f i c t i o n p a t r i c i a s a r r a f i a n w a r d
Alaine played soccer with the refugees, she traded bullets and shrapnel around the neighborhood, she smashed her fists through the bathroom window and tried to climb out. Daddy shouted for help, and I was the one who got there first, hung onto her legs with all my weight while he pried her fists loose from the jaggedy window frame. The doctor said, She will always have trouble with this finger, and he held Alaine’s hand aloft like evidence.
But Alaine’s hands regained their strength. She stood in front of the mirror and cut off all her hair again so that Mummy had to take her to the barber to have it done right. She trained with the Civil Defense, though at sixteen she was too young to be more than an honorary member. Why don’t you take your sister? our parents urged, and I hung my head, said I didn’t want to go anyway. Her fellows caught sight of me on the balcony, however, and saw the potential. After that I played their victim, screaming hysterically in windows, clinging to my rescuer as he rappelled down the side of the building, but there were many days when I was not called upon, and I lounged on the balcony, peeking through the rails at Alaine coiling ropes, doing jumping jacks and running, administering CPR.
Then French peacekeeping forces occupied the building behind ours, forcing the Civil Defense to train elsewhere. Alaine kicked her ball around disconsolately for a few days, until the French soldiers joined in, three on three. She darted amongst them like a fly, her hair cropped like a boy’s. They gazed at her in admiration, and I imagined my eyes could launch missiles to blow her right up. They paused in the game, wiped their necks and faces with T-shirts. Mais pourquoi toi tu ne descends pas? one of them yelled up, grinning. I shrugged disinterest at his invitation, flounced back inside to listen to music. Maybe they would find her stash of food and weapons; they were bivouacked right on top of it, after all. Then she would get into so much trouble. I played the possible scenarios out in my mind, wicked vengeance.
Daddy found an unfamiliar grenade on Alaine’s shelf, shaped like a tube. I seized this opportunity to ruin her life. She got it from them, I lied, nodding at the French barracks.
He went up to the two soldiers on duty. Did you give this to my daughter? he fumed in his terrible French.
—No, sir, the soldier said. They looked troubled. One of them held out his hand.
—Now you want it? Daddy said irrationally.
—It hasn’t exploded.
For a moment they all just stood there. Then Daddy handed over the grenade. Sorry, he said, and I was embarrassed by the way they shook their heads when he turned around.
—Why do you keep interfering? Alaine screamed at Daddy. I hate you!
It was around that time that Alaine took a bottle of pills. I do not know what they were called, but they drove her mad with terror. She stayed awake for three days, because she thought if she slept, she would die, and she kept shouting that she didn’t want to, she didn’t mean to. The stench of her sweat filled the room, and whenever Alaine allowed it, Mummy cleaned her face and neck and armpits with a washcloth. I’m cold, she kept mumbling. I’m hot. The cat lay beside her, purring obliviously while she trembled and sweated and whispered. Go to sleep, Mummy begged her. It will be all right, the doctor said. But there was no convincing her. Mummy and Daddy divided the watch, and Uncle Bernie stayed over so he could help. There was no need for me. I retreated to my room.
The idea had lived inside me for so long, through nights of my ear pressed to Alaine’s door, through nights of folding sodden bandages into the garbage. It was familiar as my own name. There was the dead soldier, whose gas mask sat on Alaine’s shelf; there was Alaine’s persistent misery; there was Mummy sobbing in the night and the clinking ice in Daddy’s whiskey as he made his way from the kitchen to his chair; there was the question mark made by my fingernail digging into the soft, white place between veins on my wrist.
There was the day the American Embassy blew up. The top windowpane moved. In the heartbeat of time, I saw the glass bulge inward, an optical miracle only just filling me with surprise before the glass yielded to the pressure of sound, shattered into the room. Ba-boom, the bomb roared, and the building shuddered. Minutes passed. I picked up my magazine and held it so the glass slid off. I looked at my bare feet. Blood trickled down my thigh and I touched it with my fingertip. I felt no pain. Perhaps this is how the bright idea beckoned me, that old friend, with the promise that there wouldn’t be pain.
Mummy arrived in the doorway, and when she saw me, she collapsed against the doorjamb in relief, hands pressed to her belly. I thought, What is wrong with me, I should have screamed. I jumped up, to show fear, because now she was looking at me strangely but she cried out, No, don’t walk in the glass! She left me there crinkling my toes, rushed away to find my shoes.
Hours passed. The ambulances came in and out of the hospital down the street, and then there was shooting. A jeep, the driver shooting in the air to make a car move out of the way. In the backseat, two men propped another in between, and his head rolled from side to side, making cries, Aah, aah. Hurry, someone shouted, the out-of-place word in English, so I realized they were American. The jeep reeled around the corner to the hospital entrance. I stood at the window a long time. It was as if everything I had always heard happening outside had just been confirmed, and there was a certain security in that.
Alaine came home several hours later. She had been there. She told me, The bomb was so strong, the bodies flew across the road into the sea.
She was ashamed that the Civil Defense workers had not allowed her to help. I imagined the bodies floating away as rescue workers waded after them, yelling back at Alaine to stay where she was; all this while I had been standing at the window so impotently. I couldn’t help feeling glad she had been turned away, that she was in trouble for not having come straight home.
A heavy stillness lay around the ruins of the embassy, the same stillness that could be felt elsewhere in the city, of things meant to be hidden now laid bare. The back of the building stood intact, but in front, the floors drooped in layers down to the ground where the rubble had been partly cleared away. It was like looking through the window of a giant dollhouse, but a desk hung precariously off a shorn floor, a toilet tilted in the shadows, farther in, still attached to the wall, while the sink was lodged on a slab of loose tiles that slithered farther down every time it rained.
The great silver ships of the American soldiers lay offshore, moving imperceptibly through the sea, so that one day they were here, the next day there, and no one knew when they had moved. Smaller boats cut white frothy trails back and forth between the shore and the ships. Beirut waited in this lull, and the foreign soldiers threw flowers at girls, gave them photographs and presents, they marched confidently through the streets.
