The Galloping Horses

Translated by: Ibtihaj Alharthi

Nassir al-Abd does not understand any more; he used to conceptualize life as something stable. He used to touch the stability of life, but he knew, in a mysterious way, that it is not as stable as it appears to be. Nassir al-Abd lives in a small room beside the heavy, iron gate of the wali’s[1] house. He gets all his meals from the house hot and covered. He pours coffee for guests standing in the vast majlis[2] decorated with pictures of running horses. He also opens the gate for the VIP cars and travels every Thursday to see his big family. All of this has been happening since he was 18 and it is still happening. The wali changes, the meals change, the cars change, the concentration of coffee changes, but what does not change is Nassir al-Abd’s life. The colours of the horses in the pictures fade, the heavy iron gate gets rusty  and is repainted, the vast patio once full of pebbles then cemented, is finally decorated with red interlock. One or two rooms have been added to the east area of the house. One wali calls him “soldier”, the next “janitor”, the third “coffee boy,” yet nobody has ever called him by his real name: “Nassir al-Abd,” and Nassir al-Abd does not really care and  is used to it as he is used to his own breath. However, for a time he cannot specify clearly, he has felt that he does not understand things anymore and that life is not a circle without equal sides. It has bothered Nassir al-Abd who has been able to see the sense of the gate’s paint, the frankness of the coffee taste and his wife’s loud voice. He has been bothered by the ambivalence and lack of understanding.

Nassir al-Abd, since he was a boy, has never believed that events can change the course of life or its continuity and he is not going to believe it now. Walis change, the biggest palm tree dries because of drought, the faces and voices of coffee drinkers change, but Nassir al-Abd does not change. Life goes as ever. After greeting the new wali, burying his father, slaying a goat for his son’s birthday, cutting down dried up palm trees, and familiarizing himself with new faces and voices … life goes on as it always did and nothing at all would cause it to seize being a continuous cycle.

Recently, however, Nassir al-Abd has been waking up before dawn, filled with doubt and ambiguous worries. Nada, whom he has seen since her father moved to the big house, is eight. He had carried her once or twice on his shoulder to reach a grapefruit up a tree. He had closed the gate over and over again after her reckless bicycle. He had picked up the bonbons that fell from her pockets. He had given her back her hair grip that once fell while she was running. Tiny, grumpy Nada had rapidly grown up and, now her eyes sparkle. Nassir sees magic in them—the magic that has disturbed his sense of stability. She has got long arms that divide one’s attention, and her wrists are always covered with lively, colourful bracelets. When Nassir al-Abd closes his eyes, he sees all the neon sparkling colours switching on and off ceaslessly.

 Every Friday, Nassir washes for prayer in the falaj[3].He rolls his sleeves up and finishes washing in a matter of moments. Yet the falaj now, with its flowing water, green weeds, and tiny fish, persuades Nassir al-Abd to linger over the moments of his washing practice. When he closes his eyes, he sees the little fish swimming swiftly between the cracks of the falaj’s bank, changing their colour to sparkling silver. Nassir will go back every Friday night to his room beside the iron gate, will forget the frequent talks he shares with his wife, daughters and youngest son, will forget his crippled mother’s constant complaints, will forget the endless discussions about the palm trees, drought and harvest. He will remember only the falaj’s flowing water, its levels of rising and falling and its silver sparkles. He will be terrified of his no longer firm belief in the stability of life. And when he tries to search for events, he will find out that there are none. Life will not remain that continuous cycle, it will fluctuate too much that Nassir al-Abd-whose daily routine has never changed- will be deprived of sleep.

He does not see Nada more that once or twice a week because she does not like to walk in endless circles around the house as her mother does. She is also too mature for the neglected bicycle in the store. And Nassir al-Abd, who guards the house, serves coffee to guests and travels to his big family every Thursday, has seized to understand.

The sky is pitch black and full of shiny stars. He lies on the cement patio by his room. A cool breeze caresses his hair which has lengthened a bit. He keeps hugging his cup of tea, meditating on the far away sparkling stars. His daughter told him last Friday that stars are not fixed no matter how much the opposite might seem true.

