He was finally bored that morning in September, and what he did he would later blame on the confluence of things. Mercury in retrograde, for one, although he did not exactly believe in horoscopes, unless it meant the stars aligning for good fortune, preferably in shoes or jewelry. Then there was, for another, the restless claustrophobia of the quarantined.
This was exactly fourteen days to the date of Paulie’s arrival in Iowa City—all of two weeks since he had come bearing three pieces of luggage that screamed hot pink, flipped his long black hair with his perfectly manicured fingernails as he surveyed his own anticipation for this welcome change of place, then proclaimed the entire idea of autumn in the university town as nothing short of “fabulous.” Fabulous. That was his word for all good things. He was properly dressed for the utterance, with none of that generic travel garb he abhorred in people with lesser sartorial imagination: his five-foot-six frame on the right side of lean was clad in a Donna Karan ensemble in chocolate brown, punctuated with Jimmy Choo snakeskin sandals chosen for their casual elegance as well as for the demands of heightened airport security. The trip all the way from the Philippines—except for the hellishness of its seeming perpetuity—was almost a breeze, except for one tiny bump: those eyebrows he raised at immigration, in Detroit, which was nevertheless something he completely expected, when he was asked upon presenting his travel documents: “You are Paul Andrew Segunda?”
There was incredulity in the question. The officer was trying to keep a straight face. God bless her, Paulie thought,
“Yes,” Paulie smiled. He sent out sunbeams under the harsh airport lights. “But I go by Paulie these days.”
“You are a man,” the officer asked again. It was not a question, more as a testament of surprise. What happened to the usual question of business or pleasure? he thought in passing.
Paulie replied, “Only by accident of biology at birth.”
Oh well, it takes all kinds, the official must have thought—but here Paulie was, several hours later, alighting from the van, suddenly drenched in Iowan sunshine.
“Well, isn’t it?” he casually chirped to the writer from Egypt, a regal-looking young woman in a light-blue hijab, the moment they found themselves arranged in that typical what-now? pose of arrival, as they stared at the entrance of the brick building that was to be their hotel, their home for the next three months.
“Welcome to Iowa City,” their driver, a young blonde man with a beard, said in a tentative voice. He looked at Paulie, gave a smile, and then proceeded to retrieve their baggage piece by piece. All of them waited in their cocoon of travel weariness, their bags assembled in haphazard order on the sidewalk. It was mid-afternoon.
Their bunch was quiet: the novelist from Russia looked tired and hungry, the short story writer from Singapore looked breathless, the poet from Nigeria had his face buried in a book, the scenarist from Albania seemed ready for the promise of a shower and a soft bed. There was also an Israeli, an Iranian, and a German. They had not talked much on the way, except for some form of hello that seemed necessary for new acquaintances. There was time for kindling friendships later; for now, they longed only for good sleep.
The Egyptian writer, Paulie knew, had been the most obvious in her curiousity. She was casting furtive glances at him all the way from the airport in Cedar Rapids, as their van snaked its way through the Iowan countryside towards the city, through a vista of endless green plains, barns painted bright red, white picket fences, the ubiquitous corn. But it was impossible to read the definiteness of her expression, Paulie thought. Was it only just curiosity? Perhaps it was also shock? Or confusion? Maybe she finds me beautiful, Paulie thought, and then gave a secret laugh.
To his question, the Egyptian writer responded politely, in a soft voice, her mouth nervously curving for a ready-made smile: “What is?”
“The whole place,” Paulie said with his usual breathlessness. He strode into the lobby with her with the command of a cougar. “It’s fabulous.”
“I suppose it is.”
“I have a feeling we are all going to have a lot of fun here.”
“I suppose we will.”
And so it was that Paulie breathed in deep the clean and crisp air of the American Midwest—so different, he thought, from the smog and humidity and cacophony of Manila—and took to bed, by the third day, with a bout of flu so fierce he decided he could only appreciate the entire situation as a form of comedy.
He laughed. And then coughed. And then laughed some more, his fever burning away at him.
Marta, the matron assigned to keep watch on all of them, had looked at him with some bemusement when she had driven Paulie home to his hotel from an appointment with the doctor. Dr. Roberts had proclaimed his symptoms all too typical for the beginning of autumn. “It’s the flu season,” the doctor shrugged. “What else can we do about it. Have you had your flu shots?” The consultation had been brief, although the doctor had dropped his stethoscope at the beginning, flustering as he told Paulie to breathe in and out.
