Let’s call this a kiss and assume that, in reality, a kiss is as much a beginning of dramatic events as a wise decision is in Greek tragedy. It happens quickly as if there is a set of signals that all girls know instinctively to read the moment they become aware of their youth. They stop to kiss along the way, beneath the tram overpass on Rue Jean Gremillon, faithful to the idea that when they kiss, each day doesn’t seem exactly like the last. They can’t be more than fourteen, a prelude to existence, a series of years that makes no sense to them. The wide world makes no sense, it is deafening and wrong, and they are just there, two girls under the washed-out gray ramp of a flyover, their hearts banging away in their chests at the prospect of a bridge that could carry their secret world over their real life. The graffito behind them reads, “It gets worse.”
They fit together like puzzle pieces, their faces burning hot with rushing blood. Christelle is a few inches taller than the Arab girl. She presses Almira against the wall and pauses, her eyes trapped in a moment of excitement, kind of startled and kind of not, as if she’s breaking some sort of Biblical law, her thin lips so red that they might have been painted on.
“Do you hear that, Chris?”
Christelle holds her breath, her nose full of the late-March breeze carrying the sweet smell of anise and freshly-mown grass. For a moment, there is no sound except her breathing, the moment sinking, unwilling to pass them by.
Almira looks at her with the fiery dark-brown eyes of a silent-movie star, her silky black curls so abundant her head looks like a sculpture of Medusa.
“You are not hearing that noise?”
Her excitement grows as Almira puts her lips on hers. It’s an impatient kiss as if their mouths missed each other, the preconfigured arrangement by nature. The kiss becomes a sea, a raindrop, a late afternoon sky with a million lips lying among the emerging stars. The lips whisper into her ear, the words falling over one another with sweet muffled sounds that separate her from the world.
Almira stares into her eyes. “Are you deaf or something?” She is the only person in school who overuses the word “whatever”—peu importe, she says with a shrug—each time she wants to conceal her thoughts. Christelle wants to know them all, but her friend seems to have no ability to give voice to them. This is the way Almira’s mind works. Every word she speaks sounds as if hauled from the depth of her head. Her universe is a state of insurmountable mess in which every single thought is related to everything else, the turning pages of an unfinished book, forthwith giving way to one essential nod or shrug each time she has to answer a simple question.
She seems almost entirely without guile, though whether this is or isn’t in her favor, Christelle can’t decide. She is afraid of showing too much of herself to Almira, of loving her too much. It’s a schoolgirl’s hopeless love, the kind of love that crackles to life, inserting new meaning into her world and flickering in her blue-gray eyes. She thinks of her every instant.
“I can’t hear anything.” She smiles. “You’re a freak, you know that?”
They are kissing under a ramp at Bobigny, which is tucked away in the northeastern heavily ethnic suburbs of Paris, a well-trodden splotch on the map shut up in the private fairness of a tightly corked bottle. Everything seems so unnaturally explored and immutable that the best thing that could happen to you is to go into a coma and live in a dream world. But in the end, it doesn’t matter where they are; what matters is that there’s the two of them together while the rest of the world enacts its kitchen-sink early afternoon ritual of everyday living like the rerun of a syndicated soap series with desperate, poor and dark-skinned starring roles.
Almira says, “Do you ever get the feeling that you have made yourself into two people and that one person completes the other?”
Christelle shakes her head, uncertain about what might be deserving of an answer. Her dignified silence makes Almira anxious.
“It sounds like storm water runoff,” Almira says. “The noise.”
Almira often knows what people will think before they speak. She smiles not as teenagers do, but like a doctor disguising the truth. Almira wants to be a heart surgeon. Sometimes she looks like her mother and then other times the confidence in her face transforms to a childlike curiosity as if she were not her age at all.
Christelle took art class. Just for her. Her concept of love was similar to her concept of art; they were both based on the explanation of devotional images.
“If I were a Renaissance painting, which one would I be?”
Seized by a desire to impress her, Christelle said, “Titian’s Venus of Urbino.”
