TRACES OF A TATTOO
A novel by Adel Bishtawi
Read Chapter 9
Aroub pushed her hands deep into the bathrobe pockets and started swinging them while wondering if Wissam was aware of the strategically-conceived trap she had set up for him in her room.
Wissam knew nothing of the sort. He put his spectacles on as they descended the last few steps.
“That’s much better, the snow blurred my vision,” he said. Entering the living room, he felt the back of his head, “And the blow didn’t help.”
“Knew nothing, noticed nothing. That’s a loser’s luck with a loser like this fellow,” Aroub said to herself. Swinging her body along with the pockets, she had a quick look at his head, “Not yet smashed?” She said in a neutral voice which nonetheless puffed anger and disappointment. “Maybe she should have used the mirror instead.”
The comment surprised Wissam but he didn’t take it seriously. He picked up the remote control and aimed it at the TV set.
“You wouldn’t know why she did it, would you?” He asked with his index frozen on the power button.
Aroub continued to swing the pockets but she also started, innocently, to wave the bathrobe’s sides. She pouted. “No! Maybe she’s at the wrong time of the month. Some girls are like that.”
She blushed. “Maybe.”
“And like Arlene, do you hit with anything you lay your hands on?”
“Maybe. It depends.”
“You may do it now?”
She suspected the purpose of the rapid questioning was to ascertain whether she had her period or was safe to touch. “I may, I may not,” she said slowly to exact maximum torture. ”It depends.”
Wissam felt her unease with his personal questioning. “I’m sorry. I only wanted to make sure you would give me a warning before you hit. And maybe not use anything your hands could reach. Everything is my dad’s.”
His apology eased her fluster. It warmed the chill of her dis-appointment. “And yours, as well,” she said.
“Only what’s in my room is mine.”
“Yours, your dad’s, is it not the same thing?”
He shook his head, negating a natural conclusion that he never thought of as such. “No! Not quite the same. According to my mum’s will, half of what she left behind is mine; the other is my dad’s.”
“But you’ll inherit what’s his, won’t you?”
“I’m not privy to his intentions.”
“But you inherit everything, when the inevitable happens, of course.”
“You think so?”
“Well, naturally! He’s your dad.”
Wissam shrugged. “Not necessarily. He may leave everything to the dogs, if it pleases him.”
Aroub stopped waving the sides of her bathrobe. “How could that be? He’s your dad. You’re his flesh and blood.”
Wissam, after some reflection, shrugged again. “Nothing is certain unless the will says so unequivocally.”
“We’ve a better system. Inheritance is divided according to the Sharia law.”
“I know that. But, as a female, you get what equals to half of your brother’s share.”
“My brother’s entire share is going to amount to nothing. My share is half that, it’s half nothing.”
“Is your income that bad?”
“No, it’s not. But we spend it all. My dad travels a lot.”
“For work and other things.”
Wissam nodded. “As I told you earlier, my dad spends three months of every year away from home but now says he no longer bears staying at hotels. He complains of the pillows, the time difference, the heat, the humidity and the airports. I think he actually complains of something he doesn’t want to admit.”
“What is that?”
Aroub glanced at the photo of Wissam’s mum. “Do you miss him when he’s away?”
“Yes. When he travelled, it upset me a lot. But only in the be-ginning. Now I’m used to it. It even bothers me when he doesn’t.”
“Do you get in conflict with your dad?”
“The same here. We argue, occasionally, mostly on trivial matters.”
“Our disputes are also trivial. But he’s hot-tempered. Me too, I guess.”
“It doesn’t show on you. Arlene hit, kicked and insulted you yet all you did was shielding your head and clear the field.”
“It’s really puzzling,” he said, feeling the back of his head. “She has a hot-tempered Irish mum, but she doesn’t lose hers easily. I wonder if you had anything to do with her rage. Did you tell her we’d been to the opera? Or that I –”
She knew what the aborted reference was going to be but wanted him to say it loud and clear, as good confessions should be. “That you what?”
She waited. He remained silent for ten seconds. “That you what?” she repeated angrily.
“Hold on a minute,” he said with his finger signalling attention. “What has just happened is very important. If a response to an answer doesn’t come within ten seconds, the spectator, or the listener, loses interest or gets upset and switches to another channel.”