“Why are you laughing?” Marta had looked at him when she turned the corner of Jefferson Street, a bit of a puzzled look on her face. She was a short woman of some undetermined ethnicity, about sixty, dark-haired and elfin-looking. There was a motherly kindness to her face—it was the way her skin folded and her eyes dropped, Paulie decided—which was perhaps something one learned to exude with the kind of responsibility she held. “But I suppose it is good to laugh,” Marta continued. “Are you feeling much better?” Her words curved with a trace of an English accent, and Paulie, still feverish, looked at her with a grin the size of the moon.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s terribly convenient, isn’t it? To fall ill just right in the beginning of this residency? My body has the timing of an improperly set cuckoo clock.”
“Well, it’s the jetlag most probably,” Marta said. “It’s easy to get sick when you’re jetlagged. Your body is in a tailspin—it’s confused about what’s night and what’s day. My husband gets the most terrible headaches after long trips.”
“It’s one explanation,” Paulie shrugged, and thought suddenly of those hours in flight—eighteen hours of cramped coach space, trapped in a window seat. It was difficult to stay elegant in small places—but at the very least, his hair, which remained sturdy in volume, withstood the challenge of cheap airplane seats and the molding effects of their discomfort.
Marta began clucking. “It’s also probably allergies. Do you have allergies?”
“I don’t know. Never had any before.”
“It happens, you know.”
“I’m allergic to all this clean Iowan air, I suppose.”
Marta laughed. “Well, you’ll get better in time—but hurry up. You can’t miss all the fun. The other writers have already gone to Lake McBride while you got stuck in your hotel room all these days. Drink lots of fluid. Take your vitamins.”
“Marta,” Paulie sighed, “you mother me with such perfection.”
“I try my best, my dear.”
Marta was kind. She was also fast, which was remarkable for her age. She had swooped on them that first day in the hotel’s small lobby, quickly gave instructions about room assignments, and paused only for a pregnant moment when she saw Paulie in his Donna Karan garb, his long hair still surprisingly bouffant, but now succumbing just a little to traces of limpness. And then, while handing over to everybody the packets with all the guidelines to follow for the coming days, Marta said in a low voice, “I suppose you will want to know the name of the best salon in town, Mr. Segundo.”
He gave her his brightest smile—an exercise of sheer will, given the exhaustion that was fast manifesting itself in the form of somnolence. “A suggestion would be quite welcome, Marta,” he said, “But you really must call me Paulie.”
“Paulie…. All right,” Marta said. “The name fits you. There’s a playfulness to it that I like.”
He became thoughtful, and then said, “It actually reminds me of a parrot.”
“Parrots are colorful.”
“Well, there you go.”
He finally got up from the bed—flung away the blankets and the comforter—because he was bored. American television, he found out, had the same level of inanity as the programs back home. A concentrated dose of these reality shows, measured by the hours, left him finally breathless and listless. He stood up gingerly, fighting the gravity of vertigo, and flung his window curtains open—and there was a slice of Iowa City right before him, the nearby river blinking in brownish green currents in the morning light, the other part of the widespread university campus gleaming at the opposite bank.
He took off his sick clothes, and grabbed the towel that was lying on the floor, then turned to confront himself in the bathroom mirror.
Paulie found himself laughing even as his joints hurt—he could not believe the sight of his naked body in the bathroom mirror stripped into imperfections by the harsh clarity of the fluorescent light: a bedraggled man stared back at him, a towel round his waist, someone whipped by the endless hours spent in bed, heavily medicated. Was that even him? He has not worn makeup for some days now, and his hair, which dropped in dead limpness around his shoulders, was a mess, a rat’s nest devoid of sheen. He took off the towel, and hung it.
“Look at this mutilated face,” he chuckled, drawing out the mu in “mutilated,” murmuring to himself as he proceeded to wash his face. “Not…a…single trace…of the beautiful.” When he finished, he took the towel from its hook on the door, and gently patted away the scattered film of moisture from his forehead, from his cheeks, from his neck, behind the ears, across the nose.
