Example Of A Short Story
I took an extra-long amount of time to dress. I normally couldn’t be bothered. Whatever the occasion, you could be sure I’d go with my usual uniform: jeans, a turtleneck, a clip tying back my dishwater blonde hair (which, as children on the metro were always happy to inform me, was the color of hummus.) This night, though, I spent extra time choosing which jeans, which turtleneck, which way to wear my hair. I settled on black low-rise slacks and a black Gap turtleneck. I even added dangling silver earrings and a sheer lip gloss.
Fix was ready ahead of me this time. With cargo pants and a white collared v-neck tee that framed his smooth olive skin, he looked his part. I supposed, we both did. A careless actor and his wife-to-be. A writer and her future husband. I laughed at that thought. I looked straight into the mirror’s reflection of my crinkly eyes, and I laughed. I hadn’t written anything since we had gotten engaged. Well, I hadn’t finished anything, rather. I wondered if I could still call myself a writer. I sighed, clipped back my hair and left the bedroom, closing the door behind me, so the smell of Fix’s cigarette wouldn’t taint my sleeping space.
He sat, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, without any sign of moving from in front of his favorite spot: the television. I often thought to myself, silently, that this one machine would be the ruin of his career. His potential career. It hadn’t really “taken off” yet, as they say.
“Ready?” We were already an hour late, which even in Egyptian time was bordering on being late.
“Just give me a second. This is a really funny movie. Come, sit down. Watch it with me.”
I rolled my eyes and mumbled something about telling me when he was ready, and I went to the kitchen. Our kitchen was a dusty white color that felt greasy and old. I could never get it quite clean enough. Eventually, I would give up trying. Despite this, it was my favorite room. At the end of the long, narrow room, stood the refrigerator on one side and the dishwasher and end cabinet on the other. Beyond this point was about five feet of open space in front of floor-to-ceiling, frosted windows. Fix’s family had kept a breakfast table here. I had removed the table and replaced it with a stool and an easel—my painting corner. It was also my tea drinking corner, my sulking corner, and my people watching corner. I rarely painted, and when I did, I did so poorly.
The windows here faced another high rise, not a few hundred meters away. The result: I could see onto dozens of balconies and into dozens of homes. Maybe it was a bit peeping tommish and sick, but then again my entire life in Cairo was slightly sick. I was sick.
I sat down and began to watch the boys in the parking lot below playing football. They never stopped playing football. Day, night, holiday, school day, sunshine, sandstorm, they were always down there, always playing, always making obnoxious noise.
Ten minutes went by. I began to get impatient. We were horribly late by now. For some reason, I was nervous. This “crowd” always made me nervous. Amongst the Cairo high crowd, I always felt a fake. I didn’t belong. Their lifestyle was something so foreign to me. Ha, foreign, that is funny – seeing as how I am in a foreign country and all. But, I don’t mean to imply a cultural difference as much as a social or economic difference. Fix’s contemporaries were from a social class to which my small-town, working class roots couldn’t relate. I came from a family of teachers and laborers, not people who belonged to this club or that. We didn’t do our shopping in New York or Paris. We were lucky to shop anywhere other than Wal-Mart. I lacked the style, the grace, the mentality to blend or to feel at ease in his world. And, all-too-often, I lacked the desire.
It was an uneasiness Fix couldn’t understand. He, nor his friends, would ever think of dismissing me because I wasn’t as rich as they. But, then again, I don’t think they comprehended that I wasn’t as rich. I have encountered this thought so many times, and have consistently failed at putting it into words – it is almost as if being American or Western, maybe, gives you an automatic right of entry into these Cairo circles—provided, of course, that you create your own method of contact. Meaning, they would not necessarily seek me out just because I was foreign, but if I happened to join them of my own accord or connections, I would be accepted.
Ah, whatever the case, I was always uncomfortable. Dressing for these nights caused me fits. Being early or late for these nights caused me fits. The whole affair caused me fits. But, this was my life now. If only I could relax and allow myself to slip into the fairy tale that I always believed life for an expatriate in Cairo could be, the fairy tale I never could obtain.
