Im Here Now but Hiding my Face
“It’s getting darker earlier,” says Nora, dragging on a dying cigarette. It’s five in the afternoon. Stillness and smoke fill the room I’ve slept in for 15 years. Nora and I are both sitting on the edge of my former bed. I can see myself in her gaze, her younger self. Back then, life had no synonyms. Today, Nora is a witness, her existence a series of decisions she never made but had to execute. Like having children she most certainly never wanted, or leaving Oran, the country she grew up in, for Korin, a city whose language she barely speaks. “You can only regret what you haven’t done,” she sometimes mumbles while hanging whites on the line. She does it more often lately, fending off voices only she can hear.
She asks, “You’re leaving tomorrow?”
I tell Nora my plane is in a few hours, that I’m leaving tonight, not tomorrow, and that I’m here to pick up the package she’s prepared for me, but she doesn’t react. “Don’t forget your passport,” she says instead, her gaze fixated on deciphering the few book titles on the shelves. Though we left Oran at the outbreak of the war, I kept a passport that Nora renews every other year. Korin and Oran are only five hours away but we never went back; we have no family left and the weather is insufferable, famous for scorching people’s skin.
Nora stubs out her cigarette, extracts How Romans Ate from the slanted shelves, and opens it to page nineteen: a recipe for soft-boiled egg in pine nut sauce. She slips it back in, next to The Past Is Still Warm,a collection of poems by Jorache I haven’t read since high school. I notice that Nora appears taller than usual in a yellow pleated skirt she hasn’t worn in years. Her hair is tied in a bun and her shoulders are wide from decades of swimming. Between her shoulder blades I see a face I know is not there. What is Nora doing here? I want her to leave the room. She never liked being amongst my things.
“For you,” she says, turning from the shelves to hand me a green leather notebook. On the back cover, “Noleskin” is embossed in tiny golden letters. “A local production, a Moleskine imitation,” and adds, “For your impressions of Oran.” I take it, knowing that all Nora gives— love or information —is a detour. She wants me to write so that she can read and imagine herself in Oran strolling Avenue Mieville, stopping by an ice cream parlor before it begins to rain, or before rushing to one of her group meetings. Before she left Oran, Nora was a partisan. She still believes her phone is tapped. She never talks about her dreams because there’s too much information in them, she says, “it’s compromising.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“I’ll make coffee now, you have a long night ahead,” she replies, cautiously shutting the door. I wait for her to leave and with a black felt pen, I note “Oran” on the opening page of my new notebook.
In the kitchen, I hear a spoon clinking against a ceramic cup filled with dark and sour coffee, the way Nora drinks it. While she sips her drink, distracted, and absently staring at little waves swirling in her cup, I imagine her reminiscing over Oranian streets, ordering a strawberry scoop with whipped cream on top. She exits the parlor without grabbing her change. She’s late. Pedestrians brush against Nora’s body, rushing to seek shelter from the storm. Dry wisps of black hair become entangled with cream. Summer storms are common in Oran, but this one is particularly violent, she thinks, half-soaked.
I’ve been waiting 30 minutes for a cab outside Oran’s single-runway airport. There are more cats than people here, and very few cars. Nora was right about the sun; my shoulders are scorching in the heat. Impatient, I hail a rusty green Mercedes pierced with a swarm of tiny bullet holes. The driver, a woman with short hair and acne-scarred skin, greets me. She says her name is Maya from Future Tourist and hands me a business card printed on a piece of rough card-stock. I get in. As the engine starts and we pull away, I open my bag, searching for my notebook. Realizing that I’ve left it in Oran, I write on the back of my boarding pass: The back seats are torn at their sutures. Beige foam pops out in vaginal shapes.
“First time in Oran?” asks Maya.
“Yes. And You?”
“I live here,” says Maya, slightly amused by my question. She drives on. “In any case, welcome… look,” she adds, pointing to a large concrete building adorned with flickering neon signs —ZURA, MANAGO, ADIBAS, NOKE, TAP SHUP. “City Mall,” she says as we drive past it, a bus cemetery, and a few cantaloupe stalls flanking the road. Intermittently, Maya jerks the wheel to avoid large craters. Looking out the window, I notice the city is treeless besides a few palm trees arching under gusts of warm wind.
