When the phone rang I was lying on the divan. It sounds so chic, like I was a lady of leisure waiting for other ladies of leisure to arrive so we could be served tea and little cakes on one of those tiered dishes by a servant smartly turned out in a spotless white jacket and slim black trousers (who would also have a Marcel wave in his hair and a pencil moustache). Like at any minute I was going to ring a bell and ask Ahmed or Mahmood or Fathi to kindly wipe down the wicker chairs and tables on the balcony – the big balcony – and arrange them attractively for when the other ladies of leisure arrived.
No. I’m giving you the wrong impression. When the phone rang I was indeed lying on what was indeed a divan, albeit an old and tired holdover from a long-past, more glamorous era. This divan was lumpy and its flower pattern was faded. It had stains on it whose origins I did not want to think about. Its ruffled skirt was dusty. I was lying on it facedown, my arms hanging over the sides. I was trying to remain as still as possible in the heat wave that had been gripping Cairo all week. The temperature was expected to reach fifty-three that day. And that flat – without air conditioning or even a fan. I sweated just thinking about it.
The phone was in a convenient position – on the floor about six inches from my left hand, so when it rang, I only had to make the smallest of movements to pick up the receiver. Please let it be Mikko, I thought.
Silence, then: “This Hannah?”
“Yes, this Hannah,” I said. “How are you?”
Laughter. “Yah, you know my voice now, yah?”
“Yah, I know your voice now.”
The voice belonged to Mr. Farouk, emphasis on “Mr.” Egypt was a formal place, and you called men of a certain age “Mr.” Not that I knew for sure how old Farouk was. One day I asked him. I said, how old are you anyway, Mr. Farouk? He’d rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. “I have fifty, fifty-two years.” Not long after that, during Ramadan, Farouk took me to his village, which was a few kilometres outside of Cairo. I asked his mother – who looked like an older version of Farouk but with long hair and presumably female parts – the same question. She said he was either fifty-one or fifty-three. Apparently, Farouk was never issued a birth certificate, and his mother’s memory was fuzzy. But what did it matter? It wasn’t like Farouk had old age pension to look forward to once he hit sixty-five – whenever the hell that might be.
But if Farouk hit the big time, he wouldn’t need old age pension. Neither would I. See, he and I were partners. Partners in crime that is, ha ha. But minor stuff. Really, really minor stuff I don’t think we could have actually been arrested for. Victimless crimes, as they say. For instance, one of the things we did – all right, it was the only thing we did – was he would take me to an ESL school and introduce me as a teacher looking for work. After a brief interview with the manager – “Where are you from?” “When can you start?” – the manager would give Farouk a finder’s fee. Then we would leave, Farouk would give me half the dough, and I of course would never show up to work. See? Victimless crime! But the take was small, too. Because the pettier the crime, the pettier the take. I mean, we are talking like ten Egyptian pounds – which at that time was roughly three dollars and seventy cents Canadian. And we had to split that between us. It was enough to get a big tasty meal. Half a roast chicken with potatoes and rice, say. But not enough to really do anything else with. In any case, we’d made the rounds of the ESL schools till we’d pretty much exhausted them.
Now Farouk was calling to tell me about a new venture. It looked like we’d finally, maybe, hit paydirt. He told me he knew of a rich Saudi Arabian who owned a newspaper in Egypt. He was looking for a foreign wife.
“Big man, Hannah. Big, big man. He have more money than richest man in Egypt, maybe Canada,” Farouk said.
I felt my world closing and opening up at the same time. I forgot my resolve to stay still and turned over onto my back and gazed at the ceiling, a stuccoed affair with sparkly bits that winked in the sunlight. Farouk said the guy had offered him a finder’s fee of ten thousand pounds – a veritable king’s ransom to us – if he could produce a foreign woman suitable for marriage. British or European preferably, but any westerner would do. All I had to do was agree to marry him, and then Farouk would get the finder’s fee and split it with me fifty-fifty.
