Ending a Love Story

Hamra Street at Night (June 2020)

Chapter 1

I loved her before she was beautiful: before her breasts bloomed one spring and before her butt-cheeks took the shape of a plum.

Our love story began when we were twelve-year-olds. It was a cold and rainy winter morning, and we were on our way to school. We were sitting next to each other in the back of the school bus, our backpacks between our feet. Now and then, there came a thunder followed by heavy rain. The universe was bursting with anger, and the sun was too afraid to shine.

I slid my hands into the pockets of my anorak to warm them and surveyed the black clouds that hovered over Beirut like bearers of bad news.

The engine of the monstrous bus droned as we moved forward. That annoying rasp — that continuous low hum — isolated the students from one another. It muted the raindrops that splattered on the foggy windowpanes; it also muted our thoughts. Vibrations rose from the aluminum floor and slithered into our bones. Everything was grey.

We went over a speed bump, and my backpack jumped a little towards the front. It was a blue backpack with Disney cartoon figures on it. When I bent to pull it back between my feet, I felt her eyes fixated on me. I did not turn to meet her eyes. Instead, as I was an introvert, I became overly self-conscious of my movements.

(If life is a stage, introverts are its nervous actors. The moment they become aware of the audience, they find themselves out of character. They cease to be who they ought to be, and, by consciously trying to be themselves, they become someone else entirely. It is a known fact that introverts can only be themselves in the absence of eyes.)

As I chose not to be judged unfairly by the girl sitting next to me, I minimized my movements. I did not want a random hand gesture, or anything of that sort, to be misinterpreted. I kept my hands in my pockets and turned to look out the window again. I let a few minutes pass — a bolt of lightning, another thunder, and more rain. In my pockets, my hands rolled into fists. I sighed like a chess player in zugzwang and wished she redirected her attention to something else so that I could be myself again.

Suddenly, as if the universe had given her permission to do anything she desired, she tilted her head towards me and whispered my name. That only made me more anxious than I already was. I felt her warm breath on my neck and smelled the minted caramel bonbon that melted in her mouth. I turned my head towards her and our eyes met. She drew a smile on her face, which I unsuccessfully tried to mimic. She bent closer, swallowed the minted candy, and slightly parted her lips. We inhaled each other’s exhalations. Our faces were only centimeters apart. The bus slowed down and went over another speed bump. Our lips touched. I would have said it was by accident, that the speed bump caused our lips to touch because we were already so close to one another, but she made sure to prove that every second of it was intentional. The kiss lasted for ten seconds at the least. She took her time, and when she was done, she pulled herself back. She smiled and bit her lower lip.

My first kiss came in between thunders and bolts of lightning.

I tried to say something but could only stutter. Before she planted that kiss on my lips, we were just classmates, not even friends. Now what? It must have seemed to her that I had failed to grasp the situation. She shook her head and smiled confidently, while I was utterly confused. She then kissed me again and asked if I would like to marry her.

We were surrounded by adolescents, and they were watching us intently. Some of them were giggling in the background; others, after witnessing the kiss, were whispering freshly baked rumors into the ears of their classmates.

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll marry you — if that’s what you want.”

“That’s what I want.” She blinked and waited for me to say something more. But I couldn’t and didn’t; instead, I froze and once more chose to stare at the grey clouds that covered the winter sky.

There were too many people watching us, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by saying something romantic. Yet I did want to say — maybe even do — something. I thought about holding her hand. Maybe that was the most appropriate thing to do at that moment, but I was not someone who took such initiatives. I was a twelve-year-old who knew nothing. Life was giving me a pop quiz, and I was circling all the wrong answers. I thought about asking her something, but, since I couldn’t come up with interesting questions, I ended up saying nothing. An observer, interpreting my facial expressions, would have confirmed that I was traumatized.

She remained silent, too, and did not try to initiate a follow-up conversation at all. Very soon, disappointment spread on her once buoyant face. She had taken the first and hardest step; it was my turn to make a move, but I did absolutely nothing.

The situation worsened quickly as we approached the school. That was when I realized that I was in love with her, and I simultaneously realized that had no idea what people who were in love did. I chewed the cud for a very long time until it was too late. I played out various scenarios in my head — “if I do this, then that will happen, and, if I do that, then that will happen” — and so on. I also knew for sure that if I did not act before we reached school, things would go back to the way they were before the kiss, and it would be as if our lips never touched.

“How was it, then?” One of the girls sitting two rows in front of us asked her.

“I don’t know. It was nothing. It was just a smack on the lips.”

I was there, and I could hear them, but they didn’t care. Her answer was demoralizing, but I knew it was my fault.  I felt an acidic burn in my chest as if someone was pissing on my heart. I knew that my lover would have responded differently if, when our lips touched, I had reacted differently.

The school day was long and tormenting. Self-reproach was the only thing I learned that day. When I went home in the afternoon, I locked myself in the bathroom and, sitting on the toilet seat with my face in my palms, cried until my older brother decided to answer nature’s call. He banged on the bathroom door and asked me to get the hell out before he took a shit in my bed.

That same afternoon, I wrote my first poem. It wasn’t a good one, but it was about her. As it was left unguarded on the study desk in my bedroom, my brother found it and humiliated me in front of our parents. He read it aloud when we were having dinner, and I wished I were dead.

Chapter 2

Her name was Yara Helou. We attended the same school and were classmates from kindergarten until graduation. Soon after the kiss and the ensuing heartbreak, my obsession with her began. She became the sun and I a cold planet that orbited around her. In class, I picked the desk that was right behind hers; at recess, I observed her from afar. My goal became to get to know her in and out. Whenever I made a discovery about her, I made sure to take notes. One of my copybooks contained a long list of facts about her. My plan was to collect her preferences so that I can ultimately transform myself into someone she could fall in love with. But I lost the copybook and the whole plan went kaput.

