In summer, our neighborhood quiets in phases. The quieting begins in May. Schools give their older kids, the seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, a month off to prepare for the baccalaureate exams. Following a ritual as old as our parents, the students retreat to residences out of town, to peaceful chalets and cabins away from civilization for communal study and living. As noisily as migrating birds, they return for the state exams in June. Then school ends for the year; a couple of families travel abroad, a few more leave for the mountains. An outsider doesn’t perceive the slow but sure change in the neighborhood’s population until Beirut broils in August.
In early July, our neighbors across the landing, the Masris, left for the mountains. They wouldn’t return from their summer home till late September with its cooling temperatures. That was the summer I was promoted to the apartment’s caretaker, taking over from my brother. My father insisted that I look after the Masri home because he thought that at thirteen, I wasn’t yet behaving as an adult should. I needed to become more responsible. I’d been receiving talking-tos, lectures with full arm waving and hand gestures, every day for a month.
In the mornings, in the bathroom, as my father in boxer shorts and T-shirt stood before the vanity mirror, words would bubble out of the snow-white shaving foam. “When I was your age, I didn’t laze about all day doing nothing,” he’d say. “Can’t you find more mature friends? Do things that are more productive? You know, every action has a consequence, and the consequence of doing nothing is that you end up as nothing.”
At lunch, in the dining room, as we sat around the oak table, “Sit up straight. Look at how Wajdi sits, like a man. Enough with this boyish slouching.”
In the den, while watching television, he’d repeat the spiel, except after dinner he made it sound as if the thought had just occurred to him. “You should be thinking about what you want to do with your life,” he’d say. His right arm, as was its wont every evening, held my mother in what I always considered a matrimonial embrace, and she regarded him with admiration, as though each word of his were a tumbling pearl. “It’s never too early,” he’d go on, his left hand wandering and questioning. “What do you like? Solving problems? You can become an engineer. Helping people? An attorney. You could raise your grades if you applied yourself. Consider your future.”
I didn’t mind taking care of our neighbors’ apartment. My becoming-more-responsible chore for the summer involved little work: I had to open the windows once a week to air the place out and make sure that the two canaries were fed and their cage kept clean.
I sat cross-legged on the leather couch in Dr. Masri’s apartment, reading an ancient Harold Robbins novel where all the action happened in the Middle East—and I do mean action. In the best scene, Leila, who as a child refugee was traumatized by both Jews and Arabs, sucked a guy’s sumptuous dick in delicious descriptive detail. Her PLO boyfriend had persuaded her to fellate a fine-looking Mossad agent to extract valuable information. That was the first time I came across the verb fellate. I’d read Jacqueline Susann and Jackie Collins, so I knew about oral sex in literature, but this book was different. These were Arabs giving blowjobs and saying things like their mother’s cunt, which would have worked had it been written in Arabic but sounded utterly silly in English. Robbins was shooting for authenticity and ended up with anything but. Much fun.
I enjoyed reading a book from start to finish, unlike my brother, who read only the good parts. Wajdi would pick any book from Dr. Masri’s library, new or classic, a Collins or a Robbins, and let it open to where the spine was most creased. His technique never failed to ferret out an act of coitus or fellatio, since it seemed that Dr. Masri concentrated on the same parts. My brother’s interest in the books had waned the year before, when he turned seventeen and said he needed to concentrate on the real instead of the imaginary.
Dr. Masri’s entire library was shelved in one piece of furniture in the salon, a breakfront that had been moved from the dining room; thick paperbacks had replaced china and silverware behind the glass, and every paperback contained at least one good sex scene. If, as my father advocated, being a responsible caretaker was the gateway to manhood, I was all for it—those paperbacks would be my Saint Peter.
I had reached the page where Leila gets recruited to be a terrorist when the doorbell rang. I tiptoed to the door, as quiet as a stalking Mossad, and didn’t have to look through the peephole to know that it was Pipo, the bane of my existence. He had warned me to tell him as soon as the Masri family drove up to the mountains.