“That you what?” she repeated, rejecting an attempt to change the subject.
“Sit down first.”
“Just sit down. Sitting will help you calm down and make it a little bit less easy to throw things at me. You’re going to get your answer.”
She sat on the edge of the sofa with her eyes fixed on him. She waited.
“That I kissed you. Do you want it in writing?”
With her failed trap in the back of her mind, she took the offer. “Got a paper?”
Wissam laughed. “No! I was joking. You want it in writing? Thank you very much for the big favour. She’ll sure hit me with the mirror next time.”
He continued to laugh but noticed that she still waited for him to start writing. “You can’t be serious!”
“Of course, I am. Come on. Get to it.”
“Why? Simple. Everything that has happened here is going to be confidential. Only my mum knows, but she’ll say nothing. My friends would skin me alive if I went back without an adventure. They’ll insist that I produce a proof. So start writing.”
“What if your boyfriend saw it? I know that over there you get your throat slit for something less than a kiss.”
“You have a boyfriend, don’t you?”
“I do. Do you think I come from the desert? I won’t show it to him.”
Wissam shook his head, “Mad! You’re really mad. But I’m going to be mad like you for once.”
He put down the remote, fetched a pen and a piece of paper, laid the paper down on the coffee table, reflected a little then flung the pen. “What do you want me to write?”
“Write,” she said, paused for him to pick up the pen, and then started dictating, “On this glorious day, Monday, the 22nd of December, the dream of my life came true when I kissed, at Rectory Side, the most beautiful girl I have ever met. She is, Aroub Khalil Al-Arrawi.”
Wissam raised his head. He read and chuckled, surprised at what he had written. He prepared for more dictation.
Aroub thought of another sentence but, finding it inappropriate, she thought of yet another, and then quickly dismissed it. She suddenly noticed a thread jutting out of the bathrobe sleeve. She bent her thumb and index in the shape of a tweezers with which she ravelled the thread and looked for an appropriate place to trash it.
Her action reminded him of something he had forgotten about. “What’re you doing?” he asked.
“Nothing. A loose thread I’ve ravelled. Don’t worry about the bathrobe; I know how to get rid of redundant threads.”
He stretched his arm over the coffee table. She handed him the thread which he scrutinised then asked in perfectly neutral voice, “In Arabic, you do use the verb ‘nassala’ for ravelling things other than threads and hairs, don’t you?”
She shook her head but quickly arrived at the gist of what he asked. “Only figuratively, and mostly to describe the action of disentangling a hair from dough,” she said.
Wissam leaned forward to have a better, second look at the thread. He moved back in the chair, raised his head and puffed into the ceiling.
“Write!” she said. “I haven’t finished yet.”
He looked straight in her eyes, “The figurative use applies to Arlene, doesn’t it?”
Blood suddenly retreated away from her cheeks. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Wissam stood up. “Take it from me, Miss Aroub,” he said, flinging the pen. “If you hear somebody say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ be sure that he knows what you’re talking about. I think you know what I’m talking about. I heard you talking to your mum about my girlfriends. I heard you say you were going to ravel them one by one, once you’ve made up your mind. I didn’t understand what exactly you meant then, thinking you just wanted to get to know them or something like that.”
“Did I say something like that? You must have heard me wrong.”
“No! I didn’t hear you wrong. I’m now certain that you were the reason behind Arlene’s rage.”
“Now sit and finish the letter,” she said. “When your Arabic is better, you’ll know that I said nothing of the sort.”
“What did you say to her exactly?” He said. “Did you say that I slept with you?”
She smacked her chest, the way her mum does in similar situations, “Would I say you slept with me? Do you want daddy to kill me?”
The horrible logic of the answer confused him. He fretted his chin. “You didn’t say we had been to the opera house, did you?”
“Of course, not!”
“Or that I bought you clothes?”
“No! Why should I do that?”
“You’re a hundred per cent sure, and you’ve absolutely no doubt, that you didn’t say we slept together, right?”
Aroub opened her eyes then shook her head while seductively, but unintentionally, fluttering her eyelashes. The move caught Wissam unaware. Having forgotten what he wanted to say next, he smiled then struggled with a soft chuckle.