The tea becomes cold. “If events do not change life, what changes it?” He runs his fingers over his face and smiles: “Age?” He is not even forty and the diseases he hears about in the wali’s majlis seem to come from another planet. He is as strong as the running horses in the pictures. Nassir is astonished, and his cup of tea falls to the ground, for he suddenly notices the dimness of the horses’ eyes in the pictures. When he closes his eyes, the pictures are colourless.


 [1] It is a name that is given to a governor of an area, be it a small village or a city.

 [2] A room that is usually separate from the main house and it is built to welcome guests.

 [3] The main irrigation system in Oman, it is a manmade small flowing stream that springs from a well.

 

 

The Wedding

                                                                     Translated by: Ibtihaj Alharthi

The wedding hall is huge and the bridal throne is decorated with countless flowers and white and pink curtains. Women are sitting in circles around the tables. Saloma is sitting on her chair with a straight back, her head neither raised nor inclined. Her hands are placed on her lap, filled with golden, and silver rings, bracelets and beads. Her feet with their anklets are rooted to the ground. On her lips, a vague smile, as if of content and blessing. Her look is languidly directed, on a vertical dimension, barely blinking, to the bride. During the wedding, which stretched to more than two hours, Saloma never left her seat, never lifted a limb, never changed her content smile or her confident posture, as if she had been born to sit in that chair, as if she had not lived anywhere but in this hall, as if Saloma had existed since eternity; her existence seemed as endless as it always will be.

Saloma, who had been married to at least ten men, never had a wedding like this. She did not sit on a bridal throne with swinging curtains. It never occurred to any of her grooms to sit next to her and hold her hand in front of everybody else. Every time she was wedded, she was covered from head to toe with a heavy scarf. The scarf was always embroidered with gold threads, or sometimes simply plain green, depending on how rich the groom was. Her body would be squeezed between the bodies of singing, buzzing women. She would be directly taken from her house to his, where there would be a small rag in a corner of the house. She would sit on it, unable to breathe because of the heaviness of her green scarf. Women would sit around her in circles on the ground in front of plates of halwa[1] and kettles of bitter coffee. As soon as the men’s parade appeared, the women would prepare to leave the house. The bride and the groom would be left alone now. Only he would look at her sultry eyes, look at the storm of bracelets, necklaces, amulets, silver, gold, and colored plastic bracelets under which Saloma never faltered.

On this night, on this chair made especially for her, Saloma shines. Her eyes are sultrily loose, either spontaneously or deliberately, and fixed on the bride. Her ikfa[2] shows the size of her braids under the embroidered scarf. Her gold nose-stud, shaped like a flower, is an inseparable part of her nose. And her confidence … Aah her confidence. There is no doubt that her nine chickens are asleep now. She cleaned their nests and collected the eggs early in the morning. She gave them her lunch leftovers before preparing for the wedding. Then, she boarded the guest’s bus that headed directly to the wedding hall in the Omani Women’s Society in Muscat.

Her faint smile does not leave her face and only a small number of wrinkles show around her mouth. No …no! There is no sarcasm in this smile, but content and blessing. She earned several Rials from selling fresh eggs, and the dishdasha[3] she is wearing is the only gift from her daughter who visits her once every Eid. Her daughter’s father is her fourth husband. For months, he pursued Saloma, bewitched by her walk, through the suburbs, falajs[4], and narrow slums, until she agreed to marry him. He left his town and wife to live with her.

The food is distributed and the forks, plates and knives are put on the table. The grilled meat, cakes and pastries are distributed around the tables but Saloma does not give them a glance. She stays motionless with a straight back, her relaxed look, fixed on the bride and the natural rose bouquet she is holding. Only when she is offered, Saloma starts to eat with the fork as if she has used it all her life. She chooses to drink Shani which leaves a crimson color on her lips. Whenever she moves her hand up or down, the bracelets tinkle and the a’did[5], hidden under the sleeves of her dishdasha, leaks that musical sound which has a long history of captivating men’s minds.

