TRACES OF A TATTOO: CHAPTER 10

Shortly thereafter
Aroub went into the bathroom and slammed the door shut. Her panic turning into an elaborate exercise of self-condemnation, she leaned back against the door and started pounding her thighs with her fists and biting at her lower lip with her eyes fixed on her pelvis. “Oh, my God!” she repeated frantically. “What’s happening to me?”
Aroub experienced countless natural vaginal secretions be-fore but they were neither as persistent nor as dense. She was sure it wasn’t the wrong time of the month for her. Her period being regular, the dark spot she had seen could not possibly be menses. Could it be the result of the hard fall she had after being pushed by the mugger? It couldn’t because she felt no pain since the bath she had in Wissam’s house after the restaurant. There was only one possibility left and it only intensified her panic. “No, no, no! Please God don’t let it be it,” she said feverishly. “Oh, my God! The fasting month is coming shortly; I’ll fast and pray; I’ll no more torture my cousin or lie to Nadida or do anything that displeases you. Only don’t let it be it, please God!”
She extended a trembling hand to investigate but couldn’t find the courage to go through with it. She dug deep into her memory, “Did Wissam do something I’m not aware of?” She shook her head. “Could I’ve lost it as a result of what has happened only?” She shook her head, dismissing the last possibility. But, now standing and shaking, her body released more of the sticky secretion and immediately her legs started shaking violently until they were no longer able to carry her body. She fell to her knees. “Mummy,” she whispered a desperate cry for help. “Mummy!” Her eyes flooded with tears.
Along with a third whispered cry for help, she inserted two fingers and raised them to her eyes. Having closed her eyes out of panic, she now opened her left eye slowly. The foreboding red colour of blood was nowhere to be seen. She opened her eyes wide and looked again.
In the south, the storm fired its last salvo of thunder and died down. The rumbling of the flash flood faded out. The dark clouds that shrouded the granite mount receded before the sun which instantly spread out an immense canopy of light. Young trees shook their branches, bowed to her and tickled her chin.
She turned on the taps, water spurted in abundance. She lifted up her face and let the fine streams of hot water dally her closed eyes, cheeks and neck.
“So, this is pleasure!” she mused with closed eyes. “So, this is life!” She paused. “So, this is love!” said she intercepting with her chest the rapidly falling water before it tickled her toes. “Who said God gave his creation love as a tribulation?” she asked rhetorically, raising her eyes to the water. “Is love a tribulation? If it is, then I thankfully say, welcome.” Were she to fall in love, she’d entreat God to make her tribulation the most sever ever.
She picked up a yellow soap bar covered on the back by a red rectangular stamp which she detached, rolled into a ball and threw into the washstand sink. She embraced the soap bar into her hands and enjoyed the scent. Opening her hands and thrusting out her bosom, she let the fine streams hit her shoulders and flow smoothly along the soap bar’s edges, as his hands had flowed along her shoulders, sides and further down on the stairs, then fidgeted between her joined wrists and fall in a great downpour on her chest.
“Poor Scheherazade!” she bemoaned her lot. “How many times did she insert her two fingers then looked and panicked, cried and complained of the dreariness of her feminine prison? That’s not good for self-confidence, not natural, not fair. It’s not fair that Scheherazade’s royal husband should come every night to listen and roll over but give a deaf ear and a blind eye to an ailment she suffers, a period that wracks her head every month, or worries that can only be spoken of in silence. Such behaviour breaks the heart and undermines the soul, subjecting the body to an incurable sickness. She’s not an arm or a leg which heals when it gets fractured. Being a soul that only the Creator knows what it is made of, how conceivable could it be for another creation of God to come and abuse her? Has God made her for him to abuse? Damn all the abusers of the soul to the day of judgement, and to the day of judgement damned are all those who unjustifiably break the heart of a female, or a male for that purpose.
She washed her hair and amply bent over for the water to escape, and then she wrung and jerked her head, along with her hair, backward, wrapped a towel and stepped out of the bath basin.