“If I don’t hear from you as soon as they leave,” he’d told me three days earlier, “I’m going to squeeze you with my hands like a little cockroach.” It would have been funny, how he always used incorrect similes, if his threats hadn’t usually been followed by unpredictable actions. I’d lied to the overweight monster and told him that Wajdi was the caretaker again this year—Pipo was afraid of Wajdi, who was the only boy in the neighborhood stronger and taller than the blob.
Pipo had this most annoying habit of talking to my face while lifting me by the collar of my shirt. That stopped when, during one lift, I told him I was wearing Wajdi’s shirt—I lied then as well, of course, but it was looser than what I normally wore—and my brother would be terribly upset if the collar was crinkled.
“I know you’re in there,” Pipo said to the door. His tone was whispery and sinister; he couldn’t yell because Wajdi or my father, ensconced in our apartment across the landing, would hear him. He rang the bell once more. “Open it.”
I wasn’t going to, for several reasons, one of which was ethical: I liked the Masris and wouldn’t give Pipo the run of their home. I had no idea what his plans for the empty apartment were, but I could guarantee that they weren’t savory. And I wasn’t going to do what he wanted because I was going to get pummeled whether I opened the door or not. If a beating is inevitable, delay is always the better course of action.
“If you don’t open the door,” Pipo said, “I’ll break Karl’s legs.”
“What?” squealed a damp voice. I held still, my back to the wall, resisting the urge to peek and confirm the presence of the traitor, my ex–best friend. “You can’t break my legs. It’s not fair.”
“I will if he doesn’t let me in.”
“What if he’s not there? He told me he has the key, but maybe he’s reading in his room. You can’t hurt me because the door isn’t opening by itself.”
I heard my father’s voice. “What are you boys doing? The Masris aren’t in.” The sound of hurried footsteps—cowardly Karl rushed down the stairs. Pipo stuttered an incoherent reply. “I don’t want to see you here, Philippe,” my father said. “You’re a man now. Start behaving like one.”
That was Karl’s second betrayal in less than a week. The previous Monday, we were sitting together on the wall across the street from our building, our feet dangling below us. He was a couple of months older than I, but two 501 inches wider. When cars sped by, he pointed and yelled out the make and year. His favorites, which you could tell by the inflection of his voice, were the new BMWs. He watched the cars. I watched him, his pimply face, as if seeing him for the first time. I thought he was so funny with his hair that hadn’t seen a comb in days. “Buick, 1998,” he announced. I smiled and rubbed my shoulder on his arm. He smelled of deodorant and armpit. “Peugeot, 2006, the latest model.” I laughed and rubbed against his shoulder again. “Nissan, 2000.” Laugh. Rub. Laugh. I stopped, though, because I felt my father staring at me from our balcony across the street. Like safari prey, I had developed, and nurtured, a sixth sense—an ability to feel his disapproval across large distances.
You always heard Pipo before you saw him. He rumbled toward us, his face aglow with sneer. His shirts were always white and blue, the colors of Lazio, his favorite soccer team, but since their sky blue was difficult to find in men’s clothing, he made do with other shades.
“Are you two sucking each other’s cocks?” he yelled.
Karl jumped off the wall, almost stumbled into a boxwood hedge. “It was him,” he pleaded, flailing his finger in my general direction. “He did it.”
Pipo whistled, not by puckering his lips but by folding his lower lip over his teeth in a manly way. He wiggled his black eyebrows, rubbed his hands like a sated housefly. “He sucked your cock, did he?”
I could feel my blood bubble. I slid off the wall, landing close to my tormentor. “Grow up, Pipo,” I said. Karl gasped, but I soldiered on. “You think we’re still in kindergarten?”
I turned and walked away. My father, still watching, probably had an unobstructed view of Pipo’s fist landing on the back of my neck and my falling forward. The bitumen rushed to greet my face at a dizzying speed before my hands broke my fall.
My father yelled at Pipo to stop. I lifted myself off the ground, looking neither back at Pipo nor up at the balcony, and marched to our building, knowing that my father would be waiting with a lecture on how men stood up to bullies. I allowed my eyes to see only the large bougainvillea, which sprinkled discarded bracts and faded magenta flowers onto our balcony.