“No. Pick another one.”
“Veronese’s Venus with a mirror.”
“What about Micheli’s lute-playing Venus?”
“What is wrong with you? Why are you associating me with just the fat Venuses?”
“I thought they were all fat.”
“Peu importe. Why don’t you just say it?”
“I’m not beautiful.”
She said this last with genuine modesty.
“Yes you are beautiful. Really.”
Almira’s face broke into a grateful smile, a natural shyness that astonished her: Christelle would not mind her life revolving around this face, around the most unseemly display of such gratitude. Her beauty was so absolute and spirited that she spent the next hour watching her while seeming not to. Nothing mattered but this proprietary feeling toward Almira.
The tram comes up the road from the direction of the hospital. Distracted by the whoosh, Almira rests her head on her shoulder. She smells something like scrubbed-clean skin.
Christelle kisses her on the part in her hair. “What is wrong?”
“My father wants us to move to Nice.”
“To tell the truth, Nice is nice,” she says with a playful smile. After a moment’s pause, she adds, “It’s orderly.”
Almira repeats the words back, a sudden edge in her voice. “It’s orderly?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“I’m afraid there is nothing to do but agree.” She glances at her chichi green spaceship-shaped wristwatch, a present from Christelle, as if she said too much. Then she turns and looks east like a dog listening to a sound that’s barely audible but threatening. “You really can’t hear that?”
She thinks of the Almira she found so mysterious when she and her mother came formal-visiting at her father’s wake. A few months ago. People were telling Christelle how sorry they were, and she pretended she couldn’t hear the words everyone whispered when they thought she couldn’t hear.
Poor thing, he got fired. How much did he owe this time? Ah, the dangers of relying on loans. Is it true he borrowed money from a loan shark?
Her father’s suicide had shocked them as if they had failed to grasp, living in the same neighborhood, whatever critical moment might have revealed itself that they could have noticed in order to help him. They used the word suicide the way the nearsighted looks at the bottom row of letters at the optometrist—aware that such letters actually exist but still somehow threatened, wishing in the end that they could mentally replace them.
Christelle didn’t know why he did it. Perhaps he had been dying of some private despair that he couldn’t pronounce in an audible voice, killing himself systematically. Perhaps life had become something less than life to him—not because being indebted was tragic, but because being invisible was.
Her mother arranged the funeral. She didn’t know what she was doing. Only that she had to make arrangements. She looked exhausted from her long day, her relentlessly homespun life, her belief that good things happened to good people. Christelle was watching her, understanding what she was all about; the wife, the caretaker, the hostess, the dismissed food-packer—a procession of roles that before had been scattered.
Christelle was sorry for all the times she hadn’t let her share the things that had been going on in her life with her. She was not just her daughter, she was her.
Almira had come over and stood in front of her. “You aren’t going to eat anything, madam?” she said presenting her with a cup. “You need your strength.” She tilted the coffee pot holding the lid in place to prevent it from falling out. The woman looked up at her, then fixed her eyes on the well-directed stream of coffee into the cup. Tears filled her eyes, and Christelle felt that her mother was crying because she remembered what it’s like to be loved.
Almira’s mother removed the chrome-framed pictures of the deceased that sat on the side tables—Don’t look at him, let him rest, she said. She was looking around to see if there was anyone who might need some coffee or food, until midnight, or possibly later, her serious pitch-dark eyes seeming to invade their privacy. It was the most welcome invasion Christelle had ever known.
She and her daughter clattered the dishes and coffee cups in the kitchen. They put things inside and out of cupboards, searched for the gold-rimmed cordial glasses, reached on the shelf over the kitchen table, opened the fridge door, rearranged the stamped polymer clay magnets, reached in for the Moroccan motif etched water bottles. Plucking her father’s beers. Stacking the beefed ravioli and chestnut spread cans on the plastic containers. Christelle closed her eyes, listening to the clanking of the dishes in the plate rack, the whistle of the kettle on the stove, the closing cutlery drawers: it was as though these two women were trying to classify all kitchen sounds in an attempt to make their presence known to the newly loosed spirit of her father and salute him.