After all, American money went so much farther here. One could live at a phenomenally higher standard of living than in the U.S. And, if you managed to get on the right side of this modern class system, it was the good life. I reckon I had managed it, in a way, but somehow I couldn’t face life in Cairo, the difficulties, the chaos, the constant strife with the ease I imagined, with a wrinkleless face. After three years in Cairo, my forehead was becoming grooved. This is not to mention what was happening on the inside of my head. Fix found me on his own good sweet time. We left, punched the elevator button, and descended 18 floors in the pale green elevator. It smelled like cat urine. Again. Our building was a high rise in a once-nice area just off the Nile Corniche. Later, this same area was to have a minor face-lift and become somewhat nice again, but for now, to me, it felt like living in the ghetto. Fix assured me time and time again that pyramid-view high rises along the Nile were anything but ghetto, but judging from the boy gangs and trash that filled the streets below, I wasn’t convinced.
We briskly walked to the corner of the Masr-Helwan Agricultural Road, the corner where we always stopped taxis. It was a chilly night, I remember that. Our ride seemed exceptionally long.
As we made our way from Maadi, the southern Cairene neighborhood known for its villas and Western communities, to Giza, another upperclass neighborhood that not only overlooked the Nile and its feluccas, but boasted the pyramids. As we crossed the Nile, once again, I pored over my thoughts, my knowledge of my life in Cairo. As I examined the past few years, I was reminded yet again that nothing in my head was chronological, linear. My knowing was a spiral, a nasty web of guesses and suggestions. Thus, I know, one day my writing—my telling of my story—would be similar. I would only be able to tell it in sweeps. (Here I am reminded of Fix’s contemplation of the Cairo street sweeper—Sweep, sweep.) The first sweep takes most of the dust or debris. But, the return sweeps, those are the ones that catch the last pieces—some the most important.
My memories, my stories, had come to resemble the city in which they were born, an infuriating city that if you tried to wash it, its dirt and dust would turn to muck and gunk and ooze into every corner and crevice mucking up everything, especially the spots that once were clear. In the end, how can you not go crazy? I guessed, in a way, I had.
We neared our destination: a string of floating restaurants on the Nile. Tonight, we were meeting friends at Applebee’s, a popular spot for young upper-class Egyptians. As we headed to the outside area at the back of the boat-restaurant, a shout rang out a little too loudly, even for an already impossibly loud Cairene restaurant. “And it improves your vision!”
“Really? That seems to be going a little too far, ya-Shady,” a friend of ours, Tariq, reigned in another. Our friend Shady had already spent five minutes detailing the benefits of green tea. Though Tariq spoke Shady’s name, he directed his question to the less excited and thus arguably more reliable source to his right. Dalia sat, proper but relaxed, in a brown skirt made from a scratchy sort of material. Her brown boots were this next year’s round toe and were low-heeled: a prophetic vision of what every young woman in New York and London and San Francisco and Vienna and Cairo would be wearing come twelve months. Dalia’s thin lips curved into a gentle, innocent smile to reveal adorably imperfect teeth. Her tall sharp features nodded in consent indicating her beau, Shady, was speaking the truth.
Dalia and Shady had been one of the first couples I met after arriving in Cairo, and they had remained two of my closest companions. Both hailed from the uppermost echelons of Cairene society—both in terms of wealth and liberalism. Shady, by any standards, must have been considered one of Cairo’s most eligible bachelors: though he possessed Enrique Iglesia-ish good looks and unbelievable family wealth, I thought his enthusiastic sense of humor was his trump card. Dalia, an Egyptian film star, was incredibly independent and lived in her own villa on the outskirts of the city. Though inseparable, marriage did not seem on the couple’s agenda.
“I am telling you each and every one of you, yanni, you have to try it. We drink it all the time now. That is the only thing I drink. I have stopped smoking. I have stopped drinking caffeine. I only drink green tea now and I swear to you everyone, my life is improved. I am improved. I see better, I hear better, I feel better. All my senses are more perfect. Ask Dalia.” Shady continued his convincing editorial as we found two open seats. “Let me order everyone a green tea right now. You have to try it, ok? Ya-sadi,” he called the server.
I heard a quiet chuckle next to me. Mizo’s laugh always warmed me. I gave him a raised-eyebrow look of inquiry and he explained his amusement. “I highly suspect that Applebee’s will not serve green tea.”
“He’ll have us somewhere else, then, before the night’s over,” I suggested.
“I am afraid of just this thing, Jessy.”
“Nah, he has nearly forgotten about it already.”
“Ha! True that,” Mizo smiled crookedly at me. Seeing his face amongst tonight’s crowd offered great relief to me. Of even greater relief had been the open chair next to him. In the chaos of these nights out, Mizo was always my anchor, my guide. Though in no way was he an outsider, somehow he played the outsider role like me. His version, though, was less awkwardness and more scientific observation.