 We wink at each other and laugh, asking: “Haih O Saloma, what about your daughter’s father, why did he leave you too?” She straightens her back, puts both her hands around her waist, her eyes flickering, but before she says anything we cry: “jinx!” She smiles cheerfully and pats her thigh, affirming what we have just said, andremarks: “Yes, by Allah, it was a jinx. I found hair, bones and black threads buried in front of my house on a daily basis. Why are they jealous of me? No idea! I am a sick, lonely woman.” We say straight away: “No, no, there is nobody who is healthier than you. Although you are over sixty, your bewitching walk triggers a flirtatious cat-call from here and an admiring awww from there.” Her face becomes radiant as she, glad of our claims, reassures us that she still receives marriage proposals. But Saloma rejects them all because they are from aged men who are good for nothing except complaining.

Saloma wipes her mouth with a napkin. The women around her start to smarten up. Pocket mirrors are taken out of handbags, eyebrows re-brushed, lips repainted, faces are re-powdered, tresses of hear pushed back once again. Saloma, whose forehead has been smeared with saffron’s water, does not have a handbag. She has never needed one. She does not pay attention to handbag-women around her. Her eyes are fixed on the bride in front of the cameras.

The women moved to dancing in circles. Each circle grows dynamically bigger with the words of the songs, the songs that contain some Swahili words. Saloma does not understand Swahili, though one of her husbands spoke it very well. Their marriage did not last for more than a few months. When Saloma meets with women in the afternoon, she enjoys imitating her husband. She lies suddenly on her back, crosses her legs, and speaks loudly, feigning his hoarse voice: “No, by Allah! I never felt as comfortable with any other woman as with you, Saloma! You are bliss. You are a gift. Where were have you been all these years? Aah, take the mandoos, take the donkey, take the date palms, and stay with me. Where were you before, woman?” Then Saloma sits back and laughs: “As soon as I gave birth to my son, he left, taking with him the mandoos[6], the donkey and palm trees. Jinx! Whenever he came home and I was not there, the evil-eyed women said: “She is with her lovers”-resounding lies! They are jealous of me. Why? I don’t know, I am just a lonely, sick woman.” She smiles, winking. We all do not hesitate to say: “You are in good health, and you are not alone. Your son is out of prison now, he will get married, and you will live to see his children.” Does the picture of her future grandchildren pass through her mind now, with the dazzling, dancing lights and loud music? Does she think about how they will look? Like her handsome son, who looks exactly like his father, or will they resemble their mother, who will probably be an Indian to cut down the wedding expenses? She could never afford such a wedding for her son, not even a traditional one. He will marry quietly and she will see his children. As for her other son, whom she not seen in years, he may have not be spared by Allah. He left in the same day his father left her, the seventh husband who married her in the year of drought.

The women come back from the dancefloor and collapse in their chairs. The bride fidgets restlessly and looks at the door. The songs and voices start to fade away. Some guests begin to leave. Saloma stays comfortably on her chair with her flawlessly content smile. Her partner whispers that the bus is leaving, only then does she stand swiftly as if she never suffered from back pain. She walks to the bridal throne, and places her hand on the head of the bride, who inclines it afraid of spoiling her expensively made hairstyle. Saloma mutters Al-fatiha[7], and then walks-the same walk that made her a bride ten times- amidst the guests and leaves the wedding hall for the bus stop.


[1] An Omani sweet made of sugar, nuts, and cardamom.

[2] A traditional Omani hairstyle in which the hair is divided into two parts and perfumed with herbal plants like camphor, myrtle or flowers mixed with dates, musk and sesame oil.

[3] An Omani traditional costume.

[4] Omani water channel system.

[5] An Omani traditional accessory that is worn in the upper arm.

[6] A traditional Omani box in which clothes and other stuff are put, something like a cupboard but with traditional importance.

[7] The first surra of the Qur’an.

 

 

Green Dots in Teacher Fathia’s Dress

                                                                Translated by: Ibtihaj Alharthi

We were both standing, she and I. We were standing face-to-face, her eyes locked in mine. My eyes were panicked, fixed on her dress and the window behind us and the fridge below. 