I talked to her whenever I got the chance, but our conversations often took a terrible turn. I stammered and suffered from recurring Freudian slips, which were noticeably embarrassing. For that reason, it was impossible for me to hold long conversations with her. Eventually, I would almost always say something stupid. Hence, I tried to keep our conversations short, though small talk wasn’t my forte either. We only exchanged a few words at a time — a hello, a goodbye, a word about the weather, a question about this homework or that exam, and, occasionally, a joke.

I also tried my best to stay in her circle of close friends. It was manageable in the beginning, but it became harder every year. I belonged with the introverts, and she belonged with the extroverts. My entourage consisted of sci-fi readers, chess players, and scientists to-be; hers consisted of everybody else. Yara Helou was born to be popular. Everyone, even the teachers, adored her. They praised her for who she was. They told her parents that she was a gifted child. Being one of the top students and one of the top athletes at the same time wasn’t an easy thing to achieve in school. Older students befriended her; younger students idolized her.

Unlike me, she knew how to talk. She knew how to persuade people with words. That was her greatest skill. When the students were too lazy to prepare for an exam, for instance, they delegated her to coax the teacher into postponing it, and it worked more often than not. Yara got whatever she desired because she knew how to ask for it.

I was knee-deep in love with her, and I wanted her to love me back. When I turned fourteen and my libido went overdrive, I wanted her even more. I yearned for her kiss. I wanted to be alone with her in a room, both of us naked in each other’s arms.

When our lips touched for the first time, I was too young to know the true meaning of a kiss. I could not experience it fully. ‘If only she’d kiss me now,’ I wished day and night. Nevertheless, as I was a cowardly boy growing up to become a cowardly man, my feelings for her remained undisclosed.

We were in ninth grade when she suddenly metamorphosed into a goddess and came to school like a caterpillar reborn as a butterfly, eliciting gazes from new worshippers. As a result, every boy in school sought to have her as his girlfriend. That was bad news for me. Whereas previously I did not have any competition, I now had by the handful. The girls, on the other hand, envied her; hence, they behaved as if they loved her. But the girls were the least of my worries.

Yara Helou! Her eyes were as blue, as clear, and as shiny as the paradise beaches of desktop backgrounds and screensavers. When the sun caressed her face, her eyes reflected the rays like mirrors. When she walked into a room, the scent of flowers and strawberries emanated from her chestnut hair and snow-white skin. Her neck was Dracula’s dessert. Her pink lips were tirelessly in motion, chewing bubblegum quietly in class and loudly at recess.

Soon, she started dating, and I could only watch. Her first boyfriend was the captain of the basketball team, Marc Seba. He was three years older than she was, and he had a car. Marc laughed a lot but talked very little, maybe because he had no more than fifty words in his lexicon. Certainly, he wasn’t as shy as I was. He dated Yara for a few months, drove her here and there, sucked on her tits, and got a few blowjobs. Those were the rumors. Then, one day, the news was that she dumped him. I was very happy to hear it. When her friends asked her why she broke up with the coolest person in school, she replied, “He’s boring when he’s not dribbling a ball.”

She had half a dozen boyfriends after Marc and dated another dozen ‘unofficially.’ All of them were from our school, except one — Gregory Naccour. Out of all boyfriends, she loved him the most, and I hated him the most. Gregory Naccour was an illiterate bartender who smoked weed, played video poker, and rode a motorcycle. He was what teenage girls fantasized about in the shower when they wanted to work their fingers. I could not compete with him; I could only wait. Gregory and Yara dated for a year and a half, and, eventually, she dumped him too. When I heard they were no longer together, I celebrated. That same night I wrote a very long narrative love poem about a man who knew how to wait.

Then there were the creeps. Having no chance taming her beauty, they took mental snapshots of her so that they could masturbate after school while they thought about her. (Online porn wasn’t practical then: computers were very expensive, the internet was slow, and the best porn sites didn’t yet exist.) Kids had to use their imagination. They undressed her in their minds as they stroked their newly discovered penises. They ejaculated all over her imaginary face, tits, and ass as she submissively begged them to discharge their semen on her, in her, or wherever they pleased. When the job was done, they cleaned after themselves and evacuated the bathrooms like robbers running out of a bank after a successful heist. The way these boys looked at her when she walked by and the way they talked about her during recess infuriated me. The things I overheard made me want to jump on them, pin them to the ground, and punch them until they were dead or knocked-out. Occasionally, I did start fights; and once, when I was feeling very low, I broke a classmate’s nose simply because I caught him staring at her ass. I was to be expelled from school, but my father talked the school principal out of it.

Did Yara know she was relentlessly fucked in the minds of horny adolescents? Did she know she had become a masturbation facilitator? Sometimes, I wondered if she knew; I speculated if she enjoyed dwelling in the hearts of boys who secretly worshipped her beauty and performed libidinous rituals in bedrooms and bathrooms while they thought about her.

I never told her that I loved her simply because I did not know how to do it. I waited for the right time, and the right time never came. Besides, she was always in love with someone else. There always was a Don Juan or a Casanova standing in my way. Every time she broke up with one of them, another one took his place.

Night after night, I lay on my back, in bed, with my hands behind my head and fantasized about her. I wrote poems and hid them under the mattress so that my older brother, who shared the bedroom with me, did not find them. Year after year, I postponed my ‘first move,’ which was supposed to make her fall for me, until it was too late. In 2006, we graduated from school and went our separate ways.