She put on the pajamas, wrapped herself tight in the bath-robe and reached for the knob. To her utter surprise, she found the door ajar. She was certain of having closed; rather slammed it shut and leaned back against it. Had her mum re-turned? If she had, she would have entered and showed her the tickets.
She smiled, promising Wissam the most excruciating punishment he deserved. If he had opened the door while she was still showering, she would have simply signaled to him with her finger to close it and resumed her shower unperturbed. But to sneak and peek like that? Admittedly, it wasn’t his habit. And why the peeking? No doubt he could have crossed a line or two but nothing really serious could happen. If the se-rious stuff were to happen, her mum would certainly rescue her in time, from him and any other. That was something she was confident of: her mum would rescue her any time. Sup-pose her mum failed to arrive in time, something which was definitely not a habit of hers, she would not be worried be-cause Wissam would rescue her. Hadn’t he already done so once? He had and he would save her, whether he liked it or not, every time she asked him to. His mum was British. Yes, she was. But his dad was an Arab and, consequently, he was an Arab. One plus one equals two. Rescuing is always to be ex-pected from an Arab. Don’t Arabs rescue? They do and do and do.
She sat down on the bed and the overwhelming noise of the hairdryer encouraged her to sing at the top of her voice. Picking and choosing tunes, she gave her feelings free reign to ex-press themselves in her favourite song:

I will love, I will love,
I will love, and love again,
You, I will adore,
Though your love may give me pain,
I will love you more.

Aroub paused. She switched the hairdryer off and set it aside. She stood before the mirror, rose on her toes and inspected every inch of her body. It crossed her mind lightly to wonder if what had happened with Wissam helped make some progress in the project under construction. She couldn’t be sure but that wasn’t important. Singing was.
And she sang while she put on her new trousers. She also slipped on a turtleneck pull over, tucked its tails into the trousers and wore a belt decorated with a large brass-buckle.
She crossed her arms around her body and held tightly. She reached for her lips. The imprint of Wissam’s kiss was permanent only in her memory. Her lips were not concerned with memory. They were real and alive, and they ached for a new living proof that they were attractive enough to invite another imprint. He can’t see her in her room, and she can’t go down and ask him to kiss again. What would he think of her if she did?
She tried to reason with herself. “Why am I singing, in the first place?”
“Because I’m happy.”
She asked, “And?”
“Because nothing serious has happened to me.”
She waved her arms in the air and yelled in ecstasy. “Nothing serious has happened!”
She searched for other reasons.
“Because I’m going to my uncle tomorrow… I’m going to America.”
And she sang:

I will love, I will love,
I will love you forever,
Forever I’ll be true,
And when at last we’re together,
Tell me you will too.

Take my hand and lead me on,
Gently like a stream,
Close my eyes with a magic kiss,
And wake me for my dream.
Wake me for my d r e a m.
Aroub sat down on the bed, taking care not to lay all her weight on the new trousers. As a student, she has to read books she liked and books she didn’t like. Finishing many of her books brought relief, while others left mixed feelings. In two or three occasions, she read novels she wished may never end. They were not necessarily sad, but reaching the last page was almost always a sad affair. Had her experience in London been a novel, in which chapter she’ll be right now? In which page? How will it all end?
The moment she finished her song she felt as if the joy in her heart looked around at an empty dancing floor, and decided that there was no more singing or dancing to be expected, and it’s time to turn off the coloured lights and retreat. She struggled with her feelings. In her heart, there was room for neither pain nor unhappiness. “It’s not the time,” she kept repeating to herself, a little worried. “Unhappiness will come one day, for me and every one. But not now. Now it’s happiness I want.”
“Then be happy, Aroub! Unhappiness will come later.”
“As much later as God wills!”
“Amen.”
“Amen. I’ve never hurt anybody, God will not hurt me.”
“Amen. But be careful. Only recently you wanted reasons to keep him away from your heart. Now, you want reasons to bring him closer. Careful!”
“I’ll try to be careful,” she promised herself.