Ten thousand pounds. I didn’t know what Farouk would do with his half, but it would be enough for me to buy a plane ticket to go to Finland, to Mikko. It would mean I would no longer have to wait for Mikko to send me the money. I could procure it on my own. But still.
“Mr. Farouk, you are magnoon,” I said. “No. No way. I can’t do it.”
“Listen me. All you do is say okay. No marry him, no make sex. I no leave you alone with him for one minute.”
This was insane. But with that kind of money, I could finally leave Cairo. What did I have to lose, besides my dignity? If Farouk stayed by my side, things wouldn’t go pear-shaped. And once Farouk and I had absconded with the money, this guy would never find us. Finding someone in Cairo who did not want to be found was more or less impossible.
“I’ll think about it.”
“No think too long! He a busy man.” Farouk sounded ready to jump out of the receiver and start shaking me. “Tomorrow meet me at café on Talaat Harb Street. Twelve noon.”
I had nothing better to do that day, so I agreed to meet him and rang off.
I came to Cairo for love. Or rather, I stayed for love. I left Canada to get away from my parents, from my dad the drunk and my mom the silent, disapproving pill. My father was a salaryman who drank with his coworkers every day after work. He would come home late for dinner, loosen his cheap tie, turn on the TV and then fall into his La-Z-Boy and zone out in boob tube land until it was time to go to bed. This was his life five days a week. On the weekends he would watch wrestling and hockey and baseball – whatever sport was in season – and read the paper. My mother hated his drinking and had stopped speaking to him. But she wouldn’t leave him. They would call me at all hours, her to bitch about him and him to ask my advice about how he could win her back. It became too much and, although I was in university at the time, I left before I finished my masters degree in film studies. I was halfway through my thesis. But I cashed in some bonds and fled.
I met Mikko in the Khan El Khalili market. A shop owner with big lips and high-waisted jeans had lured me into his cosmetics store with the promise of cheap perfume oils. He persuaded me to let him put kohl on my eyes. As he sketched black lines under my lashes, his body inched so close to mine I could feel his groin pushing against my belly. Terrified of moving lest he stab me in the eyeball, I stood still, trying to get up the courage to knee him in the crotch. And then I heard a voice calling, “Karen, Karen. I’ve been looking all over for you.” The sleazoid moved away and I turned to see what looked like a teenage boy standing at the cashier’s desk. The boy held out his hand and I walked over and took it, and we walked out of the shop together like we’d known each other for years.
Mikko was not a boy. He was also not what I expected a Finnish person to look like. I thought they were all tall and well-built, like Teemu Selanne, who played right wing for my home team, the Winnipeg Jets. But Mikko looked malnourished. He was also short, as if his growth had been stunted. He wore a wispy moustache. It surprised me that he would expose his inability to grow a proper moustache in Egypt, where the men took great pride in it. It was a sign you were virile. But Mikko didn’t care. He had bigger fish to fry. Mikko dealt in silver and gold and hashish. He bought these goods cheap and shipped them to Finland through some underground means. I never found out how he got the gold and silver out of the country, but I knew how he smuggled the hashish. He swallowed it, in condoms. He would swallow a condom just before leaving for the airport. That condom full of hash would sit in his stomach the whole plane ride. Once he got to Helsinki he’d shit it out, divvy it up into grams or whatever weight and sell it. Then he’d come back to Cairo, stay for a few months and do it all over again.
When Mikko was in Cairo and not conducting business, we would stay up till dawn and sleep till noon. We would smoke hash using a chillum or apple and go for longs walks on the Corniche in the middle of the night. We were careful never to hold hands in public, though it was okay for me to take his arm. We would kiss under bridges and in dark alleys. We would always sleep at his flat, never mine. He was friends with his baoab and the baoab would pretend he didn’t see a woman who didn’t live there entering the building. But my building was presided over by its owner, a woman with a bland face and smooth skin who had an office inside the main entrance whose door was always open. She had asked me once if I were an exotic dancer because I always came home so late. Nothing got past her. Mikko certainly wouldn’t have.