My small hand was sunk in her big, brown hand. We were standing face-to-face. She was talking, I was shivering. The corridor was dark despite a blue light coming from a lamp hanging above us. Big drops of sweat were gathering in my hair, and then dropping down my back to leave spots on my yellow school uniform. Drops of sweat were glistening on her forehead. The disappeared and then glistened again above her breast where a part of her sea-colored nightgown appeared from the neck crop of her dress. Her feet were slightly apart in her sandals. Mine were sticking together in white shoes with a plastic piece in the middle. When her hiss intensified, she leaned over me so that I was hit by her fenugreek-smelling breath. My hand was squeezed in hers. My new ring, the first I had ever owned, was digging into the flesh of my finger. But I gritted my teeth listening patiently to Teacher Fathia in this dark corridor between her room and the kitchen.

During the morning queue, she came to me. She gripped my shoulders and told me that she had heard the bad things I said about her. She looked into my eyes and I looked at her hand where a small part of the green pipe that used to be used to water the garden was dangling. And she left me.

The window behind her was covered with red tape. The fridge’s door was slightly open allowing me to see piles of cans and food. There was a sour smell that filled the corridor from cooking. Teacher Fathia started began to pant tired of standing.

A few minutes before the release bell rang, she leaned on the door of my classroom and nodded at me. I followed blindly the green dots in her dress until we reached the teacher’s residence behind the school’s lawn. There she held my hand and entered my room and kitchen.

The fridge behind her opened completely, so I lowered my gaze. She was leaning over me more and more and talking faster and faster. Suddenly, she released my hand and I nearly fell. She pointed to the opposite corner, so I took the transparent, white plastic bag that was full of notebooks from there. She snatched it from my hand and put it in an opaque plastic bag with the slogan of a famous cigarette brand painted on it. The heavy weight of the bag of notebooks had left two red lines on my hands, but I carried it again without hesitation. She opened the door and I saw the green pipe behind it and remembered the slash on my hand. “Mark them all alone and don’t let anyone see you. Bring them tomorrow,” she said.

 

The Beloved

Translated by: Ibtihaj Alharthi

Rajab Al-Aali jumps out of his rocking chair after one of his regular naps. He stands in front of the window panting, drowned in his sweat. He looks at the huge mango tree spreading its branches from the neighbor’s wall to his patio. It is dawn and when he sees the tree covered in blue with the leaning shadows of its ghostly fruit, he recalls his wakening dream.
 

The skinny, brown boy who was whistling happily in the street between the shop and the public fridge. The afternoon seemed to be hot and the boy had just finished drinking some cold water. Despite all of this, when he wakes up he is always thirsty and the memory of the dream is always blurry. The boy, whose moustache struggled to appear in his upper lip, stopped whistling when, just on his left, a girl walked >coming back from school. She carried a red bag that was full of books. Her uniform looked as if he had been poured into it. Everything was shadowy except for the color of the bag and the radiant shine in her eyes; these were the clearest things in the world to Rajab Al-Aali. Whenever the dream recurs and whenever he hears the whisper of the girl, who disappears like any fairy,
 

Rajab is assured that there is nothing in his life as clear as the color of her red bag and as bright as the light in her eyes. There is nothing, though, that has been as mystifying as her awkward whisper. She had said something—something that he has not been able to figure out. He could not figure it out at all, and then she disappeared. And the obsessed boy, who saw her for the first time since she had moved to their area, woke up old. Ever since, he started diligently to unravel his dream and memory in order to resurrect the mysterious whisper—but all in vain.

 
He asked her many times about her whisper but she could not remember. He was surprised that she couldn’t remember. As simple as that—as if it didn’t mean a thing to her. As if her eyes did not sparkle on that day. As if she did not whisper those heavenly words that changed his life forever.  He insisted that she was hiding that memory on purpose, that she had buried that moment to remain a weapon that was ready to strike. He shook her shoulders, bit her ear desperately< saying: “You said it, you said it. Remember? Near the public fridge.”
 
A trickle of blood rolled down the neck; the neck he worshiped and the neck he profaned. The woman, whose parting was beginning to show grey hairs, rose calmly to wipe away the blood.
 