Her attempt to regain the happy tunes failed as a sudden gust of chilled worries invaded the little garden she had built of hopes and dreams and threatened to freeze its young buds.
Wissam wasn’t a husband and has no rights thereof. Nor was he a lover to claim the right thereof. But she did him injustice when she deprived him of Arlene without offering him a substitute. How could that be? She pushed his girlfriend out of his life and slammed the door without being able to take her place. Suppose she could take her place, she wasn’t sure he wanted her to. What was she for him? He hardly knew her for three days, how could he allow her to take the place of some-body he not only knew for a long time but with whom he could land at the airport and even reach the furthest lounge thereof at any reasonable time?
Aroub spread her hands on her bosom, as if trying to reach its furthest point, then pivoted them backwards and slipped them along her sides all the way down to the belt. She did all she could, went as far as she could go. She had no right to interfere in his life, but she too had a life of her own. She lived on a balance a thousand times more sensitive than his. Did she leave her dad a virgin in order for her to go back to him a woman? Why so? If Wissam had a problem he should solve it away from her. He knew how to solve other things, why not this one?
She picked up the emerald-studied watch and admired it. “It is beautifully stunning”, that was what her mum said. She had won it because her coup de vie succeeded. Instead of passing the time reading newspapers, watching TV or going to the club, Hisham took them out to visit all places other than the ones he was used to: the Wax Museum, the Auditorium, Buckingham Palace, the Opera House, the London Bridge and Oxford Street. Instead of sleeping in the bed he was used to, he was now sleeping in the bed he didn’t want to remember he had been used to. Instead of thinking of one woman, he was now thinking of two, one he cannot reach, the other cannot reach him.
What a coup?
The coup had also changed the house, though it had so far only turned it on its side. The vases were overflowing with roses and flowers, the rooms were cleaner, though less tidy. The scent of men was still prevalent, but the smells of cooking, detergents and fabric softeners were back. There was life and warmth in the house now, but there was also a lot of noise. If it wasn’t the TV, then it was the washing machine which hardly stopped to regain its breath before it started again with a fresh load. And yet, another fresh load was now ready as the pajamas of the infamous dark spot had been carefully stuffed in-side the already balled bathrobe inside the equally balled bath towels.
She had earned the watch for succeeding in turning the house on its side and the lives of father and son on their side and head, in that order, though any other order would do just fine. In short, she turned and earned and the watch was now hers.
Aroub buckled the watch around her wrist, carried a ball of new washing and opened the door. She had forgotten some-thing about the business of changing lives. The father had be-come more transparent in almost everything he does. She could say that he had become like a boiled pear, a large boiled pear which she could easily scratch and penetrate and on which a reasonably heavy touch could leave a clearly visible dent. But the real change in him had come at the hands of her mum. It was a good change, as long as she stayed around. But her mum was a wife to another man who loved her. Come departure time tomorrow, she would wave goodbye and leave. Left behind, Hisham won’t know how to return the boiled skin to its previous hard crust. Nor would he bear having a flimsy skin in a tough human situation, or going back to a life that missed another life whose essence was taken away by his de-parted wife, with nothing left of it but memory shreds.
Wissam retained the tough skin that wasn’t easy to penetrate, but she knew of a few tender places through which she could penetrate him. They were confidential spots of which some she discovered while others were exposed to her by him, quite subconsciously. She didn’t know what he wanted to say when he talked about cohabitation, divorce and other stuff. But he actually didn’t want to say much. He could wear a mask any time he chose, but only when he wanted to conceal some-thing. Everybody does that. He showed something like anger in reaction to correctly guessing her pregnancy game. He ran after her as if wanting to punish her, but actually he only wanted to give her the first lesson in trotting for a man.
Aroub sighed deeply as if trying to expel her fears.
Random is not chaos. It is just another system far more complex than any other. If it wasn’t a system, why is she with a young man she never met in her life? Could it all be coincidences? What made the mugger pick her mum and not one of thousands of women with handbags who swarm Knightsbridge every day? Hisham was there at the very moment fate struck hard. Was it also a coincidence? No room was available at all hotels. Was that a coincidence too?