There was her father’s suicide and there were the kitchen sounds jerking her mother out of her daze. And there was Almira.
“To tell the truth, I am sure you’ll find someone a lot better than me in Nice,” Christelle says teasing her.
“Stop saying ‘to tell the truth.’”
Almira snaps at her. “It makes me wonder what you were doing all other times.”
“Are you insane? It’s just a substitute for emphasis.”
“If you want emphasis, it should be inherent in your words.”
“I was just pulling your leg. What is it that you want me to tell you?”
“Peu importe. Thank you for your good wishes.”
Christelle plants a kiss on her cheek, watching her face for signs that she is going to miss her. And then it dawns on her. Almira may find someone who is actually better than her. She feels the first pang of helplessness, she doesn’t know how it got inside her. Where are the clues that Almira will think of her, where is the evidence that it matters that she will likely be gone for good. She stands there, trying to quell the sickening beating of her heart, each beat a suspicion of longing for something that she will not have again. In a single instant, something changed from what it had been in the past, and the sudden awareness makes her neck hurt: the white spots on her fingernails, the silence in her house, a world devoid of any trace of Almira, the spray-painted misspelled word Musloid on the wall—which, on closer inspection, is not really misspelled—fragments of life which she had wasted time thinking of as just fragments.
It is a tense moment, full of Almira. A minute before, Christelle was complete; a minute later she feels that something will be missing from her for the rest of her life, that she is going to grow old in a world that witnessed the greatest love story and didn’t end. As she looks at her, Christelle has the marked feeling that she is going to lose someone she was meant to have.
She opens her mouth to the air. It hurts to breathe—because it’s not her sadness that is growing but something else beating in her throat and ears; something that sounds like storm water runoff.
Almira’s brother doesn’t suspect a thing, but every time he asks about Christelle, she changes the subject. Farid wants to be a cartoonist. He is a couple of years older, very calm in his manners, the stamp of misfit flickering across his face. She admires his talent, but when he fixes his gaze on her, she looks away. His eyes are arrogant, then dreamy, and eventually expressionless, as though trying to recognize her. He is very serious, like an undertaker standing outside the crematorium chapel. Farid is always on the look-out for a new sketch, a new line, a new world. He is fast and imposing in his drawing, his hand playing with a pencil, with intervals of an unnatural silence.
Their father believes a cartoonist isn’t much of a livelihood, but it is better to keep him absorbed into his drawings. He thinks that the young man spends too much time with people who believe that the skin on their unsmiling faces is an achievement. He doesn’t like Farid’s obsession with their Arab ancestors. Abdul-Rahim believes in the goodness of his son’s heart, but detests the circle of his friends.
“They cast a shadow over the boy’s life,” he tells his wife at dinner.
“He’s not a boy. He’s a young man.”
“You shouldn’t set an extra plate for him after we eat. If he refuses to have dinner with us, let him starve.”
“Your son is studying hard. He didn’t refuse anything.”
One Christmas, her father took them out to dinner at the mall. Farid—he was eight, Almira was six—was waiting for his mother to cut his burger in quarters. The boy was accustomed to her obsession with cutting the food into small pieces—it’s part of the progress of all human civilizations, she said. A big contented smile appeared on her face when her children used first-rate manners, and she looked so happy that Almira thought civility must be first in importance for showing their love to her.
That evening, however, Farid was in no mood for a lecture. He seemed a bit upset because the burger leaked all over the plate and soaked the bun. He was wearing a Santa headband with lights that blinked on and off, a miserable parody of a boy longing to be rewarded, and all of a sudden, after a hiccup of a cry, he fixed his mother with a sinister glare and started to scream, his lower lip trembling.
“Hurry up, mama, there is a bomb,” Farid said more than once, angrier each time, eyes narrowed, burning with frustration. It was a coarse bark, as if she hated her more than he had ever hated anyone, the threat popping out of his mouth with growing hostility.
