Recently I went back to Al-ب
The bougainvillea-draped, marble-tiled, baked-stucco compound where I gave my first blow job. It had been years since I’d spent dusk on a school night sprawled in the gravel and wet grass of one apartment’s back garden, testing out my gag reflex.
As I pulled up to the coppery gate, the tinted window of the security kiosk slid open. A familiar Indian guard with epaulettes on his short-sleeved shoulders leaned out the window, belly and all, to squint into my vehicle. He looked exactly the same, except his thin mustache had gone gray.
At sixteen, this was the guy I was most terrified of. I was sure he was going to rat me out to my brother sometime when he came to pick me up from my “study session” with the French girls. “Oh that girl,” the guard would say. “She’s the compound slut.”
I was in a fragile state of permanent alarm. Each time I’d be driven up to the speed bumps in front of the gate, this guard would grill me.
“Which number are you going to? What family name?”
And once, upon seeing a towel hanging out of my purse: “You can only use the pool if you live here, Miss.”
I just knew that he knew my towel was actually intended for spreading out on a dusty back balcony in one of the unlocked vacancies and rolling around in various states of undress with my first and (I thought) only love. I couldn’t distract myself from the guard’s stern stare of disapproval. I tried to convince myself that the stare had just been blank, and that his judgmental chin-set was merely an expression of terminal boredom. My boyfriend repeated, “Nobody knows, no one can see us,” to soothe my quaking nerves whenever I went down on him in an overgrown driveway or under a dried-out hedge.
In retrospect, the guard was probably more wary of my surly brother, with his heavy beard, than of my gawky teenage self.
This time I had every right to drive on Al-ب’s streets, all cactus and palms, and park next to the dimly lit playground rimmed with impossibly green grass. This time he waved me through with a respectful nod. My hosts were a married design team who had been living in the compound since before I was born. I didn’t know them back in the day, but they and their ilk were the architects of my sixteen-year-old Eden. The lax, mostly Euro, parents of Al-ب let my friends — their children — throw house parties and ride in taxis and date. Karl’s parents never bothered about why two Arab kids were scrambling over their back wall into the unkempt garden next door; Paula’s mother just giggled when she noticed my hickeys. Back home I wove long and complex lies to explain my need to stay so late after school, why I didn’t answer my phone on the first ring, and how a lead necklace had left circular discolorations all over my neck.
If you ever speak to a girl about dating in the Gulf, she can confirm that the process involves some, if not all, of the following tactics (a few of which are international tricks of the sneak-around trade for those born into strict families).
There’s the old switcheroo. Convince your chaperone to drop you off at a sympathetic girlfriend’s house. Leave with her driver, cover your face, and voila! Daddy won’t ever know he’s been duped!
There is the dangerous but rewarding trunk-dunk, which involves smuggling a boy in the trunk of your car. Back up to the ladies’ entrance of your house during Friday prayer or a big sale in the souk. Note: Stay on the phone with him while driving, to be sure he’s not suffocating.
Then there’s cross-dressing. This is self-explanatory, though I’ve never tried it. Dressing down is an approved variation. If your boyfriend can pass for Indian, make him wear a T-shirt and dirty baseball hat. To anyone who asks, reply indignantly: “What? He’s my driver.”
Having an active sex life in the Gulf is a multilevel, multiplayer, impossible to control (or beat) game of sexual espionage, riddled with gun-slinging religious police, car chases by angry relatives, and a terrifying Qur’an- and/or sword-wielding imam and/or executioner at the end of every level. The hypertension that leads up to every carefully arranged meeting, the glimpse of one another from across a crowded intersection, the gift delivered to your door by his clueless little sister, a kiss stolen behind a dumpster at the back entrance of a Fuddruckers… all are worth the risk, even if it means game over.
But back to my raging hormones.
I was sixteen.
I was in love.
I was religious.
I was in way over my head.
I was prepared to do anything, really anything, for my one true love.