Noonish, the sky was bone white and shadows were still shortening along the sand. The sea whispered, hissed, and lapped. I balanced on one foot, trying hard to look inconspicuous and not succeeding. I switched to the other, almost tipped over—my imitation of a crane with a middle-ear infection. I wasn’t wearing my flip-flops and the sparkling sand burned my feet. In my hurry to spy on Wajdi and his new girlfriend, I’d forgotten how fiery the sand could get. I stood on my toes, hoping to see farther, but my brother was too distant. I hopped over to the shore.
The water temperature was perfect for swimming, but I wished it were a bit cooler so it could comfort my soles more quickly. It was a day to make angels smile and forgive. Indolent and somnolent, sunbathers basked all around. Everyone and their bottle of suntan oil was on the beach.
Wajdi and his new girl walked by me, close to each other but not holding hands like I’d expected. He was lean and muscled from years of swimming, his brown hair already sun-bleached on top. He ignored me, talked to the smiling girl. He shuffled his feet, looking both self-effacing and suave, as if he had spent the last hour soaking in a tubful of confidence. They parted and he swaggered in my direction, chest puffed out like an iguana’s. I was still standing in the water. He stopped before his espadrilles got wet.
“She let me touch her,” he declared.
I rushed over. “Touch her? Touch her where?”
“Only a baby would ask such a question.” He turned and walked away. I ran after him, bobbing and bouncing. He looked so urbane. I admired his long fingers as he lit a cigarette. He walked straight, held his head up high. “She said she liked that I’m not wearing socks.”
“What do you mean? I’m not wearing socks either.”
“No, you baby. She likes that I’m not wearing socks with shoes. I’ll never wear socks again. Never ever again.”
The first refugee was my sister, Nadia. After the Israelis bombed the airport, she and my one-year-old nephew, cheeks still swollen with sleep, arrived with three suitcases in tow. One contained her clothes and belongings, the second her son’s clothes, and the third was bursting with disposable diapers. She lived only three buildings away, nowhere near the airport, but we knew it wouldn’t take her long to come over. We didn’t have to ask where her husband was.
“He can stay where he is,” she huffed. “The Israelis have sophisticated weapons. I don’t want to be there when one of their missiles finds him.”
My sister had married a Shiite.
“You shouldn’t be saying that,” my father said. “Your husband is a good man, a wonderful man.”
We all loved my brother-in-law, but Nadia found him annoying. She had been completely obsessed with him before the wedding, but not after. I found the situation, her constant irritation with her husband, somewhat confounding. He was decent, intelligent, and admirably gentle, not the most interesting man, one had to admit, but consistent, if anything. How a wedding could change her opinion so abruptly wasn’t easy to explain. I assumed the intimacy and mundaneness of marriage had surprised her and she had yet to recover. It could have been worse, since he traveled quite a bit, being a commercial pilot. Still, she complained that he wasn’t gone enough. My mother defended her by reminding everyone that she was a young bride and would grow up in time.
My sister rolled her suitcase into her old room, which she hadn’t allowed anyone to claim when she moved out—understandably, since she still spent most of her days in our apartment. I followed her, carrying my nephew, and put him on his cot, under its ever-circling wooden airplanes. I moved my sister’s old stuffed toys around to create space for him. The walls were baby pink, the color of her nail polish and lipstick—she avoided dark shades, claiming they emphasized the puffy aspects of her lips.
“Watch him,” Nadia said. “I have to go hoarding.”
“Your brother should go with you,” my mother said. “He can carry. I’ll stay here, but don’t forget anything.”
The entire country was on the road. It happened every time the Israelis bombed Beirut—never when they shelled the south, which they did on a more regular basis. Bombing the airport during high season, though, meant that every tourist was driving out of the city and out of the country.
My father raged against the traffic, and when we passed a gas station, he banged his head on the steering wheel. After dropping us at the supermarket, he’d have to wait in line for at least a couple of hours to fill up the tank. Wajdi, who had taken my mother’s car, was probably stuck at a station already.
“I hate this,” my father yelled.
“Are you sure we need to do this?” I asked.