Abdul-Rahim knew he didn’t have to find some truth in his son’s hysterical gasps, but couldn’t help feeling embarrassed just the same as he heard a man behind him saying something about Turks—he took offense when people mistook him for a Turk. Flushed from the embarrassment, he put his fingers on his lips to motion Farid to be quiet, and turned apologetically to the other patrons. He smiled at the waiter who was watching them as if waiting to venture something heroic. People were staring at them, they began to mutter, a parliament of good parents, who raised their heads trying to get a better look, their eyes giving the impression of considering the word bomb or thinking that a good father would never let this happen.
On the verge of tears, he wiped the ketchup from the corners of the boy’s mouth with his fingertips, so genuinely ashamed of his son as if seeing him for the very first time, seeing him from the waiter’s eyes, the furious dark-skinned boy, an angel of death, a future menace to their Christmas tree festivities and civilized existence. “Shut up,” he pleaded. Almira had never before heard humiliation in her father’s voice. His face was beaded with sweat, a numb giant sent out alone into the world to find smaller and smaller particles of emotions, only to be scorned for his size.
He tossed his credit card on the table to his wife, swept Farid into his arms with all his energy, and walked outside. Alone, with a son he couldn’t understand, but holding him as if the boy was safer in his arms. Unable to endure loneliness in his painfully learned life.
Abdul-Rahim has been so lonely trying to avoid stories about the past that Almira wonders whether she knows anything about him at all. She knows his tastes and habits, the cinnamon apple car air fresheners, the roll-on applicator for under-eye puffiness and the economy-size package of antihistamines, his lucky shirt, serious shirt, the birthday and funeral shirts, his illegible signature and small handwriting; but she has no idea how to talk to her father, how to outgrow his air of total secrecy.
A pragmatist, who supposedly tried to take advantage of every opportunity, he has been a taxi driver for the past twenty years, doing what certain immigrants do to feel present in their new homeland—he made himself invisible. Abdul-Rahim doesn’t want to invite notice. His arrival in France was the beginning of his personal history. He belonged there even before he had an understanding of where he wanted to belong, he says. There was no transition period, only his willingness to cut out of his brain everything that had happened before. He has been doing so much cutting out that there’s not much left to weave into the fabric of his identity. Her father is made of incomplete phrases. He seems to live somewhere in the million tiny particles of the past, escaping attention, and when you try to distinguish one story from another—when you separate them from his secrecy—they lose their meaning.
“When I got here, I built myself up from nothing,” he always says when asked about his routes. Nothing. For him, the word has special meaning, a secret dimension locked away in his pensive mood each time he looks at the picture of the Iraq football team in 1988 with coach Ammo Baba before Iraq was suspended by FIFA. For a long time he felt that this secret world shadowed his dreams of a new beginning. On one side stood his new home, a land where he could watch football on his new television set and drink himself into redemption, where the biggest wars and threats existed in a series of old photographs that seemed eerily familiar but only distantly so; on the other side stood his ancestors, shadowed, misunderstood brutes, the indelible reflection in his mirror. For Abdul-Rahim nothing means the line that divides the world in plausible desires and covers the tracks of the past for good—a state of mind where it’s not important if he is remembering everything correctly, or where Abdul-Rahim came from. What matters is the fresh smell in his cab, his puffy eyes and allergies, the label on his shirt and the small print in the contracts.
