Natasha Naayem

Here I am: seated, folded, like failed origami. Not that I’ve ever been good at following straight lines. The pilot says, rolling his “r”s, “We will be taking off for Beirut shortly.” Hopefully, we won’t have the same problem.

I don’t usually mind being on planes—save the physical discomfort due to my legs being longer than most. Being suspended in mid-air is soothing. This is just an image, however. The speed gauges come to life. There is no turning back. From now on we’re constantly moving, faster than under any other circumstances, and yet, if you were to fall asleep before take-off, you would never know you moved an inch. But I’m always awake. Always cramped. So it’s good to stand up, circle through the aisles, try to stay balanced without needing to hold onto the other passengers’ seats as you walk by.

“No plane ever crashed from turbulence,” a scholarly looking man once said to me, before I knew anything about the mechanics. It seemed to make sense. I chose to believe him. But you could think about it the other way around. If the plane were crashing, wouldn’t it feel like turbulence? Passengers are always kept in the dark—save for the illuminated screen of facts: Temperature, Altitude, Time Left Until Arrival. But I like cheap thrills: the palpitations from the highs and lows, the sudden change in cabin pressure. Everyone in the same boat. Everyone in the same plane. Everyone a foreigner and nobody has time to brush his teeth three times a day. Unless you’re in business class, in which case, they give you a miniature bag of miniature toiletries, and there’s cream and make-up remover in the bathroom. Cramped. I am not in business. I say I don’t usually mind being on planes because this time I am not “on business” nor is the purpose of my trip “pleasure.” If this paper were mine, I would add to it a square, and beside that mark “obligation.”

*

The last time I visited Zaina the flight took two hours. It was to New York, where she lived for a while before moving back to Lebanon. We spent the week together, just us, in the myriad of black and yellow cabs. When I say just us I mean we were the only two related. She lived with a roommate, Gina, and constantly welcomed friends into her apartment. Always entertaining: a product of our heritage, I suppose, but an initiative nonetheless. And one I’ve always admired her for having, since I’ve always felt more comfortable being alone in my home.

I was sixteen at the time and she was twenty-four, but my long legs came in handy and we never had a problem getting me drinks. At the time it seemed as though I was constantly buzzed, yet nothing was spinning. This may be the reason I chose to move to New York City for my undergraduate degree, and to take the job as a research lab assistant after I graduated. This juxtaposition: the pairing of the darkest color with the brightest one; this suspension in the rush. New York will always be captured in black and yellow for me. But this time it’s a twelve-hour flight, and we won’t get a moment alone, Zaina and I. I know this already. It’s partly my fault for coming so close to her big day. Mostly though, it’s because our family is Lebanese. Zaina is the Queen Bee at the moment and everyone will be swarming around her.

*

There are no signs to indicate which conveyor belt will deliver our luggage. But these passengers are reliable: they know where to go so I follow them. A man standing next to his two children helps me get my suitcase off the belt. I thank him in Arabic, and ask him where I can find a taxi in English. He points me in the direction, and then asks me if I’m here for the Khoury wedding. “It isn’t often that a young woman travels to Beirut alone, with no one waiting to pick her up.” I tell him that I know, but everyone is busy (a partial lie), and airports are always out of the way (a partial truth). I prefer being practical.

As we make our way to the exit, his daughter asks me if I am Lebanese. I tell her I am, and am surprised to learn that a little girl is capable of the piercing look of a skeptic. She asks her dad, in our native tongue, why don’t I speak their language? Although I could make sense of what she said, she was right: I don’t speak the language. A few words, yes, neither here nor there. I know how to indicate directions, and order food. You would think this comes in handy, and it does. Sometimes. Other times it just causes more confusion, more questions I don’t wish to get into. Why do the taxis here take six customers in the back seat of their vehicles? There are no seatbelts. Why do the customers sit with five others on a seat made for three? They don’t necessarily know each other. There are only gypsy cabs. They stop at waved hands and I’m already inside. I don’t have a say, as I said, I don’t speak the language. Not that it would make a difference in this case. It’s because of the warmth. Everyone is related, somehow. We all deserve to sweat together. Conviviality. In English you say “my love.” In French you say mon coeur, which means “my heart.” In Arabic you say ya rouhé. It means “my soul.” In Beirut, there are people who speak all three languages, but most choose to stick with Arabic. “There’s nothing more beautiful than a language with more layers than the garlic used in toum,” a cab driver once told me. I think he meant “onion,” but the Lebanese spread garlic cream on everything.