“See you when I see you,” I said to her when the graduation ceremony ended.

“Yeah. See you when I see you,” she said and hugged me.

I wished that hug lasted a little longer. When she finally disappeared from my sight, I stood there for a few minutes and cross-examined myself. I could not comprehend why I loved her. I just did. How could I explain it? I knew it was love because it couldn’t be anything else. I also knew that it was too late to let her know that I loved her.

Nothing in my life mattered after that hug. I drifted in time and space like a log in the ocean. Yara was the love of my life; if I couldn’t get her, then everything was pointless. When I heard she was accepted at some university in Berlin, I gave up chasing her. I couldn’t afford to study abroad, so I enrolled at the most affordable private university in Beirut, studied accounting, and eventually graduated. I had a very average university life. I made a few friends, dated a couple of girls, and did all the average things an average university student did — some drugs, some sex, and a lot of alcohol.

Nothing mattered until I saw her on that Wednesday afternoon in mid-June, twelve years after we said goodbye. The year was 2018.

Chapter 3

I was walking towards Café Carré, humming a Bob Dylan song. Café Carré was where all the great (but unpublished) poets gathered in the afternoons. They shared stories, sipped coffee, solved crosswords, and talked politics. When they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they philosophized. Most of them preached atheism. Only occasionally, when they were tremendously inspired or extremely bored, they jotted a few words down in their leather notebooks like old-fashioned poets. (Those who couldn’t afford leather notebooks, as if doomed to be contemporary, timidly saved their stanzas in their phones.) Nonetheless, they all shared a common objective. These unheard-of poets of Hamra gathered there to pass the time, to waste daylight as efficiently as possible. Then, just before the sea swallowed the sun, they paid their bills and headed to the bars and pubs on Jeanne D’Arc Street to consume bottom-shelf whiskey and try to pick up girls.

On my way there, I stopped at a kiosk to buy a pack of cigarettes. It was a busy day on Hamra Street. People went in and out of retail stores carrying environment-friendly bags filled with expensive pieces of clothing produced in sweatshops somewhere in Africa or East Asia. University students, tourists, and businesspersons swarmed the more famous coffee shops, the ones that sold overpriced espressos and the international ones like Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, and Caribou Coffee. Flocks of pretty girls in shorts ambled along rows of unmoving cars, smiling to the angry drivers who cursed the traffic lights. Women in black abayas followed bearded men. Beggars begged.

Then I saw her. Out of nowhere, I saw her. She was standing on the sidewalk, on the other side of the street, with a beige purse hanging from her left arm. She was wearing a sleeveless, knee-length sundress. Her eyes were hiding behind Ray-Ban sunglasses. Standing there like an urban goddess, she was less than fifty steps away from me. Twelve years had passed, and she had only grown to become more beautiful. I quickly crossed the street and then took a few steps towards her. Yes, it was her — Yara Helou. In her right hand, she was holding a mobile phone. She checked it frequently. She had ordered a taxi and was waiting for it.

I quickened pace. As I approached her, I made sure she didn’t see me. She was looking the other way. My heart was beating faster than ever. Was I still in love with her? I searched for the answer in my heart and my soul. I was. Likewise, I was still a cowardly person. Years had thought me to become a little more self-confident, but the sight of her made my knees weak. I had almost decided to keep walking when my feet suddenly stopped. I turned to her. I was now right behind her.

“Yara?”

She spun on her heels. Her eyes locked on mine. Her jaw dropped. Was she surprised to see me or was she searching for my name that had been gathering dust in the depths of her mind for years?

“Umm, Charbel?”

She recalled my name with a smile, but I could hear the question mark. The name she had uttered had to be confirmed, I thought, so I nodded to reassure her that ‘Charbel’ was the correct name. With her phone still in her hand and with her purse still hanging from one arm, she embraced me. She rested her head on my chest, and my heart almost exploded. That hug took me back twelve years.

“Where have you been all these years?” I asked while I wished I could have asked a better question. I wanted to say something interesting.

“I’ve been away,” she said, “After I graduated, I moved to Dubai.”

“You’re here now,” I said.

“Yeah, for now. I’m going back soon.”

She looked at her phone. The taxi she had ordered was late, but I knew that there were less than three minutes for me to make a move.

“Are you working there?”

“Yes, of course. Why else would I live in Dubai?”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been there. Is it nice?”

“Not really. People go there to work, and, so, everybody is working all the time. It’s a different lifestyle.”

“Nice, nice.” My hands went into my pockets.

“And how have you been? You look good.” She patted me on the shoulder and then squeezed my bicep. “Is work alright? Are you married? Tell me, tell me.”

But the taxi arrived before I opened my mouth.

“Oh, here he is,” she said.

“Ah… That must be your Uber.”

“It was great seeing you, Charbel.”

I opened the door for her, she thanked me, but she stopped and didn’t get in. She stood there and stared into my eyes for a brief moment. Guilt, like a cockroach escaping a descending boot, scurried in my stomach and hid in the shadows on denial. Yara’s eyes were blaming me for something, and I could only feel ashamed. Her lips formed half a smile. She finally said goodbye and got in the car.

“See you when I see you,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, “See you when I see you.”

The driver lowered the handbrake, changed gear, and stepped on the gas. I remained where I was with my hands in my pockets.

“What am I doing?” I asked myself. “Is this who I am? Is this my life?”