Some of his friends seem to have issues regarding how Arab he is, but her father averts his gaze pretending that he doesn’t speak their language. Each time he has to meet them, his shoulders hunch forward as if he bears on his own back a huge burden which their genes impose upon him. He changes his voice when he speaks French, his articulation clear and full, almost without any trace of an accent, in a friendly deep tone of concern as if his own greatest wish is to make everyone smile. His black eyes are always engaged, in constant movement, watching for the impression he makes, trying to sneak a look at other people’s faces to make sure that there is not a single expression of chagrin or sarcasm he failed to grasp. He speaks Arabic only when he wants to communicate privately with his wife, and then Almira can pick up on the shift in his tone hearing a stranger in his voice, a remarkable imitation of Abdul-Rahim. He becomes a different person altogether, one who doesn’t want to try to be understood. Almira trusts that person, but she doesn’t like him. She wants to walk over and hug him, and then make ghost of him. Mainly because there is a jolt of charisma on her father when he is all-French and the whole-faced smile stretching across his mouth suggests he is enjoying it. It’s a performance for everyone. His Frenchness has some personal truth, which changes Abdul-Rahim into something more him, like a costume that he wears in order to carry on his normal life, which, to appear normal, has to be rehearsed and measured. To appear ordinary, he has to be dramatic. In order for her father to be understood, he has to be entertaining.
Almira’s house is empty of her ancestry, but the rest of the world is filled with her father’s half-told stories. The past still has a presence. A young Abdul-Rahim lives somewhere locked away. Almira has inherited that man’s aspiration to invisibility. She loves him because his situation doesn’t seem to be much different from her own; his life needs translation into a mother tongue he speaks but barely holds dear.
If she could speak to him, she would tell him that he has every good reason to loathe Farid’s friends.
If aliens land on earth one day, they will find that the human language is a mystery in which words will do anything the hopeless ask of them.
He is pathetic. Christelle feels sorry for Farid—she never uses the word “pathetic,” but he is the best definition she can give. He belongs to an all but embarrassing clan of unwelcome creatures that make goosebumps rise on her skin each time his voice falls into an asexual drawl, barely above a whisper, and takes deep breaths, leading you to wonder if he checks your clothes for smells—if there is something he owns hidden away deep in your body.
She presses her lips together the moment she reaches the tram overpass on Rue Jean Gremillon, where Farid is standing now. Just catching sight of him puts a bitter lump in her throat. Christelle can’t help noting the irony of her decision to visit the place where she and Almira meet after school only to find her brother smoking hashish—the irony that she and his sister cannot bridge their differences after a silly misunderstanding under this specific bridge.
She can turn around and pretend she never saw him, but he stares at her with that ambiguous kind of longing that always shows no matter how reserved he seems. Although in itself their encounter may not seem relevant, she can’t help thinking that it has something to do with Almira’s decision to stop seeing her. Despite all her efforts, she won’t answer the phone. How could she say the words she had said? You don’t love me, you love the thrill of the chase. Find someone else. My brother is available.
Christelle feels the tears now stinging the back of her eyes. She has nothing to say to Almira. She can feel her emotions slipping to the back of her mind, and a pool of bitterness taking over.
“What are you doing here?” Farid says.
“I’m walking home.” She catches herself looking at the joint. “I see you’re smoking pot now. What’s next?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Who gave that to you? Tarek?”
Her question seems to upset him more than he is already.
“Not everything has to do with Tarek.” He stopped himself, adding, “What has he ever done that’s so bad?”
“He’s a lowlife. He threatened to bring guns to kill students at school.”
“He was teasing you. He’d never say that. Besides, he’s my best friend.”
“He’s not anyone’s friend, Farid. He’s just using you.”
“I was supposed to meet up with him earlier,” he says. “I changed my mind.”
Sometimes Christelle amazes herself with her patience with him. “Is something wrong?”
Farid reaches into his pocket and carefully pulls out a folded piece of paper which he hands to her.
“Another slip in the endless stream of rejection letters,” he says.
She reads the brief stock phrases twice, trying to understand the ego crushing courtesy of the last paragraph. An executive editor thanks Farid for sending his work through to them. His best pencils and inking, the peculiar figure drawing, are on the last three pages. Unfortunately, he does not feel the material is right for them, but he wishes him the best of luck in placing his cartoons elsewhere. Although their newspaper maintains an open door policy and reviews all ethnically, religiously and politically correct proposals, he is sorry to say that Farid’s submission does not meet with their standards. He may well have wanted to satirize the rising intolerance and hostility against Muslims, or highlight Europe’s confused debate about Islam, but the satire misses the mark.
