Short fiction from last spring.
It’s hot in Cairo during the spring, but this spring especially. You have to be careful not to leave any body parts resting for too long against a surface or they’ll get stuck there, fusing with the steel, stone, brick, or cement. The same happens with cloth. It sticks to your body in all the wrong places, so much and so furiously that it might be better to strip naked and accept the criticism as you would a cup of tea. I thought of Hossam.
His skin was the only thing I think I could bear touching mine in this weather. His was perfect skin—-brown, smooth, and spread thin over wiry limbs and a lean torso. I imagined his skin was cool to the touch, that it would quell the agony mine felt as it raged against its own sweat and salt. But I was only imagining because I’ve never felt Hossam’s skin, not in the twenty years we’ve known each other, the only twenty I’ve had so far.
I heard footsteps clamoring up the stairs to my room.
“Asmaa,” said my younger sister walking in. She flipped her hair behind her neck and looked excited. Her hair was a few shades lighter than mine because she liked to go out in the sun and let it turn black strands to mahogany and gold. It looked long and soft and prismatic, and my grandmother told her all the time how beautiful it was. Not like mine. Mine was black as ink and always hung the same way no matter what I did. “We’re making bandanas downstairs,” she told me. “For the cousins before they go demonstrate in the square. Do you want to help?” She named three of her friends who were also downstairs working. My sister was only seventeen, and she already had more patriotism flowing through her veins than I could muster on my best day. Sometimes I thought about finding the sharpest kitchen knife and carving a slick line down her forearm and another one down mine just to examine our blood and find out what hers has that mine is missing. What parts of Egypt flow through you? How many of them can you spare?
“Not right now,” I replied. “I’m still working on my paper for school.”
My sister shrugged. “Ok, but if you want to join us you can at any time. The cousins will be here within the hour I think.”
I nodded and thanked her, and she trotted back downstairs to continue her contribution to the demonstrations. Our mother wouldn’t let us go into the square to actually take part in the protests after what happened in January, so this was the next best thing. I sat back down at my desk next to the window and opened up Facebook to scroll through the piles of Supreme Council of Armed Forces vs. The People postings. I read all I could take and added one of my own to prove my solidarity. Mine wasn’t as flamboyant as some of my peers’ were, but I set it in words because I wanted to feel what they felt. Maybe by copying their sentiments in keyboard strokes I would enter into the collective consciousness of the revolution. It had not died, this revolution, and did not appear to be headed that direction. If anything it grew stronger by the day, fueled by waving flags, screaming crowds, and banners so filled with words you could barely read what they said.
I lifted my fingers from the keyboard so they wouldn’t melt into the plastic and looked out my open window. If I closed my eyes I could just feel the hint of a breeze on my face like the wings of a butterfly flapping gently against my cheeks. If I closed them even harder I could feel the legs of that butterfly landing on my bare arm and crawling up to my shoulder. I was twelve years old, and we hadn’t moved to Cairo yet. The butterfly’s tiny legs tapped my skin gently as it explored its new perch.
“Don’t even breathe.”
Hossam came closer to me, as close as he dared so he wouldn’t scare the little blue and black creature off my shoulder. His huge black eyes were transfixed on the butterfly, and I stood straight as a soldier, keeping every muscle in my body still while the late afternoon sun punished our bodies. Soon the top of Hossam’s head was only a few inches below my chin as he examined our pet up close. I could smell the oils on his scalp and felt my heart quicken. I hoped it wouldn’t scare the butterfly.
“Wow, the pattern on its wings looks like a maze. I wish I could trace it with my finger to see where it ends, but my finger would have to be the size of needle.”
“Does it look like anything? The pattern, I mean.”
“It kind of looks like an elephant if I tilt my head…”
I heard the dry grass rustling quickly behind me, then voices. “Kill it!”
“Yeah! We’ll hang it on the wall.”
“Grab it, Hossam!”