I was about to continue my way to Café Carré, but my feet decided to go the other way. My hands came out of my pockets, and I suddenly realized that I was running after her. The taxicab had already gone a long way, and it was very unlikely for me to catch up. But I took my chances. As I ran, her name escaped from my mouth every other second. I understood why I was guilty, why I was ashamed when she looked into my eyes. I understood why I was running after her. My heart would never forgive me if I did not run. I ran. The cars were barely moving; there seemed to be a small chance I could catch up. I sprinted. Up ahead, the Uber stopped at the intersection and waited for the red light to turn green. I tried to run a little faster, but I ran out of breath. I stopped. My hands resting on my knees, I watched the red light turn green. I was less than thirty meters away from the car when it started moving again.

Then I saw the car stop. The passenger door opened and Yara came out. She waved at me. I couldn’t see her facial expression, but I could have guessed that she was smiling.

“Do you have something to say to me, Charbel?”

“Let’s have coffee,” I said.

Chapter 4

Now that I had company, I decided not to go to Café Carré. For obvious reasons: it wasn’t the ideal place for a date. Close by was a French restaurant, and, a little further off, there was a café trottoir. I asked her if she were hungry, she responded in the negative, and so I chose the latter. It was not a bad café: they served decent coffee and French desserts such as pain perdu and fondant au chocolat. We sat outside to be able to smoke. We had espressos in the sun and later shared a pain perdu.

She was as beautiful as ever. Her eyes were as blue and as clear as the sky above us, and her shiny, straight hair begged for a breeze so that it could dance. She wore star-shaped silver earrings, and her face was glowing in the sun.

“I never told you that you’re beautiful,” I said.

“Finally,” she said. She rested her hands on the table, midway between us, and opened her palms. It was an invitation for me to hold her hands.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“I saw you running after me; that’s why I stopped the car. I want to see what happens; although it’s a pity you found your courage a little too late.”

“Courage?” I tried to act cool.

“Don’t make me laugh, Charbel. Everyone in school knew. You were obsessed with me. It was so obvious that even the teachers knew. It was clear that you were in love with me, so save the bullshit. You knew it, I knew it, and everyone else who knew you or me knew it. I waited for you to make a move for years.”

She withdrew her hands and rubbed them against her thighs. The breeze came. Her hair danced. She stared into her coffee cup and waited for me to say something. The past I had buried was out of its grave. Time with a capital ‘T’ was mocking me. The love of my life was recalling my past mistakes. She was telling me that my secrets weren’t secrets at all.

“All those years, you knew? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I don’t know. That was more than a decade ago. But when I saw you today — when I saw that look in your eyes — I remembered. I remembered that poem you placed on my desk for me to find. Don’t look at me like that. Yes, yes, I knew it was you. Who else wrote love poems in our class? It was a lovely poem, by the way. And then I remembered your brother.”

“My brother?”

“Yes. How is he, by the way?”

“He’s dead.”

That made her raise her thin eyebrows. She said she was sorry and asked how it happened. I told her the story: how he was driving fast one night, how I received the bad news at 2:00 AM, how I cried, how my father went mad, and how we buried him next to my mother who had lost a battle with cancer a few months before the accident.

She took a sip of espresso, and I did the same. The coffee was lukewarm.After a long pause, seeing that my mouth was not willing to form additional words, Yara continued.

“Do you know I still have everything you’ve written about me back in those days?”

“What do you mean? You only have that one poem.”

“It was your brother who gave me the rest, including that notebook in which you collected facts about me. Wait! Please, listen. This is important, so let me finish. There is no reason for you to be angry, or embarrassed, or anything. I assure you that I loved every word I read. Your brother’s intentions don’t matter; at least, not anymore. I don’t know why he did what he did, but I like to believe that he did the right thing. Yes, he did steal your writings, but were they really yours? You wrote the poems, but they belonged to me. I kept them all — the poems, the letters, the journal entries… I take them with me everywhere I go. I cannot live without them. I stopped the car to tell you this, Charbel. That’s why we’re here now. I know everything, and I’m giving you a chance. Maybe fate brought us together today, or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but that doesn’t matter because we’re here now. Tomorrow, I’m going back to Dubai and not just for work. I’m getting engaged and, next year, I’m getting married.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. It was all too much and at once.

“You have one day. One night. Tonight. Tomorrow afternoon, I am leaving this country and am never coming back. This is where you get to say everything. Do you understand now?”

“In school, would you have gone out with me if I had asked you out?” That was one thing I always wanted to know.

“Of course,” she said. She drew a smile on her face, the same one she had drawn when we were twelve-year-olds in the back of that school bus. “You were a good-looking kid, you know that. You were kind of a creep, too, but let’s forget about that for a minute. I know at least four girls who were into you.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Well, it’s true. Yet, none of them approached you because I had accidentally marked you as mine. You were enchanted with that kiss, weren’t you? You became obsessed with me after that, and I fueled your obsession by winking at you when I caught you staring at me, by smiling at you flirtatiously when you tried to talk to me, and by showcasing my body when I knew you were looking.”

“This is overwhelming,” I said, rubbing my temples. “I was a fool.”

“Should I apologize for being so evil?” she asked.

I looked at her and shook my head. It was too late for apologies; I asked her to proceed. But before she continued, she took out her phone and turned it off.

“What I want to say is this,” she said. “When we graduated from school and went our separate ways, I got depressed. At school, I was a goddess.” She paused for a moment to search for words. “How do I explain this? Your obsession with me formed you and shaped you. Are you not the collateral creation of my actions? Are you not my creation?” She paused again, looked at her watch, and then continued. “What I am trying to say is that we both created each other. You made me feel like a goddess, and I became one — but only when you were around. When you weren’t present, when you weren’t there to worship me, I lost my divinity. Does that make sense? Am I being too ridiculous?”