“What’s the word for “treeless” in Oranian?” I ask Maya.
“Tireless,” she replies.
Maya doesn’t mind that I’m not laughing at her jokes. She keeps driving. Idle cranes collect dust on empty lots surrounding a few skyscrapers, all built after the war. “Things are much better now; the trash is burned and the coffee imported. Buildings are taller than they used to be. Like you, people are returning,” Maya adds, pointing to the buildings and landmarks that once existed.
“We’re here,” says Maya as we park in a narrow alleyway. She steps out of the car, folding her skirt so that she doesn’t trip. “Are you coming?” she asks, walking towards the entrance of the Mayflower with the gait of one accustomed to hotels. I follow her like a silent, obedient pet.
The lobby is sparsely decorated, save for a cork panel behind the reception desk on which posters of archeological and natural sites are tacked. Worn out chesterfield couches furnish the waiting area. The curtains are faded, green with a yellowish tint. Instead of an elevator, large spiraling stairs connect the hotel’s four stories. Maya rings the desk bell repeatedly before the clerk shows up, apologizing. I tell him my name is Mavi and that I have a reservation. He was expecting me, he says, and to welcome me, he arranged an Oranian specialty: a forêt-noire cake with comfit cherries and peach cubes swallowed in whipped cream, now deflating in the heat. He tells us that he had placed the cake in the fridge, but the power cuts yesterday were longer than usual. From photographs, I remember similar soft cakes with chocolate shavings, maraschino cherries and canned pineapples, around which a gang of hungry kids would horde up before blowing out a few candles, Nora slicing the cake with a frown on her face.
I remove the shiny cherries from the frosting and cut the forêt noire into three equal pieces. Maya and the clerk both watch intently. “I’ll save my piece for later,” I say. “There’s no power,” says the clerk. “It might melt.” Disappointed at my hesitation, Maya says she must get going. “Enjoy your stay in Oran,” she adds, holding out her hand for a goodbye shake. Her palms are moist and calloused. I follow her to the entrance and watch her enter the car. Soon she will pick up someone else, another absentee, who, after decades in absentia, finds the loss they nurtured standing between an idle construction site and the only air-conditioned room of an eccentric hotel.
While I’m waiting for the clerk to hand me my keys, a woman walks into the lobby with a black leather suitcase. She says her name is Nora and that she has a reservation. She doesn’t look like my Nora; she’s petite, skinny, with silver rings adorning all of her fingers. Her long brown hair is wispy and split, and she has dark circles under her eyes. The clerk tells her he’ll be with her shortly, and that she can help herself to some cake. “I prefer not to,” she says. While the clerk copies my passport, Nora paces the lobby back and forth. She looks restless. She must have too much sugar in her blood or be too lonely not to move, to stay in one place. I am lonely too, but to preempt my loneliness, I say we have been absent when absence was a gift few were granted. When I say we, I refer to strangers who see the same things I do.
“Room 208,” says the desk clerk, handing me my keys. “That’s my reservation!” Nora interjects. The clerk mumbles that my reservation was also made under “Nora.” Nora glances at me, disapproving of my presence. She demands another room. “There is only one room with air-conditioning in the entire inn,” says the clerk.
“What kind of place is this?” asks Nora. The clerk says he doesn’t know.
“I can give you room 206. It faces west and is slightly cooler than the other portion of the hotel,” the clerk adds. Nora snatches the keys from his hand and begins walking up the stairs begrudgingly. I follow.“Are you visiting?” I ask Nora
“I’m here to inherit a piece of land from a distant aunt,” She says halfway up the stairs. “She died a natural death.” Though she doesn’t ask, I tell Nora that I was born in Oran but that I now live in Korin. “Like the poet Jorache?” she asks. Nora recites, from memory, “The past is still warm in this city/ Cow carcasses float in the sea/ cradled by a new kind of wave/curling so slowly that when it finally breaks/swimmers gather on the shore to watch.
