It was the same as any other Saturday. The coming sunset burst through the bus’s large dirty windows in washed out shadows of orange, pink, and blue. Meemo and Khaled—roommates, colleagues, brothers by everything but blood—watched the colors and the shadows, said nothing to each other, sat, tapping their knees.
Everything about the bus ride was the same, every bump in the road shook at the riders in their seats, and, each time, they made the choice to brace themselves or give into it. Meemo took all the bumps today.
Thoughts flitted in and out: his mother asking him to leave Damascus years ago now, her pale face as she said goodbye. The old house they’d shared with other families in the Old City, its courtyard with its broken down fountain, dappled with light. His angry boss on the new construction job, a Jordanian who wouldn’t stop talking about his Bedouin forebears in between gleefully assigning the kind of work that breaks backs. The people of the desert. Nomads trudging across the desert for years and years. And Sha. The girl from yesterday. Her fear at the bomb, her utter, beautiful fear. Her body tensing and loosening and tensing behind him on his moped. No chance of seeing her again, touching her, ever. But so what?
Off the bus in the middle of Saturday afternoon Beirut, walking down the sidewalk together with Khaled was the same as always, their long strides in unison, their shimmering reflections handsome in the glass of the stores they passed, windows full of diamonds and dresses, fruits and knockoff dvd’s.
They passed two young children on the street—a girl and a boy, their skin smeared in dirt, their clothes filthy, their hands outstretched. They saw Meemo and Khaled and immediately it began: a jumble of customary phrases, about God and peace and prosperity and hope. Meemo and Khaled pretended like they didn’t speak, they didn’t hear. These were just gypsy kids, primed for the occasion of well-dressed men passing. Further down the block was another beggar, a girl, a few years older. She looked cleaner, somehow more real. In front of her she held out a box of small packets of Chiclets. Meemo found a coin in his pocket, reached down to hand it to her for the gum.
“What’s gotten into you?” Khaled asked, snorting.
“She’s Syrian,” Meemo said.
“I know that, bastard,” Meemo said, kicking a cigarette carton across the ground in front of him.
The place they were headed was just around a corner and in an alleyway. As they pulled open the heavy doors, Meemo braced against the feeling that they should not be here and Khaled whispered, “We’re in a whole new world.” Inside, the light was dim, the room cool. There was a deep dark wood counter along one wall, lined with large leather stools, their friend Malik on the other side. He nodded at them and winked.
“How’s business?” Khaled asked. The only customers were a couple at a table in the opposite corner. The man was blond and tall, bearded, looked European, and the woman might have been Lebanese—or Syrian or Palestinian or Jordanian.
“It takes a while for them to start showing up,” Malek said. “You better order something.”
“Of course, of course,” Khaled said, dark eyes twinkling, “You are my king, and we are nothing if not dutiful patrons, contributors to Lebanon’s great economy.”
“We’ll just get an order of fries and two Almazas,” Meemo said. “And nuts?”
He grabbed a dish of peanuts from the row of them Malek was filling and they moved off to a table near the room’s outer edge.
And out of nowhere, Khalid asked, “What’s wrong with you? You seem strangely quiet. Unenthusiastic.” As he said it, a group of men walked into the bar and sat near them. Khaled growled.
Meemo shrugged. “I don’t know if I feel up to it tonight,” he said.
“Oh those guys are no competition for us,” Khaled said. “Remember, the Foreign Girl game goes like this: It’s all in fun. They want us; we want them; we’re all just actors. We aren’t trying to get passports and we aren’t trying to fall in love. There’s nothing serious about this. We are just enjoying our time on this earth. What else do we have?”
“Nothing,” Meemo said. And then, like bad magic, two women came in from outside. They both had light brown hair, one long and wavy, one short and stick straight. Their skin was the same tanned caramel hue, their eyes big and bright. Khaled clapped his hand on Meemo’s wrist. “Sisters!” he said.
Meemo couldn’t deny it. He was excited too. “You can see her nipples through her sweater,” he said, of the short-haired one, marking her for himself.
Khaled nodded absently, his face intent. “French! They’re saying something about going to the beach,” Khaled whispered with a smile, “about bathing suits maybe. I bet they wear those string bikinis and go topless back home. I can see them with their nipples all oiled up.”
