It was the way he moved, as if there was a faint rap song playing but only he could hear it. Or maybe it was the way his feet shuffled to the slow rhythm of the summer breeze, as if he had fully mastered the art of walking, really walking. Or no, it was the way his cap laid perfectly lopsided on his head, as if he was too cool to be concerned with the minor triviality of adjusting it.
He radiated unattainability; you could observe from afar but being in his immediate proximity was a luxury only few had access to. Those with a pass into his private sphere included my sister. She had been leading a life of gleeful domesticity with his brother for years now, and so the connection between them was natural, familiar and blood-boilingly comfortable. The manner in which he fully acknowledged her presence infected me with a maddening jealousy I wasn’t accustomed to. After all, she had a ticket into his world and I was a lowly observer, not courageous enough to be a trespasser. Daydreams of his hands wrapped around me, of those very hands roaming free where they pleased, plagued my thoughts. Perhaps it was the wound on my heart that hadn’t exactly healed. Or the impossibility of obtaining what I so dreadfully longed for. Whatever it was, I attempted to push the thought of him out of my turbulent head, tried not to pay too much attention to the way I put on my lipstick with a little extra care, when I knew he’d be there. Until one day, I got to be my sister’s plus one.
That night, like every other night that summer, I was cocooned in my bed, protected by a fortress of pillows, wallowing in the pain of what had become my annual existential crisis. Being back home in Egypt, following multiple travels to all ends of the earth, was as soothing as slipping into an endless dream about genocides and civil wars. And so, I had vowed never to cross the threshold of my bedroom door and to simply wait for the summer to come to a painful yet resounding end. My sister, however, had other plans. She marched into my solitary confinement, make-up only halfway done, clasped my sweaty hands between her elegant, slender fingers and yanked me from under my sheets.
“You’ve been cooped up in this room for so long, it smells like rotting desperation.”
“That’s my perfume. Loner by Gucci.”
“Well, it stinks. So, get up before I drag you out of here with the ferret on your head that you call hair.”
And with that, she waltzed out. I considered locking the door and drowning out her mothering shrieks but truth is, I was on the verge of a meltdown. And I desperately needed a shower. So, tentatively, I soldiered my way to the bathroom. She was right. I looked like I had just come back from rehearsals for Les Mis.
My sister parked her car next to the curb of the impressive estate, killed the engine and spent a solid few minutes forcefully draining my social anxiety, as if she was going at it with a plunger.
Reluctantly, I followed in her shadow, as she headed towards the open gate into the garden, where the over-the-top lavish party was being held. Her boyfriend, glimpsing her, hustled over, and lifted her into a hug, his hands snaking their way around her waist. I averted my eyes, as he whispered in her ear, which sent her into a fit of elated giggles. And there he was. A rapper with an aesthetically mismatched affinity for old man’s whiskey. My eyes followed his fancy footwork, as he sauntered over and gave my sister a swift kiss on the cheek.
“Ahmed, this is Layan. My sister.”
“Hey.” He leaned in and gave me a light peck on the cheek, which would burn a dark plump red for the remainder of the night.
The boys led the way to the makeshift poker table and a few seconds later, I had a whiskey coke in my hand. The crowd was lighthearted, interesting, retelling humorous tales of car accidents and club rejections, and all the while I was nursing my drink and sneaking glances at him. But to my shock and delight, he seemed to be doing the same. His face expressed so many emotions per second; I wished I could discern which one was for me. As faces flushed, minds blurred and the entirety of the food was chomped down, we reached the night’s end. He walked us out to the car, where he leaned in, this time lingering a tad longer, and his lips grazed the flaming flesh of my cheek.
“Goodnight.” I replied hastily. Later on, I would replay that exact moment in my head a million times.
He called me boo.
A few days passed since our first meeting, with a few encounters in between. A couple of glances snuck here, a number of subtle flirtatious touches there and, finally, a lengthy conversation about heartbreak. I clung to every word he uttered, waiting for every stolen look, ravenous for even a sliver of his attention. And although at times we were a group of seven or eight, a barrier seemed to have been erected, separating us from the rest, isolating us from the world outside of the comfort of our shared space. He confessed his reservations about getting into another relationship, the pain of the past too strong to override. I professed my fear of emotions, which ran so deep; I had never let myself yearn for anything beyond the physical. As I drove home that night, I could not rid myself of the memory of the attraction that had fired up between us. I wanted him and I wanted him now.
On July 8th, we went to a party by the beach and – fueled with a courage that could have only settled inside us through obscene amounts of liquor – we went off alone. The waves delicately lapped onto the sand, as I stood barefoot and sloshed by the water.
“Kiss me.” I pleaded, but only in my head. And for a second, I thought he was going to comply. But behind his big brown eyes something seemed to register, a sobriety that reined him in and his features hardened. Once again, I felt reduced to an observer, one foot in the inner circle but not quite there. A single butterfly spiraled down to its death in my stomach.
