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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
“Yes. How is he, by the way?”
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?”