“Shut up,” Meemo said. “Your French is shit, which you proved last time.” “Close your mouth, animal,” Khaled said. “You’re just jealous I’m smarter than you are even though you are the one that actually paid attention in school.” The girls carried on loudly behind Meemo, and Khaled smiled and said, “You want to know what they’re saying now, don’t you?”
The girls laughed loud.
“They’re talking about us,” Khaled sneered, “about how handsome Arab boys can be, about what it would be like to kiss one, different than a European guy. The taste would be different.” His eyes danced.
“Now you’re putting words in their sexy pink mouths,” Meemo said.
They walked slowly up to the table, practiced looks of concern on their faces. “Julie?” Meemo asked, in English. “You know Julie?”
The girls looked at each other, puzzled. “Julie? No . . . bad English,” the long-haired one said and smiled.
“Arabee?” he asked.
“Na’am!” the girls said, in unison, with a laugh. Though they spoke stiff formal Arabic, Khaled and Meemo understood enough and threw in some of their own fragments of English and French. Every Saturday, it always worked out somehow, the talking.
The girls’ names were Marguerite and Daphne and they were sisters—twins in fact, but not the identical kind. They’d been studying Arabic at the French University for a few months, after learning it for two years in France.
“We’ve been dying to meet some locals,” they said, “but our parents keep telling us not to talk to strangers. They’re very worried with these things happening in Syria, counting down the days until we come home.”
“Oh,” Meemo said, “and we will be sad to see you go, hope you enjoy the days you have.”
“What do you do?” Daphne, the sister with long hair, asked. It never failed with Westerners, this asking about work.
“We work at a bank together,” Khaled said, and mimed standing behind a bank counter, doling out bills and the girls giggled. “We’re roommates,” Meemo said. They didn’t mention Palestine. The girls tittered at each other in French, and in quick Arabic, Khaled surmised what it would be like to see the sisters go at it.
When the girls went to the bathroom together, Meemo asked if Khaled could manage a look under their short skirts. “What color underwear do you think they’re wearing?”
“Red, I hope. Red. Those thighs look delicious,” Khaled said. “This is going to be fun,” he said. “Marguerite’s pretty but Daphne’s breasts are bigger.” He laughed.
When the girls came back, they asked about the recent bombs. Khaled said they were small, they were nothing to worry about, they would protect them, and Meemo thought back to Sha, the car exploding less than a kilometer from them, her eyes, so stuck and far away, her body, in a long hug, heaving as he looked out at the sea from the corniche, heaving against him.
“Right, Meemo?” Khaled said, elbowing him hard, in the ribs. It never failed. Meemo jumped back in, and they implemented “tour guide mode.” They told them about the village their families came from, lying about the name of the place and where it was, but recounting truthfully the details their parents told them about the olive trees, the distant views of the ocean, the roosters waking you up in the morning, and the mountains of fresh fruit brought to the table after lunch. They described their epic metamorphoses from village boys to city men. They told them the way to get to the most authentic café in the city—complete with old men smoking sheeshas and the best tea they would ever have in their lives—told them how the waves shone in the sun at the secluded beach they could take them to, teased them about the delicious feasts their sisters would cook for them.
Each suggestion was honored by a “Yes, we’d love to,” each invitation accepted, as if they were completely happy to give all their time here to Khaled and Meemo, to stay here with them forever, to never return to their cold, northern lands. But even if they were, it didn’t matter. There were no available sisters or magical beaches, and the cafe they mentioned closed years ago. Tomorrow, Khaled and Meemo would disappear.
A few comments by Khaled about the weak position of the Lebanese Lira and impending job cuts at their bank had the sisters pick up the bill at the bar and then invite their new companions to dinner. Khaled led them to a terrace in downtown, a neighborhood that Rafik al-Hariri’s money rebuilt into some amalgamation of past and future glory—a re-creation far too shiny and generic to ever feel like a real place. Khaled ordered a dozen small plates of mezza and fed a bite of each to Daphne. Meemo put his hand on Marguerite’s thigh and demonstrated for her the best way to get the most food into a handful of pita bread.