An hour later, we were at our summerhouse, knocking back shot after shot, as if on a quest to quell the charged atmosphere between us. It seemed to electrocute the entire party. Yet, the alcohol only managed to increase the voltage, throwing us onto the terrace, just the two of us and a looming explosion of fireworks. When he finally locked eyes with me, my stomach did somersaults worthy of an Olympic medal. He was sitting so close; I could smell the whiskey on his breath, as it mingled with my own tequila fragrance.
“Why do you hate it so much?” he slurred, his eyes boring into mine, as I fidgeted in fear of the butterflies, once again taking flight.
“Being here. You have your sisters and your mom. It can’t be that bad.”
“I do and I love them. It’s just – I don’t feel like…I have myself here.”
“I don’t know what that’s like. Tucson isn’t exactly paradise, so I always look forward to coming back.” He could have talked forever. I could have watched those lips move for an eternity.
“I guess, I sort of understand. Egypt’s your Tucson. And–”
“You know you have to kiss me at one point, right?” And there it was. The suppressed plea aired out into the night breeze; we couldn’t tiptoe around it any longer. I don’t know what I expected him to do, my mind wasn’t streaming in 3D at that moment. But what he did completely paralyzed me.
“No, I don’t.”His bluntness cut through my flesh. I think I heard myself yelp.
“Oh, I-I’m sorry, I thought you’d want…I’m sorry.” I stammered, tripping over my words and desperately searching for an emergency exit. I had never misread signals so royally. How stupid I was to think a guy like that would want a girl like me. Idiotic. Crazy. Coocoo.
“It’s not about what I want.” He reached out and calmly touched my arm. “Your sister’s dating my brother. What would happen to their relationship, if…” Of course he was right. I couldn’t allow myself to have him. I was so caught up in the pink haze of summer flings that I had selfishly sought out the one person I should not have. It wasn’t logical.
Silence settled between us, a unified mourning for wistful what ifs. The chapter seemed to slam shut before it was even opened, but my tongue still burned with a question.
“So, what do you want?”
“It’s not important.”
“It’s important to me. What do you want?”
“Stop it.” He put a finger on my lips to silence me but I ignored the pang in my stomach and persisted.
“What do you want?”
“Layan. Seriously. Stop.”
“What do you want?” His hands scooped up my face between his palms before I could register what was happening. I swallowed down my prepared retorts, as his lips crashed onto mine. He only stopped for a few seconds to look at me softly and said, “This is what I want.”
He kissed me. He kissed me. He. Kissed. Me. That was all I could think about the next day. I hit the rewind button more than I care to admit, and each time I’d sigh even more gleefully. Fuck the consequences, fuck the drunkenness, I wanted him. And he wanted me, too. Yet, in the midst of my euphoria, a thought climbed its way to the surface, no matter how hard I tried to suppress it: We’re both leaving in a month.
“We can’t do long distance.” He said to me the next day. “I can’t do long distance. You know why I can’t.”
“I know. Because I can’t either.”
“So now what?”
“I’m not ready to end it.”
“Neither am I.”
“So now what?”
So now we set the timer. Thirty days, nothing more, nothing less. And the moment the last day was crossed off on the calendar that would be it. We went to great lengths to ensure that we’d stick to our word. We even went as far as setting some hard boundaries:
a) the physical would be kept to a minimum, as it would only serve to heighten our emotions.
b) we would refrain from referring to it as a relationship – that was out of the question for us both –, we were merely “seeing each other”.
c) and above all, if either one of us got attached, we’d end it immediately.
In retrospect, we both knew we had come up with these rules only to experience the thrill of breaking them. a) was perhaps – obviously – our first offense. The very same night we had shaken hands on our ingenious list of don’ts, we were in the backseat of my car. Considering that it was Egyptian society, and any public display of affection was not only frowned upon but considered social suicide, we’d play a game with our touches. Sneak in a kiss when my sister and her boyfriend looked away. Hold hands under the table at dinner with my family. And sometimes, we’d volunteer to fetch more soda from the kitchen, where he’d hoist me onto the table and we’d make out for as long as we could without raising suspicion. Publicly, privately, it didn’t matter. We always found a way to break article a). b) was much harder for us to get around. We were both trapped in a prison of fear; a label would only increase the risk of insufferable pain. We both tried frantically to pull the breaks on our feelings but the velocity with which we were falling for each other ultimately led to a crash. Drunk, me in his arms, laughing with our friends.
He was the first to let his foot slam on the pedal.
“I’m thinking of breaking my rule for you.” He blurted out, loud enough for only me to hear. As the laughter continued in the background, my heart stopped its usual increased bum-bum-bum whenever he was within range. I don’t think I was surprised that he said it; I think I was simply surprised I hadn’t said it first.
“Do you want to?” his face contorted with what I can only describe as dreaded hope.