But so was every other girl in my class. The week before school let out, I conspired with the daughters of various ambassadors to smuggle our respective boyfriends into a safe house while their parents were away in Mecca. We settled on ج’s place. ج was the daughter of the Saudi ambassador. Her two younger sisters wore flannel pajama sets and lurked behind low cushioned couches, observing the four of us, dolled up under our abayas, drinking Nescafe and exchanging “How far have you gone?” stories while we waited for our cue. Their house was grand, with marble floors and mirrored windows and three stories of parlors and guest rooms, opening up onto a circular pool that was half indoors and half outdoors. The pool was the only place in the house free of surveillance cameras and staff at 8pm on a Thursday night. The back entrance/escape route was a ten-foot concrete wall with a camouflaged door that could be accessed by parking at one of the fish restaurants on the beach and mincing along the gravel seashore for a quarter of a mile.
Our signal to flip the surveillance cameras on and off came when ج’s boyfriend called as he was just out of range of the cameras. ج ran to the fuse box and doused the lights for no more than twenty seconds — enough time for ف and I to open the secret door, flag the boys in, and slam the door shut again. Here they were, our ragtag bunch of beaus, looking terrified. These were very possibly the four young males our families would least like us to see, and they were valiantly risking their lives to make out with us. For س, the Iraqi straight-A student — the class-A drug-dealing dope. For ف, the aristocratic Kuwaiti — a skeezy mall rat. For ج, the Saudi princess — a Sudanese DJ. And for me, ش — a devout Muslim, who was always rebuking himself (and also, me) for our furtive encounters. None of the boys had known each other before, and I rather doubt they stayed in contact.
There was the grating tinge of danger clouding the meeting, along with the equally uncomfortable hint of “orgy” wafting in the air as freshly waxed thighs were spread and saliva swapped and fingers banged. Each couple retired to an unsurveilled corner, getting comfortable on countertops and cardboard boxes and deck chairs.
But the night came abruptly to an end when a bumbling handyman came upon me in the darkened storage room where ش and I had taken refuge. I rose from a squat from behind a stack of broken-down boxes. He let out a yelp — of surprise or fear, I couldn’t tell.
“I thought you were a jinn, Miss.”
“Haha, yes. Well, I was just looking for some Fanta!”
ش hid behind the open door. I led the handyman over to a refrigerator in the stairwell and asked him to look inside for Fanta. I was practically pushing his head into the refrigerator as I jerkily motioned for ش to make a run for it. It was all very situation-comedy, in a very unfunny way. He scurried out just as the handyman gave up searching for the orange soda bottles. I don’t know how they all managed it, but by the time I had dispatched the intruder and returned to the pool area, all the boys were gone. Of course, the cameras had been left on.
ج didn’t show up at graduation. ش and I spent our last few liaisons in the back gardens of Al-ب. The summer was approaching, and with it the broiling sun, making our usual hideaways on balconies and back patios impossibly hot. (I had only to lay my bare buttocks on the glaring white cement for them to sear with a pitched hiss.) Salty sweat dripped into our eyes and mouths as we kissed. Whenever I looked at ش, trying to memorize how he looked before I left for college, I’d half-faint from the psychedelic floaters taunting me and obstructing his face.
By the middle of July, we’d given up on liaisons. There was no shady place to seek refuge, and I couldn’t stay out much later than sunset prayer. We said goodbye in a silver shop where he’d had two rings engraved, one with my name on the inside and one with his. The silversmith rolled his eyes as we awkwardly exchanged them. ش promised he’d visit in ط City, and I promised to be faithful and return to him after college. I left first to go find my driver; he waited behind five minutes before leaving the jeweler’s. Later that night I received a text while I sat weeping on my roof: “Wait for me in ط City.”
I spent the better part of a year waiting in ط City, chained to my phone. I almost never left the female side of the dorm. After a few harrowing trips downtown, with a near-constant array of men making rude comments, I avoided the city as much as possible. I didn’t even go to see the spectacular ن Mosque until May of that school year. Instead I watched the “community activities” going on in the courtyard below through my ornamental window grate. There was no one at the college who knew me to take me aside and tell me what a scrooge I’d become. I reported every prank call I received to the reception desk and called the floor manager if the fat-assed Kuwaiti girls blasted their Gulf-pop past 1am on a school night. They clobbed back and forth in their heels both on my floor and on the floor above, coming home from dates at the Hard Rock Cafe, squealing into their cellphones. I hated them.