Now that Shady’s tirade had ended, Fix and I could properly greet everyone.
“Howdy does?” Fix’s sing-song voice rang out. As he descended into Arabic banter with Tariq, perhaps my least favorite character in the group, a trilling “Jessica!” turned my attention to the table’s end. Mary, a Coptic Egyptian American and arguably my kookiest friend, seemed overjoyed as usual to see me.
“I was just beginning to tell Mizo about my swan theory,” Mary beamed as I gave Mizo a sympathetic look. “Do you remember the Nicholas Sparks book I showed you the other day, Jessy? Do you remember, it had swans on the cover?” Then, as if Mizo needed it confirmed, you leaned toward him, “It had swans on the cover.”
“It was tragic!” Fix’s voice boomed. The table to my right looked to me for confirmation.
“I assume we are talking about the fact that Fix decided to fling burning coal into his eye yesterday and cost us his last pound having the Digla clinic wash it out?” Fix was squinting dramatically.
Dalia interjected wisely, “It’s better this way, though. I am sure there are things you would rather he not see.” Everyone except Shady, who was looking pouty, laughed.
“I am sure his other senses function properly. If he cannot see it, I am sure he can hear it—or even smell it.” Shady played the part of the jealous Egyptian lover.
“Thank you ya Shady. No hiding from me, little girl,” Fix added dramatically.
“So what does a doctor do about a burning coal in one’s eye?” Mizo seemed to have broken away from Mary and her swans. I feared it was a temporary escape.
“Just washed it out and gave me some nasty drops and an ointment to put in it.”
“Which, of course, he is a major baby about,” I teased.
Shady put on his serious face again. “So does she have to strap you down?”
“Nearly. Jessy has creative ways of doing things.”
“Yes. I push him down on the bed and straddle him,” I said as if the thought bored me. I suppose it did.
“What’s the matter with you Fix? What man can argue with that? A hot blonde lady knocking you over onto a bed. Dude, these women have their ways,” Shady concluded.
“Well, I hope it never happens to you!” Fix seemed traumatized.
“So, anyway, I have been looking at that book every day since. The book with the swans. And then I was rearranging my house based on things I have been learning about feng shui—I do that a lot, but Jessy knows that because she has seen me do that a lot,” Mary and her swans were back. I gave her my full attention as I couldn’t imagine where we were going with this. With Mary, it was hard to tell.
“So I was going through my things and I found this painting one of my friends had given me, and I was looking at it because it reminded me of the lake next to my house where I grew up in Colorado. And then I looked closer and, lo and behold, there were swans in the picture. And that was so interesting. Swans again. I was rearranging my house according to feng shui principles and there were more swans. Whatever your opinion is about feng shui, just think of it if nothing else as proper arrangement of furniture so you don’t bump into it and hurt yourself,” she giggled knowingly.
“So then, as I was rearranging my furniture according to feng shui principles, I decided I need crystals. Do you know about crystals Mizo? They are very good feng shui.” Mizo nodded his careful approval.
“So I heard about this furniture store in Imbaba that sells crystals.”
“Really?” Mizo interrupted. “In Imbaba? Seriously.”
“Oh yes,” Mary confirmed. “You would be amazed at what you can find in Imbaba!”
“I think that’s one of the neighborhoods I am not allowed to go inside,” I added.
“Probably,” Mizo answered.
“So I took a taxi to Imbaba, and when I got out, lo and behold, I saw there was a Lebanese consulate or some embassy building across the street. Lebanon. Of course this means nothing to me, but it might for you. So I went into the furniture store which used to be an ice cream shop owned by a Lebanese man. Again Lebanon. But, the ice cream store closed because it had bad feng shui. And now the furniture store is in its place. So I went inside to look for crystals. And I was shocked because the furniture store also had bad feng shui. And, lo and behold, there was an enormous painting of swans. Swans!”
I took a big swig of my iced tea in order to stifle a giggle. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but Mary, to me, was hilarious. She didn’t try to be. In fact, she would likely be hurt if I laughed at her, which is why I urgently needed an iced tea refill.
Our waiter was back but was engaged in a serious discussion with Shady and Tariq. Shady looked amused, but Tariq had his authoritative face on. He always looked like this when he spoke to normal Egyptians, as if his higher socio-economic status made him so superior. That was one of many reasons I did not like him. They were speaking in Arabic, so I couldn’t quite grasp the problem, though I thought I caught the word shay, meaning tea. Before I could direct the waiter’s attention to my own empty tea glass, he was gone.