“Long distance?” he nodded carefully, awaiting my response.
“Yeah. I want to.” I had never wanted anything more. What was long distance to two people, who were so magnetically bound to one another? What was long distance in the face of an encroaching earth-shattering, gravity-shifting love?
Every day, I woke up to a morning text. Every night, I fell asleep with him on the other end of the line, his hat, which he had given me, occupying the space where he could have been laying. And every second, I became so frighteningly aware of my desire to acknowledge the progression of my feelings. How can a word, only comprised of four meager letters, instill such a panic inside me? It was a word I had never in my life been tempted to say but one that almost slipped out each time I said goodnight. But I stopped myself. Not because I was afraid – which I was – but because we had entered a non-ending ticking bomb of a fight. The dress I was wearing was too provocative, my gay best friend was too handsome for comfort, why did I not answer his calls last night?
We were on opposite sides of a competition sponsored by jealousy, the jealousy that just comes packaged with that level of affection. Why are you always with that girl? I don’t care what you say, she’s in love with you and she needs to go. You were at a strip club?! I don’t give a shit whose bachelor party it was, you should have told me. Don’t hang up on me! You never let me talk! Why aren’t you opening up to me? I thought you trusted me. Is this not working anymore? Should we end it? We couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. We cared too much. We felt too deeply. We constantly asked each other if we wanted to break up. And each time, I’d ask him with a tone of finality “So, what do you want?” and his reply always remained the same: “I want you.”
It wasn’t until September 23rd that, finally, something broke. We hadn’t fought for days. It almost felt like we had gone back to the way we were that summer, blissful, carefree. But what I hadn’t realized was that by unconsciously breaking the final rule – c) attachment – the cage, where he had hid his fear, had broken with it.
“Boo, I can’t do it anymore.” His voice trembled, as I heard him taking a swig of what I assumed was whiskey. My tongue felt heavy in my mouth, as shock and pain lumped up in my throat.
“It’s just too much.” He went on, when I didn’t – when I couldn’t – respond. “We’re moving so fast. A-And the circumstances are just not right, I wish I had met you after graduation. All I can think about is you, I can’t focus on my work, I’m gonna fail my classes. And we fought for so long, and this just feels like the right thing to do. I don’t want to drag you down with me. Boo. Boo, please say something.”
“You’re lying.” I heard myself whispering, “You’re not breaking up because of the circumstances. You knew what you were getting into. You asked me to get into it with you. No. You’re breaking up because you’re scared shitless.”
“Boo, stop, please. This is hard enough already.”
“Then don’t do it.” My vocal chords seemed to have started shuddering “Please, boo. Don’t do it.”
“I’m sorry. Maybe in two years, when we’re done, we could–”
“Ahmed, what do you want?” That was the exhaustingly tested, fail-proof weapon of a question that had always put both our minds at ease. It was the last trick I had up my sleeve.
“I want to be alone.”
That was the moment. That was the moment I felt the first crack pushing its way through that damned organ in my chest.
What followed was a series of fuming tantrums, doleful wails and, to my relief, a deal.He promised he’d give it, us, a second chance. My entire body heaved with an indescribable amount of exuberant relief; I had exhausted my entire supply of energy on grasping the final splinter I had left of the voice on the other end of the line. I was on the brink of slipping into a coma of pure delight. Yet, the truth I hadn’t let myself admit, the truth that I should have – in retrospect – forced myself to come to terms with, was that every deal we had ever made was always meant to be broken.
When he didn’t answer my calls, texts, or even funny irrelevant snaps for almost two weeks, I knew he had only agreed to try because I had begged him to. Even though I was nowhere close to being done, he was. The torturous nature of those liminal 264 hours haunts me to this very day. The way to wholly obliterate a person’s psyche is to give them just a drop of hope, enough for them to cling onto the impossible, and then yank it away. But I didn’t let go of the hope that was rotting inside me because I knew he was going to text after those eleven days. I knew it down to my very core. I knew because in eleven days, it would be my 21st birthday.
October 4th hit me smack in the face. It was a day I had been impatiently awaiting. Celebrating my 21st birthday in New York felt like something out of a dream. But it had turned into the day where I would assemble whatever pride I had remaining and do what needed to be done. When he sent me a generic text, one that read forced and false, I responded with “Thank you. I’m done. For good.”
But I wasn’t. I’m not.
How can I be done when all I can think about is how he had grabbed me one night at a club and had screamed over the thumping music “I’m infatuated by you”? How can I possibly let go of the person, who, whenever he sat in the passenger seat and I was behind him, would reach back, grab my arms and secure them around him, as if he could not cope with the idea of not touching me for ten minutes? The very same person, who had drunkenly grabbed my sister and had yelled, at the top of his lungs “I’m falling so hard for your sister. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world”?.
He broke my heart.
Artwork by Kathleen Lolley, “Cute Critters in the Wilderness”