—They are only containing what is bound to come, Mrs. Awad proclaimed, and Mummy agreed in that way of hers, the wise, slow nodding. I understood from this that Lebanon was like a stunned beast, netted and charmed temporarily by these handsome, pale soldiers, and it was only a matter of time before this beast would awaken. I felt a strange kinship to these men who had no idea what people were saying. I wanted to save them. But I was useless, a small, angry girl with curling blond hair and no courage, not like Alaine. The anger festered inside me, only increased by the long days spent indoors for the bombing and shooting once the Druze and the army started fighting. I sipped Daddy’s whiskeys when he wasn’t looking, then I made my own and sneaked them into my room. I wrote a serialized novel about myself in which I was a resistance fighter with an army of my own. You must leave, I told the foreign soldiers in clandestine meetings punctuated by the scratching of rats in the garbage, the occasional gunshot that made us all pause and concentrate on the sky. You’re only containing what’s bound to come, I informed them, hoisting my machine gun over my shoulder. Help us, they begged, and I led them through the myriad dangers of my territory, and they admired me. One of them became my lover, but it was around this time that Ziad came to our house with the news about Uncle Ara. The soldier was killed off in a firefight, and Ziad entered the story as a spy sent to infiltrate my army, but who turned double agent out of love for me.
—What are you writing? Mummy asked, flipping through one of my notebooks. I stared at her in dismay. She caught my mood, gave me the notebook with a smile. I know about being a writer, she said gently, and for the rest of the day she brooded over a small notebook of fairy tales her best friend Muna had written when they were young. I read the stories in secret, gazed at the photograph pasted in the front. She had been tragically killed, and I wanted to be just like her, remembered with sorrow and regret.
The novel twisted in a new direction. I have to do it, I shouted, wrenching myself away from Ziad. No, no! he cried, but I ran into the hail of bullets, sacrificing myself so that he might live.
Even though there was fighting all the time, school started again, and I skipped classes to write in my notebooks in the café next to the school. School’s boring, I told Mummy and Daddy. They tried threats, but they had no ammunition; I had no hobbies to be banned from, and after school I stayed in my room anyway. They cajoled and begged, which worked for a time, because I disliked being the cause of their worries, and then they tried to enlist Alaine’s help, but she refused, saying she had no influence over me, and this made me feel good. You hardly have to go anyway because of the fighting, Daddy attempted to reason, but the café lured me from the dreary routine of school and my fellow students. I wasn’t the only one who skipped; I had an ally in the senior Marko, who was Greek and older than everyone else, almost twenty, because he had missed a year of school after a motorcycle accident. We did not speak, but acknowledged one another in the café, in the halls, during the numerous detentions that had no effect on our behavior at all. He played pinball while I wrote, and we took cigarettes from each other without asking.
He had the highest scores ever recorded on the pinball machine; he even left free games that he had won for others to play, this was how much he won. He could play for hours without pause. I knew this because I stayed longer and longer, and Ghada, who ran the café, grudgingly let me know if a teacher was coming.
Marko’s right hand was almost useless, I supposed because of the accident. The hand dangled against the side of the machine, and he used the heel of his thumb to push the flipper button. The hand was thin and white with a faint scar that began somewhere near the knuckles and traveled up under the cuff of his shirt. I could not understand how the doctors had managed to sew his hand back together and yet leave it so lifeless.
In addition to being older, Marko was taller than any of the other seniors, and he wore round shaded glasses like John Lennon. He did not seem to take care of himself and smelled sickly. He always wore long-sleeved shirts. I had read that people who are depressed wear a lot of clothes, because they are frozen with sadness, and certainly Alaine had hidden under her blankets for years. I suspected that the accident was the root of his sadness, the long-sleeved shirts and pallid skin, because he hadn’t been the only one on the bike. His friend had been riding behind and was killed, and I could not see how someone could recover from that, from killing a friend by going too fast.
A commotion outside stirred my attention from Marko. Two French jeeps had parked across the street, and the soldiers were unloading. Ghada, smoking her argileh behind the counter (Have some, she always taunted the younger students, who thought it was hashish), noticed the trucks and hurried to stand in the doorway as enticement. Her fat arms waddled as she patted her dyed hair, then she placed one fist on her hip, and arranged herself into a stance I imagined a prostitute might use. I was ashamed that Ghada shouted so loudly, Venez! Entrez! but she was in acute competition with the store across the street.
One of the soldiers smiled at me as they filed in. They seemed a little awkward, and I supposed it would be the same for those American soldiers on duty by the Embassy, if they were trapped here without the protection of their barbed wire and tanks. No matter how friendly everyone appeared, these foreign soldiers could never know who might begin shooting. They bought Pepsis and Mirandas, then grouped around Marko, who nodded at them while he lit a cigarette. I could see his score from my seat, and it was in the hundred thousands. He drew back the exploder, as I called it, slowly, to its maximum tension, and froze, concentrating on the miniature world of lights and pathways and targets under the glass. He went over his plan, looking for trip wires, blinking challenges. The soldiers paused with him, one with his drink halfway to his lips, the other holding a cigarette and lighter, waiting. The long pause grew longer, and it seemed that I was witnessing a pocket of time within the clanging and talking noises of the café, something separate, a sign. I did not breathe, I, all of us, were on the brink of something greater than Marko’s free game, and his hesitation was an unwillingness to unleash it, as if he held in his hand the taut bowstring, the almost-there trigger, but it was inevitable, he had to let go, it was a matter of time. And beyond the happening of it, there were those of us who watched it, like me, and those who were a part of it, like the soldiers and Marko, and those who were innocent and continuing about their day, eating, drinking, chatting.