Nodding encouragingly, she asked: “Do you believe me now?”
Pointing to her eyelashes, smiling, he said, “Do it again.”
Aroub opened wide eyes that glittered and divulged something to Wissam. She shook her head and fluttered her eyelashes again. “Say, do you believe me now?”
He felt dumbfounded.
“Once again,” he said extremely seriously, “take it from me, Miss Aroub. If anybody flutters the lashes of eyes like yours and you heard her say, ‘elephants fly but only for short distances’ believe her.”
“If it’s for the sake of my eyelashes but not the truth, then you don’t believe me.”
He turned to the window and stared at the rain which had just started falling. He could clearly see the tiny holes the water drops itched in the snow. His chest moved as he inhaled deeply and forcefully exhaled. He turned back to her. “Arlene can release her vagaries any time she wanted, but she’s neither crazy nor can be fooled so easily. I know her for over two years. We meet a lot. Sometimes, she stays over, though I don’t remember her ever bringing me as little as a sip of water.”
Aroub shrugged. “Have I asked you for her résumé? You two are free to do whatever pleases you. Why should it concern me if she brought you a sip of water or threw a bucketful at you?”
“If Arlene wanted to sit in this chair and there happened to be a newspaper, she’d simply push it to the floor with her finger and sit down. I just can’t see how she might volunteer to go out into the cold to buy you mulberries, and why?”
Aroub arrested a laugh but only halfway through.
“I told you. Maybe she’s at the wrong time of the month. It’s quite normal.”
Wissam jerked his head up, “No, it’s not. Not in the case of Arlene, anyway. She expected me to bring the mulberries. Not that I wouldn’t if I’d been asked to by someone, like you for example, to satisfy an urge of some kind.”
Before the staring eyes of Wissam, Aroub stretched out her arms calmly, then stood up slowly and looked towards the stairs. “It’s a total waste of time. If you don’t want to write the letter, it’s OK for me, but don’t bother me with this kind of talk. You’ve given me a headache. I’m going up to change.”
Wissam jumped and blocked her way. “You’re not leaving before you tell everything,” he said in a voice void of anger. “The pillow I saw on the sofa, did it have anything to do with what happened?”
She attempted to free her way but half-heartedly.
“You had it under the bathrobe, or was it under the pyjamas? You told her you were pregnant, didn’t you?” He went on, making a bloated belly with his hands. “That was just what you did, wasn’t it? And that was the reason she ran like crazy to get the mulberries for a crazy girl like you. Isn’t that exactly what happened?”
A culpability laugh, long suppressed, escaped Aroub and forced her to flee. In swift movements, she manoeuvred out of his blockade and ran up the stairs. He was as agile. Catching up with her halfway up the stairs, he grabbed the flying end of the bathrobe and pulled. She lost her balance, fell on her side and slipped a couple of steps to find her feet caught between his legs. She tried to crawl up but he leaned over and pinned her shoulders down.
”You did fake pregnancy, didn’t you?” he yelled in her face.
“No!” she yelled back while struggling to free her shoulder. “She’s crazy and you’re crazy like her. You make a perfect couple. Let go of me!”
He tightened his hold, “You’re crazier than she is. What else did you do?”
“Nothing! Leave me alone!”
He was by now certain of her culpability and wanted to punish her. She was in his grab, practically under him, but he wasn’t sure what to do next. He remembered a dog which raced his car at full speed and succeeded. When it finally realised that nothing else could be done as long as the car’s windows remained firmly closed, it stopped, curled its tail and went back to where it had started.
Wissam released her shoulders and thought of going back to where he’d started. But he stayed. He urged himself to retreat, but his desire advised against rushing things. His hands also moved a little, but refused to move further. His eyes moved up the stairway then returned to her eyes and refused to budge. Shortly, everything in his body stopped except his heart which grew bigger, accelerated and enlarged its conduits, allowing his blood to flow like a flash flood which swept everything in its path before he could evade it. Fixated, he stared at the body of water the flash of flood had made and waited for a sign.
But she had already decided to make him wait out her waiting. She sat on the bank of the flash flood, immersed her feet and wondered how all that water could have gathered from a storm of an incredibly short duration. She marvelled at the stupendous force which swept everything so effortlessly. “God!” She murmured to herself in awe. “Who else but you could create such a beauty?”