Random is not chaos, nor is coincidence. They are natural systems, like any other. Was she guided to Wissam? Why? What is she to do now? What is he to do now?
Could it be fate? What is fate? Would Wissam have begun to like her had she not forced him to like her? He too, indeed, he too.
Aroub shook her head. Fate is made, not given. It is a door opened by time for a while and closed again. Fate doesn’t go in with the fated to give a grand tour of the place inside. It doesn’t provide maps for the roads ahead; it doesn’t give tips on how to approach certain things and avoid others. It just opens the door for the chosen ones; that’s all. It is up to them to decide what to do next. If she wants Wissam, she has to go through that door. If she doesn’t, she can sit on her bed and wait for it to close.
But what is she to do? She had driven away his girlfriend in the holiday season, a season when most people open their hearts wide and their doors even wider and invite those they love to come in and look around. This is what Hisham did. It is true that he tried hard but failed to find a room for them the first night. But he could have found for them a room in another hotel the next day.
He didn’t. He wanted them to stay. The first night was a co-incidence. The second was not. It was a door opened for her and her mum, but Hisham wouldn’t let the door close again; not before he tried to recreate his fate.
Wissam, too. He had Arlene, but the moment he breathed the same warm air with her on the stairs, the warm air deposited in his chest by Arlene was expelled instantly and she was completely forgotten.
What a change?
The change that had taken place in Wissam and his dad might turn out to be beneficial or otherwise. They could, for example, sit down in front of the television or behind the monitor and reflect on how she changed their lives and what was it exactly that she changed. But neither of them would spend a single minute in thinking how they had changed her life. If she were to have the time Scheherazade had, she would prove to Wissam that her name was not just another entry that can be looked up in a dictionary under ‘loving,’ and ‘sincere’. Probably he would still believe, after one thousand nights and one night that marrying her, or any other woman, was a huge mistake. But, sooner or later, he would find the courage to admit that he was not prepared to correct such a mistake for the riches of the whole world. She was not in need of a husband. Husbands, without exception, had endless rights and endless demands and endless needs that were not easily satisfied. But, one day, one day, she will fulfil the duties of a wife as a lady with one husband, or as a servant with another. She would trot for one because she didn’t want him to think, not for a single moment, that she no longer loves him, and she would trot for the other because she didn’t want to hear his yelling or have him seen by anybody sleeping on the sofa.
She had no need for a husband for whatever reason. She was still young. Maybe later? Who knows? Fate might prove to be kind to her that she would again find somebody like Wissam. Fate, however, isn’t always kind, and he rarely gives a chance twice. Fate may point to the road she should take but when asked about the future, he may shake his head, refusing to offer a guarantee. The next man in her life might be an ex-act copy of Wissam, but he also might be somebody like Ad-ham. Not that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the latter. He is a hardworking man who had a good house built for him. Besides, he wanted her and no other. Regrettably, he’s not the man she can put her head on his shoulder, close her eyes and dream. Was she the one who placed her heart in her bosom, or was it God? Did she and her mum come to Hisham’s house or were they pushed towards it?
Her eyes misted. She raised her head up and pressed her chest. “God! Why did you give me a heart like this? Take it, take it and give me time.”
“Aroub!”
She took a deep breath, wiped her eyes and cleared her throat of traces of sadness before she replied loudly enough to reach Wissam in the living room.
“What is it, Aroub’s soul?”
“Why have you stopped singing?”
“My throat is dry.”
“Come down! I’ll wet it for you.”
“No, thanks. I had my fill of wetness for the day.”
“Please! I’m bored alone.”
“Play with… the remote control.”
“I don’t want to play with… anything. Are you coming down or not?”
“Why? Have you missed me?”
“Of course, I have. Are you coming down or shall I come up?”
“Come up! I’ll show you my new bra.”
“Mad! You are absolutely and hopelessly mad!”