One evening, after one of our epic walks, Mikko and I returned to his flat. He opened up the French doors in his bedroom and a light breeze came through and washed over us like a baptism. He dragged two chairs in from the kitchen and we sat in the breeze in the dark. The French doors were dusty and one of the panes was missing. We could see into the flat across the alley. A family was gathered around a TV set. I didn’t need to see the screen to know they were watching The Bold and the Beautiful. Of course they were. It was a Wednesday, the day reruns of the decadent American soap aired. Everyone watched it. When Mikko was away, I watched it, too.
“Before I met you I was with someone else,” Mikko said, taking my hand. I felt a small jolt at the bottom of my spine and sat up straighter. “Her name was Mylene. She was from Canada, like you. But from Quebec.”
I hated her instantly. Heat crept up the back of my neck and I had a sick feeling deep in my guts, all the way into my groin. I pulled my hand out of his grasp and put it in my lap.
“She was a fun girl. She’d do anything,” he said. He was looking out of the window, so I couldn’t see his face. Then he told me how he had asked Mylene to swallow a condom full of hash and go to Finland with him. She had agreed. “But the condom must have busted inside of her,” Mikko said. “Because she was acting crazy even before we left Cairo.”
I said nothing. Part of me wanted to hear that Mylene had been arrested for drug trafficking and was languishing away in a Cairo prison.
Mikko said Mylene couldn’t walk and was spouting all kinds of nonsense. He dragged her through customs, praying the security officers would not get suspicious and start asking questions. But he got her onto the plane and deposited her in the window seat, where she fell into a sort of half-sleep, her eyes glazed.
“Her heart was beating so fast I could see it jumping underneath her T-shirt,” Mikko said. His voice was flat. “It was like a frog. I was freaking out.”
This time I took his hand, and squeezed it.
At one point she’d pushed past him and lurched down the aisle to the toilet and thrown up. Down went the hashish. When they finally arrived in Helsinki, hours later, she was more or less back to normal, though she was done with Mikko.
Mikko didn’t say what she looked like, but I saw her. I saw her back as she walked away from him. She had long blonde hair bleached platinum by the Egyptian sun. It hung in a rough horsetail down her back. She had a perfect ass and golden brown arms and proud shoulders.
“Let me try it,” I said. “I want to.”
“Forget it,” Mikko said. “I would never let anyone to do that again.” He raised a hand, palm forward, as if taking a pledge. Then he put his arms around me and patted me on the head as if I were a child that needed protecting.
We had only been together a few months when Mikko announced he was going home for good. His grandmother had died, and Mikko was off. “I’ll send for you,” he said, like I was a parcel or a war bride. That was, what, four months ago? He wrote, oh yes, he wrote. Sporadic postcards and long letters that said soon, soon. In one letter he said he’d done some soul-searching and was finished with the “import-export” business, as he called it. He’d got a job at Nokia doing installation and servicing of telecommunications equipment. I pictured him on a communications tower five hundred feet high. The tower was made from the silver and gold he’d smuggled out of Cairo. At the top was Mikko, who sat on the point like a miniature King Midas.
Farouk and I met at the café on Talaat Harb Street, the one people said had not changed since the Second World War. It was all wood and mirrors and tile floor, and chairs and tables had been placed onto the sidewalk right up to the curb. I arrived at the cafe first and sat down at a table and ordered lemonade, squeezed fresh and served with a chunk of ice hacked off of a giant block. Most of the men in the café – all the patrons were men – were engrossed in games. They were hunched over chessboards or slamming down dominoes and did not pay me any mind. I was halfway finished my drink before Farouk sauntered in, hands in his pockets, dead cigarette butt tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was lean and wiry, like someone used to hard times, and who, because of them, never stopped moving. He moved like a cat or other small animal that wanted to see first rather than be seen. Navy blue shirt tucked into grey trousers shiny at the knees, black hair pomaded into waves on his small head. Dark, wrinkled face like a raisin. He bore a remarkable resemblance to the French actor Charles Aznavour.
