THIS MAGAZINE: Zora
This Magazine published my story Zora in their Summer Reading issue. The most amazing thing about it is the illustration! By the uber talented Brnesh Berhe, it is the most stunning illustration I've seen in a long time, and elevates my story to a new level. Thank you Brnesh!
Maybe you remember Zora. I used to see her on St. Laurent selling jewellery and T-shirts and scraps of paper scribbled with art. In and out of bars and cafés, always alone, a storming shadow. Our eyes met once and I smiled. She stared, walked on.
So, when I saw her on Sunday, sitting in the garden of the American University campus in Cairo, I stopped. I’m not a student there but had taken to ducking into its gates to escape the clamour of the streets. Two children obscured her face, but I recognized the jet-black hair made grey with dirt, and the listless, arrogant slump of her body.
“I know you,” I said. “From Montreal.”
She squinted as the children ran back to their mother. Her voice was scratchy vinyl, a previous century, an emptied barrel of drink. She asked me when was I in Montreal last, was it cold, where did I live. Her arms and face twitched with delight that we frequented the same places and knew the same people.
As odd as she was, I was thrilled. I had been suspended in a waxy nothingness for weeks, a bug in amber that wasn’t setting. We exchanged phone numbers and addresses. She would be leaving for Luxor in two weeks, she said, and promised to call me when she returned. But as I started to walk away, I heard over my shoulder, “What are you doing tonight?”
Excited at the prospect of having something to do, somewhere to go, someone to talk to, I answered quickly. “Nothing.”
“Meet me at Café Riche at 8 o’clock. You know where it is?”
“You’ll find it.”
The winter sun in Cairo sets at six, and by eight, the downtown streets undulate to the hum of fluorescence and neon. I had read about Café Riche, its intellectuals and revolutionaries who leaned over its small round tables, smoking, arguing, living, waiting. Now, the cafe was a nest of backpacking tourists and women who had discovered they could sit alone, a respite from hands that touched and eyes that followed.
Zora arrived. Three heavy art books under one arm, a bag of sugar and a cigarette in her free hand. The books were rare, she said, as a pungent cloud settled around our heads. She said if I ever wanted more than the rationed allotment of sugar, I must come to her. She crushed her Cleopatra cigarette and told me she smoked two and a half packs a day. She rushed me through my beer so we could go to her place and have dinner.
We took a rickety elevator up to the roof of a ten-story building in Dokki. Directly across the Nile, the Sheraton’s neon dolphin flickered in the moonlit sky. The tiny apartment was a swamp of brushes and cigarettes, solvent jars, paint cans, ruts in the floor, cracks in the walls. Colour poured off drawings onto bread and garbage. At the far end, a pile of boots and an opened sofa bed confirmed that the place was indeed occupied.
In the other corner, she chewed a burning cigarette over a pot of boiling water and oil, and threw chopped vegetables into it like they were rocks. Every now and then a cardamom seed was added. From underneath a stack of old pita to the edge of the counter and up the wall, a long thin line of ants carried away the crumbs.
Bowls in hand, we sat on the mattress. She chewed loudly between breaths, exhaling words and cinnamon. The silence was noisy. She got up quickly to look for a brush she remembered needed cleaning. “Would you like to have an affair with me?”
The sound of my spoon falling into the bowl rang through the room. I hadn’t understood much that was happening, but I was understanding now. My involuntary laugh slithered to the floor then lay there, numb. I thought: this is her world, her game, learn the rules or go home. It was my intention to never go home.
“Do you?” My only concern was how nonchalant I could make myself sound.
“Yes. I think so. I think we should.”
“Because.” She found the brush. “Because I know you. You are from Montreal, we know people in common, you are alone in this city and, anyways, I think you are gay.” She sat down again. “I need an affair.”
She leaned her head back, rested it on an outstretched arm, hand finishing into a cigarette. As she talked, her eyes contracted. Sometimes she watched me, sometimes she stared at her paintings. I kept speaking Arabic, that was why I was in that country; I had goals after all. But her words were too thick, wrapping me in smelly blankets, at once hot and suffocating. Her accent was a muddy mixture of Arabic, Armenian, French, and English, none of which, she assured me, she spoke well.