He stared at his reflection. Then he squinted. His eyebrows, once carefully plucked to achieve that delicate thin curve he found so beautiful, had grown back like a vengeance to its old formless bushiness—and for a moment, he recoiled from the change.
But then he drew even closer to the mirror.
He felt his lips. Without the comfortable coat of lipstick, it felt raw. He felt the jagged edges of the drying skin. He felt his cheeks, which was tender to the touch—flushed now from the fever that was slowly going away—and found the smoothness almost strange, unfamiliar. There was none of the matted texture of the foundation that had become second skin to him.
He stared again at his reflection, and caught a quick look of fascination on his face. It was the look of a child beholding an unholy avalanche of ice cream and chocolate. There was a glimmer in his eyes, and he wondered if he could—
But of course not, and quickly shook his head.
That was not him.
What on earth possessed him to think even of that? What madness, he thought, and blamed the doses of oseltavimir and the guaifenesin. With haste, he stepped into the shower. He heard the shower door close behind him with a slight tap, and soon he was taking in the comfort of the hot water blasting at his naked body, a scalding force that made him rub his skin with more forcefulness than usual. There was a certain purity to his effort, as if he was trying to shed off something that clung to his skin like an infection. His skin soon tingled as he soaped it. The lather was rich. The smell of sandalwood filled his nostrils as he rubbed. When he was done, he found himself once again facing the mirror—his reflection red in places from the vigorous rubbing. But he felt something else, too. A strange newness to him, something indefinable, but final.
He reached for the blow dryer.
He found himself clasping a pair of scissors instead.
That is strange, he thought.
He found one hand going for a grip of hair. It was easy. His hair was long. The other hand, bearing the scissors, soon started to cut away. Snip, snip. A lock of black hair, generous and thick, fell to the floor.
Paulie felt nothing.
Then the scissors were snipping away again, cutting more and more. His movement was quick—he was not thinking. He felt incapable of thinking. There was no serious pondering the reality of hair piling on the bathroom floor. He felt far away from what was happening. He was an audience to his own actions, and the only real emotion he felt was a slight hint of amusement. He saw himself in the mirror, but there was no focus to his vision, as if he was looking at himself only as some ghostly shadow. Until finally, when his eyes did begin to focus, he saw a figure that seemed suddenly masculine, hair cropped short.
“Look at that,” he said underneath his breath.
Then he took two last snips, one on each side of his face, to give himself an acceptable patella. It was not bad at all. His hands were sure, like a barber’s.
“Fabulous,” Paulie said.
The new hair required new wardrobe. His fever now gone, he sneaked away into the late Saturday morning, clad in a dark purple shirt that had a minimal amount of polka dots and glitter (most of which had been washed away with constant wash cycles), and a nondescript coat that was black and zippered, and the one pair of unstyled denims he somehow found in the belly of the third pink luggage he had hauled all the way across the Pacific Ocean to middle America.
He breathed in the morning air, and quickened his pace, his steps racing the uphill pavement which soon led to Clinton Street—the main thoroughfare that signaled the beginning of downtown Iowa City—and then, after a few turns around several blocks, he found himself at the entrance of King George Apparel. Only a small sign betrayed the nature of its trade; otherwise, it faded in quite well with the rest of the bricked neighborhood—a bookstore was next door, and then there was a falafel shop. Across the street, there was a small bar called Colonel’s and a Chinese restaurant called A Taste of Formosa that promised excellent take-out. A bell rang when he entered, and a pockmarked boy glanced up from the counter near the door. The boy was reading a book. He was wearing a yellow Hawk Eye shirt, something for the game and the drinking binge in Linn Street for later in the day. It was football Saturday, Paulie quickly remembered.
The boy looked at him, a half-smile on his face. He squinted at Paulie, and then said, “Hi, good morning. How can I help you?”
“Umm, I need new clothes,” Paulie said, “lots of it.”
“I guess you came to the right place.”
“Can I take a look around, see what fits?”
“Sure, go ahead,” said the boy, and went back to his book.
Paulie quickly surveyed the small room: it contained bins of clothing, each compartment bursting with all kinds of apparel, all neatly stacked in the usual arrangement of pants, shirts, and sweaters. By the walls, there were more bins of clothes, and in parts there were hangers that displayed coats of all kinds. They all looked decent enough, Paulie thought, just a notch below L.L. Bean. Or Gap, with a sense of flair and adventure. Very preppy, but with something extra.