“The Israelis won’t stop. They never do. It’s the right of the privileged. They’re always the victims, which means they’re going to rain the demons of hell upon us.” He took deep breaths, trying to fill his lungs with calm. It rarely worked. “Bomb everything. Kill hundreds, thousands. Does anyone take any responsibility? Feel guilty? They blame everyone but themselves.”
My father’s heart found some relief in diatribes. He raged every time the Israelis attacked us, less at the actual casualties and damage than at their lack of concern. This time, my father was going to rage for quite a while.
My sister and I split up in the supermarket. I reveled in the excitement of upheaval, stacking my shopping cart with cases of drinking water, cartons of cigarettes for my father, sacks of flour, bulgur, and coffee. She would get everything else if we were lucky, since the market was emptying quickly. People had begun hoarding the evening before. The Lebanese had a lot of experience.
I was deciding how much rice to buy when I heard my sister shriek two aisles away. I rushed over, pushing my cart, finding her in the baby aisle. She held a package of Pampers as a tall, better-manicured woman in a tailored gray day dress tried to snatch it away. The woman blabbered and kept jerking her recently coiffed head at two packages of Huggies in my sister’s cart, as if she had a neurotic twitch. My sister’s fingers had punctured the plastic. Several strands of her hair had escaped their barrette. Customers whispered, not bothering to hide their sniggering. The woman’s Filipina maid in a baby-blue uniform watched the melee with her hand over her mouth. The maid and her mistress must have shared a hairdresser, because they had the exact same coif, the latter in a much lighter tone, of course. They both had sweaters tied around their shoulders.
Nadia tugged and pulled and screeched. The woman finally released her grip. “You have three packages,” she said, shocked at not getting what she wanted. “Give me one of them.”
My sister snorted as she put the last package of Pampers in her cart. She turned her back and pushed the cart away. “Let’s go,” she said when she saw me.
The woman whispered to her maid, who nodded, then rushed my sister’s cart, grabbed a diaper package, and disappeared down another aisle, the blue sweater floating on the air like a hero’s cape. My sister screamed, tried to swing her cart around to follow the maid’s cooling trail, but other customers got in the way. The woman laughed, beamed. I expected her to shout, “Who’s the fairest of them all?”
A week into the bombing, my father’s rage was spent. That evening he wore the black pants he’d had on the day before, the same starched white cotton shirt. His eyes were red from alcohol. Holding his glass with four fingers, he drank, kept it tilted for a while, quenching a thirst. The fingers were long, wrinkled, and swollen. His lips had shrunk and paled so that I couldn’t trace them. He sat staring at the water-stained ceiling, lost in inebriated thought.
“Sometimes,” he said quietly, “I feel so tired.”
He conversed with me by way of the ceiling, not lowering his head.
“Your mother keeps going to bed earlier and earlier.”
He couldn’t get to work, and when he was unable to work, he got bored, and when he was bored, he drank, and since he didn’t drink often, he was a sad, boring drunk.
There was a lull in the bombing. It was a Club Med–weather day and Wajdi wanted to go for a walk. He’d been cooped up too long. He left the apartment and I followed. We reached the corniche above our favorite beach, what used to be a long stretch of white sand. When the Israelis started bombing, one of the first things they hit was an oil depot at the port, and the resulting spill turned all our beaches black. We looked down on the goo, stared at the slick dark carcasses of fish. The sea that once sweetly whispered now grumbled and burped.
My brother descended to the beach to get a closer look. “Are you coming?”
I didn’t reply. I didn’t follow. I couldn’t.
The second set of refugees, the real ones, arrived two weeks after the bombing commenced. Dr. Masri asked that we open his apartment to two of his employees and their families, who had been left homeless by the ceaseless bombing of the southern suburbs. Our neighborhood had sustained damage but was now relatively safe. The bridge leading into the neighborhood had been blown up; the tall building two streets away, with a television antenna on its roof, had been leveled, but our area escaped the cluster bombs.
As the caretaker, I had to wait for the families. I’d expected children by the bushel, but there was only one, a taciturn boy of twelve. The two men worked in Dr. Masri’s orchards in the south and had to return to the fields after they dropped off their wives.