He let go. The ball jettisoned with such force that it cracked into the glass before speeding on into its violent world. The soldiers eased their way around Marko, chuckling, lighting cigarette, drinking, and leaned on the other machine, which was broken again. They stole respectful glances at Marko, and at first I thought it was because he was such a good player, never tilted though he banged that machine around like he could break it, but then I realized they were looking at his scars. They must have thought he had been wounded in the war.
—Why aren’t you going to school? Astrig shouted. Do we need this now, at such a time?
—School’s stupid, I said, secure that she wouldn’t pursue this with the other important matters on her mind. She was furious because Uncle Ara was still in the mountains, and no one could make him come down. The whole world knew the fighting between the Druze and Christians would explode into a war once Israel pulled out, which could happen any day. But Uncle Ara said he wouldn’t leave his house and garden unless he was in a coffin. Astrig adjusted the collar of her silk shirt; she had taken to wearing the clothes from her boutique because less and less people were buying things in this endless war. She looked at me with narrowed eyes.
—You can’t force me, I cut her off.
—You see how she talks? Mrs. Awad moaned, as if I were her own daughter. She has turned into a shitaneh!
—If you fail, it will be your responsibility, said Daddy. This was his latest speech, repeated daily. He had been trying this with Alaine for years, and she was just scraping by, so maybe he thought it would work with me. I shrugged. I wanted to fail. I wanted to get my own apartment and write books and have French lovers.
—Alaine goes to school, said Mrs. Awad.
—She didn’t always, I pointed out.
—But that wasn’t good.
This was such a weak argument that I did not bother answering. Astrig had lost interest in my behavior, anyway, and the talk returned to Uncle Ara.
—He has an old Kalashnikov, Astrig told Mrs. Awad, who did not yet know all the stories coming to us from Shemlan. The Israelis came and he pointed it at them. What are you doing? the Israeli commander yelled. Are you crazy? Get out of here! We can’t protect you! So what does Ara, my stupid father, say?
—He says, Please, Mr. Commander, don’t worry about me. Would you like some tomatoes? No? Please, if you need anything, you know where I am. The Israelis, they’re so stupid, they think he’s a crazy old man so they leave him alone. They don’t understand that he’s mocking them!
—He should leave, though, said Mrs. Awad, dampening everyone’s mood.
I did not care about the Druze and the Christians massacring each other, and what Jumblatt said and what Gemayel said. I supposed Uncle Ara would come down to us at the last minute, so I did not think about him, and I persisted in not caring even though my nonchalance tasted false, with a trace of something desperate. But there wasn’t anyone to discuss this with. The grown-ups walked about with despair all over their faces, taking Alaine to the doctor, feeding her pills, begging her to speak. She controlled the daily motion of our household, whether Mummy went for her volunteer work or not, whether Daddy went to the library, whether the psychiatrist would come to us or they go to him, escorting her like a prisoner. The Israelis left, the mountain war began, but we still had to go to school. I played Marko’s pinball machine when he wasn’t there; the times he came in, I ceded my place without complaint, sat on a chair next to the window with my knees drawn up to my chin. At last the principal himself came to punish me. He forced me back to the office, lectured me on attendance and responsibility while I stared resolutely at the carpet.
—Why, Marianna? he asked despairingly. This is your freshman year. Do you want to start it like this?
—Why are you imitating your sister?
It’s not imitating, I snarled in my mind.
It was as if he heard me. He tilted his head, waiting for me to speak. I thought then I might say, I want to die. The words popped into my head like a bit of nothing. I did not know what they meant. I felt tiny and tremulous, verging on childhood. A rush of gentle memories assaulted me: Mummy dressing Alaine and me in front of the fireplace; Téta humming as she swept the cottage walkway; the mess of Jiddo’s drawer, my hands groping through Persian prints in search of sweets. The noise of bombs interrupted whatever punishment the principal was devising for me. The door opened and one of the teachers poked her head into the room.
—It’s too close, in Khaldeh. I’ve told everyone to go home.
She ran off. Bombs thundered in the distance, mingled with the chatter of students filling the hallways. The principal sighed. He stared at me with his sagging brown eyes, hands folded on his desk. He resembled some hulking creature perched on the edge of extinction and no longer willing to put up a fight. The door rattled, a student evidently fallen against it. Laughter followed. A teacher shouted, There is no need to go home! The fighting won’t come here! but the noise grew just the same. I wondered where the Israelis had reached, and who was bombing who. I thought of Uncle Ara in his house, Astrig yelling at him. She had gone up to join him the week before, saying she would not leave her father on his own.
—You had best find your sister, the principal said.
—She could find me, I countered.
He just smiled a little and shook his head. Find each other, he said.
I got up, the good younger sister, the strong one, the happy one. I left the school without my books. I walked through the university campus and made my way into a bit of wood. A wildness thrashed about inside me; with every step my head hurt more, my limbs ached from some kind of pain whose source lay just below my ribs, right in the center of me, and I walked with my fists jammed against the place like it could explode. I wanted to cry, but I did not. In the thick privacy of the foliage, while the Druze militias shelled the Lebanese army at Khaldeh, I pressed the razor blade to my wrist, gasping at the swift pain. I waited. The pain was followed by something deeper, a hurt deep inside the flesh seeping out in a thin stream of blood. It congealed almost at once, the cut superficial, nothing like the things Alaine did to herself; but it promised more, something craved. Now a calm draped over me, muting the wildness, pushing it farther inside until it was a mere pinpoint of light, and I sat still for a time. Then I made my way home, borne by this awful calm, and my body was weak and powerful at once, laden with guilt and transformed by awe.
At the door I paused to gather my sleeve into my fist, hiding the scratches, but no one looked my way. Hello, I said, and they answered, Good, you’re home, and I slipped back into the household without any trouble.
—They’re using the ships, Mummy cried out in anger. What right do they have?
—Typical, typical, Mrs. Awad bitterly shook her head. America always wants to crush the East! Look at Vietnam!