He stares at the mango tree’s rectangular leaves and triangular edges receiving dawn’s first faint lights. He knows that she had passed exactly on his left side, where his heart is. And when she was just near him, she grew that sparkle in his heart. She threw it smartly and that damned whisper. The fairy vanished. And today, Today she says: “No, I don’t remember. I didn’t use to walk between the shop and the public fridge.” And I, the horrified, the obsessed, the stabbed in the depths, don’t sleep. I shine with the mysterious whisper. How can she deny it? Her red bag, and the dusty street, and her whisper. She did whisper to me when she passed near my heart. Here her eyes lightened with pride as she said: “I never owned a red bag.”
 
The tree leaves move with the breeze. It seems to Rajabthat his worries are stored in their sharp edges, and that there is a mysterious power mortal humankind can never absorb pushing him with the dews of its green surface. He can’t cling to anything.
 

Rajab Al-Aali loved the girl who lived in the third house after the shop. He had spent all his teenage years standing in front of the house’s wooden door or walking in endless circles around its white walls. And today, even with >the grey hair looming in his head, the girl’s image is still engraved in him: her grey uniform, her books barely appearing from her red bag, and her black shoelaces. He had always known that she was not beautiful, but he was obsessed with the proud look in her eyes.

At the beginning, he could not understand why he had spent his hours walking purposelessly, why he had sat on the shop’s stairs looking in the vacuum, drinking nothing but bitter tea, and why he hadn’t understood the power that shook >him and exploded this feverish awakening in him. Rajab Al-Aali could never understand his queer sensation of living in two places. Wherever he was, first at school and then at college, later working at a company and then at a coffee shop; he was always there—around the white house staring solely at the girl and her torturing gaze.
 

All of his recollections about proposing to her, their wedding and home preparations seem like faded, shabby threads in a well-knitted fabric. A fabric that has been illuminating year by year only to make those threads look shabbier and more faded. This is how i>Rajab Al-Aali got married. And a year later he got a baby girl who didn’t look like him. When he raised her to him, he felt as if he was not there and as if he didn’t see her, he, instead, saw the woman that had become his wife.
 
In his well-knitted, illuminating fabric, there is no existence to all those nights when he wakes his wife up to ask her: Does she love him? There is also no existence to her agreeing nod and her falling back to sleep. The real illuminating moment is what he sees in the morning: her eyes opening with that proud look. In that look lies his torture and sleepless nights sitting on his rocking chair thinking about a forbidden heaven with a wooden door.
 
Even though a passer-by gave him what he called ‘the golden key’ on his wedding day, his clinching fist became rusty holding the key without finding the keyhole.The passer-by said: “Comfort in marriage is about not expecting anything. Expectations are responsible for ruining marriages”.Rajab struggled not to expect anything, then, years later, he struggled to expect something specific but he failed. He didn’t know what he should specifically expect.
 

Rajab Al-Aali was agonized by a feeling that left him no room for tranquility. Rajab’s awareness of the truthfulness of his feelings was consuming his thoughts at a frightening scale. He dwelled on his feelings while throwing his body into the slightly lightened streets by dawn, or when throwing his body on his rocking chair during those sleepless nights. He had dwelled on his feelings until he reached the conclusion: “the impossibility of owning the person you love.”

 

Rajab Al-Aali was sure that during their last visit to Dubai, he had begged this woman with various ways of worship—but all to no avail. He kissed her toes, showered her with priceless presents, said the sweetest words that had not been said to a human being before, and when she was asleep, he feathered her face with touches, looked at it and was occupied by a feeling of  sorrow and helplessness.
 

Then he reached the final conclusion that worded his feelings: ‘The inability to own the person you love.’ After the turmoil of doubt, after phoning her endlessly from work, asking about every single detail in her day, insisting upon her feeding him, clipping his nails, going out with him on the silliest errands, hugging her till it was painful, he finally knew what was bothering him: he could not own her. His desire is always incomplete. He wants her—he wants her for him but he does not own her. Despite all the years they have had spent together, he does not own her.
 

Rajab Al-Aali circles the rooms of his house with his grey, unkempt hair and dissolved heart. He, all of a sudden, approaches his wife to rape her and when she cries, he goes out. He cannot bear the sound of her crying. He walks the endless streets. Stray dogs bark at him. He is lost in the darkness, so he goes back home but he doesn’t sleep.
 