“War or no war,” the older man said, “we can’t leave the blessings unattended.”
Whereas a one-eyed man could tell that the men were brothers, their wives were a study in contrast. Both were harried and haggard, but the boy’s mother looked as if she was ready to attend Friday prayers at the mosque, long skirt of brown and black, dusty beige shirt, and a dark blue chiffon scarf covering her hair. The younger, recently married, looked as if she was about to attend an afternoon disco party for the bad-taste crowd. Her slick skin was pale and white; her eyes, slightly slanted, were a light gray blue; and her wild blond hair was three shades to the left of peroxide, a spilled bottle. Black tights disappeared under a large white T-shirt infected with a rash of rhinestones.
As soon as I unlocked the door for them, the women toured the apartment, synchronizing their movements as if they had been refugeeing together all their lives. I excused myself, but before I could close the door behind me, the older woman said, “Would you like to show Mohammad Ali around?”
He stood by his mother, staring at his shoes, looking smaller than his age. His chin almost disappeared into his concave chest, which made his head seem all hair—dirty and tangled hair, with strands reaching out like baby snakes. When he looked up briefly, he unnerved me. He had terrifying eyes, I thought—light, penetrating, like a wizard’s.
“I can’t,” I replied. “Maybe later.”
Against family advice, one morning my sister decided to go shopping up north, maybe as far as Tripoli, having exhausted the Beirut markets. The roads were damaged, but the Israelis hadn’t attacked the north in almost ten days. Neither of our parents was willing to go with her. My brother refused as well, so she forced her husband to accompany her. “Make sure to leave your Shiite GPS locator in the apartment before you pick me up,” she needled him. Usually my mother would have been needling her about her excessive cell phone usage, but the Israelis had destroyed all the landlines.
I’d spent the previous week telling her that she was nuts, AK-47 crazy, but she paid me no mind. My mother explained that every individual dealt with traumatic stress differently and one couldn’t predict wartime behavior based on non-bombing personality. As the Israeli missiles hit, my father drank, my mother cooked, my brother brooded, and my sister shopped for diapers. During non-bombing she was probably as rational as any Lebanese, but with each missile she grew more and more erratic. Her pink room brimmed with disposable diapers, four distinct piles from floor to ceiling; one diaper bag at the top looked like it was suffocating because it couldn’t fit between the ceiling and its brother below it. My sister had stuffed a dozen bags under the baby’s cot and at least twice as many under her bed. She had enough diapers to ensure that her son would be wearing them until he was six years old, maybe seven. When I pointed that out to her, she shouted, “Well, I might get pregnant again. It happens.”
But then this morning, we turned on the diesel generator to watch the television news and the announcer informed us that the Israelis had bombed the Johnson & Johnson warehouse the night before, incinerating everything in it.
“Why?” my mother asked the television.
My father looked at the bottle of scotch, but it was still early in the morning.
My brother sipped his coffee. “I’m sure terrorists were hiding between the shampoo and the Band-Aids. No more tears.”
My sister beamed, seemed to have grown taller in her chair. “I told you we’ll run out of diapers. Just you wait, they’ll bomb the Procter & Gamble warehouse next.” She was talking to us but looked as if she were addressing a large invisible audience. She pursed her lips and blew on newly painted fingernails.
I had to show Mohammad Ali around. My mother insisted that I spend time with the sullen boy. She thought he looked like a haunted creature, that he’d seen much more than a child should. “He must be lonely,” she’d said. “His house has been destroyed. His family is all over the place. The least we can do is be kind and neighborly.”
I didn’t know what to show him. The Israelis were taking a break and we didn’t have to stay indoors, but he didn’t seem to care about seeing the neighborhood—his head rarely tilted anywhere but down. We sat silently on the wall facing our building. His legs were shorter than mine. He wouldn’t look at me, instead leaned forward, his knuckles turning white where he held on to the wall. He was a nail biter. I glanced at my fingernails, then quickly looked away. My father had told me that men didn’t worry about their fingernails.
The quiet bothered me. “You’re an only son?” I asked.
“No.” His strange vowels identified him as a southerner.