She walked back to the mirror, practised smiling and had a last look to ensure the smoothness of her attire. At the head of the staircase, she paused. That was one stairway where she, in a mishap, wasn’t ready to shield her head as Arlene was certain to do. As she rolled down, her arms would hold to nothing except the bundle of washing she carried so protectively. If anyone wanted to see the colour of her panties, she would just tell him to knock himself out. But when it comes to the pajamas and its dark spot, before he wanted to inspect it closely, she would first see him dead.
She descended the stairs quietly and headed straight to the kitchen, by passing the living room. Suddenly, she heard whistling of admiration behind her. She turned to find him at the entrance to the living room. She made a full turn so he can view her from all directions, and lifted the bundle. “I need to wash these, please.”
“Of course.”
He sized her top to bottom and bottom to top then offered to take the bundle to the washing machine himself.
She pushed it to her side protectively. “I would like to put it in myself, if you don’t mind.”
He felt dryness in her voice but said nothing. He passed her, walked to the machine and opened its door.
“Is that all, madam?”
His comment was unwarranted but she was in no mood to argue. She kept the bundle to her side and waited for him to clear her way to the machine. He didn’t move, nor did she. The situation aroused his doubts.
“You couldn’t be planning another trick, could you?”
She shook her head but kept the bundle out of his reach.
“What are you hiding in there?” he asked, moving his head left and right to have a better look at the hidden ball.
“Nothing,” she said, making sure her secret remained as such. “Just laundry that I want to put in the machine.”
“Another trick? Is it my turn now? What do you have in there? A box of detergent to flood the entire house?”
She lost her temper. “No! It’s nothing that concerns you. I just want to wash the laundry. Please!”
“First, I want to know what you have in your hands.”
She stamped her feet.
“I beg of you! This is not the time for silliness. Mum may come back any minute now. She mustn’t see the washing. Please!”
Her supplication, so far unheard of, fueled his doubts. Pre-tending to clear her way, he jumped, snatched the bundle and ran back to the living room. Fuming with rage, she ran after him and into the living room. She tried to retrieve the bundle but he evaded her, taking advantage of the large coffee table in the middle. Safe for a few seconds, he spread the laundry on the two-seater and searched for suspect items. He found none. There were two large towels he used many times in the past. One was blue crossed with wide white stripes; the other fully multicoloured with a palm tree in the middle. There was the bathrobe, and next to it he identified his pajamas rolled tightly with the sides tucked in.
“There’s nothing here!” he said, as he turned back. “Why were you shielding it–?”
The remaining words froze in his mind. His face was drained instantly of colour, and his hands shook with fear.
Three or feet from where he stood struck and motionless, Aroub had had collapsed on her knees but raised her arms that swayed violently. She appeared struggling with her breathing.
“Aroub!” he cried in horror as he run to her. He dropped besides her and grabbed her shoulders. “What is it? What happened? Say something!”
She gasped and attempted to scream but couldn’t. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed. “Why? Why?”
“What happened?” he asked with his hands on her sagging shoulders.
She pushed his hands away. “Stupid!” she yelled. “What is it that you want to see?” She rose slowly to her feet, picked up the pajamas and threw them to his face. “Take them and look at the spot! Look! I responded to you. You know I did. Do you want the proof? You have it now. Look at it, damn you, and turn to me again and see the humiliation on my face.”
He collected the laundry and walked silently to the kitchen. There, he loaded the washing machine, added detergent and switched on. He then took refuge behind a small window where he stood motionless observing the rapidly melting snow outside.
After a short while, he heard her footsteps approaching.
“I want to leave this house right now!” she said in equal amounts of anger and disappointment.
“Where do you want to go?” he inquired in equal amounts of hope and persuasion.
“Anywhere! I can’t take it anymore. Please! Take me to mum.”
“I don’t know where she is.”
“I don’t care! I want to get out of this house.”
Hope kicked persuasion out and took its place in his voice. “I beg of you. I meant no harm. I just thought it was one of your tricks.”