Farouk raised an arm and called out a greeting to one of the waiters – “Aiwa, Pasha!” They had this thing in Egypt where the men would call each other by Turkish titles – Pasha, Effendi – as a sign of respect. The waiter looked up from wiping a table and his eyes narrowed as he mumbled a response and tossed his cloth over one shoulder. I knew what was going on. Farouk was running a tab at this café – as he was at so many others – and they wanted him to pay up. Next time we would surely be meeting at a different café.
Farouk slid into the chair opposite mine and I caught a whiff of his cologne. I pictured a black bottle with a stallion outlined in gold on it. My nostrils contracted and I began breathing through my mouth. When the waiter came over Farouk ordered mint tea and it was served to him in a glass on a dented metal tray. He picked up the steaming glass carefully with his thumb and forefinger and took a sip. Then he began looking me over like a buyer at a camel market. I was wearing a calf-length wrap skirt and a blouse buttoned all the way to the neck.
“Why you no wear make-up?” he complained. “Why you no wear earrings?”
“Why you wear cologne that stink like donkey piss?” I countered.
Farouk laughed. I saw the gap in his teeth and the one brownish eyetooth protruding from his gums like the world’s smallest gravestone. His shoulders shook and he began coughing. Ha ha ha, uh uh uh. Spittle flew from his lips and I shrank back into my chair. When Farouk got himself under control he sparked the cigarette butt and took three quick puffs, then looked at me cannily through the veil of white smoke.
“What’s this guy’s name, anyway?” I said.
“Abdullah. Mr. Abdullah … Sheikh Abdullah, yah?” He started laughing and coughing all over again.
“Dammit, Mr. Farouk, get a grip,” I said, biting the insides of my cheeks to keep from giggling.
Suddenly Farouk became businesslike, straightening up in his chair and mashing out the cigarette butt under his shoe. We went over the plan. Farouk would introduce me to Sheikh Abdullah, who was waiting for us at his newspaper office. He would remain present at all times, like a chaperone. He would translate in case the Sheikh’s English was not up to snuff. Once I had sufficiently dazzled the Sheikh into wanting to marry me, we would set up a time and date for the wedding. Then he would take Farouk aside, peel off a fat wad of bills and hand it to him, and Farouk and I would leave. Why I pictured this guy as a bumpkin, a rube, I do not know.
“Ready, Hannah?” said Farouk. He was practically drooling.
I sighed as if I’d relinquished control and no longer had a say in the matter. I told myself to keep my eye on the prize, the prize being Finland and Mikko.
“Ready, Mr. Farouk.”
We stayed off the main streets in favour of alleys, where Farouk kept trying to take my arm, and I kept shaking him off. The sun was so intense it was breathtaking. The top of my head felt fried, as if a patch of my hair had burned away and my scalp was being offered up, naked and virgin, to some spiteful god of fire. The heat wave had not ended. If anything, it was worse. My sandals slapped against the fine yellow dirt of the alleys, sending up puffs of dust. There was grit between my toes, a feeling I hated. Feral dogs the same colour as the dirt watched us from where they lay on the roofs of Ladas parked nose to tail all along the alley. Farouk walked in front with me plodding behind. All I wanted was to find a patch of shade and curl up and go to sleep and dream about clouds and rain and the cold, grey water of the Baltic Sea. Mikko and me in black bathing suits sitting on a pebbly beach, getting up the nerve to enter the waves. The shock of the cold water would be delicious.
Farouk stopped and I ran into him, throwing him off balance. He hopped on one foot for a second or two and gave me the stinkeye, which made me snigger. I pretended to cough so he wouldn’t notice.
“There,” he said, pointing to a second floor office in a building that looked tired and defeated, its windows stuffed with air-con units whose hum reminded me of the chirr of cicadas.