“Resubmit when you have learned to avoid anti-Semitic slurs.” She looks at him. “Well, it’s not the end of the world. Did you think being talented would mean not ever having to deal with rejection?”
“Last month they depicted the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist and child molester. It seems that you can criticize God, but you can’t criticize Israel.” He sighs. “What makes some people’s ideas more threatening than others?”
“Do you want to talk about it?” she says, though she knows she should leave.
“Stop acting like you’re my friend.” He laughs nervously. “I know that you’re going down on my sister.”
Christelle looks him up and down. “Why do you have to be such an asshole?”
She is already turning away when his voice comes from behind her, a soft husk of sound edged in guilt.
“Wait. I’m sorry,” he says, spewing smoke. “You’re being really nice, but it’s scaring me. I mean, you can see the good in me, which is great, because no one seems to notice me but you.”
He relights the roach and passes it to Christelle. She hesitates a moment, looking at him, right into his eyes. He looks more unhedonic and harmless than she remembers.
She wants to ask him how he can be so personable and yet so absolutely incapable of being liked and missed. She drags deeply on the joint, wanting to challenge herself, and holds the smoke down, wondering what it is about him that drives her insane. It almost feels like admitting to herself that they both are visitors from the same planet, one whose common language is to live off the bones that are thrown to them. Much of her relief now stems from the smoke, but also from this suspicion. She is surprised to feel it, an acute awareness of an empathy she never knew she had, as if their lives are woven together, a sense of worth linked to Farid and intensified by the joint.
“You’re not alone,” she says. “Maybe you spend too much time drawing lines when all you really want to do is cross them.”
She means it. Words have never figured so much in her life, have never sounded truer in his world, words that until they die away, they can turn him into the right or wrong man. If aliens land on earth one day and want to know why humans invest so much meaning in words at their most fragile moments, they would conclude that meaning must have a sound, various sounds, half-articulated, beautiful, strange sounds. Christelle likes the breathy quality of her voice, it makes her swallow hard. This is at the same time an intimate and odd sensation—the two of them, aware only of each other, bottomless looks traded between them, with the certainty that, for a moment, she and Farid hold more currency in this world together than apart.
By the time they finish the joint, Farid takes a step closer until he is within a few inches of her body and touches her face lightly. He runs his hands through her hair. She can’t tell what he is attempting, but then his mouth finds hers.
“Oh, no,” he says terrified, his eyes growing wide. He keeps saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”
But suddenly, as if he becomes aware of her, growing conscious of what a kiss can incite, he gives her an expressionless look, and before she can react, his tongue sweeps across her lips. She can taste his saliva—acid, with a tinge of applesauce like cough syrup, sticking, along with his tongue, to her mouth. He pushes her against the wall, burying her lips in his palm, while the other touches her breasts roughly. He slides his palm lower, trembling all over, finds the drawstring of her tracksuit bottoms and slips his fingers through the fabric. Christelle’s head is lost in his chest, and she hollers a noise that sounds like “Stop,” using every ounce of her breath, but this seems of no consequence.
If aliens land on earth one day and want to know why humans invest so much meaning in words, they would realize that it’s their way of giving pieces of themselves away hoping they will be returned to them, as if pitching coins into the fountain to help their wishes come true.
Almira walks into the school building, wearing Farid’s shirt, and looks for her once-best friend. She begins to know with a shiver that her schoolmates draw back staring at her. She watches their expression, the unforgiving flicker of a frown on their faces, wondering if they have already been questioned by the police. Some of them ignore her; they try to distract their gaze nervously, perceiving in her an object of complete embarrassment, or threat, as if incurring danger by making mere eye contact.
She can’t find that one voice she needs to hear so desperately. Christelle has the power to make bad things unhappen.