“Seriously, ya Tariq. That wasn’t necessary, man,” Shady said.
“No, it is the principle of the matter,” Tariq explained.
“I completely agree with Tariq,” Fix added.
Before I could figure out what was going on, the waiter returned with what appeared to be a manager, a heavy-set balding man in his forties. He spoke in English, “How may I assist you, sir?”
Tariq and Fix began to argue their case. Apparently, they were outraged that an establishment that catered to the upper classes such as this did not offer its guests green tea. What had once been Shady’s mock tirade had now taken on a life of its own, separate from him. In fact, Shady and Dalia both looked a bit annoyed. At heart, they both disliked conflict.
The debate, though long-lasting, was to no avail. Applebee’s did not have green tea in its possession to serve. The manager, however, assured us all that he would look into acquiring green tea. Tariq warned of the consequences if green tea was not available the next time he came to Applebee’s.
This ridiculous display reaffirmed my conviction that Tariq was a bastard of the highest quality. He was prone to ostentatiousness. Only earlier this week, he had taken us to meet his newest acquisitions: two tiger cubs which he was allowing the Cairo zoo to care for, provided of course he be allowed free access. The guy just made me ill.
We stood on Giza’s corniche waiting for the right taxi. The whirring traffic told me that this likely wasn’t the safest place to stop a taxi. My realization of this passed as quickly as the scooter with four adolescent boys piled atop that made my velvet scarf blow from around my neck. After all, nothing about my life in Egypt was very safe. At least not by the standards of the quiet little Ozarks life I had lived before coming here. But that life was far away now.
Another taxi stopped and went. Too pricey for my street-wise Egyptian fiancé, whose plentiful finances were not the issue. I began to wish we could just take any taxi. I was a little chilled—the Cairene winter air had a way of getting into my bones—and tired. We had been fighting this battle for around 20 minutes already, and there was no victory in sight. Of course, if we had taken one of the taxis that lay in wait outside the riverboat Applebee’s where we’d just eaten, we would have certainly returned by now to our Maadi flat.
Technically, I lived elsewhere. Though it was a point of discontent with me, Fix insisted I still hold onto my own flat in the American “compound” called Digla. In all honesty, Digla was not an American compound, but it might as well have been. Most Americans I knew, excluding the overly crazy ones who were trying to go “native”—of course, weren’t we were all crazy and guilty of this neo-orientalist sin—lived in Digla. A handful of upper class Egyptians also resided there. The exclusivity of Digla’s prices combined with its restricted entrances—roughly 4 in number, though of course there were always other ways—gave it the feel of a compound, the Westerner’s version of a gated community in the Middle East.
Of course, on many levels I preferred Digla, but the fact that I had a flatmate—the amazingly cool daughter of Mongolia’s ambassador– forging any sort of “real” life at my place was impossible, so we spent most of our time in the Corniche highrise. At this point, it didn’t matter to me where we were going. I was cold and grumpy and just wanted to go somewhere.
However, despite the chill, where my resolve failed, Fix’s made up. In my few months there, I had already begun to realize that these battles for him were not about money: it had plenty of that. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were about, but I understood what they weren’t. I suspected the fight in him had something to do with the love/hate relationship he had for his native country. Having been raised in a cushy Gulfian life in Bahrain, his journey to Cairo as a young man had not been easy. His fights were not fights with taxi drivers or store owners or bill collectors—they were fights with Cairo. To him, they were a matter of survival and victory. She brought that out in people.
Fix’s mother had only that summer tearfully explained to me her self-blame. I found her in the middle of the night, sitting on the upstairs balcony of the family’s Alexandrian villa, staring blankly into the moonlit Mediterranean. Without acknowledging my presence, she began,“I should not have let him go to Egypt. It is a difficult place, yanni, for a young man. I should have gone with him. He should not have been alone. In that place. Life is very difficult in Egypt. In Cairo.” Her red hair glowed in the night and her face registered a look of disgust.
Apparently, what stood before me arguing with driver after driver had once been a carefree, docile young boy. Cairo had done this to one of her own. Of course, I loved him for it, but I could only wonder what she would do to me.
As taxi driver #11 sped away and Fix continued to argue with himself, I realized we were not the only bystanders on this streetside. Two Egyptian girls, around 7 and 9, stood giggling. My eyes met the youngest’s and I smiled. She giggled. I wondered if they were sisters. I wondered where they were going. Home, possibly, from school. Wasn’t there something Fix had told me about different school shifts? A solution for overpopulation in Egyptian schools?