“I can understand it,” I said as I nodded sympathetically. “My God. I have so many questions. This… this is unbelievable.”

“We have all night,” she grinned. “The universe is giving us a chance. Tonight, we set ourselves free.”

It was getting dark. She lit a cigarette and offered me one. We smoked in silence, staring into each other’s eyes. The waiter came and asked if we’d like to order anything else. We shook our heads; he left to get the bill.

“I need to use the restroom,” she said as she stood up. “Meanwhile, can you call the Diamond Crown Hotel and see if they have an available room for us? I’ll pay. I always wanted to spend a night there.”

“Excuse me. I didn’t get you,” I said.

“Yes, you did,” she said, and then she winked at me. “How else would you end our little love story?”

A Disposable Waiter

Jawad Zain was sucking on an ice cube in the kitchen when his phone started vibrating in his pants. Like most waiters who worked at Les Trois Moutons, he had the habit of keeping his phone on silent mode, even when he was off duty. The waiters of Les Trois Moutons were only allowed to use their mobile phones during breaks, and if they wanted to keep their devices in their pockets while they were serving tables, they had to either switch them off or put them on silent mode. If ever a waiter’s phone rang on the restaurant’s premises, the said waiter was terminated on the spot.

The unexpected call interrupted Jawad’s train of thought. When his phone started vibrating, the freezer door of the refrigerator was open. He was staring blankly at the frozen burger patties in front of him, thinking about the word ‘hope’ and what it meant for the average Lebanese citizen. Lebanon was a district in hell, run by primeval devils and their subordinate fiends. No matter how hard one worked, he could barely afford to live a miserable life. It had been a few years since Jawad got his bachelor’s degree, and he was still a waiter. There was no point in dreaming big, American dreams. There was no point in planning. There was no point in living. Yet he observed how others silenced their perplexed minds, wilted hearts, and roaring stomachs with hope. He did the same. He lived with hope because one couldn’t live without it. One must have hope even when there is nothing to hope for. The predicament of the Lebanese citizen was a little like that quote his friend had shared on Facebook the other day. ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ What was the name of that skinny old man with forehead wrinkles? Wrinkles that reminded him of waves, waves generated by recurring sessions of brain masturbation. When he was still attending university, he had come across that wrinkled forehead in one of his elective courses. What was his name? Hackett? That was the name. Samuel Hackett? Something like that.

The phone vibrated for about a minute before Jawad decided to answer it. He closed the freezer door, spat the ice cube into the kitchen sink, and let out a loud and satisfying, odorless fart. He pulled his Android out of his pocket and saw that the caller was his unbeloved boss.

“Hello, buddy,” said Ali Hussein, the restaurant manager. “Can you believe it? The customers are becoming fussier every day. This woman just complained that her mushroom soup was too hot. She didn’t shut up until I offered a free dessert.”

Jawad detected an awkward friendliness in his manager’s baritone voice and instantly construed why he was calling. Some loser must have called in sick, he thought, and now he’s going to drag my ass back to work.

Ali Hussein only called his subordinates ‘buddy’ when he needed a favor. The last time Ali used the word ‘buddy’ was a couple of months ago, on inventory day, when he needed Jawad to stay after closing to help him count the liquor bottles in the storeroom. Ali never counted the liquor bottles. He delegated someone else to do it.

“Umm, I wanted to ask you something. What are your plans for tonight?” Ali inquired in the friendliest manner possible. He sounded like a teenager who was trying to ask the most popular girl in class out on a date.

It was 7:30 PM, and Jawad had just returned home from his day shift. He had no plans of going back to work. Time passed slowly at Les Trois Moutons; another shift meant another thousand years serving food to people who didn’t know what to order from the French menu. He had other plans. He intended to devour a massive ham and cheese sandwich and then hang out with the boys.

“Well,” Jawad said and, after a long pause, to buy himself some additional time to think, he added, “Hmm? I couldn’t hear you.”

“What are you doing tonight? Do you have plans?” Ali repeated, a little louder.

“I was just getting ready, actually. I just got out of the shower. I’m getting dressed now, and then I’ll be heading out.”

“Heading out where, buddy?”

“Well, I promised my parents that I’d be having dinner with them tonight,” Jawad lied. Every waiter used this fib at least once every season or so to take a day off. In actuality, Jawad’s mother was on her deathbed, and he wasn’t on good terms with his father. He never went home, and he seldom communicated with his father.

Telling Ali the truth wasn’t an option. He wasn’t going to tell him that he was planning to imbibe one pitcher of beer after another with the boys until midnight. That wasn’t a good enough reason not to go back to work. Besides, Ali wasn’t a drinker, even though he ran the operations of a restaurant that served alcohol. “It’s haram,” he kept reminding Jawad and his other Muslim coworkers who consumed alcoholic beverages on a regular basis. Ali frowned upon alcoholics, and Jawad knew this. If his plandidn’t sound ‘pressing’ enough, Ali would have surely found a way to persuade him to cancel it. Therefore, he lied.

“My mother will kill me if I don’t show up,” he added. “You know how mothers are.”

“Hmm,” Ali said, making it clear that he was skeptical. He knew how a waiter’s mind worked. He was one for six years before getting his first managerial position. He had to lie to take days off, too, especially on holidays.

“I was going to ask you to punch in at 9 PM,” Ali continued after a pause, “If you work the second half of the night shift, I’ll make sure you get recompensed for canceling your plans. Mahmoud called in sick, and I need an extra waiter. Sandy is on her way to the airport, and Sama is in Batroun. You’re my only hope.”