There what? I thought. There-in lies my fate? Then another thought hit me: What in God’s name was I doing? This had to be a bad idea. What if the Sheikh tricked me into marrying him for real? Would I become a baby mill and be forbidden to go out in public without the accompaniment of a male? On the other hand, the guy was rich. Surely he already had other wives. According to Muslim law he would need to treat us all equally, which would mean he would only have a certain amount of time and energy for me. Good. Perhaps I would enjoy living in a harem. But only if I could wear one of those filmy outfits (pink) with the balloon-like pants and lie around on giant cushions all day. He could come lie down, too. I wouldn’t be above peeling a few grapes for him. Maybe more. Who could tell? But surely he would be fat and unattractive. He would have oily skin and a fierce moustache and would wear one of those long flowing white robes and a red and white checked cloth on his head that looked like a tea towel. Perhaps he would carry a scimitar.
“Hannah! You dreaming or what?” Farouk was snapping his fingers under my nose. They smelled like cigarettes and his dreadful cologne. I batted his hand away and strode toward the entrance of the building, Farouk following at my heels.
Sheikh Abdullah was not fat, though he did have a moustache. Nor did he wear a white robe or tea towel on his head. He wore tan pants tight in the crotch and wide at the ankle and a western-style shirt with snap buttons and dotted with yellow roses. He did not look entirely unlike Omar Sharif. He was sitting on the edge of a metal desk with his arms and ankles crossed. He looked terribly amused, as if he might erupt into laughter at any moment. Farouk introduced us and Sheikh Abdullah proffered a hand. It was dry. What a surprise, in this dank, rotten heat.
“Well, well, well. Here she is,” he said. His English was virtually unaccented and his pronunciation was American. “Come on! Let’s get to know each other.” He grabbed my wrist and began pulling me toward a door leading to a room off the office.
“What about Mr. Farouk?” I said, twisting around in a panic to look at my chaperone, who stood unmoving. It was the first time I’d ever seen him look unsure of himself.
“Who?” said Abdullah. “Oh, Farouk.” He shooed me into the room as if I were an annoying puppy he was tired of dealing with and closed the door behind me. The room was tiny and looked like it had never been used for anything except to accumulate dust. I put my ear to the door and heard them talking in rapid-fire Arabic. The only words I could understand were “you,” “I,” “she” and “money.” The voices lowered and then cut off. The Sheikh came into the room and closed the door behind him.
“Okay, so, yes, my family owns a number of newspapers,” he said. He had begun pacing in a circle with his hands clasped behind his back. “We own a chain in Saudi and papers in Qatar, Jordan and here. I run them all. Whoop-de-doo.” He threw his hands in the air and shook them. “I have lots of money. I have a yacht. All kinds of cars.” He ceased his pacing and looked at me with his head cocked, like a parrot. “Does any of this interest you?”
The air in the room was close and I could feel the lemonade sloshing around in my guts. There was a single piece of furniture in the room, a folding metal chair. I put my hand on the back of it for support. All I could manage to say was, “My throat is dry.”
The Sheikh looked up at the ceiling. “Of course. Where are my manners? Is this how one treats one’s fiancée? Sorry.”
He cracked the door and shouted something. A young girl appeared. She wore a cotton dress and a scarf tied over her head. I knew this girl, or ones just like her. I’d seen her at the homes of Egyptian acquaintances. She was fellahin, from Upper Egypt. Her parents probably had a whole heap of children, many of whom – at least the girls – would be rented out as live-in servants to moneyed people in Cairo. She was lucky if she saw her family three times a year.
“Nagla,” he barked. “Shai.” Nagla turned without a word and disappeared. “You speak Arabic?” he asked, closing the door again and turning back to me.
“Shwia shwia,” I said, putting on what I hoped was my most winning smile and my best Egyptian accent.
“It doesn’t matter. My family all speak English. Do you sing?”
Did I sing? Hell no, I did not sing. Was this a requirement for marriage? I shook my head.