Three of Hossam’s friends from the neighborhood were running up to us followed by one of mine. They tramped through the field sending insects fleeing from their homes and bits of weeds into the air like confetti. Hossam raised his head and watched our friends coming nearer. I could see him debating whether or not to listen to them and reach for the butterfly. He always looked scared when he thought like this, like one wrong decision either way would leave him friendless and destined to sweep his uncle’s store every afternoon while the rest of us went to the pond to catch frogs.
He looked at me for a moment, but I couldn’t tell if he was actually looking at me or if my face was just something to rest his eyes on while he made up his mind. Look at me, I begged silently. His lips parted then closed, then he thrust his hands toward the butterfly on my shoulder with a loud clap. A shudder coursed through my body. I gasped and looked at Hossam. His hands were still closed so I couldn’t tell if he was clutching the tiny creature or if he had missed. He looked at me again, and this time I knew he was looking at me. His eyes were so dark and so wide and so deep. I couldn’t tell if either of us was breathing.
“Did you get it?” one of the boys asked as he came up to us. Hossam slowly took his hands from where they had been resting in the air above my shoulder and parted them to reveal the crushed insect. Both wings were slightly torn, and one leg was still moving slowly as if trying to crank the butterfly back to life. I felt all the breath leave my body, and I was cold. Somehow under this red hot sun while my friends hollered and jumped around I was cold. I looked at Hossam hoping to see remorse in his eyes, but I saw nothing. It wasn’t the mirth that his companions indulged in, nor the regret of having plucked this creature from the world of the living. It was simply nothing. I watched his face undergo a transformation until it almost resembled the other boys’. He laughed finally and explained to the others how he caught it, motioning to me without even looking. I was still frozen in the same place I had been all this time.
When the rest of our friends took off toward the pond Hossam stayed where he was. The locusts at our feet complained loudly to one another, and a bird that sounded like a low traffic horn slid across the sky above us. I wanted to know why Hossam was still here. I wanted to grab his hand and tell him it was ok, I knew why he killed the butterfly. I wanted to keep him safe from whatever was eating him from the inside. He looked back at me finally and said my name.
He said it quietly like it was a secret between us, like if anyone heard they would discover what we tried so hard to keep buried beneath the dry earth.
“Let’s go or we’ll fall behind,” he said. I expected him to break into a jog to catch up with the others, but he didn’t. He turned and walked slowly with his arms at his sides, taking each step through the tall grass like it mattered. I watched the small muscles on the back of his arms as they flexed inadvertently when he reached to wave off a mosquito. He didn’t wait for me, but he had said my name. I knew I would think of this moment for weeks, or at least until we spoke to each other again, nibbling on it when I was alone and hungry for his nourishment.
What I didn’t know was that I would still think of it eight years later as I sat at my desk in Cairo. Hossam’s father had gotten a job in the city, so we all left our town with its ponds and birds and moved into an apartment near the square. My grandmother came to live with us and to take care of my sister and me while my father ran his restaurant nearby. Or rather my mother ran the restaurant—-checking the inventory, keeping the books, hiring workers—-and my father just gave cigars to loyal customers and talked with huge, bearded men in the corner tables. I didn’t ever know what they were talking about, but I knew one of them went with my father to the protests ten days ago. Neither of them had come back yet. Each day my mother went about the house talking like my father had just stepped out for a cup of tea at a friend’s.
“This evening set five places, Asmaa, as usual. And don’t forget to pick up more soda because we’ve run out, and your father won’t be happy.”
Each day for ten days I set the fifth place, and each day for ten days it stayed empty. I wanted to grab my mother by the shoulders and scream that he’s not coming home! Can’t you understand? But she would never believe me even if I did because she loves him. She hates to be without him for even one night, always has, and I’ve seen her cry several times when she thinks so one is looking. In the water that wells in her round brown eyes I’ve seen heartbreak a thousand times stronger than anything Shakespeare or Tolstoy could dream of writing. It’s the heartbreak that squeezes your chest—slowly, slowly—because your best friend is far away from you, and you don’t know if you’ll see him again. That’s what he was to her, her best friend. He made her laugh, he took her hand in the kitchen and spun her around while he sang, and whenever he came across a particularly beautiful passage in a book he would read it aloud to her then say, “What do you think of that? Nice, isn’t it?” And she would say that it was.