—This is hardly Vietnam, said Daddy, but he was embarrassed. The war, as the grown-ups took to saying dispiritedly, had changed its character, as if it were a person that others had grudgingly accepted but was now displaying ugly traits that couldn’t be ignored. The Americans were to blame, because they chose to help the Christians, who were fighting the Muslim militias in the moutains, who were being supplied by the Russians. In the middle of it all, Uncle Ara and Astrig and Ziad were either dead or alive, no one knew. The war shifted, adapted, feeding on the new alliances.
I hated them. I hated the foreign soldiers, the Americans most of all, and I was ashamed of Daddy’s American eyes and hair and skin, which had so sickeningly repeated themselves in me. I passed the days indoors, pale as a mouse, my hair long and stringy. Come out, Mummy cajoled, but when I walked on the street, I felt everyone staring at me, despising me for making the bombs falling on the mountains. I am from here, too, I wanted to say. An evil, helpless desire grew in me; maybe Uncle Ara and Astrig would die, to prove me on the Lebanese side once and for all. I could not believe I was thinking such a thing, but I did, and the thought did not go away but pestered me unceasingly with detailed images of hearing the terrible news, the weeping, the funeral, the pity of it all. I asked after them daily to counteract the malignant thoughts, but there was no news from the mountains, they were cut off from the world.
After the bombing of their embassy, the American soldiers onshore had constructed a barricade of sandbags and concertina wire that twisted and turned like a metallic snake along the Corniche from the destroyed building all the way to the British Embassy, which they now shared. They draped a thick sheet of wire from the roof to the street, at an angle, as a shield against any bombs, which would strike it first and explode harmlessly. In my novel they begged me for help, and I turned them away. Leave, I commanded. There is nothing for you here. Please, Carinna (my heroine name), you must help us! Go or die, I told them, which was so dramatic I could not bear to sleep until I had played out the scene over and over to exhaustion.
The Sunday morning of the two bombs, I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, but Daddy came in and sat on the edge of my bed and told me exactly what had happened. I already knew, though, because the ambulances were starting to echo through the city. It angered me that Daddy seemed so moved. I thought, No one knew what they were all doing here anyway, but then I felt the weight of my own ignorance, because this wasn’t really my opinion, I had overheard someone say it. I didn’t know anything about them, or the war, or what any of it meant. I don’t care, I told Daddy, and he looked sad and left me alone. I could not go back to sleep, and the ambulances wailed back and forth. I imagined the hospital lobby, the people running everywhere, how the beds would be filling up.
At school all anyone could speak about were the attacks and how awful they were. I sat in my corner, warding other students away from my table with my cigarettes and foul mood. Ghada smoked her argileh, listening to the news from a grimy radio on top of the refrigerator. The story was the only thing in the news, too. Ghada seemed impassive, her face bloated and sticky-looking in the heat. I wanted to know her opinion, but Ghada and I never spoke about anything other than the high cost of cigarettes and the quantity of garlic in her chicken sandwiches. A girl was going on about the hospital; her father was a doctor and she had stayed up late into the night, holding one Marine’s hand. Her pity angered me. Thousands of people died all the time in the war, and only now was everyone talking about it like it mattered. I felt the knotted anger in my chest, but at the same time I imagined going to the hospital to help, as some of the students were contemplating. I could tell the nurses that I was half-Lebanese and that I was born here, just like them. Then I was jarred by the realization that almost all the nurses were Filipino; they came here to make money.
Marko was far away from these stories. He played today just as he did any other, and he was on his fifth free game; I had been counting through this jumble. He smiled now and then, a private, scornful smile. He was the only one in here acting normal, and I wanted to slide between the two machines, watch his game, but this was an intimate space, reserved for close friends of his. The floor between us stretched longer than anything, a place not to be crossed.
He played on, and he didn’t care about the bombs and the dying soldiers. It had to be because he already knew about such mysteries, about people dying and how to feel about it and what one is meant to do. I examined his face to see what it must have been like before. There had to have been some change. His forehead and cheek had jaggedy red scars, and another one skewed his lips. He looked tired. Maybe he had nightmares. I had heard that the motorcycle slid right under the truck, came out the other side. I could imagine this, a movie screen in my head of slow-motion screech, roar of metal, the fragility of the human body become pathetically small, gangly, ripped up like paper. Then the quiet, tic-toc, tic-toc, of a place in the world that’s transformed from day-to-day noises to crash and scream and stop.
I also could imagine afterwards, when Marko stood up. He got on his knees first, then his feet. He could not feel anything yet, only a heaviness, a numbing. The doctors told him later that it was shock. He saw his friend lying on the street. Now some people were running towards him, shouting. He asked, What happened? They told him the motorcycle hit the truck wheels, which was going too fast, though the bike had been, too, and skidded right under and kept going. They tried to hold him back from going to his friend, but he persevered. Marko, supporting his friend under the shoulders, lifted off the helmet.
The story went that Marko saw the inside of his friend’s head. The head, crushed in on the side, collapsed without the helmet to hold it together. Marko saw his friend’s brain. Maybe it looked like the lamb brains Ghada displayed on beds of parsley. I knew it couldn’t be like that, but it was the only image I had in my head of brains. Then the onlookers tried to pull him away but they had to fight him, because that was when he went crazy, when they pulled him and he lashed out, lost his balance so the body rolled limply off his arm and he heard his friend’s ruined head strike the asphalt. That sound had to be what he heard in his dreams, every day, every night, and no wonder he didn’t care about the foreign soldiers; but what was it that I had heard, to make me care so little? He knew what it meant to die: he had cradled death in his own hands. I did not have these secrets. Death had always occurred far away from me, in photographs or overheard conversations. I longed to be like Marko, to have a dead friend, despite the part of me that recoiled from my own strange feelings. I couldn’t help it. My lack of caring was fraudulent; Marko, though, he had seen everything he needed to see in the broken bone and shimmering juices in his palms, and he did not have to care anymore, he did not have to try.
—Akh, haram! Mrs. Awad lamented, shaking her hands at the ceiling. All those poor young men!