When a small child approached them from the street, her hair matted with dirt, her small hand out, Khaled made a show of giving her a one-thousand lira note, and Meemo snatched it out of his hand. Khaled grabbed it back, and gave it. The girl giggled.
“But someone told us not to even pay attention to them,” Marguerite said.
“It’s difficult,” Khaled said. “My heart goes out to my Syrian brothers and sisters.”
“But they’re not—“ Meemo started to say, until Khaled threw a dagger at him with his eyes.
“The kids are so dirty but so cute,” Daphne said.
Khaled made a small show of treating to sheesha on the corniche, and Daphne and Marguerite covered the beers in the posh Christian district of Jemayze and the entrance to the club near the Convention Center, where the land jutted into the Mediterranean and so it felt like the sea was surrounding them, where the ceiling opened during Cher’s “Do You Believe in Life After Love?” and suddenly they were under the stars. And in the shadows and the dark, their bodies moving with all the other bodies on the dance floor, that was the moment Meemo put his mouth on Marguerite’s, the moment she kissed him back, the moment he put his hand under her skirt, grazing the hot flesh there. When he came up for air, he saw Khaled in the crowd, doing much more of the same.
They ended up in the apartment the sisters were renting for the month, an old European colonial style flat with tiled floors and grand wooden doorways. Khaled was in the bedroom and Meemo in the living room, where on a huge velvet couch, he held Marguerite’s soft body to him.
When the world had stopped, in the quiet, like that, it became clear that he didn’t want to do the thing he always wanted, which was to put his hands and body on the places covered by her clothes, to colonize her. Where was desire? He only wanted to hold her, to feel her softness but not to puncture it—only to imagine the blood coursing under her skin. She slowly rubbed his thigh with her warm palm, and Meemo thought how this particular Saturday was different.
Then Marguerite told him, in her strange Arabic, that she thought maybe she could love him, and he couldn’t help but laugh. French girls never talked about love. It was something another French girl had told him once when he tried a similar line on her. They lay there silent in the awkward echo of his laugh, and for the first time, Meemo didn’t know if the girl he was with was also playing him. He looked past her and into the thick night air of the room. A rhythmic grunting came from the next, followed by a girl’s scream, her sister’s scream, and Marguerite laughed too.
She took Meemo’s hands and held them to her breasts, their thumbs on the protruding nipples he first noted hours ago. He rubbed the hardened skin through her soft t-shirt until he felt that familiar buzz begin somewhere between his chest and his knees. He turned her body to him, filled her mouth with his, and they undressed each other—that first shock of his naked skin against hers delicious. She smiled up at him as she helped with the condom, climbed on top of him—his penis inside of her another delicious shock. He held her honey hips, guided her rhythmic up-and-down motion, and again she said: “I think I could love you.” Her head high, her eyes closed, he looked up at her breasts, one much smaller than the other, her bony freckled shoulders, her slim neck. He felt it sick and strong: she was a stranger.
When Marguerite’s body quickened and then her body stiffened, she soundlessly fell on top of him and he thought that other lives must be possible, in other places. He’d read about them in the newspapers he sometimes sold, about Egypt and Paris and New York.
The girl fell beside him then and pawed at his deflating erection. “But I want you to take your pleasure,” she said. It wasn’t an easy line in Arabic and he wondered where she’d learned it.
“I’m tired,” Meemo said. “It’s nice to be here with you.” It was true.
“Okay,” she said, her voice sleepy, her breathing body against him. She was a stranger but, like this, soft-snoring now, she was everyone, she was Sha, everyone, Sha, his mother, his sister, every women lain with, like this. Surrendered, she was love in a different sense, she was love at least an hour as he stayed there with her, still as he could be. She was love until he eased her off of him, got up, looked in the bedroom at the slumped shadows of his friend and the other girl tangled in sheets. Meemo left the apartment, silent as a burglar. During the long walk home, the city transformed again, the pink fingers of dawn scratching through Beirut’s miraculous night.
And as he followed block after silent block he said it to himself—giddy at first, but then slowly and with deliberation—“I think I could love you, I think I could love you, I think I could love you.”