It gave everything she said a scripted cadence.
“Do you like me?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to follow cues, trying to ignore cues. “Why not.”
“You say nothing with too many words. Do you find me interesting?”
“Ok. Yes.” I did my best to keep my smile, but it was unsteady. I asked her, “Do you find me interesting?”
“La. No. But you’re nice. Anyway, what is an interesting person?”
She told me about the lesbians in Cairo, that they were all married but had petting affairs. She told me that except for a few short petting affairs, she hadn’t had sex in seven years.
“Do you think I’m neurotic? Do you think I’m very materialistic? People say I scare them, that I’m too full of nervous energy. It’s really just sexual energy, you know.”
She had a plate of seeds and was cracking them between her teeth.
“You are very nice,” she said, spitting shells. “You are soft and mellow. And you are intelligent. I think also you are reserved. You do not like intimacy. There is a dark side to you.”
She paced the room and searched the floor around my legs. “Am I right in all this? I am very perceptive, aren’t I? People say I am very perceptive.”
Finding another brush, she taped a piece of paper to a wall and began painting, occasionally transferring her severe gaze my way. She kept talking, mostly admonishments. “Don’t say that. You are so Canadian. I don’t like it. The Arab in you has seen too many winters. I should take you to the desert.”
“You know why we should have an affair?” She threw down the brush. “To get rid of this stupid verbosity. If we go on and on like this, we will get close and that is not necessary and I do not want it. I want to build a wall, create a distance. If we have an affair and have sex and are intimate, then we can put a distance between us. I don’t want us to be dependent upon each other.”
She tore the paper off the wall. “Yalla, we go,” she said.
She took me to a cafe in the Souq al Ataba where we were the only women. Zora’s 43-year-old body was stuffed like straw into rags. She was the most outstanding and frightening of the whole lot of nighttime marauders. She wracked herself over the chair, dropped ashes onto her chest, hid her face behind the tangled mess around her head. I tried to not care, but kept catching the smirking expressions of the men around us. After a few cigarettes, she was anxious to go. I was a fish in her net as she dragged me to a taxi.
Back on her couch, in the light that did not warm or reveal, we drank more tea. It was late and I said I would go home. After half an hour, she finally conceded. In the elevator she threw her arms around me as I parsed the odour of her hair. Gasoline, tobacco, jasmine. Just before I got into the cab she mumbled something then spat on the ground.
The next day after class, I went straight to her apartment. It was a shock to see other people there, as if I had convinced myself she was a mirage and this building my own private tomb. The visitors were a priest and the wife of a German businessman, she would tell me later, there to buy her jewellery. They were elegant and well-spoken, smiling at me as if they knew something I didn’t. I could make no sense of it. In any case, I was in a bad mood. The city was still shocking, overpowering in its demanding chaos. Everything was catching me off guard, leaving me mercilessly vulnerable and trusting nothing, least of all my instincts. All day I had been disturbed by Zora. Was she a familiar haven or a distraction? Or worse? On her couch, on the verge of everything and nothing, I drank more tea. Neither of us spoke.
“We go. Yalla.”
I was growing fond of the now-familiar order to rally.
All week I followed her to art galleries and museums, met people she knew, and got a hint of what flourished in the quiet spaces between donkeys and dogs and the interminable honking of cars. Zora bought me the books I flipped through, the scarves I touched, the bracelets I tried on. I was hungry and she took me to dinner. I was curious and she explained what she knew. Everywhere we went, seas parted, pulling back in equal measures of disgust and respect. When she spoke, people strained for meaning, not believing that the language of their mothers flowed from this woman’s lips.
We went to Ramses train station and got her a ticket for Luxor. We hopped on and off buses, in and out of taxis, trying to decide what to do next.
“Would you like to see the pyramids?”