Luckily, I shared my tiny tiled dorm room with an equally bitter person, a veiled Jordanian girl from Sheffield who used to cut herself along her stomach with plastic knives before bed and then tell me over cornflakes and canned milk the next morning, “We have a jinn in this room — look what it does to me at night!”
My weekdays were a simple trajectory from bed to desk to library to bed. Though ش called less and less, I didn’t want to meet anyone new. I hadn’t learned to trust myself. I was afraid of liking someone a little too much and so spent my free time composing elaborate love letters to the ever-receding boy back home. Every Friday night I lay in my twin bed, belly-down on my sheepskin, reading Isabel Allende novels. It was self-imposed mental and physical isolation.
I was confirmed in my solitary habits by my new best friend, ک, a princess with thick streaks of Wahhabi running through her. I’d met her during Ramadan that year, during an Iftar I’d tried to avoid in the cafeteria. She was intimidating, gorgeous, with long black hair that she oiled regularly. She wore high-waisted mom pants in 1996 and somehow managed to pull it off. She had a pear-shaped body — like literally resembling a pear, her thin torso and tiny belly giving way to smooth, sloping, fleshy hips and thick thighs. She always covered her tight jeans and permanent camel-toe with long flowing tunics and the ends of her hijab. But I remember ک best in her Garfield pajamas and matching slippers, which she always wore to relax in her room. The prank callers I used to tattle on had started to call her room just to hear her husky, sophisticated, French-accented voice. We worked together, got waxed together, ordered in Mehndi together, rode to school together, prayed together, and fasted together. To ک, everything was borderline haram, including the fact that my beloved ش, spelled his name without capitalizing the “Allah” in it.
But that spring ک got a full scholarship to go to Cambridge, and as I thought about living in the dorm without her, I realized that I was restless, tired of hiding away. (I was getting tired of waiting for ش too, though I couldn’t admit that.) When I decided to move out of the dorm and get a place of my own, I justified it to myself with the idea that I was doing it for ش too — when he did come to ط City, we’d have a lovely little nest just for the two of us. But even then the ring with his name inside had turned my finger green, and the skin underneath was dead-looking and translucent.
I moved into an old art deco apartment with two bedrooms, a long dark corridor to a kitchen, a sideboard full of someone else’s family photographs, and five couches in the living room, two of which didn’t have any cushions, which I repurposed as bookshelves. I couldn’t really afford the place by myself, so I got a roommate. A revolving cast of improbable people traipsed through my extra room (and expanded my universe). First there was an American girl, who taught me to “do the shag” our first week together, before we discovered we didn’t get along. There was an Italian girl who claimed to be dating a local pop star; a Japanese girl who turned out to be a nudist; a Macedonian who ate only canned peaches and left the cans in the sink; a Jordanian whose unfortunate habits taught me what “freebasing cocaine” meant; and a young German divorcee who’d moved to escape her motherly duties. Some stayed only a few weeks, some a few months. Sometimes I was alone in the house. It didn’t matter so much, actually, because usually I was upstairs.
It all started when I met ص in our wobbly two-person elevator with the broken mirror and swinging doors. He invited me up to listen to music. ص was from Alaska and had bright green gecko eyes that wobbled back and forth unsteadily. His arms were covered with self-inflicted burn marks and branding. He was in ط City, as he said, to “study his Deen.” But along his path there was hash to be smoked and prolonged circular debates to be had with the other men he shared his apartment with. The mu’mins, or “dudes,” were writers, roustabouts, and law students who went by nicknames like Sunny, Mido, and Bo. They were smart and incredibly serious about their observance, and they thought it was funny to call me “unclean” to my face while getting high and listening to Leonard Cohen. It later emerged that two of the men I used to mull over “Everybody Knows” with went on to be jihadis, a strange disconnect I could never really reconcile with their personalities. But that’s another story. This is about the unwaged battle for my flower and the secret I tried to keep everybody from knowing.