I waited, hoping he’d go on, but silence was his preferred companion. “Where are your siblings?”
I wanted to smack him. I could have been reading one of the doctor’s books instead of spending time with him.
“Do you want me to leave you alone?” I asked, no longer trying to mask my irritation. “I could. It’s no trouble. I’m just trying to be friendly.”
He finally turned his head, his blue eyes measuring me. “Why do you want to be friends?” he asked.
“Because my mother said I had to.”
A gold tooth shone way back in his mouth when he laughed.
“I have three brothers and two sisters,” he said.
“That’s more like it,” I said.
“My eldest brother is in Nigeria, and so are my two sisters and their families. I have a brother who’s a martyr. He would’ve been sixteen now, but he’s dead.”
I waited for a moment to see if he would go on. “That leaves one more,” I said.
“He’s fighting.” He paused, sighed. “He’s a man.”
“Oh,” I said. I leaned back and pretended nonchalance, as if it were every day that I talked about men fighting wars. “How old is he?”
“Hmm. Was your other brother a fighter, too?”
“I don’t know.”
“How could you not know?”
“No one knows who the fighters are until there’s a war. I know that my brother is fighting now because he told me last week. He wanted me to protect my mother because he was going to kill the enemy.”
“Oh,” I said. “Fighting.”
“You ask too many questions,” he said.
“It’s because you don’t ask any.”
“I’ll ask,” he said. “Why are you hiding from the fat boy?”
I didn’t reply. I looked up at our balcony to see if anyone was there.
“You shouldn’t be afraid of him,” he said.
Later that day, I heard my father laughing like a crazy hyena on the balcony. He sipped a beer and leaned over the waist-level concrete wall that separated Dr. Masri’s balcony from ours. The bougainvillea’s flowers lay crumpled at his feet. On the other side, the newlywed listened to him tell the story of my meeting the American ambassador, an oft-repeated tale. My father waved me over to stand by him. He tousled my hair, held me close, and went on with the story.
I was in kindergarten, some years after the civil war ended, when the American ambassador came to visit our school with an entourage of reporters and sycophants. The ambassador engaged a number of kids in conversation. He surprised me at the bottom of the slide, asking me directly in English, “How much is two and two?” Without pausing I said, “Are you buying or selling?” There. I identified myself as one of the Lebanese, who would sell their souls for a good profit, descendants of the Phoenicians, who apparently had. I also identified myself as the son of my father, a money changer.
My father finished the story and burst into hyena laughter once more.
The laughter settled into comical hiccups. “You were such a funny boy,” he said, caressing my cheek.
The morning sun found Mohammad Ali and me sitting on the same wall as the day before, still not talking much. We were there for about twenty minutes before the bully showed up.
“Who’s your friend?” Pipo yelled.
There was no escape. Mohammad Ali stared at his weathered shoes. My palms turned clammy.
“He’s not my friend,” I said. “His family moved next door because their house was bombed.”
“So you found a younger boy to suck your cock?”
Something within that younger boy was unyoked. He lifted his head up and glared at Pipo.
“Don’t look at me that way, you little—” Pipo’s eyes looked unhinged suddenly as Mohammad Ali lunged with a Swiss Army blade and slashed his sleeve.
“If you talk to me again,” Mohammad Ali said, “I’ll kill you.”
Pipo looked at the tear in his light blue shirt, put his finger right through it. There was no blood. “This is my favorite shirt,” he said. “My mother bought it for me.”
“If you talk to me again—”
This time it was Pipo who interrupted. For a fat boy, he was inordinately quick. He punched the younger boy in the face and sent him flying against the wall. That wasn’t enough. Pipo jerked him to the ground, sat on him, and began an unforgiving assault. Blood erupted, bones broke. Pipo kept yelling, “You think you can scare me with a teeny knife?”
I tried to stop Pipo, but he swung at me as soon as I got close to him. He was much too big. I screamed for help. I thought Mohammad Ali was already dead. I screamed so loud that practically everyone in the neighborhood showed up. Wajdi was the one who lifted Pipo off the unconscious boy.
