at her, astonished. She wasn’t looking at me; her eyes were on a neon-lit boat making its way across the river on that late-winter night.
“When did you find out?”
“The day before yesterday.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.”
It was happy news, but she didn’t look happy, and neither was I. I didn’t know how to respond. I took another drag on my cigarette then flicked it over the bridge, half-finished.
“I’m surprised you didn’t tell me as soon as they let you know.”
“You weren’t talking to me.”
“It wasn’t intentional. I just don’t want things to get confusing.”
“Well, I don’t mean confusing… I don’t know.”
She didn’t persist and I didn’t elaborate. We had descended the bridge and were walking down Nile Street towards Galaa Square, the grand river boats to our right, the French Embassy to our left. We’d been silent for a while when I heard a low meowing sound. I asked Dalal to stop as I tried to figure out where the weak squeals were coming from. I took a step backwards, scanned the sidewalk, and looked below the cars parked next to it until I noticed a motorcycle maneuver to avoid hitting a tiny bundle in the middle of the street. It was a kitten. Newborn, it seemed. She didn’t appear to be able to move, even though she was still meowing. I took off my coat and looked both ways to make sure the road was clear. Right before I reached her, a car sped by and my heart leapt into my throat. I didn’t know for sure if it had run her over, but I let out a loud curse, hurried towards the kitten, and wrapped her in my coat before walking back to the sidewalk.
Dalal was still there, unsure unsure what was going on. I handed her my coat with the kitten inside it, took my phone out of my pocket, and dialed Fatma’s number. She answered in a sleepy voice, wondering why the hell I was calling so late. I asked if she knew a vet clinic or a shelter that would be open at that hour. She said she’d make a few calls and get back to me. I took the coat from Dalal, crouched down to place it on the sidewalk, then opened it and peered at the kitten inside. The car had crushed her head. Her little brain was smashed, and one of her eyes dangled from its socket. My head was pounding, my heart racing in my chest. If I’d been faster, if I’d rushed across the street and tried to stop that car — perhaps I could’ve saved her. Or he would’ve hit me as well.
“Is she dead?” Dalal asked, and my phone rang at the same moment. It was Fatma. I told her the kitten was already dead and listened listlessly as she tried to console me. I hung up, walked to the concrete fence of the corniche, and emptied my coat of the kitten’s small, mangled body. It fell among the rows of plants that lined the riverside nursery below.
“What are you going to do?” Dalal asked as I walked past her and onto the street.
“I’m going to find a taxi. I’m tired of walking.”
“But you said you’d walk me home.”
“No, I said I was walking home, and you said you’d come along.”
“Alright. Suit yourself.” Her voice was steely. She gathered her coat around her slender frame, turned around, and walked off, brisk and deliberate.
I saw a taxi approach and raised my arm to stop it. I was about to get in but then I gazed once more toward Dalal. I was surprised to see that she had stopped and stood a few steps away, looking back at me. I apologized to the taxi driver, and he swore at me and screeched off. I walked back to the fence where I’d thrown the kitten’s body and sat down. In a few seconds, Dalal was standing before me, silent. I looked around to make sure no one was there, then rested my head against her stomach. She looked around to make sure no one was there, then put her hand against the back of my head and pulled me closer.
“It’s alright, you can cry,” she whispered.
Something crazy unraveled within me, something I’d been trying to keep locked in for what seemed like an eternity. I felt my heart crack like the windshield of a car that had just crashed into a wall. Hot tears spilled from my eyes and my sobs grew louder, wracking my entire body. Dalal didn’t say a word, but she wiped her eyes and I could feel the wetness of her own tears when her hand moved back to my neck. I saw a passerby approach on the sidewalk, several plastic bags in each of his hands. He walked past, but then stopped in his tracks, looked back, and slowly made his way toward us. He looked at Dalal: “What’s wrong with him?”
“The cat died,” Dalal answered solemnly.
The man fell silent for a second then said: “Sorry for your loss.”
He walked off, but it wasn’t until a few long moments later that my tears stopped. I looked up at Dalal. “The cat died? Seriously?”
Then I laughed. It came out loud but heavy. I got up and gave her a playful shove, mimicking the sober look on her face as she sadly declared: “The cat died.”
She began to laugh as well, uncontrollably. “Well, what did you want me to say?”
I wrapped an arm around her neck and pulled her gently towards me, then let her go with another light shove, and we started walking once more, still laughing.
“You’re going to leave, and I won’t have anyone to cry or go hysterical with,” I said after we’d caught our breath.
“Maybe I won’t.”
“I don’t know, I’m still thinking about it.”