As Ramadan began, the dudes became more agitated about my presence among them, ruining their fasts with my unclean self. So I spent more and more time where I was wanted, in ص’s room, soaking up long meandering anecdotes about burns and hobos and high-school kids and American life. I prized from him every remembered detail of his three-year journey hitching his way down the West Coast, bussing tables at random greasy spoons and diners and blowing all his money on drugs. He regaled me with stories of his old girlfriends: broad-shouldered hippie chicks, pixieish punk girls, bottle blondes, Mexicans, drunk girls, stoned girls. It sounds like a catalogue, but every woman on his list had her love story, an elaborate drama that I listened to with amazement. The concept of being in love with more than one person was still baffling to me. ص told me about the girl he had left back in Anchorage. He told me about her curly golden locks, and how she taught their parrot to swear, and the name she called his dick — and how she always went to sleep at 9pm, but if he put in a tape of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America she’d wake up and watch attentively through the whole thing. Most of all, he told me how much I’d love her someday if we ever met. She hadn’t accepted his conversion to Islam, so they’d separated. Now here he was, a twenty-nine-year-old ex-punk convert with an extremely confused teenage girl practically living in his bedroom. He started asking me to stay over during our late-night conversations, and after a while I started accepting his offer. Nothing happened for a long time. He remained on his side of the bed, and I’d be lulled by his breathing, woken by his comforting snore or the occasional straying hand or leg.
One evening just after sunset, I fell down a flight of stairs. The stairwell light had gone out, and I slipped and landed on my knees, my hands scraped and bleeding from clawing at the rough concrete wall. ص heard the crash and came running down. He held me in his arms and told me it was going to be okay, and took me to a hospital where they pumped me full of muscle relaxants and painkillers. The doctor inquired about our relationship but dropped it when I started weeping hysterically. We were there for a long time, waiting for the radiologist. As it happened, I hadn’t broken anything. Any bones, at least. But while we were sitting there, ش called for the first time in almost a month. He had big news: he’d gotten into a fancy university in Canada, and he’d decided to go. And he was coming to visit me. I had been waiting for ش in ط City for a year and half, and he’d never visited. Now he was going to be there in a week.
I didn’t really know what to do with that information. What I did know was that I felt almost completely out of body. ص took me home and laid me tenderly in his bed. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, of course, and had broken my fast with a horse pill that made me drool on myself. One of the dudes yelled into the room — “respecting me” by not looking around the doorjamb — “Did you break anything, unclean one?” It was a classic dude moment, and it pissed me off even through the veil of my drug-induced haze. What had I done to deserve such bullshit? The dudes, the men on the street, and even ش tried to make me feel that I was to blame for… for what, exactly? For exposing them to the feminine mystique? For opening some locked door where they kept their boners? For luring them into dangerous situations in the Saudi ambassador’s house? It was the final straw on my hymen’s back. When ص came back with tea and juice and a plate of rice, I looked him in his bright green eyes and asked him to have sex with me.
I think I asked him to “do it to me.”
ص was stunned. He looked like a little boy, not believing he’s finally been given the toy he’d been begging for for months. He looked suspicious, even.
“Really? Are you sure?”
At that moment, I had never been surer of anything in my life. I could barely move, so he ceremoniously undressed me and himself, his scarification ridging down his forearms and across his back. There was a one-eyed rattlesnake, its head at his right shoulder blade, its body curled across his back and its tail kinked at the top of his left ass-cheek. ص asked again if I was sure. He lit a cigarette and drank my tea as I lay there prone. He sat down naked and cross-legged next to me and told me the story of his first time. How he was thirteen and she was older, the lodger at his friend’s parents’ house, and how she had huge saddlebag boobs, and how it hadn’t lasted long. Almost on cue the brassy keyboard warble and husky baritone of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” came rumbling up through the parquet floor:
If you want a father for your child Or only want to walk with me a while Across the sand I’m your man
It didn’t last much longer than ص’s first time. And I didn’t feel much of anything, with all the painkillers, though I bled a small oblong heart-shape onto the sheet. He helped me out of bed, took me to the bathroom, and washed me off with a washrag while I sat on the toilet. I ran my finger along the inside ridge of the snake scar, and we sat in silence for a bit, listening to the athan ringing from the loudspeakers on the mosque across the street. After rinsing out the washrag, he put his cheek on my knee and said, “Thank you.”