Mummy agreed sadly. Their rancor about the foreign soldiers had dissipated, leaving only pity and worry for what would come next, especially with Ara and Astrig still in the mountains. Uncle Bernie and Daddy sat up late into the night, drinking whiskey, talking about America and the lives they used to have, about politics, about the future of the Middle East. Alaine became grimly obsessed by the bombings. She had always collected newspaper photos of the war, but these she decided to paste on her wall, painting abstract images around them. Mummy and Daddy protested this macabre collage, but Alaine retorted, It’s art, which for some reason silenced them.
—Why are you upset? I demanded. They deserved it!
She was painting a skull next to the collage, and now she paused to glance at me, contemptuous of my ignorance. No, they didn’t, she said. They didn’t have anything to do with the war.
I stared at the collage, trying to feel remorse. All I felt was a tautness in my chest, a scream lodged there. I hated Alaine. She always knew everything, did everything. It was she who found a body and buried it, she who had a collection of unexploded bullets and shrapnel, she who knew nighttime streets, gunfire, bombs. And now this. I wanted to tear every photograph of every corpse, every stunned and frightened face, every blast of concrete, arms and legs dangling out. I wanted to rip that collage to bits.
—Get out of here, Alaine said, and I did.
One day passed, two, and then the moment came when I just got up and walked out of class. The teacher followed, reprimanding me, threatening detention, but I continued down the hall. As soon as I reached the street, I started running in the light rain, and I ran all the way from the Corniche to the hospital. No one asked me questions, no one stopped me as I shouldered my way through the crowds swamping the hospital lobby. I rode the elevator with the grieving, the exhausted, a foul-tempered orderly rubbing a rash on his arm. I got out on a floor, I did not know which, and the first door that yielded, I slipped through.
The door sighed shut, muffling the hospital noises. An American soldier was standing next to an empty bed, speaking into a telephone. He glanced at me. What was I doing here? What had I been thinking? But I couldn’t bring myself to move, because the soldier gave me a nod and a small smile, as if he accepted my presence. Then he went on talking. He was reading a list, pausing now and then to answer questions. It was a list of the dead, the mutilated, the nameless and the named. There were movie-sounding names like Red and Hammer, and also normal American names, like Roger or Willie. There were men whose dog tags were lost, men who were in comas. I drank the sweat from my lips. I became aware of the bed on the other side of the room, a man’s bloodshot eyes peering at me out of bandages.
Then the soldier hung up the telephone. He said, You can be alone with him now, and walked out. I stared at the door closing, my whole body a wire connected to the door, pulled away from the dying man in the bed. I’m not a relative, I shouted in my head, but he did not come back. Quiet, only my breathing. I smelled the antiseptic air, the sweat and medicines, and the man in the bed shifted, still staring.
I approached the bed and started to speak about nothing that would be remembered, and then he whispered, Français. I seized his hand, saying in French that I was sorry, and he stilled me by closing his eyes. Minutes passed. When he finally spoke, his words crumbled in his mouth, they went only as far as his throat, a hushed talking, so I had to lean closer where the smell of him, antiseptic, sour at the same time, settled inside the cave of my mouth, a taste more than a smell. I listened until he fell asleep, and I held his hand even then, staring, reading the cracked, dry lips, the crusted blood in his nostrils, the measure and hover of lashes on cheekbone.
He is already on the balcony because he was roused by the first bomb, that first one that killed all the Americans, and he is a young French paratrooper looking across this still city that is hot and damp in the morning, and his eyes are blurry with sleep but his mind is alert, watchful. The sergeant stands nearby rubbing his eyes and then lifting the binoculars, searching through the haze of heat already starting to lift through the city, and it is hot and numbing. The mountains form a purple line through the misty morning heat and Paul, looking at them in the moments of silence after the first bomb, is bothered again by dreamed images of village streets, of a father gone and a mother with amber lips and silk kaftans, of the day her hands stuffed his clothes into bags and suitcases to send him to France forever so she could vanish into Africa.
He stands and looks and a spiral of smoke is swelling into rolls like boiling water and he says to the sergeant, because suddenly he pinpoints the source of all this fire and smoke and he is fearful then; Mais çe sont les Americains! Then a split second of knowing, as if he feels it before it happens because it is already there in the smoke filling the sky, in the wails of sirens already starting, it will happen to all of them, too. His knees are failing before the roar comes, because his body here on the top floor, tiny on the edge of this building, has sensed the shudder in the walls and floors and windows, through all the sleeping soldiers inside, through the eyes of the soldier on duty downstairs who must have been the first to see the truck aiming like a rocket for the doors. Then he is falling, and behind him inside all his friends and the beds they are in and knapsacks and bags and cups and ashtrays are rolling inwards into each other as the building hollows itself out, a funnel of concrete and wires and tiles and plaster and soldiers slipping into it still stunned with sleep. He crumbles down with the outside of the building, falling with each floor that falls, one balcony onto another, one by one, riding down with the walls of the building, the sky revolving over his head.
The second day in hospital he tries to move his hands but cannot raise his arms with two broken shoulders and a gouged-out chest. The plaster on his nose itches hot then cold and his eyes burn incessantly. A man groans in the bed next to his and then two orderlies carry him out and the sheets are left there all day, rumpled and soiled, but the man is not brought back.
The door opens and closes, again and again. Through bewilderment of drugs and surprise at being here at all, he faintly recognizes, then loses, his general and captain and chaplain who are speaking kindly to him, patting his hand and telling him he is a strong soldier. But Paul keeps losing his place, the pages slip from his fingers, where he is, when: for a time he is in his room at home in France, napping on his blue bedspread, but then he finds himself speeding through wooded trails, his dirt bike jumping like a wild, living thing, and the autumn crush of leaves and mud and motor-oil smell wet and chilled, but afterwards he becomes who he really is again, a paratrooper stepping from the plane, taking pictures of the world as he falls, of the tilting line between sky and earth, the noise of his laughing lost in the roar of wind in his ears, and his skin lifts in slow motion and his mouth opens to swallow the sky. The medics come and go, the nurses rub the crook of his arm with alcohol and pierce him with needles. Outside the tall windows, night inks the sky then recedes, and when his eyes open again to the present, he sees a girl standing on the other side of the room.