“Oh, I would if I could, but I just can’t tonight. My parents are waiting.”

“I see. I see,” the friendliness in Ali’s voice faded. “There’s no way you can postpone your family dinner, right?”

“I’m afraid not. The meals are cooked, you know.”

On any other day, Jawad would have considered taking the extra shift. Customers were more likely to spend more money on alcohol at night; subsequently, they tipped better. Working an extra night shift was a good deal; however, today was Wednesday.

His friends were waiting for him at Café Carré, a coffee shop hidden in a grim alleyway on the periphery of Hamra. Compared to the more famous coffee shops located on the main street, Café Carré was below average. It did not meet the most basic safety and hygiene standards. But the coffee was acceptable and cheap.

“Zain the Man, you’re late!” Sammy said.

Sammy was twenty-seven, tall and overweight, passionate about basketball, and unemployed. He was Jawad’s best friend. They did everything together.

The third member of the crew was Hassan. He was sitting at the table next to Sammy with his legs crossed. He looked like the stereotypical, Arab man one sees in Hollywood movies: brown-eyed, bearded, and tanned skin. He was a twenty-six-year-old taxi driver who never had the chance to go to college.  His father died from cardiac arrest when he was seventeen. Consequently, life appointed him the man of the family who had to take care of his mother and his two younger sisters. But that didn’t stop Hassan, who always loved philosophy, from becoming a well-read man. Even though Jawad and Sammy were the university graduates, Hassan was the group’s intellectual. He was an avid book reader and a merciless beer drinker. Jawad found him puking on himself in the W.C. of Sam’s Beer House one night, and they became friends ever since.

Jawad high-fived both of his friends and sat at the table with them. He nodded at the barista, and the barista winked at him. Jawad was a regular, and he was friends with the staff. Within minutes, he had a double espresso and a bottle of sparkling water in front of him.

“Thanks,” he said to the waiter who brought him his usual order. “And please,” he added, “Can we pay now? We’re not staying here for long.”

“Sure thing,” the waiter said and went to ask the barista, who was also the cashier, for the bill.

On the table in front of him was a book. Jawad picked it up and flipped through it without pausing to read a sentence or even a word. He looked at Hassan — the only one of the three who read books — and asked him about its content.

“It’s called Memory for Forgetfulness, as you can see. Have you heard of Mahmoud Darwish? He is one of the greatest Arab poets who ever lived. Hmm? You know, there’s a part where he talks about coffee. I think you’ll like it. Hand me the book; let me show you.”

“I’m not interested in reading about coffee. Coffee does not belong to poetry. You’re supposed to drink it, not write about it.”

Sammy high-fived Jawad for the witty comment. Then they both grabbed each other’s head, head-butted, and said, “Ka-boom!” Their movements were synchronized — the result of a decade of friendship.

“Oh, look! I’m a poet, and there’s a cup of coffee right here!” Sammy said, trying to keep the witticism’s momentum going. “What should I do with it? I know! Why don’t I write about it?”

“Why don’t you shut up,” Hassan exploded. “Look at you, you idiot. Camus was right when he said that ‘unintelligence must be earned.’ You make a lot of effort to remain ignorant. You never want to learn anything, and you make fun of people who do. Don’t laugh, Jawad! You’re not better than him, you know.”

“Why don’t you shut your mouth and write a poem about my cup of coffee,” Sammy smiled a mirthless smile. He wasn’t the wittiest person at the table or anywhere.

“Are we going to do this the whole night?” Jawad asked. “Let’s go and get drunk, boys! What do you say?”

The waiter came with the bill, and the boys split it in silence. As they waited for their change, Sammy lit a cigarette and said, “Hassan, habibi, I’m sorry, truly sorry. I was just playing with you.”

“It’s alright,” Hassan said.

Sammy extended his hand, initiating a handshake, but Hassan rejected it and gave him the middle finger instead.

“You can suck on this,” Hassan said, “but I forgive you.”

While his friends were arguing, Jawad felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He could tell by the short, intermittent vibrations that it wasn’t an incoming call. Someone was either texting him or sending him voice messages. It turned out to be the latter, and the sender was Ali. This is very stressful, Jawad thought, I don’t want to think about work tonight. He unlocked his mobile phone and put it on airplane mode. He didn’t bother listening to his manager’s voice messages.

“On your birthday I’m buying you a rope for you to hang yourself,” Sammy was addressing Hassan. “If you buy me a beer later, I’ll forgive you, too. I’m really broke. My flatmate packed his things and abandoned me last month. He didn’t say anything. He just left and never came back. I tried reaching out to him, but he doesn’t answer when I call. I have no clue where he is. Maybe he is dead. I had to pay his bit of the rent this month. What a jerk! I hope he’s not dead or in prison because I really want to kick his ass. Some of his stuff is still in his room, but there’s nothing I can sell — just a bunch of shirts, underwear, and gizmos from the nineties nobody uses.”

“Save your tears, crocodile,” Jawad said. “We don’t care. You can cry when my sick mother dies next month. Besides, you’ve always been broke anyway. You’ve been low on cash since the day I met you. Ha-ha, I paid for half of the beers you’ve drunk in the past ten years. The other half, Hassan paid for.”

“Tonight, I’m not buying anyone anything,” Hassan said. “I am low on cash, too.”

“I have money,” Jawad said.