The tufted burgundy carpet in room 208 is stained with large pink spots—as if someone had dropped a bottle of bleach and watched it leak. A smell of cold ashes wafts through the room. I open the window. Someone knocks.
“Will that be all, Miss?” asks the desk clerk, now the baggage handler.
“Is the air conditioning working?” I ask, drenched in sweat.
“The generator can only handle limited voltage. I can’t turn on the air-conditioning and the kitchen appliances,” the clerk apologizes.
I thank him, and before going back to the pilling sheets of my queen-sized bed, I spray mosquito repellent over my arms in order to cool down. In the bathroom mirror, my reflection is looking at me. I smile at it like a professional, a person used to smiling at herself.
“Mavi, open the door!” Someone is knocking. Through the peephole I see Nora, wrapped in a beach towel. I pretend not to hear her. Before going back to my bed, I walk to the bathroom to urinate. Hard water has left the grey tub chalky. I bend forward, kiss it, and observe the moisture from my lips disappearing. On the hotel rooftop, the swimming pool is unlit but the water’s surface reflects the city lights. Underneath her towel, Nora is wearing a black bathing suit—a high-cut one-piece. Her pubic hair reaches her thighs. She sees the city extend beyond the hills and beyond the rivers. I turn on the water, strip naked, put one foot in the bathtub, then the other. The water gets warmer, and although there is no steam, I burn my ass as I enter the tub. My bowels are full, my nipples wide. I’m here now, but I’m hiding my face.
“Nagel Law Firm 4pm,” is scribbled on a hotel letterhead Nora must have slipped under my door. I get dressed and walk down to the lobby where the desk clerk is smiling. He said someone called Nora called yesterday night. “She wanted to know if you had arrived,” “What did you tell her?” I ask, “I told her you were in your room,” he replies. Behind the reception desk, the plastic wall-clock indicates half past eleven. I’ll wait for Nora in the lobby. I have nothing to do, and she’s the only person I know in Oran.
While sketching doodles on the letterhead paper, I think of places Nora would have frequented in her activist youth. Where did she go when she had time to kill? Why did she never want to return? Why did she leave in the first place? She says she left because of the war, but many people learned to live with the war, like a failed marriage, tolerating each other for lack of choice, developing an unhealthy affection for the other’s habits. Did Nora kill someone? Did she kill someone because of the war? Though she hates to admit it, everybody was a partisan back then. That’s how people went through life, guided by ideas and beliefs they later lost like a book forgotten in a cafe. When Nora talks about the past, she whispers as if to not wake it up. She rarely talks about the past. She drinks coffee and washes everything manually. To save on soap, she sometimes washes the cutlery together with towels and underwear. I draw a spoon on the letterhead, next to a big cloud. Nora still hasn’t shown up.
Instead of checking in, a man without luggage enters the lobby and sits on the Chesterfield sofa across from me. His face looks younger than his hands, which are pruned, as if soaked in water for too long. Around his neck, a gold chain shimmers, entangled in a fluffy patch of chest hair.
The man stares at me, noticing my stillness, how it contracts and expands like a starfish. I inhale and exhale, rounding my belly so that I look portly and present in the lobby of a hotel where the receptionist is also the baggage handler, in a city I was born in but have never seen before. The man introduces himself as Mr. Selat.
“How long are you in town for?”
“Are you traveling alone?”
“No,” I reply, “I mean yes.”
Mr. Selat hails the waiter and orders two glasses of orange juice. “There is no ice left,“ he apologizes.
“The power cuts,” says the waiter while serving the juice.
I take a few sips, and place the glass back on the table, missing it. The glass falls and shatters on the floor. Mr. Selat pays little attention to the accident, asking me instead if I need a car. He runs a car rental business. I could drive to places of rare desolation, he tells me, like nothing I’ve seen before. “Have you heard of the Stone of the Pregnant Woman, the largest monolith in the world? Its exact dimensions are unknown but the block weighs over a thousand tons! Would you like anything else to drink?” he finally asks.