—You will never go back there again, Mummy warned me, but I was crying so much I could not answer. I could still taste the smell of him, and it hollowed me out, leaving an agony I had never before experienced. Marianna, Marianna, Mummy cradled me. You mustn’t go back. There’s no need for you to see such things.
But she was wrong. The next day I hurried home from school, I twisted about in front of the mirror, adjusting my wraparound jean skirt. I brushed my hair, anxious that it was too flat, and despaired of my big mouth that Astrig said was a movie star’s mouth. What are you doing? Mummy said, and I said, I’m going to visit Paul, and she stood aside because my whole body threatened kick and scream should she try and stop me. What’s going on? Daddy asked, and when he found out all he said was, Don’t stay too long, I’m sure he’s tired, and I was grateful for the way he held onto Mummy’s arm, let me pass.
I had imagined an empty room, Paul gazing at me from his bed. To my horror, the room was full of soldiers who seemed to know about me already, because they winked and asked if I was a new nurse and where was my uniform? Paul told them to leave me alone and I sneaked behind a chair and stared at the floor, willing my cheeks not to be so red. Every so often the soldier who was the captain gave a stern glance, as if I were a child, and I wanted to flee but I could hardly do that, being behind the chair as I was and with all the soldiers blocking the way.
As soon as they left, Paul said, Where were you? I waited all day.
—I had to go to school.
It had not even crossed my mind to skip school altogether, stay at his side. He moved his hand slightly, gesturing me closer. I’m sorry, he said. Of course you need to go to school.
The whites of his eyes were spread through with red and his lips kept sticking together, chalky with dry spit. The smell of this room, of bandages moistened with medicine and blood and pus, of sour mouths slightly opened, of the food left on trays for hours, entered me then and for years, unbidden, far away from this room, they would come back.
The first time I fed him dinner the boiling soup spilled on his legs and he shouted in agony, throwing off the sheets. I was shocked by the sight of his thighs and what lay beyond. Towels! he cried, and I rushed to the bathroom. He could not move for hours afterwards because of the renewed pain in his shoulders, and I was inconsolable until he began to tease me.
—What did you see under the sheets? he asked slyly again and again, until I begged him to stop tormenting me and the mistake of the soup was forgotten.
I fancied becoming a nurse, for I enjoyed spooning food into his mouth and adjusting his blankets, but then his bandages needed to be changed. I want to watch, I said, convinced of my own bravery. The nurse peeled off the outside bandage from his chest and began removing the gauze with tweezers. With every piece of gauze, my stomach turned woozily, for the layers did not end, and the wound went deeper and deeper. The nurse smiled wickedly at me, lifting out the gauze that was now sodden with blood, and Paul laughed.
— You don’t have to look, he said.
It was too late; the wound was fresh and glistening as a steak, lined with white threads. I sank down to the floor. Paul gripped my hand. It will be over soon, he comforted, and he and the nurse laughed together at my weakness. After this, I went into the bathroom during this procedure. Is it over? I shouted; the first time, they lied for a joke.
I lied about Mummy and Daddy not caring where I was until one evening they entered the room still wrapped in their coats as if they had no intention of staying. You’re coming home, they told me. Paul was beside himself with regret. He tried to sit up in his consternation and fell to the side; I caught him and propped him up, sending my parents death looks over his bent head. They relented, unbuttoning their coats but not taking them off, and sat on the visitors’ chairs to talk with him. I loitered in the corner, mortified. But I could see they liked Paul, and then the nurse brought in dinner and greeted them effusively, praising my good nursing skills, and they watched how I fed him so carefully and knew just how much sugar he liked in his yogurt. They lengthened my curfew to ten o’clock at night provided I did my homework here, and Paul said I most certainly would and that he suspected I was a good student, better than he had ever been.
—How could you make your parents into such ogres? Paul asked in amazement.
I agonized that now he would dislike me and send me away, but he held my hand, counting my fingers as if this time there would be more, or less, than five. He told me, You should be grateful they love you so much. I knew then he was thinking about his own parents, for he had been adopted when he was very young and could barely recall his mother and father, who had left him alone like a forgotten piece of luggage.
—The one thing I know is that I’m Lebanese, he confessed, astonishing me, the nurses, everyone. He said, I never thought I would find myself here, in this country.
—Welcome home, the doctor joked.
I spent evenings next to his bed with my notebooks and pens and textbooks and did my homework, smiling shyly when he asked what I was learning. I showed him the math for help and laughed when he did not know the answers. He drew silly cartoons for me next to the equations, and I cupped my hand around them in class so that no one would see.
—Is he decent to you? Alaine asked.
I shrugged that of course he was. I was relieved that her interest did not seem to extend beyond this question, and put aside my worries that she would want to go with me.
The journalists began to arrive. They came in groups carrying stand-up lamps, cameras, tape recorders. Paul could not turn them away. For the families of those who died, he explained, but I was horrified with the questions, the hot lights and microphones pushed up close to his miserable face, and worst of all, the same question, over and over, the demand that he describe exactly what he had heard and seen on the day of the bomb.
It was only a matter of time before the journalists discovered he was actually Lebanese; the coincidence entranced them. To accompany the article on him, they needed a photograph. Hold this telephone to your ear, they said. Yes, just like that. The photograph came out the following day, with the caption saying he had been speaking with his French parents. The fabrication infuriated me.
I stood outside the door and refused to let the journalists in. Papers, I commanded.