“Asmaa!” my mother called from downstairs. Her voice had taken on a manic edge in recent days. It was the precursor to madness, I was certain of it, but I came downstairs anyway to see what she needed. How wonderful it must be to have someone without whom you lose your mind completely. I have never known that because I have never known what it is to have someone. I have only loved from afar for two decades, never knowing the sanctuary of “having” even for a split second. I have never felt eyes hold my gaze or hands hold my hands in a way that says, “I have you now, and you have me.” I have only watched others’ eyes and hands do this and thought how fortunate they are to know this feeling.
“I need you chop the rest of these onions so I can cook them today,” she said as she wiped her hands on her cotton slacks. Her hair was tied atop her head, and she was wearing the same shirt she wore yesterday and the day before that. “I don’t want anyone to go to the market during all the chaos out there, so we can’t let these go bad.”
“Sure, Mama.” I finished washing my hands and grabbed the knife. My mother smiled quickly before her face fell back into the hollow expression you see on corpses. “Are you alright?” I asked as I sliced through the middle of a pearly onion.
“Yes, I just need to lie down for a bit.”
I nodded and continued to work as she left the kitchen. I pictured her entering her room, taking off the shoes she wore around the house, and letting her hair down. Then she would fold back one side of the sheets and crawl into the cool bed to lie curled up on her side and wait for sleep. A few minutes later I heard her crying from behind the closed door. I tried to ignore it for a few minutes and focused on chopping the onions into perfect cubes. I let the blade do most of the work for me and only altered my movement when I needed to slide the chopped pieces into a growing pile at the back of the cutting board. I worked faster and faster, trying to make the sound of the blade hitting the wood louder than the choking sobs coming from the bedroom, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I wiped my hands and turned on the radio that we kept on the table.
The main program was a minute-to-minute report on the demonstrations happening in the square, but I didn’t want to hear the chants I’d gotten so accustomed to hearing, nor did I want the name of anyone I knew to reach my ears. My cousins were out there, my neighbors were out there, and Hossam was out there. He always sounded so wonderful when he spoke words of change and recited hymns of promise for our country. He had a magnetism about him that drew people in and told them to believe in what he was saying, whether he said it from a megaphone in the middle of a rally or in a whisper at the dinner table. I’d heard him speak, so I knew it was true, but right now I didn’t want to hear his searing words of action, I wanted to hear my name, Asmaa, just like in the field when we were twelve.
I switched the station to a music program that was playing traditional ballads from the south and continued to chop the onions. The girl’s voice bleating through the speakers soothed me at first, but I soon recalled hearing the song elsewhere and at another time. We were all gathered in the courtyard attached to a bar my neighbor owned, and the night was warm for January and filled with stars. Kebabs were roasting behind us, crackling and spitting smoke into the air as people in the crowd started to join hands. My sister grabbed my hand and held it firmly, reassuring me of something as we watched Hossam leave his place in front and join the rest of us. He had been speaking for almost a half hour, and sweat shone above his brow as he turned his eyes upon the next speaker, a young woman. She walked up proudly, and with a resolve equal to that of mountains she started putting words together that made the crowd tremble and murmur its assent. Then she broke into song, shaky at first, but slowly finding her footing. Her eyes were closed tight as her voice pierced the humid dark that hung all around us, and soon others in the crowd joined her in lifting this melody to the clouds.
I watched Hossam watching her. He wanted her, I knew it, because she wanted what he wanted: a new era for Egypt. She wanted the fall of Mubarak and the dawn of an infant republic. She wanted a revised constitution and rights for the people. She wanted a true democratic Egypt, and I wanted Hossam. Like my mother wanted my father, I wanted Hossam. Whether I had him in an Egypt with a new constitution, or an old constitution, or none at all, made no difference. I watched him wanting her and felt all the possibilities of ever “having” evaporate from my body like our voices in the night.