“Girls have things that men mustn’t look at, ever. Hasn’t Arlene taught you that?”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean anything, please believe me.”
“No. You did it to hurt me. You sought revenge for not landing at your damned airport.”
“No, you’re mistaken. If I wanted, I would have landed.”
She frowned disdainfully and exploded into tears. “You see? You think I’m a sex toy in your hands. You felt pity for me, is that what you wanted to say?”
“Yes.” He corrected himself, only to err again. “No. I mean, yes. I felt pity for you, but I also felt pity for myself. Wasn’t that obvious?”
“What’s obvious is that you wanted to humiliate me so that you could force me to do whatever you please.”
He clenched his fists and raised them high with the intention of smashing something but he quickly controlled himself. Aroub was afraid of something, afraid and confused. The last thing he should do is increase her fear and confusion by con-fronting her for any reason. “It’s better that I leave,” he said. Avoiding eye contact, he walked by her and reached for his jacket. But as he opened the door, her sobbing caught up with him.
“You humiliate me one minute and walk out on me the second,” she said between her sobs. “What have I done to deserve this kind of treatment?”
He turned back to her with an astonished look in his eyes. “Go!” she said, looking away from him. “Go to her. Go!”
“I don’t want to go to her.”
“Then go anywhere… or stay… if you want.”
“Make up your mind. Do you want me to go or stay?”
“You can go, you’re free. But stay, if you want. My mum is bound to arrive soon. She’s already late.”
He hung the jacket, “I’ll stay on one condition, that you stop crying. It’s completely unnecessary. I said I was sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. What more do you want me to do?”
She wiped her eyes and nose. “What will mummy say when she sees me like this? She’ll say I did something I should cry for.”
“Don’t worry about that! She knows you well. She’ll think you have regretted being nice to me and cried for it.”
“Am I not nice?” she said, and raised her left hand to her mouth, as if preparing to cry again.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” he said, correcting himself for fear she might go back to crying. “You are actually very, very, very nice.”
Tears poured out of her eyes and signaled for tearful words to race out. “You’re making fun of me now? Why do you want me to cry and cry and cry?”
She wiped tears streaming from her left eye. As she wiped under her right eye, she turned her head right and saw her face in the mirror, left of the main door. “See! See what you’ve done! She screamed, pointing at the mascara on her cheek. “Now I’m neither nice nor pretty. Satisfied?”
Wissam stood motionless and stared at her. She’ll use any-thing he says to cry again, so he’ll keep his peace.
It didn’t work.
“You are standing there watching me cry. Why don’t you say something?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Say, ‘you are a twit’, or anything. Just don’t stand there like an empty bucket.”
“All right, you’re a twit.”
“Me, a twit!”
“You told me to say it and I did. I don’t know what you want anymore.”
“You don’t know and yet you call me a twit. Is that what Arlene taught you?”
“You’re a headache; Arlene’s a headache; all girls are a headache.”
He didn’t mean to, but she was, nevertheless, reminded. “Do you see what you’ve done now?” she said, feeling her fore-head. “I’ve now a headache and it’s entirely your fault.”
“Do you want me to get you a Nurofen?”
“I want something to remove the pain not relieve it.”
“And what is it that can remove the pain?”
“Cheer me up, a bit. Say ‘you are nice, pretty and clever.’ What will happen if you said these things? Your throat will go dry?”
“I’ve just said that you are very nice.”
“Yeah, but not, ‘you are pretty’. Or maybe you want to say that I’m ugly.”
“I also said that you’re pretty. You certainly remember the occasions.”
“You said it only five times.”
“I also said you’re vivacious, warm, very intelligent, well-mannered and a lot of a girl. Did I or did I not?”
“You did, but not from your heart. It was just to get to your airport.”
Making the shut-up sign over his mouth, he said: “From now on, I’m saying nothing. There’s nothing I say that you don’t twist, turn, bundle and hurl back at me.” He closed his mouth halfway and started mumbling.
“Then there’s no longer anything to say to each other,” she said, sobbing. “I’m going up to my room where I’ll stay until my mum is back.”