—Listen to the little girl, the nurses said, and the journalists confessed they had not obtained permission for the interview from the French Embassy. The third time this happened, Paul shouted from inside the room for me to leave them alone, to let him answer the questions, because who else could comfort the families who had lost their sons? But when they departed, he groped for my hands as he cried because the nightmares had been stirred and the screaming kept echoing in his head. His eyes looked wild over the plaster encasing his nose. He turned his head, shifted his body as he wept, trapped in all his bandages, the blanket pulled to mid-chest and tucked tight so his wounded body was outlined in every detail, frail-seeming, all the way down to the feet pointing up and making little tents of the blanket. Daddy came to find me because it was past ten, and he did not argue when I refused to leave; he sat on a chair in the hallway and waited.
The other bed had been empty for several days but then the nurses wheeled in a gurney and told Paul, You have a roommate now. This soldier was older, a colonel, and he had miraculously survived being thrown from the seventh floor in the explosion. He groaned all day and all night for water, for his wife and children, for the pain to subside.
—I can’t sleep, Paul cried. Oh God, make him shut up! but the man kept moaning, unaware of his surroundings.
The nurses taught me how to soak gauze swabs in water and insert them into the colonel’s mouth so he could suck them dry. More, he mumbled. More, more. Not all at once, I told him, and his face twisted up in despair. Fix the IV, he cried weakly one afternoon, until a nurse finally arrived. She yanked the plastic curtain, noise of racing metal rings. There was a silence, then a moan, and blood splattered onto the tiles. Shit, said the nurse.
But in the following days the colonel became more alert, so I tried to entertain him with my problems at school and my plans for the future. Math is a difficult subject, he agreed. But you have to finish school if you want to have an apartment and a dog.
—Not necessarily, I argued.
—Finish your homework, Paul said, or your parents will kill me.
The nurse flung open the door. You have visitors! she announced.
A group of men and women filed in, awkward, laden with flowers and boxes of sweets. A journalist followed. They looked at the colonel, whose hand was in mine, then at Paul. He smiled uncertainly. They grouped around his bed. We will be your family in Lebanon, one of the women said in Arabic, since you do not remember yours.
Paul looked to me for translation, but the journalist stepped forward and spoke first. There was a silence as Paul digested this strange offer. Send them out of here, I thought, but instead he started to cry, not loudly, but in whispers, not violent, uncontrolled, but just tears that come when nothing can be said, and I ran out of the room because I could not bear the way Paul was just lying there, looking so frail.
After they left I climbed into bed with Paul even though the nurses could walk in at any time. Why did you like them? I asked, and he said, Because they are kind. But they aren’t your real cousins, I pointed out, and he knuckled my chin. You’re jealous, he told me, which shut me up.
After this, new relatives visited every day. Paul’s lost family grew and grew. They brought chocolates and clothing and cards from others who could not come. The magic of Lebanon had brought him back, they exclaimed, which was a captivating idea, that the place where I was born was magical. Any person born here, I learned, and any visitor who stepped onto this land for even just one day was infected by this magic. No one could ever forget Lebanon, nor could one leave without longing to return.
Paul was not convinced. He said, I enlisted in the army. It was chance.
I shook my head, insisting on the truth of the spell that had him in its thrall.
More and more vases of flowers wilted on the room’s balcony, left there so they would not suck away Paul’s oxygen, and I counted them, delighted by the absurd numbers, by the bright new clothes, the chocolates that gave me stomachaches and that Paul could not bring himself to eat. Paul smiled and laughed with me, and we whispered lying side by side, and the nights passed.
When he was well enough to be taken to a hospital in France, I stood near him on the sidewalk outside the glass wall of the hospital. Soldiers milled about, and jeeps waited in a line for the time everyone would have to leave, and he laughed in my ear, asking for a kiss in front of the captain who had always intimidated me. I finally gave in to his cajoling, and he smiled against my lips. The chaplain came close and whispered, I can marry you two now! Paul looked at me questioningly but I was in a state of alarm, and he pulled my face to his chest. The chaplain touched my hair with the tips of his fingers, saying he had not meant to frighten me.
Paul climbed into the ambulance, leaving me holding the half-empty boxes of sweets. The lights started spinning and he was carried slowly away, face framed by his palms against the window, and now I think about the other soldier in there with him, the colonel, and how everyone knew he was dying, even I knew, but still, it was a secret.
I closed myself away in my room at night with the vodka I had found in the kitchen, easier to steal than Daddy’s whiskey. Mummy and Daddy did not notice me, and Alaine lived in her own world, headphones clamped to her ears all day, playing Pink Floyd. An empty space grew around me each night as I scribbled half-drunk letters to Paul, who wanted to marry me; he had promised that when I finished high school he would take me away to France. I sat in the darkness and smoked cigarettes I stole from Mummy. My love affair, unlike Alaine’s, would be a success. I dreamed about wearing silk dresses and drinking Campari in France, I became someone else, someone older and quiet and mysterious who had nothing to do with me. If she were to meet me she would ignore me, a pathetic child. I sanitized a safety pin in my lighter’s flame, pushed it through my lip. Mummy screamed when she saw me, and the emergency doctor shook his head, lecturing me about the absence of a punk movement in Lebanon and how I would be shunned. My lip ached for days. I settled for safety pins strung together as earrings, drew black around my eyes, dragged a knife through my jeans until they hung in rags around the knees. You look like a beggar, Mrs. Awad criticized in a weak attempt to jolt me back to normal.
At school I noticed I was alone. Like Alaine, I realized, and this seemed acceptable. I sat near her outside, not too close, but in her vicinity. We did not speak, except to ask for part of the other’s lunch, or for a book. She took her medication without complaint, she didn’t run away anymore, and she was trying hard to pass exams, but I walked right out of classes just as she once had and passed others like a satellite, untouchable. I was the older woman, walking down the street towards Ghada’s café, impenetrable, melancholic, words from books. I looked out the eyes of stupid Marianna, confident that no one could see this double life. I made up entire histories for myself and revised them as I watched the other students, who were oblivious to me and my complexity. Before all this, when I was in Bordeaux, and the windy house crumbled around me, a knock at the door; it was the writer who was summering up the beach. He said, Are you all right? I was touched that he noticed something was wrong, but how could he know my terrible story, what brought me here ...? At night, I lay wide awake while the whole house slept, alive in my made-up world, playing the same scenes over and over.