*

“Sweating is good for the soul,” my aunt Yasmina, twice removed, tells me. And the eucalyptus spray has healing properties. We sit. We sweat. We are all related. Five pairs of X chromosomes, each with shared hidden patterns. A memory game. Flip the cards over. Even if you fail, you’re bound to get them paired off eventually. And yet, my skin is white and drab against the turquoise tiles. Unlike my first cousin Zaina’s. Hers is the color of soaked sand. If there were spotlights in this hammam she would look like the beach incarnate, lying there horizontally, her back along the turquoise tiles. You could think this difference was due to the subarctic climate I’ve been living in for the past fifteen years. But it’s not. It is, somehow, genetic. Like our eyes: almond, dark blue, almost black. And yet mine are different. You can see right through them, like the condensed humidity that forms droplets on the ceiling tiles. They have all positioned themselves on the top right hand corner of the squares, as if trying to escape to the adhesive grid fillings between the slippery ceramic surfaces. Maybe everyone would live on the edge if they too consisted of hydrogen bonds. “The middle way is the way of the wise,” or so the saying goes. A single water molecule has the freedom to be stuck to another one instant, and in the next, detach and stick to a different one. A droplet falls onto my forehead. It runs down the side of my cheek leaving a smooth line amidst the mix of perspiration and accumulated water vapor. The phospholipid bilayer is made of hydrophobic heads and hydrophilic tails. Fat is hard to get rid of. But Zaina’s mother thinks we can sweat it out before the wedding. The garlic cream we had three times today doesn’t help, I’m sure. 

*

Zaina’s younger sister Aia is the one on the receiving end of the customary “habélék”—its meaning equivalent to catching the bridal bouquet. But it comes my way as well, from a guest at the morning reception whom I don’t know and who wants to introduce me to his son. Uncle Rayan, standing not far away, overhears, comes to my side, puts his arm around my shoulders and says, “Her brains are even bigger than her beauty. She is a scientist!” I smile politely at his exaggerations. It’s rude, I’ve been told, to contradict a compliment.

“That may be true,” Aunt Yasmina says, suddenly standing at my other side, “but all that time you spend in front of a microscope won’t help you find a husband… and it can’t be good for your eyes either. Don’t tell me otherwise! Your father tells me how much time you spend studying, habibté inti! And it’s been how long since your last date? Five, six months?” I don’t work with a microscope, but for the rest, she’s right. Her facts, that is. I don’t agree with her ideals. In this small community, there’s no room for secrets. No one has translucent prescription bottles on their nightstand. Problems are solved by word of mouth and only family has the best intentions. Aunt Yasmina winks at my future father-in-law. But when people are tickled they always end up saying, “Stop!” There aren’t many synonyms for that word; it seems to be the only one that comes in handy. I smile even more sweetly and walk away. I’m not looking for a husband.

*

Her dress is white like blow. “Mary Jane is my childhood friend, and Angie, well, she’s the kind of friend you like to party with once in a blue moon, because you have absolutely no common moral values. Only a love to party, but that’s not enough. I don’t know, I was never fond of cocaine,” Zaina said to me that summer in New York. We talked about everything. I never had a sister but that was what she was to me. Completely unreliable until the moment you really needed her: telepathy, or something like it. It was she who taught me about the freedom of being unreachable. Don’t pick up your phone and eventually people get used to it, they stop getting frustrated or angry. It becomes expected: a template formula. She was labeled “flakey.” But her flakiness was self-aware.

I knew that.

What do I know about her fiancé, though? Her husband by the time the sun sets on the Mediterranean. They met the first year she moved back to Beirut, and he too had just moved back from Chicago. “Nassib!” my grandmother on my father’s side said, and will continue to say: destiny.

*

I have no projections for their future. They’ll leave for their honeymoon and I’ll go back to New York.

“This facemask is from Jordan, habibté! Made from the mud of the Red Sea. Make sure you put it on the night before. Your face will glow as if it were pregnancy,” my maternal grandmother had said to Zaina yesterday. Do you know what’ll happen to the tattoo on your hipbone if you get pregnant? Will it get deformed? Will it look just the same?

Shou yané, glow as if it were pregnancy? The last thing we need is people thinking she’s pregnant before her wedding! I made an appointment for you with Jannine tomorrow, the best esthetician in Beirut. Your aunt Leila will go with you, she needs a bikini wax too,” your mother said. Do you miss Ben? That tall Norwegian you dated throughout college. The one who didn’t mind when you went months without waxing your legs. Can you fall out of love and then back into it with someone else? So quickly. So different. Typical looking, though handsome for sure. Zied is not much taller than Zaina. Their skin is similar in color, their voices tinged with the same expatriate accent. “Opposites attract,” she used to say, and I guess I had chosen to believe her.

We don’t get a moment alone. I see Zaina search for his eyes in the crowd gathered outside the church. Both of them are surrounded by congratulations and kisses on the cheek in series of three. He finds her gaze and they exchange a moment of telepathy. Like the ones I saw them share before the ceremony. As if nothing had changed. And yet everyone is celebrating. There are candles that light the path from the chapel to the buffet set up on the edge of the mountain, overlooking the sunset. When it’s the right time of the year in Lebanon, you can go skiing in the mountains and swimming in the sea on the same day. The photographer takes pictures of the couple, and anyone looking at them later will see that Zaina’s happy here. Her dress swirls as she dances with her husband. It catches the light from the sky, from the candles; makes them move like the silk tangles on the belly-dancer’s sash. Makes the two hundred guests put down their plates, their glasses, their social obligations. Stop making rounds and instead, spin in one spot.