He looked around. He seemed to be the only customer, which secretly delighted him, the way a butterfly might find its secret transformation refreshing. There was no need for audience or applause. Not this time.
He picked what he liked, but found himself gravitating towards muted colors—earth tones, for the most part, or an excess of the monochromatic. What a strange thing this is, Paulie thought. But he didn’t question it beyond what was necessary; it was a kind of instinct, this movement that began at the guts. Ten shirts, two coats, two pairs of khakis, and three pairs of jeans—unshabby, understated, just on the right side of wallflowery elegance. He bought a pair of sneakers. And a pair of loafers. He reached for something a little more formal—four polo shirts with long sleeves, two pairs of slacks, a tie, a pair of dress shoes that had a feel of the Italian to them, another coat. What a strange thing this is, he thought again.
When he got back to his hotel room, he chose with some carefulness what he should wear for the day, and settled for a dark-blue shirt—redeemed from utter plainness by a strip of white across the chest—and jeans, with loafers. It all felt fashionably subdued, without the dangers of disappearing into sartorial insignificance—and besides, Paulie thought, it is the man who carries the clothes and define it with his bearings. When he stepped out for lunch, he met Marta waiting for the elevator. They went down together.
“Good morning, Paul,” she chirped.
“Going somewhere, Marta?” he asked, smiling. Waiting.
“Just a brief errand, then probably catch a bit of lunch. I am a little famished, if you must know,” Marta said. “But what about you? I’m glad you’re feeling much better today.”
“Yes, I am,” Paulie said, smiling even deeply. Waiting, waiting for Marta to say something. “Thanks for the help, by the way.”
“Never mind that,” Marta smiled. “It is my job to take care of all of you.”
The elevator rang open, and he stepped out with Marta.
“Well then, I’ll see you around, Paul,” she said. “Do take care.” Then she walked away.
Paulie stopped, a little bewildered, his eyes following Marta’s figure as she exited through the lobby door, disappearing quickly down the corner.
Something is not right, he told himself. He quickly decided to think nothing more of it. He went to The Pit for lunch of pulled pork, and deemed himself sufficiently full for the rest of the day. He was left marveling, as usual, at American-sized meals—just the sight of them made one full. It was a good diet, he decided, to be shocked away from hunger by abundance that seemed a little too gluttonous. Fabulous, he thought, and burped just a little.
Later that afternoon, he began, or continued, some overdue correspondence home. It was the right time: it was uncharacteristic of him, verbose diva that he was, to stay silent for so long. Not even a blur of a shout-out in Facebook from him, or some hint in 140 Twitter characters that gave the world that surrounded him an idea of his place in the flux. But all for a good excuse, he reasoned out to himself. Those past few days in bed—his only exercise the occasional bouts of deep coughing that easily tired him out—had been especially incapacitating. It was a virulence he had never encountered before in an illness, him who was used to laughing away fevers and colds and coughing with some magic determination. I’m just not used to the dry air, he had thought, suddenly missing the tropical humidity back home.
The letters he had received had a hint of panic to them—“Why have you not written yet?” the one from mother cried; it was longish and riddled with typographical errors, which was perfectly natural of someone who could not comprehend at all the idea of electronic mail, and conceived an understanding of the Internet only in the vaguest of terms. “Are you all right in Ohio?” Iowa, Paulie found himself correcting again and again. “Was it a good flight? Have you written your brother in California that you’re in America now?” Yes. No. About to. And so it went.
Over Skype, he caught his best friend Amanda in the thinnest outsized shirt, probably her husband’s, getting ready for bed. “Don’t go to sleep yet, Mandy,” he said. “Haven’t talked to you for days now.”
“Is that my fault?”
“I got sick.”
“You look it, hahaha. Well, is it getting cold there? I hear it’s cold there this time of year,” Mandy yawned. “What time is it, anyway.”
“Just subtract an hour from your time in Manila, and reverse the meridians.”
“Umm, I don’t get it.” She yawned again.
“Never mind. But yes, it’s getting cold here. Well, sometimes, anyway. Today was kinda cold, but not cold cold, or at least that’s what I’m told. It’s only 16° outside, which might as well be spring for many people here. I go about a lot with my coat on.”
“Are you having fun there yet?”