At that moment, a good-looking girl in tight jeans walked in and ordered two espressos in paper cups. The boys had seen her before, but they did not know her name. She was a salesperson in one of the clothes stores nearby. When her boss had visitors, he would often send her to fetch espressos. Café Carré was the nearest coffee shop.

“One day, I’m going to ask her out,” Hassan said while he checked her out.

“How? Are you going to read her a love poem or something?” Sammy drew a smile on his face again.

“A poem that will make her undress,” Hassan said and then winked at Sammy.

“Ooh, you dirty little poet. By the way, weren’t you working on a poem just before Jawad arrived?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Why don’t you read it for us?”

Hassan kept his eyes on the girl. He shook his head, bit his lips, sighed, put his hand on his chest, stood up and sat back down, and then shook his head again. When he finally turned to his friends, he found them snickering.

“So, Shakespeare, are you going to read that poem?” Sammy asked again. “It’s been a while since you last shared anything.”

“I’m not in the mood. This isn’t a poetry recital gathering, is it? Let’s just go and get wasted. I need to get her off my mind.”

“You don’t have much money. So I’ll buy you your first beer if you read your poem now,” Jawad said. “Read your poem. Why not? It’s not a long one, is it?

“No,” Hassan said. “It’s a short one.”

He unlocked his phone with his thumbprint and opened the notepad application in which he had saved his poem. He looked at the girl one more time before she left.

“What’s it called?” Sammy asked.

“There’s no title yet,” Hassan answered.

“Go on,” Jawad said.

“Okay, now shut up. It is only a first draft, alright?” Hassan made that clear before reading his newly drafted poem:

Leaning against a car parked on the side of the street
peeling a banana, eating a banana
waiting for her knight in shining armor
to come riding a motorcycle
and pick her up, take her
to a fancy
restaurant where the food is good
and the Wi-Fi connection is fast
and free, so that she
can take a selfie
and show the world how happy
she is.

“That’s not bad at all, bro,” Sammy said.

“It is terrible,” Hassan said. “Fortunately, you know nothing about poetry.”

They all laughed together. Even the waiter who had brought them their change laughed. He was standing behind Hassan when the latter was reciting the poem.

“Nice,” the waiter said and moved on to serve other tables.

The boys downed their espressos like tequila shots and left.

As they walked towards their favorite bar, Jawad decided to text Gregory the Monster. He pulled out his phone, switched back the settings to go back online, and dialed Gregory’s number.

Gregory the Monster was an angry, walking mountain. He was not a member of their crew, but he told funny jokes when he was intoxicated. The boys liked his company. He was nicknamed ‘The Monster’ after beating the crap out of three Syrian construction workers in an abandoned parking lot one night. After the incident, some of the people who knew him said that Gregory had always been a racist and that he had always hated Syrians. When the boys asked him if that were true, Gregory said no. The boys believed him.

“He’s not answering,” Jawad said as they crossed Hamra’s main street.

“Who?” Hassan asked.

“The Monster,” Jawad replied. “He’s probably asleep.”

Jawad still had his phone in his hand when the phone vibrated again. He wasn’t surprised when he saw it was Ali. At first, he wasn’t going to answer, but he saw that it was 9:30 PM; there was no way Ali could force him to go to work.

He answered, “Hello?”

“Jawad, buddy, guess what,” Ali said. “Your colleague Mahmoud came to work, and he has a fever. I asked him to come, and he did even though he was sick. Nice guy, eh? I don’t need you anymore.”

“Oh, great,” Jawad said. He turned to his friends, who were a few steps behind him, and waved his hand at them. He then brought his index finger to his lips. If Ali knew he was out with his friends drinking, he would be very pissed.

“Yes, indeed, that’s great,” Ali said, “and guess what.”

“What?” Jawad didn’t feel like playing guessing games with his boss. “Tell me.”

“You’re fired.”

What?

“You heard me. You’re fired. There’s no need for you to come tomorrow. Pass by at the beginning of the month to get your salary.”

“Wait. Why am I fired?”

“Do you want to guess why? No need, buddy, because I’ll tell you right now! On his way here, Mahmoud saw you enjoying coffee with your boys. You see, I don’t like to work with liars. You’re a liar, Jawad.”

Ali hung up before Jawad could come up with an answer.

“Looks like I don’t have to go to work tomorrow,” Jawad said. “Let’s get wasted.”

“Fuck, man. You got fired, didn’t you?” Hassan asked.

Jawad nodded and let out a long sigh.

Before entering Sam’s Beer House, Jawad put an arm around each of his friends, pulled them closer, and said, “Tonight, we get shitfaced. Just like the old days. Tomorrow, I will shoot him, and then I’m going to shoot myself.” His friends took the last part as a joke, but Jawad meant what he said. He no longer wanted to work hard only to afford a miserable life. As they sat at a table in the corner of the pub and ordered a pitcher of beer, he lit a cigarette and, in a very low voice, said, “I can’t go on, and I won’t go on.”

Amorphous

I’m pretty sure that I’ve shared “Amorphous” somewhere before, but I can’t remember where. I have a vague memory of me reading it to an audience. Maybe in 2013? 2014? I can’t say. It was also posted online, probably on one of my now-deleted personal blogs.

Chris Khatschadourian

Amorphous

   The despondent man left the kitchen and retreated to his room about an hour ago, leaving you where you stand now, on your own. You stand there, motionless, unaware of your own existence, in absurdity, and an hour has to pass before anything else happens. This hour is a thousand years, yet it does pass.

You breathe. 

    Now, you hear him squeal like a dying pig, but you’re not surprised; you remain unmoved, emotionally indifferent. You already know why he’s crying because you’ve spent the whole afternoon with him, while you were still a virgin, as he talked about his depression and his suppressed, sexual desires and you listened. You are no longer a virgin, but – you altruist you! –you couldn’t care less because for a moment you made him happy.