All those heavy, bizarre nights do nothing but inflame his mysterious pains. The more he ponders over her denial, the more the image of the school girl tortures him. He hits her a lot and the light in the deep look of her eyes is the last thing he sees before she passes out. No, the changes that Rajab Al-Aali was going through had nothing to do with him being a good or a bad man; it had to do with his memory. The memory that has drained itself and got rid of all the faint threads. Its illuminating fabric is only known by the wooden door, the white walls, and the girl who whispered near his heart and there exactly she planted her everlasting look. It had nothing to do with this woman who gave up and surrendered to him for reasons that are related to the perplexing nature of humans. She didn’t try to run away to her family’s house and she didn’t try to forbid him to see the child who is at school now, but without a red bag.
 
He doesn’t spend nights at his house anymore. He befriended friends and friend-like people. He became good at games that kill time like an enemy. But he still wasn’t there. He was somewhere else. There was only one thing on this silly planet that kept on compassing his thoughts: the inability to own the person you love. This was the final expression of his pains.

 

 

On Praise of Love

I loved his red blood cells; his white blood cells; his platelets; his shirt button; his thoracic cavity bones; his liver; his shoes; his blue fish plate; the pebbles 10 kilometers away from his house; the medulla of his leg; his hair roots; his black tea; the queen’s picture in his cheap cigarette packs; his mobile phone that got water into it; his new camera mobile phone that was stolen; his tapping on the keyboard; his city’s flag; his spleen; his protruding skull bones; the football he kicked when he was a boy; the bitter water he drank; the girl who kissed him when he was six; the rain pond he swam in at Eid with the neighborhood boys; his mother’s stick; his brother’s glasses; the shine in his sister’s wedding earrings; the whiteness of his thumb bone; his laundry basket; the wood on his neighbor’s roof; my presents; the ones he sold for a reasonable price; the way that he hisses the letter ‘S’: my surname, my roots, my house, my pussycat, my Citroen, my black dress.

 

I loved the military airplanes in his sky; his about-to-fall school; the nearby shop he buys cheddar cheese from; his heart muscle; his swearing; his head nerves; his name appearing in Google; the silly girls cursing him; his wooden window sill; the deep wound splitting his eyebrow; his orange sofa’s mattress; his teeth in pain; his tape-player batteries; and his excessive geniality giving my entertaining letters to his beloved wife the one who tidies his bed, cooks his food, uproot harmful plants from his e-mail box, and offers invaluable advice.

  

On the Wooden Park Bench..We Sat!

Translated by: Clare Roberts

On the wooden park bench … we sat.

Me at the far right, and him on the far left, as if the bench wouldn’t be balanced unless we sat that way.

The trees were tall and the grass moist, and the sun’s warmth filled the park.

He told me: “I’m all alone, without friends, and happy to be alone”.

I told him: “I’m all alone, without friends, and unhappy about it”.

I returned to my small room, washed, did my homework, and slept.

The next day we sat on the same bench in the park, the sounds of children playing ballgames around us.

“I don’t like friends”, he said. “Every friendship eventually leads to betrayal”.

“I like friends,” I said. “It’s just that I haven’t found any”.

The sounds of the children faded, and I passed by the corner shop to buy bread and milk before returning to my room.

It poured with rain and I didn’t go to the park.

The next day he said: “I waited for you yesterday”.

“I couldn’t come because of the rain,” I told him. “Why did you wait for me? Are we friends?”

“I told you,” he said, “I don’t believe in friendship, especially between men and women. It’s a cowardly way of encountering love”.

I said nothing. Clouds gathered in the sky and, fearing a sudden downpour, I returned to my room. I watched TV, then slept.

On the wooden park bench we sat. He turned to face me and, out of the blue, told me a sad story about his childhood. I turned to him and told him a happy story about mine. He kicked at the children’s ball that had settled at his feet, and told me another story.

On my way back I passed by the library and read some colourful children’s stories. I bought some hot coffee from a kiosk on the way, noticing that the weather was getting chillier.

On the wooden bench I edged in slightly from the far right, and he edged in from the far left. He told me another sad story about his childhood, clenching his fist to show me how his father had beaten him. Ashamed to tell him that my father had never hit me, I told him my mother had beaten me too. Light drops of rain began to fall on the bench but I kept talking about my mother.