“Well, I sing.” As if cued, he went into a Abd Halim Hafez number, humming the instrumental lead-in while twirling around in a kind of slow ecstasy. Then he began singing, his mournful voice not a bad impersonation of Egypt’s most beloved male singer’s. He swayed his hips, then minced up to me and took my hand and spun me around once before releasing me. I stumbled. I felt as graceless as an ox beside him. He sang the whole song and the word that was repeated over and over was habibi. My love. My darling. He sang the song through to the end with his eyes closed and then there was a knock at the door. He opened it and Nagla stood there holding a tray with two glasses of tea and two of water.
“Shukran,” he said, and cuffed her playfully on the chin. Nagla grinned, handed him the tray and ran off. He set the tray on a chair. I reached for a glass of water and drank it down in one go. I could feel the coldness travel down my throat, through my esophagus and all the way into the pit of my stomach.
The Sheikh watched me drink. When I put the glass down he placed his hands on my shoulders, leaning down until his eyes were level with mine.
“Listen, honey,” he said. “Here’s the deal. I need a beard. No offence – you’re cute and all – but I prefer my own sex. But the things I do with men are illegal in my country. And my family would disown me if they knew. Meanwhile, they’re pressuring me to get married. Do you get me?”
“Yes,” I said. “I get you.” How remarkable, I thought. The first time a man asks me to marry him and he’s gay. I suddenly understood that he did not, could not, mean me any harm.
The Sheikh lifted his hands from my shoulders and resumed his pacing. “You’ll have fun. No doubt about that. Vacations. Parties. Hell, you can even work if you want. I’ve got a couple of English-language papers. Can you write?”
I thought back to all the crappy essays I’d written in university. “Yeah, I can write. I can take pictures, too.”
The Sheikh continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “I went to Princeton. I’ve got connections. You want into the Ivy League? You’re in, Sister.”
Me, an Ivy League student? Complete with plaid skirts and Burberry trench coats and Ray-Bans? Would I acquire an accent? Seriously though, I could reacquaint myself with my beloved Truffaut and Passolini and finish my degree and then … and then … maybe I could teach. At Princeton. Or Harvard. Or, if I was feeling patriotic, I could teach at McGill.
“Are you serious?” I said. “I want that. I would like that.”
“Good. Let’s do this then. The sooner the better. I have to go to Qatar next week, so let’s say we meet on, what’s today, Monday? Let’s make it Sunday. Meet me here at ten in the morning. Meanwhile, go buy yourself a dress. Might as well look nice for our big day.”
He threw back his head and laughed. Then he pressed a few folded bills into my hand. I closed my fingers around them and pushed open the door. I had done it. I had pulled it off, though not in the way I’d imagined. I felt flushed and high and light as a hummingbird.
But where was Farouk? The office stood empty.
“I sent Farouk away,” Abdullah said, coming up behind me. “He’s a nuisance. Don’t you think? A pain in the ass. Just out to make a buck.”
I swallowed. There was a ball of something dry and bitter lodged in my throat. “Did you give him any?”
“You mean a finder’s fee? For you? Oh yes, I sure did.” He rubbed his hands together and giggled like a teenage girl. “Ten thousand big ones on the condition that he get the eff out of here and never come back.”
I waited for Farouk to call. He didn’t. I went to the café on Talaat Harb. They said they had not seen him. I went to some of his other haunts. Same thing. I couldn’t call him as he had no domicile that I knew of. I couldn’t call his mother because she didn’t have a phone. I stomped around the streets and alleys of Cairo chasing a ghost. Damn you, Farouk, I fumed. Damn you to hell, to Muslim hell, to Christian hell, to all the hells. In the mornings I hunted for Farouk and in the afternoons, when it was too hot to go out, I lay on the divan with the phone close by. Once it rang and I snatched at the receiver and sent it clattering to the floor. I recovered it, but it was only my landlady calling to tell me that I owed her for the electricity bill. The phone rang again the next afternoon. I answered in English but the caller was already speaking, in Arabic. His tone was so earnest it was as if he thought he were having an intimate conversation with a dear friend. I kept saying “Wrong number. I don’t speak Arabic,” but he kept on talking as if he hadn’t heard me. I said good-bye in Arabic and he was still talking as I placed the receiver back in the cradle.