He cries.

You are not what he truly desired.

You made things worse.

What is the meaning of death?

    Some twenty or so minutes later (how many years?) the crying finally ceases. There is a moment of disquieting silence – you, in the kitchen; him, in his bedroom. After that, there is the predicted gunshot; you’ve seen it coming, haven’t you? You hear him fall to the ground, and there is something else that falls with him because you hear the sound of shattering glass. Was it the bedroom mirror? If not, what else is there that is made of glass in his old-fashioned bedroom?

Echoes of a Gunshot
And Breaking Glass
Oh, What a Blast!

That is the end of him.

But you are not going to see him dead.

    You stay where you are, motionless, unable to move, in the kitchen, still absurdly still, Waiting for Godot, and another hour – has to pass – passes. This hour lasts for eternity. No, it has nothing to do with Einstein or his Theory of Relativity or anything of that sort, but those sixty damnable minutes, those three thousand and six hundred seconds – each second an eternity itself – was… really was… you’d swear – if you had a mother – on your mother’s grave that it was… hell!

But finally, it is midnight.

    You start to think as if for the first time. So far, you’ve been merely trying to perceive your environment and what was happening to you, receiving information through your newly acquired senses, without much understanding. Now, you become inquisitive and therefore you start to speculate. There’s been death. Has there been rape? Nothing is clear. Who are you? Why is everything so abstract and absurd?

Mr. Antoine Roquentin,
Jazz gives me the Nausea.

    There’s been magic, one would say, as you start to utter sounds – not words yet, just random sounds, but soon you’ll be able to speak. You need teeth, a tongue (of course!), and, most of all, you need lips.

A flute is being played in chromatic scale.
Don’t talk Jazz to me, Mr. Wood-Pipe!
(Glass-Pipe?)

Think.
Think some more.
Think like a scientist. Think like a philosopher. Quack like a fox.
Run like a duck, for all I care. But think.

“I think, therefore I am.” Descartes the Charlatan, the fake philosopher, misleadingly alleged.

“No!” yelled the ingenuous Roquentin, answering back, delivering the truth. “I do not think therefore I am a mustache!”

 You start to wonder, and you wonder about that sound, the sound of breaking glass. You are jealous of it. What was it? The bedroom mirror? You don’t know, but you’re curious enough that you want to know, you really want to know, but first, you have to know yourself. So, if you sound like the shepherd’s flute but you’re not a flute, and if you’re jealous of the sound of something being shattered, what can you be? What are you, Sophia?

    You are an empty bottle of wine standing meekly under the kitchen table, and I just gave you life.

    You wait. You wait for nothing. You wait for what exactly? You wait until forever ends. At last, two eternities later, you decide that it’s time for you to go. You wish you can move from one place to another and I grant you that wish. All of a sudden, you grow hands and feet of flexible glass and for the first time in your life, you experience idyllic emotions. You start walking clumsily, like a toddler, out of the kitchen, into the hallway, towards the exit door. Freedom awaits you; heaven is on the other side. You are almost there.

    But wait! Stop! Do not open the door. You will not go out. Please, dear bottle, my child, my creation, stop! Your story ends here.

Is there free will?

   You don’t comply with the orders I give, and hence you keep going. You should have listened. Did you forget that I gave you life?  Consequently, you trip and fall. You break and shatter as soon as you hit the ground. That is the end of you.

    Only a sip of what was inside you still lurks in the despondent man’s glass, on the kitchen table. I am apt to drink it. For I am Godot!  So I write that I close my eyes since all this is in my head, but I don’t actually close my eyes. I write that I find my way into the kitchen, pick up the glass, make a toast to who-knows-what, and take the final, remaining sip. That is all I need: a sip of imaginary, red wine.  

It is the blood of the sacrifice.

Chevaliers de la table ronde,
Goûtons voir si le vin est bon;
Goûtons voir, oui, oui, oui,
Goûtons voir, non, non, non,
Goûtons voir si le vin est bon.

That’s what I call a ‘French Toast’.

The room is spinning.
But I’m not drunk, I swear.
It was only a sip.
It was the blood of the sacrifice.
The room is spinning.
Planet Earth is rotating around itself.
Around me.
The sun rises from the east and sets in the west.
Around me.
I am the center of the universe.
The room is spinning.
I remember things that never actually happened.

  Sarah was never my girlfriend, and we did not make love on her sister’s bed. I have never seen her naked. She never told me that she loved me. I wasn’t the one who taught her how to drive. There was no car accident. She never died. And no, we never held hands.

The spinning is room.
Yes, is the spin rooming!
Where is Godot?
I’ve been waiting and waiting forever. Godot is late.
No, Godot is dead, because the bedroom mirror is shattered.

I was asked the following question by a morphologist who owned a candy shop:

“If I can make you tick and talk, does that make you a human clock?”

And my answer to his question was another question.

“Do you know a good place where they sell quality time?”

Then a kid walked in, browsing, sniffing sweets:

“Sir,” he says to me, shooting the third question in the atmosphere, “haven’t you had enough wine already?”

Now, that was it. I was perplexed. How did he know? Where did he come from?

I suddenly realized that something somewhere had gone wrong.
Seriously speaking…
Literally, I found myself in the words I wrote.
So, now that I was aware of it, I spoke in sad poetry:

“I don’t expect the mass to read,
But if they do,
I know that only few
Will understand.”

But to tell you the truth, I don’t know what I meant by that.