Turning to the stairs, she noticed the unfinished letter which she had dictated to him. She bent quickly, picked it up and resumed her way to the stairs.
“Please, don’t take it,” he yelled, extending his hand to her.
She hid it behind her back, “I want it.”
“No! Imagine what would happen if it fell in the hands of your dad.”
“It won’t fall in anybody’s hand.”
“You can’t be sure. Give it back. Please.”
If looks were sparks, Wissam would have instantly ignited. He didn’t see her jugular veins, but he felt flames of anger blowing in his direction like volcanic clouds. He thought of letting her take the letter, but his concern for her safety made him insist on taking the letter back.
She relaxed her arm and extended it to him with her hand tightly holding the letter. He did likewise but when his fingers touched her clenched fist she pulled it close to her chest. “This is the only thing that’s left for me, can’t you understand that?” she said. “In the morning, I’ll leave this house. By the time the plane takes off you’ll call Arlene or she’ll call you and I’ll be forgotten. You won’t even remember having known a girl called Aroub. But it’s not the same for me. I can’t forget easily. Once on the plane, I’ll have nothing left for me but this paper. Do you want it? Take it.”
She crushed the paper, rolled it and threw it at him. His astonished eyes followed the crumpled paper as it bounced off his chest, landed on the floor and quickly disappeared under the coffee table. By the time he looked up, Aroub was halfway up the stairs.
“Aroub, wait!” he shouted. “Don’t go, please!”
She stopped and turned back to him sobbing. “What now? What else do you want? Do you want the clothes you bought for me? You’ll get them back right away. I don’t want them. I want nothing from you.”
“Wait!” he said, reaching her on the stairs. “I’m just worried about you. I don’t want you to get in trouble. What would hap-pen if your dad came to know that you stayed in a house with two men?”
“He should have come here to put us up in a hotel. Did he come but we thanked him and told him everything’s fine? We had no choice. My dad loves me, and he would understand that. I’ll tell him about everything. Not right away, of course. I’ll bide my time. I don’t want to lie to my dad. I love him, too.”
Wissam’s eyes opened wide. “What? You want to tell him about everything, including what happened here?” he said, pointing to the stairs.
Her eyes turned to the stairs under her feet. She prevented a runaway smile from reaching her lips and held it firmly by the throat. “What happened here? Nothing! I didn’t ride the bus; you didn’t land at the airport. Nothing happened.”
He closed his eyes to fight something in them. “I want for something to happen,” he said. “Not now, but I want for some-thing to happen.”
“In a royal suite like that of Scheherazade?”
“Yes. And on a bed like hers.”
“And…?”
“I need time. You’ve stormed my life like a battleship with-out a rudder. I don’t want to rush and I don’t want you to act in haste either. I need time. I’m not used to anything that’s happening to me. Time, please!”
The sobbing stopped. She looked at him through a mist of tears. She lifted up her right hand and combed her forehead with her fingers. She lifted her hand up again, this time to her hair. Then she clenched her hands in front of her and pushed them out. “I’m not happy,” she said slowly, resuming her sobbing. “I’m not at all happy. Please, make me happy.”
He took her hands. “You must be happy. You have all it takes to be happy.”
She shook her head and sobbed louder. “I’m not happy. I’ll soon be forgotten. I have no place in your life. I know that.”
“It’s I who’s going to be forgotten. The other men in your life will take care of that.”
She shook her head while biting at her upper lip. “I don’t have men in my life. I’ve lied to you. I don’t have a boyfriend. I’ve never been touched by anyone. Riding a bus or walking down busy streets, it happens that someone flirts or pinches, but that’s all.”
“I know. You’re different from other girls. You’ve something special. I’m tempted to believe that you may marry ten times and have twenty babies but remain a virgin. That’s you. That’s how you’re made.”
She could not immediately tell whether he praised or insulted her.
“Should I be glad or sad more?”
He wanted to say that the first was what he meant, but he decided otherwise. “Think and decide for yourself.”