The stereo was silent downstairs. The dudes had obviously left the apartment. I was certain that everybody knew what had happened, and this time, I was glad.
Naturally I fell in love with ص. A desperate, clinging, guilt-wracked love, but love nonetheless. We spent most of the following week in bed, me trying out new roles as an invalid and as a girl who has sex. ص set about his task with gusto. He used a jewelry-box mirror to watch from different angles, and tied me up with an old shoelace, and carried me back and forth to the bathroom, where he bathed me and shaved me and told me I was destined to become a sex ninja, though I’d never felt less sexy than strapped naked to the rack of guilt and self-loathing.
The sun rose and set, and the athan crackled through the clogged mosque speakers, and the dudes flipped the Cohen cassette and ص humped away, and I took note of the street crud in the treads of his shoes and the cobwebs in the corners of room, and without my noticing it, the week passed and ش was due to arrive. I didn’t sleep the night before he came. I wasn’t worried — I couldn’t process much, let alone a complex feeling like worry. I waited for the sun to flap in through the dirty wooden shutters and slowly came out of my drowsy misery as I watched a big daddy-longlegs-type spider crawl toward me on the rumpled linen. ص awoke and palmed my breasts and threatened to give me a hickey if I didn’t stay in bed with him, but I mustered all my energy and left for the first time since that first night. My fall had left me sedated in every way.
ش arrived wearing his dad’s oversize leather bomber jacket, and when he hugged me it creaked. He was happy. He was going to go to Montreal! His excitement had nothing to do with seeing me after over a year.
I noticed he wasn’t wearing his ring.
But then again, neither was I.
We were finally alone with no authority figures, no uncles or silversmiths or compound guards between us.
It was terrible.
It was weird, actually — fraught and empty at the same time. The distance between us and accumulated anxieties of years of covert courtship had made even the idea of holding hands in public nerve-racking, let alone the thought of sleeping alongside one another. All that, and the possibility of running into ص loomed ever larger in my mind. When ش suggested we take a trip to ت Town to look at the ruins, I immediately agreed.
We didn’t speak much on the train to ت Town, and I measured our progress by the number of times the tea-man shuffled past, balancing stacked towers of thick glass cups full of sopping tea grinds. The mountains jolted past the window at high speed, and we arrived at the old station in a daze. A taxi took us to the corniche, where we strolled up and down until we found a hotel that would let us get a room together without a marriage certificate.
We checked into a musty old place on the fourth floor of a stately resort building, with a windy balcony overlooking the waterfront. We stood on the threshold. A twin bed on a rickety short bed frame sat in the middle of the room. It was covered with an itchy-looking wool blanket. A wardrobe with one leg propped up on a stack of newspapers stood beside the window, while a painfully bright neon light with a pull-string flickered next to the door. The room was anonymous, the ideal location for young lovers to obliterate themselves into nowhere. But we weren’t ready to go there yet.
So we went out.
It was stormy and cold. ت Town seemed surreal after ط City; it was like the entire place was on mute. The waves crashed against the barriers, but there was barely a sound, and our heels didn’t clack against the pavement. There was no honking of horns, no shouting or radio or TV blaring. The town was virtually deserted in the evening. Shadowy figures ducked into alleyways, doormen eyed us silently, and waiters didn’t seem to notice us when we entered.
We were out to find a fish joint, the kind where you get to pick from amongst the day’s catch, where morel and crabs and all sorts of saltwater seafood are lined up, gutted and finned on a bed of ice, and you check for clouded eyes or bloody gills and say “I’ll have him fried” or “Let’s eat that one grilled.” Then you wait at a plastic-covered table until they lay out tahini and hummus and pickled peppers and soft round pitas that steam when you rip them open, and after ten minutes the fish arrives, kitted-out on a bed of lettuce and tomato and tin foil, the meat curled back and crisped around the slits in its side. ش was a fish lover, and with a swift swipe had split his open and flipped it in half, removing the spine and ladder of ribs from the black-specked and thread-veined flesh.