Thunder suddenly rumbled. She shielded her head as the rumbling travelled southwards until it collided with, and at-tempted to push aside a granite mountain. For a couple of moments she’d seen lightening streaks illuminate the sky. Two more moments of darkness passed before she heard the rumble cracking and mercilessly penetrating a tenuous film of serenity which enveloped her heart. “Ah!” her heart groaned, momentarily borrowing her voice, followed by a brief gasp.
No less dumbfounded by awe, but exhausted as well, he sat beside her on the bank of the flood water. He waited and she waited his waiting. At a short distance behind her, she heard rain falling on dry sand. The sound of rain was, however, more like soft knocking. She listened attentively. The coarse grains of sand actually jumped off the ground, met with the rain droplets in the air and together they fell, producing the sound of birds pecking at the surface of an empty container. She turned her attention to the throbbing of blood in her enlarged veins and traced it to its origin within the confines of her heart. She soon felt her breathing dangerously slow down like the engine of an old car approaching a mountain peak. She shifted her breathing to a lower, but more powerful, gear. Her chest flinched and, in two consecutive rounds, she sucked in air which they inhaled together. But no sooner did the inhaled air cling to the walls of their lungs than it turned to drive them away with a rude hand gesture.
The temperature around the stairway soared. Aroub felt hot but not because of the soaring temperature. She experienced a different kind of heat, one she felt while lying in bed, planning and waiting. It was rather a special heat totally unconnected to breathing through hot lungs. It emanated from still deeper within her but didn’t know where exactly. It was a heat which spread outwards, relaxed certain muscles and made them raise little, tiny flags of the type found on cocktail drinks.
She became aware of the presence of the flags. She grabbed one and waved to give him a signal that the waiting was over. His waiting ended. He extended his hands and slowly pulled the bathrobe away from her chest. As the robe fell too far, she hastened to fill her lungs with shared hot air, thrust her chest upwards slowly and adjusted its height so that two protrusions would not appear to be still under construction.
She closed her eyes, waved other little white flags feebly and wondered what he would touch next. So far so good, she thought. But if anything else should happen, she would open her eyes and watch him carefully. She would also stop the flag-waving and their pleasure would go away. He could later play with himself, away from her, if he so wished, but that was as far as she can go. She waited for his hands’ next move. She waited long until the waiting bothered her more than the prospect of being touched where she did not want to be touched. She opened her eyes to find him staring at her silently from up close.
He wetted his lips. “You know that these are my pyjamas, don’t you?” he whispered.
She agreed with fluttering eyelashes. He smiled and tuned down his whisper. “And you know that I can touch my pyjamas any place I want?”
She lowered her neck a little, bit at her lower lip and closed her eyes for a moment but gave no response.
“Here?” he asked.
She opened her eyes fast, and then closed them very slowly.
She bit her lower lip harder, relaxed and looked at him with dreamy eyes as if through a very thin veil.
Suddenly a lingering smile disappeared from his face. His eyes popped, his facial muscles contracted and his breathing accelerated. Appearing to have passed the point of no return alerted her; made her feel ill at ease. He didn’t share any similarity with her cousin, Adham, but it appeared to her that he was heading to the kind of behaviour she didn’t like. Worries engulfed her for a moment but she suddenly noticed a swelling in the lower part of his cheeks.
“What’s the meaning of, ‘his jugular veins bloated’?” she asked in a deep voice while feeling his swollen cheeks.
His face turned motionless in her neck. He raised his head and looked at her. “What?”
“‘His jugular veins bloated’, what does that mean?”
He moved her leg off the step and sat down. “Do you want to know now?”
She nodded and reached to feel his cheek again.
“You mean, right now?”
She nodded. She crawled backwards then raised her shoulders and sat on a step, right above his. He collected the warm air stored inside his lungs and blew it out all at once. “I’m not sure,” he said, standing up. “But we’ve got a dictionary.” He descended the steps to the living room. He searched in a book shelf, which now stood behind the Christmas tree, and returned carrying a book.
“This is the first time I find a dictionary in a house,” she said while turning the pages, “after our own, of course.”