Someone called for an ambulance. Someone else called his mother.
Pipo blabbered, “He stabbed me with a knife. He stabbed me. I’m going to tell my father.”
Even though we didn’t know his family well, my parents decided on the hospital visit as a show of support, and I was forced along. In the hospital bed, surrounded by machines and his watchful mother, he did not look like the boy of the day before. The contours of his face, its distinctive shadings, had been altered, as if I were looking at him in an aquarium. I couldn’t bear to look directly at him. My father stared at Mohammad Ali lying in the coma and shook his head as if what was in front of him was inconceivable, as if his eyes were betraying him. He shook his head with his eyes closed, opened them, then repeated the process. I thought we should return home. He needed his drink.
My mother, on the other hand, wished to stay at the hospital because she felt sorry for Mohammad Ali’s mother, being far from home without enough family around her.
I persuaded my father to take me home. As I followed him toward the car, the boy’s aunt, the newlywed, ran after us, her body jiggling in a loud leotard, asking if she could get a ride.
Sitting in the front seat, Mohammad Ali’s aunt chattered, couldn’t remain quiet, giggled nervously, didn’t seem worried about her nephew’s condition. Every individual dealt with traumatic stress differently. You couldn’t predict wartime behavior.
“Just go over there and fuck her,” my father demanded with emphasis, but not in anger.
He and I were alone in the apartment. He wore his white sweat suit, which usually meant he was planning a brisk walk. The slicked-back hair, however, and the intensity in his eyes, made him look like an Eastern European, a Romanian or Bulgarian, about to go to a nightclub.
The Israelis were bombing the southern section of Beirut again—no one was going for a brisk walk.
I stood before my father, unable to move, even though I wanted desperately to retreat into a book. My tongue tasted chemicals. My father wanted me to walk across the hallway that separated our apartment from Dr. Masri’s and fuck our neighbor, the boy’s aunt. And he wanted me to do it right then.
“Get Wajdi to do it.” My face flushed. How did one just walk over and have sex with a woman? What was the procedure? Was there a secret language between men and women that I was not privy to, an adult code of signs, of body hieroglyphs, announcing readiness to fuck? “Wajdi should go first.”
“No, you. You’re ready. Just go over there and fuck her.” His eyes bored into me. Nothing else in his life mattered at that moment except this.
“I don’t understand. How do I do it? How do you know she’s ready to fuck? I don’t know what to do.” I whined like a baby, already defeated.
“She’s ready and she wants it. There’s no one else there and she’s meowing like a cat in heat. Just go now.”
“What about her husband?”
“She’s not getting what she wants from her husband. He’s a wimp. You can tell. Go over there and fuck her.”
“Do I have to do it now? Why now? How do you know she’s ready this minute?”
“Why not now? She’s meowing. Go.”
“I can’t. I masturbated twice this morning.”
He raised his arms in exasperation and walked out. The sound of the closing door echoed in the apartment. I shut my eyes and concentrated on the afterimage. The white sweat suit turned black.
An hour later, he sat on the sagging armchair in the living room, a light sheen of sweat covering his face. He was wearing the same Adidas sweat suit but now unzipped. His undershirt showed, a few chest hairs forcing their way through the thin fabric. His potbelly looked more bloated than usual, as if he had swallowed a globe. His hair was plastered to his forehead.
“I don’t usually do this.” He spoke in a low voice.
“Do what?” I asked, not wanting to believe what I was seeing.
“I don’t usually screw around when your mother and I are in the same town. I have too much respect for her. But I wanted to show you the girl was ready to get fucked. If only you’d listened to me.” He regarded me with some compassion, but I was too stunned to utter anything. “She was meowing. I told you. All you had to do was go over there and you would’ve fucked her. She needed it. You could’ve had it. I didn’t want to do it, but you forced me. I had to do it to show you.”
The summer breeze slowly eddied the faded magenta flowers round and round the balcony like ghostly gowns waltzing at the ball. My father looked away from me, toward the window, toward the dance, toward Beirut, our city, falling apart.
Watch Rabih Alameddine and other Issue no. 234 contributors read from their work at our Fall 2020 launch event.