The Americans wanted revenge. The bombs from the battleship New Jersey were louder than anything we had ever heard; each one shook the entire country, and the silence after was so full, the air bloated and sagged with it and its weight held us in place and in silence. We heard tales of whole mountains being gutted. The size of a football field, I heard my father say, as if because the guns belonged to America their effect could not be measured in meters. Sixteen-inch guns, they were called, so I stood a ruler on end, measuring the remaining space with level palm, and it amazed me that something so small could be the source of the loudest bombs I had ever heard. Uncle Ara and Astrig came down from the mountains, thin, wild, full of stories, reporting that Ziad was alive as well. Christmas came and went, and when the Shi’a fought for West Beirut we retreated into the darkness of the basement. I chafed with boredom; I missed the long days at the café with Marko, and I wondered where he lived or if he was even still in the country. Late into the night, the streets alive with gunfire and bombs, I snuck to other parts of the building while everyone slept; I stood near windows, shivering, expecting death, and Paul sent telegrams, Come to France, little flea. You must escape.
But there was no escape. The months blended, drifting by, one battle erupting into another with only a few days or hours between to rest on a sunny balcony or stock up on food. The windows shivered and broke; I scraped my wrists along the edge to trace destruction, to say, The window broke and I did, too, and this fantasy of being a window giving onto another world occupied me. Why are you so quiet, Marianna? Because I’m thinking. What are you thinking? About life. She’s thinking about life, so grown-up. This from Astrig. A great sigh. War eliminates childhood. This from Mrs. Awad, whose sharp eyes missed nothing but because I was a window they missed me and looked straight through to Alaine, whose junior year was doomed by the fighting so she tossed her books on the burning garbage pile up the street. How could you throw away books? Daddy cried, but then he found out they were only about calculus and economics, and the grown-ups laughed at his relief. By the time the peacekeepers finally evacuated, Alaine had managed to regain her footing in school, and our parents invented what they thought would be a more virulent threat to make me work in school, that of not being as courageous and smart as my sister, but this had no effect.
The evacuation of the peacekeepers was played on TV, and we threw a party for it because, said Astrig, any excuse for a party was acceptable at this point. The peacekeepers retreated in jeeps and tanks, they filed onto boats, they looked back. The camera sought the most sorrowful ones to foretell Lebanon’s dark future. We marveled once again at the plumage decorating Italian helmets. Mrs. Awad said she didn’t know how huge feathers could serve as camouflage, especially in city warfare. She said those words, city warfare, as if she was a professor of some kind. They should be in the opera! Uncle Ara chortled, and the Italian banker he had brought as a guest took offense. This is an age-old tradition, he complained, but Uncle Ara said, Tfih! and brought up his issues with other idiotic but more sinister headgear, the fez, though it had no real bearing. They argued on. Daddy received word that America would help evacuate him and his family, if he wished. He wrote back, This is my country, and we all felt proud and Uncle Ara clapped his shoulder and called him brave as an Armenian.
There was merriment in this war; we laughed at it from the basement or the landing, and our laughter kept the little building safe, though a balcony was lost from the other side, and one night bullets shattered the windows behind Daddy’s desk and strafed an arc through his books. Still, there was no escape. Daddy announced he wanted to usher in the Christmas season in style, to celebrate survival. Everyone came at the right time except for Uncle Bernie. We drank cups of hot spiced wine and we waited, but the doorbell did not ring and the streets went black and quiet. When Daddy and Uncle Ara came back from searching, they were alone. The party ended and everyone went home. Daddy sat at the kitchen table, the phone pressed to his ear, but there was only the khish-khish-khish of broken lines.
There is the awful day, soon after. I close my eyes, but the day remains. Daddy pushes the button for the elevator. I slouch next to him, all hairspray and cigarettes, my eyes drawn in thick black lines and safety pins dangling from my ears. We hear the elevator making its way down.
His sad blue eyes meet mine, and they seem to be asking something.
—I don’t really care, I explain. I can’t feel it.
I was speaking the truth. I couldn’t feel anything about Uncle Bernie being kidnapped, and what was most important, to me, was to convey that coldness and its terribleness. Daddy just crumpled a little as if he had been slapped on the back, and he lowered his head for a moment. The elevator bell rang its arrival, and Daddy stared at the light inside and he didn’t open the door so the light went out and all was silent.
He said, I am going to pretend you didn’t say that, and then I wanted to tell him I did care, I did, but it was too late. Daddy held the door open for me, and we rode up in silence, the floors gliding by under the straining clanks of the old elevator. The months went on, carrying us ever farther from the last time we had seen Uncle Bernie. The grown-ups said, He might be here, or, We heard he was there and he is in good health, and Uncle Bernie was moved from place to place, all around the country, and I did not tell Daddy I cared because parents always know, anyway, the truth inside their children. Rumors found our door, slipped through as rumors will, and the grown-ups, starved, fed on them: Did you hear, the kidnappers were kind at heart; did you hear, they brought him medicine when needed. The rumors offered a warm bed and no blindfold, kindly captors, a ransom about to be paid, and I did not listen, because it did not matter, because I knew with the easy certainty of a child that Uncle Bernie would be returned to us eventually.
I was a window, and people looked through me and did not see, and so I moved through the days and nights. I sought the parts of my body that I could hide, dragged open the skin with knives. The pain slid out, trailed by that calm I craved, but then it always returned. I made a path out of the cuts, leading to the place under my ribs, the seat of my soul. One day, a lover would find me. That is what I dreamed, and in all this time, Uncle Bernie waited in one dark room or another, his feet in his shoes and his soft hands folded in his lap, and now and then I did think to miss him, I did.
© 2003 Patricia Sarrafian Ward
Graywolf Press, 2003, with permission.