Arriving at the right page with Wissam, she read for a while then laughed. “I saw your swollen cheeks and thought the phrase applied to you. The actual meaning is not quite what I guessed. Do you want to know what it is?”
Wissam looked frustrated. Consulting the dictionary was not quite what he wanted to do. “If you feel the world’s fate depends on it, shoot.”
“The phrase refers to veins in the neck which bloat when a person is angry. But how does that happen? I have never seen such a thing in my life.”
She lifted his chin with her finger and inspected his neck. “I don’t see these jugular veins. Come on, get angry!”
“Get angry so that I can see your jugular veins.”
“Wawi zawi!” He yelled in her face.
She looked at his neck again but found no bloating anywhere. “Is that what you call anger? It doesn’t frighten a chicken. Show me real anger.”
“I don’t want to get angry.”
“Please, for my sake. Just once.”
“Just like that, without a reason?”
She slammed the dictionary closed and held it between her thighs, “I’ll give you a reason,” she said, staring at his neck. “Your conclusion was a hundred per cent correct.”
“Arlene! It all started as a joke but snowballed so quickly that it became impossible to stop or confess. Even when she brought the mulberries, confessing was made difficult because of what happened afterwards.”
He looked at her calmly. “I know that. I saw you by the door without the pillow under your clothes. But she didn’t.”
“Are you angry with me?”
He shrugged and wanted to say something but dismissed it. He looked at the street through the window then turned back to her. “Why did you do it? Was it jealousy?”
“Jealousy? I don’t think so.”
“What was it for, then?”
She shrugged, “I don’t know.”
“You can’t take her place, you know.”
She gnashed her teeth. She rested her head on the stairs and closed her eyes. “Do you want me to feel guilty? I feel guilty. I’ll try.”
Her posture made him laugh. It got on her nerves. “You say I can’t take her place, and I say I’ll try.”
He paused then resumed laughing. “Trying is not the same as succeeding. It can’t be done without…”
“You know. A plane flight doesn’t end in the sky.”
“And the plane cannot…”
“You know… without an airport.”
“I didn’t finish college for you to send me back to the kindergarten.”
“What’s wrong with going back to the kindergarten? Think of all the fun and nice stories like the ones you have in your cartoon.”
“Enjoy your kindergarten.”
“I’m enjoying it. Admiring the clouds through the plane’s window is not amusing enough, is it? You have to reach the airport for there to be fun?”
“I don’t take a plane which doesn’t land at an airport at the end of the trip.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. Take a bus. We’ll sit next to each other. I’ll be with you.”
“I hate buses.”
“Sorry. The bus is my limit.”
“Then take the bus. Sit on it and protect it.”
“You are not my husband.”
“Then, save it for the husband.”
“I certainly will. Do you expect me to break my long fast on stairs? I want my airport to be a royal suite like that of Scheherazade with a bed like hers and a husband whom I love.”
“That’s what all the girls want but isn’t always attainable.”
“I prefer my last station to be a husband and a lover, if they’re not found in one man, then I’ll settle for a husband.”
‘What do you want me to do now? Get a bucket of ice and sit in it!”
“Ice is not needed. I said I’m ready, but I’m not ready.”
“You didn’t want to, why did you do all that? For me?”
“I want nothing for myself.”
“Why do you want to comfort me?”
She could have given a reason beyond his imagination but found it useless to do so. “I don’t know.”
“You’re crazy, you know,” he yelled in her face. “In such situations, a man cannot control himself. I was swept off my feet and I could have taken you along with me.”
“The plane would have fallen out of the sky with both of us onboard.”
“You’d have been the first victim.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Mum would have come in time to save me. Mums always come in time to save their daughters.”
“Suppose she didn’t, what would have happened? You were under me, like that?”
She shrugged. She gazed into his eyes to test the validity of her feelings. “You’d have saved me,” she said in complete confidence. “I’m sure, really sure, you wouldn’t do anything to harm me in any way.”
Wissam was moved by her confidence in him. He raised his hand but couldn’t decide where to put it. It finally landed on his lips. He gave her one of those looks which she couldn’t use for penetrating him. She gathered the bathrobe around her as if for protection. With the move having pressed her legs together, she became alarmed as she felt the presence of warm, sticky fluid.