She closed her eyes briefly, thought and made her decision. She opened her eyes and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Do you, now, want to kiss a crying girl like me?”
Wissam laughed. He took her hand and led her down the stairs.
“What are you laughing at?” she said, pulling her hand out of his. “That’s what happens in all the movies I’ve seen. She cries; he kisses her.”
“First, she slaps him,” he said, still laughing.
Aroub swiftly waved her hand and slapped him.
“What was that for?” he said as soon as he reached a safe place at a distance from her. “You’re mad! Absolutely and hopelessly mad,” he added, regaining his laughter.
“You said, ‘first she slaps him.’ ”
“In the movies only!”
“Movies or no movies. How dare you laugh when I’ve just put my dignity in shreds asking you to kiss me? Who do you think you are?”
“I wasn’t laughing at you.”
“The laughing was done. If I asked Paul to kiss me, would he argue like you do. He’d kiss my low heels.”
“I kiss neither low hells nor high.”
“Have I asked you to? I asked you to kiss me. I just wanted you to remember me.”
If he had wings, he would fly to kiss her. But he hesitated, and not for lack of wings.
She read the hesitation in his eyes. “Maybe you want me to slap you again?” she said, readying her little hand.
He calmly approached her. She closed her eyes. He stared at her face for a while, and then gave her his cheek.
“Go ahead; slap again. I’m not going to kiss you.”
“Why are you so hard-headed? A thousand men would wish a smile.”
“Can’t you see the state I’m in?” he said, raising his voice. “For how long can I control myself?”
She suddenly cried. “I’m not happy. And it’s all because of you.”
“No! It’s not because of me. If I were to kiss you, it won’t end the way it did before. If anything happens now, everything else will happen.”
“Let it happen. It won’t be the end of the world?”
“What about Scheherazade’s royal suite and bed?” he said utterly surprised.
“If you promise me, I’ll wait.”
“Mad! You’re absolutely and hopelessly mad. And I’ve be-come mad like you. We are now suited for each other.”
“I came to you sane and now I am mad. It’s all your fault.”
“If I made you mad then I’m mad too.”
“Yes, you are. We are both mad. But I’m mad and unhappy. I’m very unhappy.”
Wissam approved. “I’m also very unhappy.”
“Unhappy souls, both. What are we to do now?”
“I don’t know.”
“We are both very unhappy and don’t know what to do.”
“Splendid,” said Wissam. “We must have begun to like each other.”
“You think so?”
He usually would have thought about his answer carefully but this time he found no need. No need, at all. “Yes, I do,” he said emphatically.
She looked at his eyes, raised herself a little and looked at them closer. Her face brightened and dimmed again. She hugged him tightly, very tightly, closer to her heart. “I’m afraid, Wissam, I’m afraid,” she whispered with trembling lips.
“Afraid of what?”
“I’m afraid of you, I’m afraid of myself and I fear for both of us.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll find a solution. There isn’t a problem that doesn’t have a solution.”
He took her head in his hands. He kissed her softly. Tear-drops fell on his lips. He collected some with the tip of his tongue, and gathered the rest of her cheeks with his lips. “From now on, there will be no fear, no sadness and no crying. There’s no need for all that,” he said softly but firmly. “I hate sadness. I’ve had enough of it. I want to be happy and I want you to be happy as well. Do we agree on that?”
She nodded. He lifted her chin up. “Promise!”
She promised. “I’ll try to be happy,” she said. She then raised two fingers and felt his lips. He raised two fingers, felt her lips and then tapped on her check. He smiled and encouraged her to do so. As she did, her eyes shone with an enchanting sparkle.
They stood gazing at each other. There came moments when they blushed and cast their eyesight down. When he raised his eyes to her the last time, he noticed a sudden change in her face. She looked to be in pain. She resisted for a while but finally broke into silent tears.
“Aroub! You’ve just promised me not to cry.”
“I know, I know. But I can’t help it.”
“What’s the matter now?”
“I’m hungry, Wissam. I’m very, very hungry.”

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