He dug in while my attention alternated between the TV tuned to Rotana and a loud family of middle-class locals sitting beside us. The dad wore a heavy mustache and leather jacket like ش’s, and the kids climbed under the table and around the chairs in sand-blasted jeans and jackets printed or patched with nonsense English words. The mother was done up in a peach-toned hijab and matching lipstick that made her look peaked. I realized I felt a little ill myself.
I excused myself and dashed across the street to the wall of the corniche and took a few deep breaths of the frigid night air. While leaning over the cobbled wall fighting off nausea, I had the distinct sensation of being on the edge of a pitch-black sea, and even though I was a strong swimmer, I was being dragged out by the undertow. I spit a few times, wondered idly at how awful it would be if I were pregnant, and closed my eyes until I felt the fog behind them abate.
Back inside, I couldn’t remove the bones from my own fish, so ش had to do it for me. I took this opportunity to offer myself. I said it with total conviction in my most determined voice, a tone I rarely use and find hard to modulate.
“We need to have sex.”
The mother’s ears pricked up under her hijab, and she dropped her cutlery before turning to stare at me in disbelief and disgust. ش’s expression wasn’t dissimilar, and he paused his operation on the fish.
“But we’ve already waited so long. What’s a few more years?”
“You’re going to Canada. Who knows when we’ll see each other again?”
He said the right thing: “I’ll wait as long as it takes.”
I said the wrong thing: “I won’t.”
I then backed up my callousness with “If it’s not you, it’ll be some other guy. I want it to be you.”
ش and I went out onto the dark street and walked along the stormy corniche toward our hotel room. A boy with a wheelbarrow filled with ice and gelato bins shivered in the wet sea breeze. We shared a paper cup of lemon-lime gelato, and ش shielded me with his leather jacket and squeezed me to him and kissed the top of my head.
ش slept heavily, despite the fact it was our first time in an actual bed together. I had stripped down completely, but he had modestly kept his boxer shorts on. The mattress was lumpy, but it hardly mattered — I’d have been uncomfortable on a waterbed covered with the softest sheepskin. After what felt like hours, I felt myself drift off, and I worried foggily that I’d spill my secrets in my sleep. When I came to, ش was already awake.
It was cold outside the covers, so he wore socks and his leather jacket over his boxers as he dashed to the toilet. When he came back, I noticed from my angle how tall he was. I couldn’t help but observe how his mustache had grown thicker and his shoulders broader and his smile brighter.
Even dressed like a fool, he looked like a prince.
We’d spent almost twenty-four hours together and had only pecked at one another. Even after we’d both washed up and brushed our teeth, we only paused and kissed with shut mouths before leaving the privacy of the room. We gathered up our things and headed to Our Lady of ت to see the mosque that had been a cathedral and now was largely a tourist attraction. ش had heard there were medieval chastity belts on display. The old structure was ت Town’s famous remnant of the Crusades, half hidden by new construction. It was what we’d gone there for, but the doors were shut when we arrived. We lingered at the site, once guarded by the Knights Templar, until it was time for our train. On the ride back, we very rationally discussed the possibility of losing our virginities to other people and then resolved together to take each other’s on his last night in ط City.
I think we both knew our relationship was over, but we kept at it for the next five days, busying ourselves with errands in half-hearted preparation for the big night. On Friday I went to Jum’a prayer with him and spent several hours afterward separated by the post-prayer crowd.
Later that day we went out of our way to find a pharmacy I never went to, to buy condoms. My own pharmacists never seemed to recognize me, anyway, but I was completely paranoid. As we headed back through the market, we passed a combination lingerie shop-perfumery. The shop was crowded with shelf after shelf of mannequin pelvises in a metallic shade of black. Each pelvis wore a different style of crotchless or bejeweled or battery-operated “singing” underpants. ش had always been into lingerie and suggested I go inside and choose something appropriate. By which he meant, something white. “Get something white,” he insisted. “You never wore white ones.” I obsessed over his use of past tense and picked a bridal pair with white mesh and fake white feathers woven into the front panel in the shape of a heart.