A commotion of sounds broke through my thoughts, and I heard footsteps outside in front of the house. Seconds later the door burst open, and two of my cousins came in shouting and carrying my other cousin in their arms. I ran to meet them and saw thick, dark blood dripping from a gash on his forehead. My sister and her friends were with them, telling my cousins to quiet down as they cleared a spot on the sofa. We worked quickly to get cloth bandages and alcohol to dress the wound, but it was difficult with my cousin writhing around and screaming about policemen. I leaned in with a wet rag to clear the blood from his cheeks and neck, but my sister snapped at me.
“We’re taking care of it, Asmaa,” she said. “There are too many people working here, so please back off him a little bit. We need space.” I said nothing and went to the kitchen to wash the blood off the rag and set it on the rack to dry. One of my other cousins came into the kitchen asking for water, so I gave him a glass and started getting some tea going for the rest. He sat at the table with his eyes closed and his chin in his hands while the water heated up. Finally he started talking about what he had seen in the square, less to inform me than to rid it from his system. I had to stop him after a few minutes and sat down at the table next to him with tea. While I waited for it to cool I asked him what I had been aching to know.
“Was Hossam out there with you in the square today?”
He nodded and sipped his tea gingerly to test for temperature. “He is still out there as far as I know and will stay to the last.” He took a bigger sip.
“Is he ok?”
“Are any of us?”
I stood up. “I have to go. Excuse me,” I said as I pushed in my chair. Once I was out of the kitchen I ran straight through the front of the house past my cousins and my sister and her friends, none of whom paid any attention to me if they saw me at all. I burst outside into the heavy afternoon and started walking quickly toward the square because I had to know. I heard voices in the distance and increased my pace. From out of nowhere a white journalist stepped in front of my path.
“Miss, excuse me, were you part of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square today?” he asked me in Arabic.
“No, I wasn’t,” I responded in English and kept walking, never breaking stride.
“Do you think these protests will bring about a new constitution or a change in Supreme Council?” he continued in English as he followed me down the road. I broke into a jog and left him behind as I rounded a corner and came to the square. I stopped because it was almost empty. Most of the action was over, but a persistent few still stood with flags shouting their solidarity to vacant buildings. I watched two policemen across the square jab a woman with their batons to drive her from the area. She refused to move so they shoved her once, then again harder until she was on the ground. One of the men ripped off her hijab and grabbed a fistful of her hair to drag her out of the middle, still shouting.
I gulped and continued walking, making sure to keep to the sides. Almost no one was left in the square now, but a few motionless bodies remained strewn about the ground like the peels of a fruit you’ve cast off and forgotten, figuring they will decompose in time. There was no other option but to inspect them. A dog ran out from behind me, and I startled, but when I turned I saw a young man sitting against a building partially concealed by an abandoned vegetable cart.
“Asmaa,” said Hossam quietly when he looked up and saw me. His clothes were dirty, and one of his eyes was partially bruised shut. He gestured for me to come sit next to him so I did. “This is real change, Asmaa,” he said looking straight ahead. I smelled the dirt and sweat that clung to his body as my eyes followed his gaze out to the deserted square. Something substantial but without shape had taken the place of the crowds that had filled it earlier, and I kept watching and hoping the silent newcomer would make itself known to us if we looked long enough.
Hossam turned his face to me, and I noticed his lip had been split open. It was still bleeding slightly, and I told him so, but instead of wiping the blood away he pressed his lips to mine. They were warm and slightly chapped, and soon I began to taste his blood in my mouth. I pulled my head back quickly and forced myself to swallow. “I’m sorry,” he said. “About that.”
I shook my head. “It’s ok. I’m just glad you’re still here.” And then he reached his arm over my head and draped it around my shoulder, pulling me into the space that had been between us. His skin was not cool and smooth like I had imagined. It was just as sticky as mine was and burned twice as hard, but it was perfect nonetheless. He kissed my cheek then put his hand on the back of my neck and pulled my face closer to his until our foreheads were touching. His eyes were closed, but I couldn’t bring myself to shut mine. I looked at his eyelashes, the pores on his nose, and the blood on his face that was surely on mine, too.
“Asmaa,” he repeated sleepily. My name still sounded like a secret coming from his lips, but I vowed to keep it because at least now I had something.