I decided to spend a few minutes observing him from afar before letting him know I had arrived. He was like a magnet, like what the homeland is to those who have been forced into exile, like the family one wrongly thought one could live without. I looked at him while he smoked, taking one puff after another. I had had mixed feelings about our rendezvous. With every step I had taken to get to where I was, I had felt tempted to turn around. And suddenly, I had arrived, at the Souq El Hamediya café, the agreed place, where he was already waiting for me. He looked up, saw me and chuckled. He had cleaned up well enough to let the handsome show through. On this occasion, he seemed to have gone the extra mile to impress, attire-wise, at least. And he certainly had achieved his goal. I immediately lamented having missed out on giving birth to that jolly man’s children.
He stood up to greet me and pressed a kiss on the palm of my hands, as he did when we were still together.
“Is that how you are supposed to conduct yourself toward the woman you repudiated three years ago?”
“That is most definitely how I feel I should be able to conduct myself toward the woman I loved for one third of the time I have spent on this earth.”
“And do you take so many liberties with all the women you have split from, or, to be more accurate, you have cheated on?”
“Suhaila! Don’t be mean! I didn’t cheat “cheat” on you! I just happen to have a soft spot for the beginnings. But after each new start,…”
“…I went back to loving you, more than I had ever loved you before.”
And there we were, gawking at each other stupidly, as if we had never called it quits. In my eyes, Ali had become one with the Bab al-Louq Square. I could hardly tell my feelings for one apart from the ones I had for the other. A myriad of conflicting emotions overwhelmed me. Winter was just starting to set in, the sun was shining and a fresh breeze brought me the smell of a much-needed coffee. I had been almost afraid of finding myself face to face with him again. And now, as I listened to his stories about what he had been up to since we had last seen each other, I could relate completely. I was enjoying our time together. I felt the same way I remembered feeling on our very first date, back when I was still a teenager.
He had brought me something. It was a small bag. Inside, I found some signed books, but not just by anyone: one had Mahmoud Darwish’s signature, and another had Baher Taher’s! They looked oddly familiar. Suddenly, it came back to me! What a blast from the past! Where had all those things stayed? Why had I left them behind? I rummaged up a tarnished silver ring from the bag. Along the inside surface, carved initials had been inlaid with gold. This treasure was definitely foreign to me. I turned to him and said, “You should return this to its rightful owner.”
“That I bought for you just recently. I didn’t get you anything golden while we were still married to one another.”
He detected the skepticism painted on my face and swore to the veracity of his statement. I, in turn, thanked him profusely for the gift. He had also recovered the first draft of my first novel. I had given up on it years ago, convinced that all the work I’d put into it up to that point was lost.
Suddenly, he asked me if I had found someone else. I told him that I, too, was a huge fan of beginnings, but that I couldn’t afford to overlook the impact endings exerted on me. I asked him why he hadn’t remarried.
“Someone else? I could eventually agree to marriage, but never to marry someone other than you.”
“No steady job, no stable relationship, you don’t seem to have changed much.”
“Back then, you didn’t want me to change.”
After a brief pause, he asked me:
“What about you? Do you still love me, even if only a tiny little bit?”
“I love you, the same as I love my country.”
Silence ensued. I really did love him, but it hurt to have him so near and yet…I couldn’t stay there any longer.
I broke the silence to tell him that I had to get going. I was loath to leave, but I had a plane to catch, leaving in a few hours time. He asked me if he could walk with me for a while, and so we started moving toward Bab al-Louq Square. We held hands as we strolled along the street, and I remembered how it was when we first started out as a couple, how promising it looked back then: the prospect of us both slowly getting used to one another, even if it meant growing a little bit bored of each other. I liked to feel my hand in his. He had a firm grip, but I didn’t feel safe.
I had desperately longed, while abroad, to be back in Cairo. When I finally got to return, the future I had envisioned for myself proved to be unviable. Who knew it was so easy to delude oneself into believing that a new beginning lay within reach?
He then told me he wanted to have a child with me. He said he wouldn’t take him to school. Instead, he said he would take him to see the world. He promised me he would devote his life to making him happy.
“Marry me again,” he said, giving me the puppy-eyes look. “If only for an hour. For old times’ sake.” I laughed. “I need a son willing to spend time with me in coffee shops, with whom I can play soccer in the streets of Al Sayeda Zainab, a boy with whom to smoke hash. After all, I don’t like smoking alone.“
Before getting into the cab I had hailed, I plucked up the courage to give him one last kiss goodbye on the middle of the street. I didn’t tell him that I had been diagnosed with cancer directly after we had split up and that the doctors removed my uterus to save my life. Although that day was an especially beautiful one, I spent the whole ride to the airport with my eyes shut to retain his image in my head for as long as I possibly could.
Written by Ghada Al Kholy.