After five days I had given up on the idea of ever hearing from Farouk again. The day before I was supposed to meet Abdullah, the phone rang once more. My upper body jerked off the divan and I shouted something inane like dah. I closed my eyes, prayed briefly and picked up the receiver.
“Hello to you,” said a strange voice.
“Who is this?”
“Who is this? Who do you think it is?”
For a moment I thought it someone calling to tell me the whole thing with Abdullah was an elaborate joke and that Farouk had set it up to make me look foolish. But no. The voice was familiar after all. Oh my God. It was Mikko. When was the last time I’d heard from Mikko? Three weeks ago? Longer?
“Hannah. Are you okay?
“No, I’m not okay.” And I told him all about the Sheikh and Farouk and how Farouk disappeared with the money and how I’d been trying to track him down for the past five days. By the time I was finished I was almost in tears. But Mikko was chuckling.
“What’s so damn funny?”
“Oh, nothing. I can just see you. All pissed off and tearing around the streets of Cairo looking for this Farouk character. I can’t believe you went through with meeting this sheikh guy. Is he really a sheikh?”
“That’s just a nickname.” I knew I sounded peevish. It burned me that Mikko seemed not in the least threatened by either Farouk or Abdullah.
“Well, listen. I still have my contacts in Cairo. I could send out a few of the boys to find old Farouk and shake him down.” There was mockery in his voice. “My little criminal. Ma petite criminelle.”
Why the hell was he speaking French? “No, I don’t want to you to do that,” I said. “Actually, I kind of do. But I’ll find Farouk on my own.”
“Cairo is a labyrinth, Hannah,” he said, like he was telling me something I didn’t already know. “For all you know, Farouk could be in Upper Egypt right now hiding out with the fundamentalists. Anyway, it doesn’t matter – though I am happy to hear you’ve been having fun. Listen, I’m calling to tell you I sent you some money.”
“Yes, money. I saved enough for your ticket to Helsinki and the money will be waiting for you at the Western Union office, the one on Mahmood el Guindy Street. Go there tomorrow. You’ll see.”
So Mikko had come through after all. This was unbelievable. I was speechless.
“I got a flat for us,” he continued. “It’s small, but you know Finland is so bloody expensive. My job pays not too bad, but you can’t work. Not legally anyhow. But I’m sure you’ll find something to do. Maybe you could write.”
Why did everyone suddenly think I could write? “Yes, maybe I could,” I said. I felt like one of those dolls that’s programmed to say a very few standard phrases like “I’m wet.” “I’m hungry.”
“My mother and father are waiting to meet you. So listen. You go get that money and buy yourself a plane ticket and let me know when you’ll be arriving.”
After we rang off I eased myself off the divan and walked to the kitchen. I opened the freezer and took out a two-litre Pepsi bottle filled with water and drank till there was nothing left but a big piece of ice. Then I had a cold shower. I turned my face into the spray and let the water beat against my eyelids. After ten minutes I stepped out and, not bothering to dry off, lay down on my bed naked. Within five minutes every drop of water had evaporated off my skin and I was hot again. I lay like that for a long time before sleep finally took me.
I knew Mahmood el Guindy Street but could not recall why I knew it or where it was. I left the flat at nine and the sun was already heinously bright. I walked as close to the edges of buildings as I could to take advantage of the slivers of shade offered by windowsills and the occasional awning. I asked a number of people where the street was and got a lot of different answers. I was almost ready to give up and so hot I felt I would burst into flames. There was a café just ahead and I went inside. I collapsed onto a chair and began fanning myself with the paper the address was written on. I looked around. I had been in this café before. I had met Farouk here once, not so long ago. In fact, I’d met him for the very first time right here. I had come here after seeing Mikko off at the airport because I didn’t want to go home. I’d sat there sniffling and trying to get myself under control so no one would notice I was crying. Then Farouk had come up to me. He was rumpled and seedy looking and I thought he was going to ask me for money. But he smiled a smile that was mostly gums, spread his arms and asked, why you cry? Instead of telling him to go away I told him my boyfriend had gone home.