Farid was arrested on suspicion of participation in the activities of a terrorist group planning to carry out an attack somewhere in Paris, along with Tarek whose arrest was sought on charges of weapons possession and conspiracy as crimes of terrorism. The French security services searched their apartment the way you would Pandora’s box: threatened by every atom in the room, but also curious to find out what the evil spirits released in their world looked like. For the first few seconds, Almira thought it was a dream from which she would wake—what sounded like an army of men exploding through the broken door, the acrid rigtheousness of their uniforms, the stomach-churning choreography of their guns, her mother’s scream in the kitchen, the thump of her own heart against her chest tightened with fear—and then, when she heard the men yelling at her father and Farid for even breathing, on a nameless impulse Almira hid under her bed, hating herself for not trying to help them.
Their lawyer says that Farid is one of several minors in custody suspected of links to a European network of Jihadists, though it’s still too early to tell anything for sure. The police has no evidence against her brother other than Tarek’s signed admission; after his lawyer advised him to plead guilty to the possibility of reduced charges in a deal with the prosecutors, Tarek claimed he was taking instructions from Farid and met with him after school to plan the attack.
“Farid told me he has an alibi for the whole of yesterday evening, but he can’t say anything. He asked me to wait.” Her mother looked at her, her eyes a pair of Greek mask holes, trying to make sense of it all. It was so quiet in their apartment in the morning, and she leaned back in the kitchen chair, exhausted, but uncomplaining, transformed by her despair; like an aging queen walking out naked, a threatened lioness suddenly regaining consciousness, she was trying to determine whether her son’s arrest were somehow all her fault.
“Men have been telling me what to do all my life,” she whispered, whether from shame or regret it was not clear, and then lowered her lashes. Almira could feel her anguish keenly, but she had never before heard in her mother’s voice this alertness to the danger of seeming vulnerable. Her words were chosen carefully, imitating a lawyer, a diplomat, the sibilance of a strong man’s confident voice, as if something negotiable were settled. She was dressed in a black linen suit, respectably, not a hair out of place, too big for her clothes, but also, too much of everything she lacked inside.
She just wants to find Christelle now. She glances at her green wristwatch with the fingers of an alien displaying the time, Christelle’s birthday present, a part of life she can hardly remember without her face. Almira is wearing it like an engagement bracelet.
“Didn’t you hear? She’s in Avicenne,” says one of Christelle’s friends from the sports club. “She cut her wrists.”
That’s not possible. I’m sure she would never do that.”
“My mother is a night nurse at the hospital. Look, why are you asking me? Aren’t you friends with Chris?”
She can tell by the mischievous look on her face that the conversation has to end. Almira can’t feel her hands. A sickening tightness wells up in her chest, as if she had been flying, hovering, and now, she has crashed into the rocks, lying there on her own, still and frozen, no more than a sketch of something that used to be human and winged, and loved, pretending she had never really meant to fly into the sky in the first place.
It’s her fault, isn’t it? What does she refuse to see? All the strength she will never summon, all the good things that will never happen to her, the reasons she will never predict, they are invisible to her eyes; they can only be sensed by making a difference in someone else’s life. It must be a strange sight—Almira, her mother, Christelle; plain, transparent women carrying the immense weight of an uninhabited fatherland, mistaking their sufferings for pride and armor.
Almira traces with her fingers the patterns of shadow cast by the sunlight filtering through the classroom blinds onto her desk. She has her brother’s pencils in the bag. She has a Farid-shaped hole in her heart, a Christelle-shaped cavity in her head—a partially finished figure with portions of its line segments removed. One day she will take what is left of her heart and what is left of her head, the parts of her left in the serpentine, poorly drawn lines, and she will draw an undefined mass, a girl’s body placed in a strained pose, the shape of sympathy for the life that goes wrong, for what should not happen. One day she will declare herself above disasters. She will use an electron microscope to find the propylaea of the heart, the gateway connecting her with the world, hoping that the distance is set by the matter under magnification.
One poorly drawn line after another. She doesn’t know much of them, but her heart tells her these lines were in her all her life. Without them, she has nothing left to measure the distance from everything undone.
(winner of the Editors’ Prize in Prose for issue 26)