“Thinking about what? Are you crazy? Go finish your Master’s and find something better to do than dodging asshole officers at checkpoints and asshole men on the street.”
“That’s really naive, Hazem. It’s not that easy.”
“Nothing is, but most things are easier than life in Cairo.”
“No. Nothing is easy.”
I wanted to make a joke, but I knew she’d be able to tell I was using humor to cover my vulnerability. I looked at Dalal, studying the beauty of her face in the light emanating from the new Saudi Embassy — her wide brown eyes, her full lower lip, her delicate chin, the curve of her cheeks, the dimples that adorned them. My heart overflowed with tenderness. How generously she’d opened her world to me when my own had seemed so small. I remembered our first meeting after I’d broken up with Aya. Seven hours we’d spent together — I laughed and cried, I told jokes and tragic stories, she listened and the back of her hand brushed against mine as we walked side by side.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said.
“I’m going to miss you too.”
She took my hand in hers and squeezed it wordlessly. We crossed Galaa Square together as the baking aromas from Simonds filled the air. We were getting closer to her place. We made our way down al-Sadd al-Aali Street, past Bob Sushi, Alfa Market, KFC, the medical examination headquarters for Egyptians hoping to migrate to Kuwait, the Spanish Cultural Center. When we reached Quick, she asked me to wait outside while she bought a bar of chocolate. I leaned against a parked car and looked out across Vinni Square. I watched an ambulance speed towards Shabrawishi Hospital, my own heart speeding in my chest. When she came out of the store with her chocolate, we continued on our way toward her building through the numerous circles of teenagers scattered around the square, and all the while I was wondering at what point I should leave her. I expected her to invite me up, but I wasn’t entirely ready for that. It wouldn’t be the first time for me in her apartment, I’d gone up a few times throughout that past month, the last being a week or so ago. She had been sick, so I told her I’d pass by and picked up a kilo of bananas on my way. “You shouldn’t have,” she’d said when she saw it, and I told her it was good for her cold. “Oranges are,” she’d replied with a smile, but she took the bag anyway.
“I should go home,” I told her now.
“You don’t want me to?”
“No, I don’t. Come up.”
“Me too. But come up.”
I didn’t want to flat-out refuse, so I made a couple more excuses, but when she insisted, I told myself there was no harm in it. What’s the worst that could happen? The effect of the weed had almost completely worn off. I could stay for twenty minutes or so. Dalal switched on the light at the entrance to the building, then turned to me with her finger against her lips, signaling me to be quiet. She started to ascend the stairs and I soundlessly followed. We stopped for a second when we heard a door open and a man shuffle out with a trash bag. He placed it in the bin in front of his apartment and walked back in, the door closing with a bang behind him. We stayed still until the lights went off, then continued on our way up.
Her apartment was a lot warmer than the street. I headed to the bathroom as soon as we entered, took off my coat, and relieved my full bladder. When I walked out, Dalal was standing on her bed, her back to the door, trying to reach the top shelf of her closet. I was admiring the beauty of her backside when she turned and said, in her bossiest tone, “Will you be useful for once and grab me that blanket up there?”
I sat on the floor and looked up at her with a smile, intentionally provocative. She climbed down and pulled me by the arm. I pushed her with a laugh and her head hit the headboard. A small moan escaped her as her hand flew to her head, and I hurried to her, touching the spot she’d been rubbing. It was already starting to swell. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered.
She pushed my hand with a smile and walked out of the room. As I reached up for the blanket, I heard her ask if I wanted something to drink. I asked if she still had that peach tea from last time, she said yes, and came back and said no. I followed her to the kitchen, where she stood in front of the stove as water boiled in the kettle. My body rubbed against hers as I leaned in to open one of the cupboards. She gave me a pointed look. “What?” I chuckled. “Your kitchen’s too small!”
I went through endless packets of herbal teas before I decided on hibiscus and cinnamon. I put the tea bag in a mug, and the smell warmed my head as she poured in the steaming water. She asked if I wanted any sugar; I said I wanted honey. She raised an eyebrow. “I’m trying to quit sugar,” I explained. She smiled as she stirred the honey in my drink and asked me to take hers along and go up to the roof. I carefully picked up the clay mugs and followed her up the steps.
It was cold, but she made a small fire in a broken steel bowl that had probably been used for mixing cement and left behind by construction workers. I placed the mugs on a small makeshift table and plopped down on the lonely swing next to the fire. She threw the blanket over my head and giggled softly as she sat down next to me. I spread the blanket over us, and we sat in silence for a few moments, gazing into the fire.
“The cold is much worse in New York,” she said.
“But the heaters are good.”