“Why he go and leave you?” Farouk asked. “A good man no do that. He a good man?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “What’s a good man? How do you tell?”
Farouk was silent and appeared to be giving the question serious thought. He pulled out a chair, sat down and lit a cigarette. He looked at me. “You must give him tests one, two and three,” he said.
I asked him what tests one, two and three were but he didn’t answer. He asked me where I was from and if I was looking for work and I said I guessed I was. I’d been living off the remainder of my traveller’s cheques and my funds were dwindling. He said he could get me work teaching English or starring in TV commercials and asked me for my phone number. I gave it to him. When he left the café I saw him stoop and pick up a cigarette that lay still burning in the alley. He pinched the end and put it behind his ear. A waiter came over and asked me how I knew him. He said Farouk was a hustler who lived on the streets and that I shouldn’t trust him.
I ordered a lemonade and the waiter handed me a cloth napkin and I mopped my forehead and upper lip. Yes, I knew this café. A few hundred feet up would be a Wimpy Burger and two doors down from there would be a bookstore that stocked a few titles in English. The Western Union office would be on the next block. I stood up, gave a one-pound note to the waiter and thanked him. Then a murmur went up in the café and there was another sound, a drumming that sounded like cats or maybe rats running around on the roof. The café patrons began standing up and others followed suit and all wound their way among the tables and chairs to the alley. They were shouting a word I did not know. I followed them. At first the only thing I understood was that the light looked different and that a wind had come up. It whipped the skirts of the men’s gallibeyahs. Then I felt a drop hit my nose and I realized it was raining. One part of the sky was sunny but above us was an ominous-looking cloud that was scudding toward the sun, as if to blot it out. People from the other shops came out, too. Some turned their faces up to the sky while others scrubbed their arms as if they were taking a shower. Children screeched and danced. I felt the rain hit my head and seep into my hair. It washed the dirt away from my toes. Then the rain stopped as soon as it had started and all the people went back to what they’d been doing. I began walking toward the Western Union office. Sure enough, there was the sign on the next block.
In a few minutes my life was going to be different. The thing I had been waiting for was finally happening. I was going to Finland where Mikko and I would be together and live a legitimate life. No more scamming. No more shenanigans with Farouk. No more lying on the divan waiting for the phone to ring. I felt happy. Wasn’t I happy? I tried to conjure up the image of Mikko and I on the beach again in our black bathing suits, daring each other to go in the water. I could see two people and one looked like me but a different me. A little older, a little paler, a little flabbier. The person beside me had black hair and his head was turned away so I could not see his face. For a second I could not remember what Mikko looked like and I thought if the figure turned to me it would not have a face. It was a scene out of a horror movie and I beat it out of my mind. I wanted to give texture to the pebbled beach and wetness to the water and coldness to the wind. But I could not. Finland had become just a place name and the Baltic Sea but a smear of grey on a map.
I had stopped walking. I could see the Western Union office ahead, wedged between a hair salon and a shawarma restaurant. I heard a voice calling out in English. It was impatient, as if it had been trying to get someone’s attention – mine – for some time.
I turned. A thin man in a blue gallibeyah stood in the entrance of a dress shop. From the ceiling hung dresses of many styles and colours. They swayed like a hundred Salomes doing the dance of the seven veils. The man was holding a dress on a long hook. He must have just taken it down and seemed to be offering it to me, like a gift or a piece of forbidden fruit.
“You look, Madame.”
The dress was a light green, so light it was almost white. Its full skirt blew provocatively in the breeze.
“This dress made for you, Madame.” He looked so sure of himself, as if daring me to contradict him.
I decided he was right and went in to try it on.