I remember how the glass broke, how the man ordered orange juice, how he sat on the leather sofa and faced me. How the juice spread towards my feet, branching between my toes, how I caught the man watching me as I observed the juice sprawling, how the glass shards were strewn across the floor and how I had wished for them to stay that way, connected to the moment of the fall, to the distracted movement of my hand, to the man’s eyes on my ankles, to the thickness of his nails, to how I said, “I’m sorry ” without meaning it, to how his smile made my spine stiff, how the shard punctured my finger, how the blood stained my skirt, how the man had ordered two glasses of orange juice, and how the juice made my toes cooler.
“Water with lemon, thank you.”
In the streets of Oran, water gushes along the sidewalk. I pause before a shop with vintage posters of lingerie models, their hair evenly divided by tidy white parts down the middle. Next to the underwear shop, a fruit vendor displays banana bunches and a few overripe pears. I pick one up and walk away. The smell of garbage wafts through the street: putrid meat, cantaloupe peels, worn out rubber, cat piss, chocolate bars. “Move!” shouts a driver. I cross the street.
On the other side of Mieville, I pause to observe the cityscape but only see colorful storefront signs: a repair shop for eyeglasses, a printing house, a nail salon next to a gas station, a café called “Che”, a woman preparing a sandwich in a kiosk, shredding chicken and spreading garlic sauce on the bread with her finger. A shop selling parts for defunct engines. People collect them thinking they’re investing in the future; its’ common practice in the city, I’ve heard. I write down a few names for Nora, ASTERIX. RAIMUNDA. BAROCLEM.
At BAROCLEM, a corner shop, an old woman with flat maroon moles on her cheeks is feeding cats and dogs ice cream. Inside the shop, old postcards are strewn on the counter next to power bars. “How much?” I ask. “For free,” the woman says, handing me a postcard of the Square of the People in bright, saturated colors. I scrutinize the image—palm trees, buses parked along the perimeter of the square, headless statues, pedestrians dressed in suits and long skirts, and the sea lurching in the background. I ask the woman if she knows of any legal offices in Oran. “Nagel Law,” she says “Walk till the end of the avenue, and then turn left, next to the seashore. There’s a little office there, the only in the city.” I thank the woman and exit the shop with a few power bars.
Before crossing the street I predict that it will take me twenty steps to reach the other side of Mieville. If my count is incorrect, I will have to retrace my steps. It takes me seventeen steps to cross Mieville; I re-cross the street.
“Move!” shouts a driver.
Before taking the graveled path that leads to the beach, I stop at Nagel Law and peak through the storefront window. Though empty, there is a computer with a screensaver of a moonlit desert rippling across the monitor. A sign on the door says, “We’ll be back.” Naked and giggling kids run up and down the emergency stairs of a windowless building. I take the road to the beach. The kids mill around, loosely following me. A damp and salty wind blows on my cheek. I ask them if they’ve seen someone called Nora entering Nagel Law. They say that Nagel Law opens in the afternoon, at 4pm. I wonder if Nora will ever find her aunt’s property. Everything was destroyed and rebuilt countless times. Even the soil is different, marshy. The sea has eaten the coast. They’re importing sand but it costs millions. The sea may have engulfed Nora’s property, who knows? What would she do with it anyways? Would she move here? Is she waiting for me at the hotel?
From afar, I perceive a silhouette. As I get closer to the water, I recognize Nora by her wide shoulders. She’s waving at me, clutching an object in her hand. She removes her yellow skirt. “Mavi! Your notebook!” she shouts, trudging into the water, hopping a wave in her black one piece.
Mirene Arsanios is the author of The City Outside the Sentence (Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, 2015). Her writings have appeared in The Rumpus, Ink & Coda, Enizagam, and The Outpost, among others. She co-founded the collective 98weeks Research Project in Beirut and is the founding editor of Makhzin, a bilingual literary magazine (www.makhzin.org). She lives in New York where she is currently a writer-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.