&

When I got back to my room I tried to call her, but she didn’t answer. I made cheese on toast and ate it with milk. I knew the question I would ask him tomorrow.

The next day he turned his body slightly towards me, and I asked him the question: “How many times have you been in love?”

“Once,” he said calmly, “when I was thirty”.

I heard the jingle of an ice cream van – it was still cold but I bought two cones, one for me and one for him.

After we had eaten the ice cream he said: “When I kissed her for the first time her face lit up the darkness. I was captivated by it.” A small prick jabbed at my heart and stayed there. “And then?” I asked. So he went on. He spoke of everything – the colour of her eyes, her earlobe, her armpit, her abandonment, her cruelty, his heaven and his hell. And his face lit up the darkness we hadn’t noticed had fallen around us.

I cried all the way back to my room, and slept in my clothes.

The next day I noticed that the wooden bench was dedicated to the memory of a “Loving Daughter, who departed early”. The ice cream van didn’t come. He told me about her hair and her phone calls and how he seemed to soar into heaven when they met. Once again, his face lit up the darkness.

Before sleeping I flicked through a photo album and wrote a short letter to my sister.

The sun rose, and I finished all my homework. I sat in my room looking out at the street from my small window. I decided not to go to the park. Growing hungry, I got dressed and went out. I ate a tuna sandwich in a nearby café, and went to the park. I sat at the far right and found two plastic cups of coffee next to him. “You’re late”, he said. “The coffee’s cold”. I retied the laces of my trainers, and he asked: “What is it that you do here?”

“I study,” I said. “What about you?”

“I work”.

We didn’t drink the cold coffee.

He said: “Few people in this world are lucky enough to be touched by the gift of love”.

I looked directly at him and said: “Don’t call them lucky”.

“Lucky”, he said.

“No”.

“Yes”.

And we argued.

Then I told him – I told him everything: how I had seen him for just a few moments, how he had told me he loved me, how he had promised me we would meet in many different cities, all of which I’d travelled to without ever meeting him, how I’d written to him of my longing, pouring my blood and tears into long letters, and how I had got hold of a letter from his girlfriend saying how much she’d enjoyed reading them. I also told him about my nervous breakdown and my stay in hospital.

He moved in slightly from the far right and I asked him: “Shall I kill him?”

“No,” he said firmly. “I’d say he’s already dead”.

I got up. Back in my room I flicked through some coloured magazines and newspapers, and drank hot chocolate before going to bed.

Before sleeping I told myself that he and I were very similar, and it was for that reason that we sat on the same bench every day.

The next day there was a space on the bench to my right, and a space to his left. We spoke of everything, and laughed, squeezing the empty plastic cups in our hands. He showed me pictures from when he was a child, and asked for my phone number. I didn’t respond. As I got up to leave he said to me: “I was in hospital too, after she left me for no reason and ignored my thousand letters begging her to come back”.

In my room I noticed that his childhood pictures resembled those of my younger brother, not smiling for the camera.

I came late the next day and he looked at me crossly. We didn’t talk. The shouts of the children playing hide and seek grew louder, and I felt cold.

“Where are your pictures?” he asked. “I didn’t say I’d bring them,” I said.

He told me I was cruel and I told him he was harsh, and I went to my room. There was no milk in the fridge, or juice, or bread, so I went to sleep hungry.

Many days passed, and the gap on the wooden bench narrowed and widened according to our animosity and our amicability. Then our animosity grew and we started to argue about everything and nothing. I told him I was tired of his harshness, and he told me he was tired of my sensitivity.

I wasn’t there for two days because of exams, and when I returned he was furious:

“You’re humiliating me by making me wait for you like this while you travel to every city to see that liar!”

I was about to say: “You wrote her a thousand letters and it’s me you’re shouting at this way?” But that’s when it occurred to me.

Back in my room, I wiped the wooden table and the bed with a dry towel, and threw the dirty laundry in the communal machine. I ate baked beans whilst watching cartoons on the muted TV. I bit my bottom lip hard, and, burying my head in the pillow, reflected:

There is no exchange of roles in real life.

Exams finished, and the weather began to lose some of its chill. When I returned to the park, the wooden bench was empty.

 

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