THE DOOR of the apartment is painted green; in a few spots the green is peeled away and you can see that the door, in a previous life, was white. You ring the bell for the third time. No answer. You wonder, again, if you have the wrong time or office stuck in your head. You definitely have the day right. Ugh. Job interviews.
A rustling behind you.
He’s come up the stairs, the man in the light green galabiya, the only one that you’d seen in the building’s entryway. Didn’t talk when you greeted him, only nodded. And now he’s reaching towards you, as if to shake your hand, smiling his toothless smile, no words but voice a muddy whistle. You move towards him and take his hand. Rough. He pulls at you. His other hand grabbing for his manhood through his dress.
You pull away, then in a split second know you must run towards him, run past him down the stairs, and you do, feet faster than head.
— Boussie! he whispers, after you. Look!
— Boussie eh? ’Eib! you shout back, as you bound down the hard marble spiral. Shame.
Your alien words echo in your ears as you run out to the sun-bleached street. Two men are here now, in the plastic chairs that had before been empty. You start to think of what to say, and then, like magic, Osama and Sami appear in the distance. You run towards them — both dark hair, light eyes, square jaws — telling your English story between heaving breaths.
Soon these men — potential bosses, new friends, strange world — are standing next to you in front of the building, translating what you just said for the men sitting in the chairs, the real doormen of this building — one with a gray moustache and the other, young and fat, both in crisp white galabiyas. The two of them nod sternly and then laugh. You move away, towards a crumbling wall. Osama and Sami stay serious, keep talking, ask you for more details about the man who did it. You say more: the toothlessness, the whistle, his galabiya had stains, he was sweeping.
— Ah! — Araby, the doormen say. Should they get him? Should they give him to the police? There are a few of them on that corner — they point, then pivot — and the other one, too, and the other. They laugh.
— The police will pull his ears a bit, gray moustache says.
You imagine that.
— No police, you say.
Suddenly Araby is out on the sidewalk too. And he won’t look at you. Young and fat holds him by the arm and sternly asks if he did what you said he did. He whimpers and you feel for him. Gray moustache takes off his plastic slipper and holds it up, as if to hit him. You brace yourself.
But the hit never comes; soon you are all in another place — you and Osama and Sami and gray moustache and young and fat. You are in an office in the building sitting on white couches facing a glass desk. The man behind the desk introduces himself. He has a long name and his hair is slicked back and looks like shoe polish. He is smiling. And it is all shiny — shiny hair, shiny teeth, shiny cheeks. He is an important man. He lists his holdings, talks about his newest venture: Gem stones in lavish settings.
He shows pictures of them: a grape-shaped emerald surrounded by diamond chips, a sapphire like a twenty-sided tear drop, six rubies grouped together like red honey comb. Where are the gem stones? You don’t ask but look around. Where did young and fat and gray moustache go?
Shiny listens as Osama and Sami explain their own venture, interrupts to say he recognizes Sami from his blockbuster movies. Sami smiles and suggests he might think of investing in a short documentary about the mining industry in the south of the country.
Shiny doesn’t even blink but turns to you, looking straight at you, speaking in English you would have never guessed would come out of him.
— In this country, he says, there are some people — the poor people, the common ones — who don’t always know the best way to act, the best way to treat a foreign lady, like you.
You shudder like you never have.
Osama and Sami begin volley of fast words at him. You think they are saying that because of people like him, the number of poor here swells and grows. They are saying that this isn’t about that, but about a basic idea—the very basic idea of how to treat a woman, a person.
You are having more trouble following now. They bring up God, and you are watching their faces, their lips, their voices alternating between angry and nearing too loud for the small room, and loud whispers. One of them sends an accidental fleck of spit between them, saliva lighting in the air.
This is how you are spending your first New Year’s Eve away from home, where tonight you’d be drinking at an old friend’s rental condo, or watching Dick Clark at the kitchen table with your mother. But here you are, on the other side of the world, might as well not exist. Not exist.
Now. They’re all turned towards you, mouths moving, talking, but what are they saying? Until.
— Would you like an apology from Araby? Sami asks, in English. They have him outside, he says, as if it’s nothing to hold a man captive.
You don’t know. You don’t say anything, but slowly you nod, and shiny man is calling towards the door which swings open and the doormen have Araby, each at one of his arms.
— Let him go, shiny man says, and they back off. Araby is silent and still, his eyes on that thing we are looking at when we aren’t focused on anything at all. You turn away to see shiny man is opening a safe behind his desk.
— I have something for you, he says, unclear about who you is.
The safe glows from within and you think diamonds and he pulls out a bright silver pistol, naming it something you don’t understand.
You freeze and in the corners of your eyes you feel Sami and Osama freeze too.
— There are no bullets in it, he says, popping open a panel on the handle, as if to prove it. He snaps the panel shut, visibly satisfied at the –CLICK—his machine makes, points it at Araby.
— Bowis ras-ha, he says. You don’t get it, those words, like stones. The room is too strange, and you all are frozen here, and you are frozen, until. Bowis ras-ha — two words you learned at the same time you were learning English. Your mother repeated versions of both of those words to you again and again, two words buried deep and muddy.
But Araby is already upon you: in a desperate dash, his rough hands grasp your skull lightly on both sides, his lips on the crown of your skull, so fast you barely would have known what he did if you hadn’t, at that very moment, realized that shiny had commanded him to kiss her head.
Bowis ras-ha. That shudder. Again. And now the sharp ghost of his body over you, on you.
You stand quickly and the men are pushing him out of the room and you’ve lost track of the gun and Osama and Sami are shaking hands with shiny man and soon you are too — soft hands. And then you’re out of there and up the stairs, spiraling up, up, and finally past the green and white door where you drink sweet dark tea and translate the story once more, excited now, amused, disgusted. You are still shaking but your friends have you smiling at their caricatures of all those strange foreign men, and you all agree how the gun moment made you see death. Your death. The gun was a completely other thing that took you each of you out of your skins and your skulls to a place without words. And that’s all there is.
It’s a new year, and you smoke a cigarette by the window, looking out at the street at the people who pass. Then the interview, which goes well. Back at your apartment, the party is big and loud. You dance and the music fills you, as if you were a balloon, and you dance, always on the edge of bursting. 💣
AMIRA PIERCE got her MFA in Fiction at VCU in 2011. She is a senior language lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at NYU, where she specializes in working with International students. She spent Spring 2019 teaching at NYU-Shanghai and, in summer 2019, went to Spain to work on her project, called “Reading the Quran in Madrid.” She recently had a story published in the anthology THE ORDINARY CHAOS OF BEING HUMAN: TALES FROM MANY MUSLIM LANDS (Penguin-SEA). For more: amirawpierce.com.
Copyright Amira Pierce
Photo by George Allen