“But I won’t be able to take long walks at dawn like I do here. I would freeze.”
“But you’ll have a functioning sidewalk to walk on during the rest of the day.”
“If Cairo had proper sidewalks, just proper sidewalks, it would be beautiful.”
“And a Central Park.”
“And a Metropolitan, while we’re at it.”
“I’d do without the Met, just proper sidewalks and a good park.”
She rested her head on my shoulder, I rested my head on hers. Her hand tightened around mine. I lifted my head and gazed down at her. She was inching toward me. I kissed her forehead in an attempt to avoid the moment, but her eyes locked on mine. I kissed her on the mouth then, slowly but passionately; she kissed me back with a fervor to match. I kissed her again — once, twice, ten times, until a single thought crystallized in my head. I wanted to sleep in my bed. Well, no, it wasn’t really my bed that I longed for, but a clear head, unburdened by the weight of the world’s arrangements. I was dreading the moment when I’d have to leave, in a few hours or tomorrow afternoon or the evening of the day after. How would I go about getting dressed? Would I kiss her on my way out? What would we talk about? The future? The past? The present? How would we avoid time, politics, distance, love? At a more basic level, how would I close the door behind me when I left? A sudden chill ran through me, and I wasn’t sure if it was the cold or the fear that was consuming me.
“I have to go.”
She lifted her head with a puzzled look. She tried to kiss me again, but I stopped her this time and repeated what I’d said, looking straight into her eyes: “I have to go.”
I scrambled to my feet, knocking down our mugs as I rushed out. I sighed and turned back to at least clean up that mess, but as I bent down to pick them up, I heard a soft whimper. Dalal’s face was buried in her hands, and she was crying. I sat down next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder with no idea what to say. She was sobbing now, I tried to hold her, but she pushed me away.
She was still crying, but I knew what I had to do. I walked towards the door with steady steps, opened it, and left.
The moment I was out of the apartment, I realized I’d forgotten my coat in the bathroom. I stupidly considered going back in to ask for it, but instantly decided it was a bad idea. I placed my ear to the door, trying to figure out what she was doing now. Dalal would go to bed upset, and she probably wouldn’t talk to me — not tomorrow, not in a week, not ever. I closed my eyes, my head still against her door, and it seemed as though I’d stay like that for a lifetime, but the dawn call to prayer rose up from a nearby mosque, reminding me that it was time to leave. I walked heavily down the stairs. When I made it to the first floor, a cat was clawing through one of the garbage cans. She looked up nervously, and I wished I could find a way to assure her that I would do her no harm, but she’d already fled past me to the ground floor, out the gate, and onto the street.
At home, I sat on a couch Aya and I had bought together from IKEA. She’d always referred to it as the first piece of furniture in “our marriage.” It also happened to be the last. I’d asked her to take it with her when she moved out, but she said she no longer liked the color. I never even liked the couch to begin with, but, that day, my arguments had waned against her excitement. And so I ended up with a couch I hated in my otherwise empty living room. I hadn’t turned on the lights, but a stubborn beam flitted into the room through the closed curtains, sabotaging my darkened mood. I reached for my laptop and an ashtray, planning to watch some porn in an effort to relax and fall asleep. The screen lit up and a notification in the lower right corner told me I had a new email message. It was Aya. I felt a sudden burning in my stomach and an overwhelming urge to go to the bathroom. When had she sent it? An hour ago, the email said. Where had I been? Carrying a dead kitten to the side of the road? Crossing the square with Dalal, hand in hand? I snapped my laptop shut, paced across the living room for a minute, then went back to the couch and opened it again. I lit a cigarette and clicked on the message.
So today I read about the panopticon gaze in Kundera’s novel, how you are always being watched, very closely; by the government, by your lover, by someone. You are either the see-er or the seen. I also read about how you can hear the ocean wherever you are on the planet. The waves are named ‘Love’ waves. I’m not joking. It’s named after someone and I can’t remember the details.
Last night a friend wrote to me about how we’re engaged in a culture of nihilism and aggression, and yet we expect to be provided with the exact opposite (like we deserve it), or as if we even have the capacity for it — that is, kindness and meaningfulness and tenderness.
What’s your favorite color? Do you remember the scene in Short Term 12 where each one would describe how they feel with a color and what it stands for? Green: just fine. Grey: whatever. Etc. I don’t know what stands for what, but I’m always blue. Blue in how I feel and what I want and where I wind up. My eyes are a magnet for anything blue. We are poetic but life isn’t, or vice versa.