We returned to my flat, and he made phone calls while I went out to buy groceries for dinner. I was making kofta and headed down to the butcher’s next to an old coffee and nargileh joint. (The meat there was heavily exposed to apple tobacco and ash, and I swear that made it taste better.) My heart skipped a beat when I noticed ص sitting at a backgammon table with the dudes, smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking his Turkish coffee. I approached the butcher’s without making eye contact and was greeted as soon as I came under the low-hanging awning by the faintly metallic smell of fresh blood on stainless steel hooks. I ordered half a kilo of lamb to be ground and turned toward the street to find ص in the door, leering with one arm resting on the concrete wall and the other holding a cigarette. I still can’t understand the absurd ease with which this American kid had settled into ط City; he walked down every street as though he’d lived there all his life.
“How’s the Arab? Did he shave his cheesy little mustache?”
I didn’t answer him. I hadn’t seen ص in four days. I didn’t know what to say, and it didn’t sound like he knew what to say either.
I had a second request for the butcher. I asked in Arabic, so ص wouldn’t catch on to what I was doing.
“Could you maybe put a little blood in this bottle for me?”
I handed him an empty mango juice bottle, and he looked over the glass counter with a bemused smile.
Just like the guard back at Al-ب, I knew he knew exactly what I was doing.
“Are you up to some kind of black magic?” he asked.
I was flummoxed, because of course the answer was yes. He bobbed his head at me and twirled his hand in an expressive “whatever” gesture. ص stood on the threshold as the butcher took the bottle into the back and returned, wiping it off with an already bloody rag. “Have at it,” he said.
I was faithful to that butcher shop until I left ط City, in no small part because it was where I bought my honor back with half a kilo of freshly ground lamb and a bottle of chicken blood.
I stood with ص for a few minutes on the sidewalk amid honking horns and the covert attention of the dudes, pretending not to look over their steaming teas and their backgammon boards.
ص had something big to tell me, too. “ ز is coming to ط City. I think we’re getting back together. My ex, remember?”
“Is she going to live with you?” I know my lip started to quiver before he even answered, because he closed his eyes and leaned his head back, opening them to stare at the highway overpass that hung low over us.
“I fucked up.”
I turned so the dudes wouldn’t see the fat tears as they started to roll down my face, and I dodged through the traffic to our side street. I spent a few minutes in the elevator, the same elevator where I’d met ص, prodding my eyes with a tissue and trying to soothe my puffy red face. I sniffled there for a few minutes before pressing the button and returning to my apartment and ش.
He was still on the phone when I came back, ticket information scattered on my coffee table, the box of condoms in the crook of the couch, and him making plans with a cousin to visit London.
I set the lamb on the counter to let it bleed and hid the bottle of chicken blood in a cupboard while I lit the gas oven and chopped the garlic and parsley for the kofta.
I was about to try pulling off a trick my old friend ک had read to me out of a book. It had come up in one of our many discussions concerning our then-intact hymens. There were horror stories about good girls whose deflowering failed to provide its proof. One failsafe involved keeping a small baggie of blood beneath you during sex. So I took a thin plastic sack, the whisper-thin kind that nuts and seeds come packaged in, filled it with a few tablespoons of chicken blood, and stashed it in a mug on a shelf next to my bed.
The meal was a bust. Even though I’d been smoking up and screwing, I’d never had alcohol before, and neither had ش. We shared a bottle of sour red wine and cuddled on the couch until he suggested going into the room.
I leaned in for a long kiss by reflex.
When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t see ش. I couldn’t imagine what ص looked like. All I could see was the back of my eyelids as my mouth filled up with an anonymous tongue.
I shifted to autopilot, guilty sobs spasming up from my stomach. I’d imagined this moment so many times. Spent so many weekends writing passionate five-thousand-word emails about our wedding night. It had been so real; we’d fantasized about it for years. It would be in a tent on a beach. It was his idea to go swimming afterward to make my wound heal and then dry ourselves in the air under the full moon.
ش reiterated a line that had come up in the Friday sermon, about our journey through this life into the next.
“Man is always, ever, impatient.”
Imam’s words usually go in one ear and out the other for me, but I’ve remembered those words from ش’s lips ever since.
And once again I was suddenly sure that the man before me knew more than I thought he did.