Busy pondering the price of a commodity he liked, Wissam was unaware of his companion’s sudden alarming discovery.
“So you want a royal suite like that of Scheherazade and a bed like hers, but before this and that a betrothal, a formal engagement, a wedding, demons and all such things?”
She felt having overpriced a commodity in which Wissam liked but did not show a definite interest in owning. She cut the price. “You don’t have to wait for marriage… if you want.”
“Marriage? In these days? Half the people are happily living together without marriage.”
“If it’s not marriage, what is it?”
“It’s called cohabitation.”
“What do they do in this cohabitation? Do they sleep with each other, get pregnant, clean the house, prepare meals, visit friends and share expenses?”
“We have that.”
“I didn’t come from the desert, I tell you. Of course, we do. We call it marriage.”
Wissam chuckled. “What’s marriage got to do with cohabitation? Here, when cohabiting becomes impossible, all the dissatisfied partner has to do is look for a different partner.”
She jerked her head dismissively. “We have it done much easier. We just call it divorce.”
“But your divorce is a human and social catastrophe combined.”
“You don’t mean to say that it’s a blessing here, do you? Divorce is a catastrophe for the children, the wife and the husband everywhere.”
Wissam laughed but she stopped him, “Ha, ha, ha! Laugh as you like, but I’ll tell you where the difference is. Here, if you divorced your wife, or walked out on your female partner, she goes to court which grants her half your assets, custody of the children and all kinds of restraining orders. These things don’t happen where I come from. There, the husband divorces, the ex-wife goes back to her parent’s house very much as she had left it. Some wives cash in their deferred dowry but most are suspended by husbands unwilling to pay. Ex-wives do get child support but many of them have to go to the courthouse every month to get it. Here, can you smack your wife once or twenty times because she didn’t trot the minute Shehryar issued his summons? Can you do anything if she told you she no longer tolerates living with you and that she was going to another man? You can’t.”
“Where did you hear all that?” Wissam asked astonished.
“I didn’t hear it, I read it. Daddy brings me a newspaper or two to improve my English every time he returned from Beirut. Is what I’ve said true, or not?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“True or not?”
“It’s not that simple. You find a man who is told by his wife that she’s going to leave him for another man but he says nothing, or may encourage her to do so. Then again, the same thing is told to another man but he kills both. Suicide attempts are in the hundreds; their victims include deserted wives, deserted husbands and children. You can’t generalise just because it’s not easy to analyse every problem, case by case. There are people who have real problems and there are those who don’t. But they are all humans, each with his or her own reaction. I say to you, it’s not that simple. Otherwise, social relationships would not have collapsed in their old forms and emerged in new ones. The marriage establishment wouldn’t have collapsed for a large part of it to be replaced by cohabitation. These changes have reasons behind them.”
Aroub was ready to counter his argument but she hesitated. The conversation turned to discussion and the discussion was becoming too serious. A few minutes ago the sky above their heads was clear but dark clouds were moving fast to obscure the sun and reduce the warmth they both felt for a few, long minutes.
Her mood darkened. “There’s another difference which I forgot to mention though I think it’s important.”
“Half the people here live with each other happily without marriage, as you’ve just said. Where I come from, all the people get married before they live with each other, but at least half of them don’t live as happily as they should. Is happiness that important?”
“Of course, it is. If God didn’t want happiness for us, He would not have given us the ability to enjoy it.”
She danced her head, intoxicated. “It’s beautiful what you’ve just said.”
Sitting on the stairs benumbed her legs. She moved to ease the pressure on circulation but felt an increase in the sticky secretion. Glancing discreetly, she noticed the presence of a dark spot on her pyjamas. Her worry turned to panic. She regathered the bathrobe, stuck it firmly between her legs and looked at him to see if he had noticed anything.
“No!” he said, summing up his response to what his mind had retained of her talk. “I don’t think marriage suits me.”
She didn’t hear him. She could only hear the shriek of panic jolting her mind.
Unable to think of anything but the dark spot, she stood, held the bathrobe and pyjamas between her legs and ascended the stairs hurriedly.
Image: Sonia D., private share