I’m blabbering. What was it that I wanted to say? I met a guy, nothing like you, not in any meaningful way. I was sitting with a colleague at work and she was talking about how miserable she is and how pointless her days are. There’s no end to the possibilities of the human condition. He came along, and it felt right, just as it should feel. Do I care if you hate me? I do, but I won’t stop you.
Today I found out that the police are looking for someone I met back in November, in Sinai. What I remember about him is that he was very handsome and had a very attractive British accent. What do we do with all this information? What if I don’t have the stomach for it?
You live in a place that is unbelievably brutal. Shameless. Yet it is unbearably familiar. I remember when we talked about Cairo and when you told me about the old lady at the pool. You are poetic, Cairo isn’t. Or Cairo is and you aren’t.
I love you, Zuzu.
Is there a landscape big enough to fit the everyday? To fit the self? The malaise? The confusion? The information? The fragility? The beauty?
You know what’s the best part about Peter Pan? The Lost Boys.
I wondered if I should reply. Aya had found someone new, there was no doubt about it now. I was angry, extremely so, but I also felt clear. Composed. I looked around the living room. It seemed bigger somehow. Her memory had been a physical presence, eating up my space. I was nowhere near sleepy. Should I reply? No. It was over. I knew she would be waiting for my answer — a nice, poetic letter like the ones we used to exchange before we got together. I had no energy to be nice or otherwise. We’d finally become two, Aya. Whatever had brought us together had come to an end; the paths that we’d once tread together, we must now tread alone.
I was consumed with thoughts of Dalal. I could see her in my head, her face in her hands as she cried. I left my seat on the couch with her image still before me. I lay my head on my pillow, and still, it wouldn’t leave me. I stayed in bed for half an hour, thinking of her soothing voice, remembering the time I’d woken her up crying because I missed Aya so much. That night, I’d told her that perhaps it was wise for us not to see each other for a while, for fear that we’d be swept up in something we couldn’t handle, and then we’d promised each other we’d remain friends no matter what happened. I got out of bed, my head filled with noise. I put on a sweater and walked out onto the street. I passed a fuul cart, a vegetable stand, a tourist bus. I crossed one street after the next and in my haste stumbled onto a brick, to the delight of a group of young girls on their way to school, whose laughter followed me down the road. I didn’t know how much time had passed when I found myself in front of Dalal’s building.
The gate was closed, and before it sat the same cat that had run away from me the night before. She meowed as though asking for something. To my relief, the gate opened when I pushed it. I walked in and looked over my shoulder to see the cat creep in stealthily behind me. I flew up the stairs and stopped at Dalal’s door. I put my ear against the door as I had only a few hours ago; I rang the bell and heard her approach. I could feel her standing on the other side of the door, and I knew she’d looked through the peephole and seen me before I heard her move back inside. I rang the bell again. I thought she wasn’t coming back, but the door opened suddenly, and my coat hit me in the face, and then it closed again and I heard the lock click, but not before I glimpsed her in a bathrobe, her hair dripping. I continued to ring the bell, insistently. She opened the door, tentatively this time, but kept the chain lock hooked. I saw part of her face through the narrow slit; her eyes were red and swollen, possibly from crying, or maybe from lack of sleep. I wanted to take her face in my hands, but her glare told me she’d bite my fingers off if I tried.
“What do you want?”
“I want us to talk.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Because we can’t keep playing games anymore.”
“I don’t want to play games.”
“Then what do you want?”
I would have been lying if I told her I knew what I wanted. But I did know—I wanted to rest my head on her thigh, I wanted her to embrace me the way she had the night before on the side of the road. I wanted to tell her a thousand random stories about myself that I hadn’t yet told her, and to listen to a thousand random stories about her that she hadn’t yet told me.
“I’m scared,” I said.
“So am I!”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“Well, do you want to come in?”
She closed the door abruptly and, for a minute, I didn’t think she was going to open it again. I wondered if I knew what I was doing. I was sure of one thing: I didn’t want to go home; not now — perhaps not ever. Perhaps home was wherever Dalal was. What was I supposed to do now that she’d slammed the door in my face?
I was heading toward the stairs when I heard the rattle of the chain. I turned around. The door was open, but Dalal wasn’t there. I stood at the threshold and gazed in toward the balcony at the opposite end of the apartment. The sunlight was so bright I had to look away. I closed my eyes, walked in, and shut the door behind me.
Born and raised in Cairo, Muhammad El-Hajj is a writer, translator, and digital content creator. His debut collection of short stories, Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats (2018), won the Sawiris Cultural Foundation’s Short Story Prize for emerging writers.
Yasmine Zohdi is a writer, translator, and the English culture editor at Mada Masr. She holds an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York and is currently working on her first collection of short fiction.