Fix took paces backward and rejoined me on the broken-up curb. He was saying something to me now, replaying his dialogue with the last few drivers, but I couldn’t process the words. I knew the routine. He would tell me how they demanded twice what the trip to Maadi was worth. I would make the error of suggesting he have mercy; times are tough in Egypt. We have the money, why not cut them a little slack? Then, he would launch into his “That’s what’s wrong with this country!” tirade. I saved us both the trouble and remained silent.
My thoughts were elsewhere, anyway. I realized I didn’t mind the chill. In fact, I liked it. I took a deep breath; Cairo’s air sifted into my nostrils, a mixture of car exhaust, sewage and spices. The smell had already become familiar. This could be home. This was my home now. And I was glad.
I thought of Missouri and my family. That life seemed over now. I missed my family and would see them often, of course. I only had a few friends to miss. My whole life I had lived in southwest Missouri; my whole life I had trouble keeping friends. I never could find people there who were quite right. Since my arrival in Egypt the previous December, I had constantly found myself at ease and full of interest, surrounded by personalities and conversations that suited me—and, more importantly, I suited them. I belonged.
Suddenly my attention returned to Giza streetside. The girls were still there, and their giggles had turned into something else. They were saying something. They were repeating something. My beginner’s Arabic struggled to decipher. Yes, there was something familiar. Something seemed familiar. Repetive. Almost like a song. And, then it dawned on me. They were taunting someone. At once I realized their glassy eyes were riveted on me; they were taunting me.
“Imshi, imshi!” Fix came flying at them. They responded to his demands for them to scat with shortlived fear. They stumbled over themselves to get away, but just before the crossed the street and disappeared around a corner, they turned once more and yelled a word I did not know. I heard it and its sound pounded in my head; it was gone.
“What did they say?” I looked intently at Fix, waiting for an answer.
“They were just being brats,” he replied, but I wasn’t satisfied.
“Really, what were they saying? What did they just now turn around and say? What was that word?”
He repeated it. I hadn’t been able to recall its sound, but when I heard it I knew. The moment it ceased to dance in my ears, I forgot it again.
“It means ‘foreigner,’” he explained, lowering his eyes.
I wondered why he lowered his eyes. There could only be one explanation: shame.
“What exactly did they say?” I asked again. “Were they talking to me?
“No,” he definitively replied. Then, after a pause, “They were speaking to me.”
“What exactly did they say?” I repeated with less patience.
“They were just stupid little girls.” He slurred the last word, as if it hadn’t an “r”. His eyes turned to the spot where the had disappeared out of the reach of the yellow street light. “They were asking me what I was doing with a foreigner.” He wouldn’t look at me. He emphasized the word “foreigner” making it seem like a dirty word. Maybe it was. And, then, I too felt it. Shame.
I wondered how they knew. What about me made me stand out? What about me made me foreign? My passport, obviously. But how could they know that. What if I were Egyptian? Did I look American? I scanned the street and for the first time realized dark hair was the norm. I mean, I had known this previously, but had never before thought about it.
Fix stopped the next taxi, and without even negotiating a price, he told me to get in. We made our way north to the next bridge, which would take us back across the Nile where we would then make our way south to Maadi. I feverishly scanned the street for blonde hair. There! I saw a blonde-headed woman walking across the Nile bridge gazing longingly at the Nile. No, she was probably a tourist. I could tell by her leisurely stroll and the look of amazement on her face. Could this have been what they had seen in my face?
It occurred to me it was only my hair, my skin upon which they had based their judgment. In many ways Fix was just as much the stranger to this city as I was. Furthermore, I could have taken an Egyptian citizenship by marriage or choice. This didn’t matter to those girls; it never would matter. Their sense of foreigness or Egyptianess was not based on basbort; my coloring, my place of birth, my parents, my hair would all preclude me from belonging, from being truly Egyptian, regardless of what my passport said.
As we weaved in, around and between slower traffic on the southbound corniche, it occurred to me that those two little girls could grow up, travel to the U.S. for university, decide they love it there, get jobs, get their citizenships and become American. As American as me. I, however, no matter what I did or how hard I worked could never become Egyptian. The word they sneered rang over and over again in my head, though I could not recall the Arabic construction. Foreigner. Foreigner. Foreigner. The word they had spoken dug deeper in my flesh. I felt it seep into my blood. My heart thudded. Foreigner. Foreigner. Foreigner. I did not belong.
What they had said had not been a statement; what they had said had been a judgment. An insult. And, I wondered if I deserved it.