After two months in Egypt, they were still rumours to me. It was nighttime, dizzy and perfect. Fifteen minutes later, mouthing along to Om Kalsoum in a taxi, I let out an involuntary cry.
“What is it, what’s wrong?” she asked, reaching over. “Nothing.” I laughed. “I just saw a pyramid!”
We walked in the dark along the base of Cheops, its massive sides easing to an infinitesimal point with a strength and subtlety I could hardly grasp. We were leaning into a petrified tidal wave, following the trail of a cadaverous whisper. A guide, one of the hovering men who lived on the baksheesh of tourists, led us into a long, dark tunnel. “Secret, secret,” he repeated.
It got darker and the air thicker and the walls wetter. He and Zora moved quickly till all I could see were their green shadows.
“I have to get out of here,” I said.
I had no idea if they could hear me, and didn’t care. I backed out until it widened and I could turn around. No one would ever describe Egyptian air as fresh unless they were exiting the rank denseness of the pyramids.
“Cigarette?” Zora shook an extra one from her pack.
The guide now had a few of his friends in tow. If I looked slightly to the left or right of them, as one does in the emptiness of night, I could see more coming up from the paths. Everything scraped loudly in the darkness, like cars on dark snowy roads. Never a friendly sound, no matter the country, no matter the season. They encircled her, asked questions, gestured, jostled, came in closer. I heard my name. She passed around cigarettes.
“Let’s go,” she said to me.
“What?” I was not going to follow these men.
But we did, into the village and along a narrow dirt road lit only by a string of plastic lanterns. I turned back for one last look at the Sphynx, catching only a glimpse before the flood lights shut down and his comforting outline dissolved into the chilled indifferent sky.
“Do you hear dogs barking?” Zora asked. “They bit me once and they want to do it again. Never mind. We are here.” The men corralled us to a handful of tables outside a makeshift cafe. A partially-tuned radio played classical Egyptian music while they served mint tea for us and shisha for themselves. Zora had lived in this village years ago, I discovered, and the men remembered her fondly. They traded jokes and stories for hours, and every time our glasses drained, they drowned the leaves in more hot water. The smoke and flickering lights, the voices, the hot tea, my utter uselessness, all of it led to unconsciousness. When Zora woke me up, most of the men had gone. The backsheesh guide put us on a horse drawn caleche and took us to the main road, where we caught a taxi.
Her flat smelled of paint and smoke and I wanted to go home. She made us tea. I told her I wasn’t staying. She opened the bed. I sat on it. She lay down, entreated me. I let myself fall back, couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. She took my hand and teased me about things I was saying. She pulled me to her, wrapped her arms around my back. The day’s exhaust steamed through her teeth and she was on top of me.
“I want you I want you I want you I want you.”
I held my breath, didn’t dare move. The lightbulb on the ceiling burnt through my eyelids, casting silhouettes of ugly desperation as she moaned and chanted, chanted and moaned.
“Do you know how many years it’s been? How many women say no? I didn’t think I’d feel any emotion.”
We were fully dressed as she moved over me, anxious not to lose a second of my captivity. I forced myself to look at her, then over her shoulders and down her back. She moaned like a train exiting a tunnel, her tongue lolling as urgent groans rushed down it.
I felt affection, pity, disgust, and profound relief that our clothes were on. She reached into my pants but I grabbed her hand.
“Why? You aren’t sexually aroused? You don’t find me attractive?”
I wanted her to get it over with. To reach the point she’d begun moving toward from the moment I stepped into her shadow. She had courted me as if I were a scarab that would disappear if she moved too fast or too slow. She had paid for everything, had taken me everywhere, given me no reason to complain. It was time to complete the exchange.
While her shoes gripped the dirty mattress, I bit her shirt to keep from gagging. She came in a wild and ancient frenzy. Like a camel falling through the water, like a dog tearing its leg from a trap. She said thank you. At 4 a.m. she let me go, walking me down to a taxi.
The next day Zora went to Luxor. She will be gone three weeks, long enough for me to not answer the phone when she returns.
* * *