Even as I took my bra off from under my dress, ش still didn’t want to do it. Over the course of our relationship, we had made out naked, gone down on each other, dry humped each other raw… all that was halal enough. But now he was genuinely worried for my honor. Freaked out that my family would find out, kill me, bury me in the desert, and then come after him.
He kept muttering that I’d hate him in the morning.
For my part, I kept quiet and concentrated on having my way. I had to give him what I’d promised before we finally said goodbye. I was convinced that faking my virginity and offering it to him would be “doing right” by him.
What selfish logic.
The white, feathery underwear made him laugh when he lifted the ridiculous peasant dress that I’d hoped would evoke rustic innocence. He bunched it up around my neck and tried going down on me, but he sputtered when a feather got caught in his mouth.
I laughed but didn’t think it was funny.
When he rose to get a condom, I reached for my little plastic bag and deposited it under my ass. I didn’t dare move for fear I’d bust it before it was time, and lay there trying to cup the baggie in the small of my back. I hovered imperceptibly over the sheet while he figured out which way to unroll the rubber. He stretched out flat on top of me, and I felt the bag burst and the wetness start to pool before he’d even entered me. I winced when he pushed in.
“A-a-ouch,” I said.
My second first time lasted a lot longer than the first. Long enough to make me sore.
I became obsessed with the notion that the bag of blood had popped upward and onto my back rather than downward, and that this would reveal my perfidy.
He took a break and hitched up my legs to see the blood.
I struggled to frame the stain in a more convin-ing spot, knocking skulls with him as we both looked down at the result.
Thankfully, the baggie stuck to my back, and I asked ش to get me a washrag. He got up, pulled the condom off, and went to the bathroom. I peeled the bloody plastic from my back and plopped it back into the mug. I lay down again, rubbing the blood off my back and onto the sheet like a bear against tree bark. Now it was spread all over the bed and had formed more of a dry bloody shadow than a heart.
ش returned with a wet rag. He asked how I was feeling and lay down beside me, pulling up close to me to spoon. I turned over so he wouldn’t notice the stain on my back. We napped for a few hours and did it again without a condom before the sun rose.
Occasionally between humps he would whisper, “I’m sorry.”
I held his torso tight to my chest and cried, swallowing back whimpers as his breathing grew faster. His feelings of guilt were multiplying my own — for every thrusted apology of his, I owed him a thousand. At that moment, with the love of my young life reluctantly fucking me, Islam and the dudes upstairs and the men on the street were right: All of it was my fault.
ش left the next day; I took him to the airport. Our goodbye was stilted. We hadn’t really broken up, but we hadn’t restated any vows, either.
I said I was glad he “did it to me.”
We kissed, cold and wet, and I wept, more out of relief than anything else.
When I returned home, I went straight to my bed. It was empty and covered in loose white down and browning chicken blood. I slept for two days. I didn’t wash the sheets for a month. I slept on the couch until a friend came to live with me and I had to get on with things.
It was easy, it turns out, to pluck my own blossom; but it was a lot harder to shrug off a lifelong habit of guilt and masochistic moralizing. I unplugged the phone from the wall and closed the drapes and locked myself in my bedroom, where I stayed, constructing a new wall between me and men and my Muslimness. My hymen was all ripped up and my religion was in tatters, and every floodgate that had kept me righteous in the face of accusation and insinuation was weakened or busted. For years after, I was repentant, confusing virginity with honor and pride and worth.
Then, a few months ago, I received a poem from ص in Alaska. It was a vivid account of a hunt, the story of his patient stalking of a bear in late winter. He winds a wolf-rib into a lump of seal-blubber and leaves it for the bear to swallow. He follows her to the edge of death, waiting for the rib to pierce her from the inside, and after many days he comes upon her body, still warm.
I hack a ravine in her thigh, and eat and drink, And tear her down her whole length And open her and climb in And close her up after me, against the wind, And sleep.
ص’s poem and the email it came in were full of discomforting love and undeserved gratitude, and somehow they made me feel my insides again. Pricked me into an awareness, an independent solitude that I’d forgotten. Can I say they made me feel like a virgin? They made me feel like a fucking virgin.