“I intend to. I felt that I’ve wasted too much time already, getting sick.”
“Well, you must.”
He cut to the chase. “So what do you think?”
“What do I think what?”
“Come on, Mandy.”
“Don’t you notice anything new? About me?”
“Umm, no. Switch on some more light.”
“It’s daytime here, gaga.”
“Well, you kinda look blurry.”
He stood up and drew his curtains a little wider—and the late afternoon sun streamed in.
“Well, that’s better, Paul. I can see you now.”
He sat down. “Mandy?”
“You’ve never called me Paul before, by the way.”
She paused a bit, looking a little confused. “Gaga. I’ve always called you Paul. That’s your name, if you can’t remember it, dum-dum.”
A protest rose from his voice. “But no. You’ve always called me Paulie. Paulie. Never Paul. Or Pauleen, when you’re being a smart-ass.”
“But why would I call you Pauleen?”
“Because you said it suited me?”
“It’s a girl’s name. Why would that suit you?”
“Jesus, Mandy. Are you okay?”
“I’m sleepy. What’s up with you, anyway?”
“Don’t you see anything different?”
“About how I look. Now.”
“What about the short hair?”
“You’ve always had short hair.”
“Jesus, Mandy. You’re kidding me, right?”
He stood up. He turned around for the camera.
“What about this?”
“What about it?”
“This is different, right?”
“How I look!”
“Paul Andrew Segundo, you look the same. Maybe a little tired. The puffy eyes. But you’ve been sick, so there you go. Is that it? The puffy eyes?”
“No, dum-dum. It’s everything. The whole ensemble. I changed! Do you see it? The hair? The clothes? I’m not even wearing makeup anymore!”
“You’re tired, Paul. Go have more sleep time. The fever must have gotten to you, or something.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Look, I have work in a few hours. It’s past midnight here. Write me an email or something. But you look fine, dear. I’m glad you’re finally okay. So, this is goodnight, okay?”
Later, he caught himself in the mirror again. He looked and looked. He wondered.
The poems wouldn’t come. He wanted the words to spill out—he was here for that, after all, wasn’t he? wasn’t he?—he longed for the words to come in torrents touched by the embracing invitation of what surrounded him: a breathing quiet everywhere that was fodder for literary output, an air of books and literary people, a vista of an increasingly colorful autumn that seemed calculated to inspire. A stupid sonnet would do, he thought, or even a villanelle.
The words would not come.
What instead came, in bursts which became more frequent, were the excursions to the mirror. Even gleaming surfaces did the trick. Anywhere he caught reflections of himself. It was always the same, what he saw. There was that man, with short hair, with perfectly manly clothes. Where was the Paulie of the fabulous dresses? he wondered. One day, it was a pair of khakis topped by a black sweatshirt with sleeves in pulsating red. Another day, it was a gray polo shirt, collars turned in perfect angle, held in place by a thick black leather belt, tucked in dark grey slacks. Sometimes, he threw in the perfect jacket, just for effect, or to keep out the cold. He was a page from some preppy’s handbook. A masturbatory GQ illusion. His short hair, too, kept to its angled perfection. It did not seem to require maintenance—it didn’t grow.
He tried to ask Amanda again, but she did not have a single recollection of Paulie in dress. Over a string of emails and online chats, none of his other friends could remember either, which made him a little panicky. How could anyone not remember? Tara, who nurtured with him a common and almost unhealthy craving for the visions in Vogue and Elle? Ramon, who used to make fun of his wigs? Edgar, who did not like his experiments in short skirts? Estella, who introduced him to the magic of rebonded hair? Tony, the closeted freak, whom he knew stole regularly from his collection of lipstick? They did not remember. They knew only Paul—or someone they affectionately called Pao. It was dreadful.
The same query to his mother—who bought him his first Avon kit on his sixteenth birthday—did not go well, and came back only with a barrage of questions that hinted doubts for his sanity.
But it was all insane, Paulie thought as he walked back to his hotel one night, several days later. Because he remembered clearly everything. Everything as Paulie. That life was sharp in his memory, and everything about it unspooled in his head as he walked the length of Jefferson Street, its entirety condensed in highlights—his first brush with lipstick, his first yearning for breasts, his first twirl with a brush with longer hair that was not a wig, his first day in a dress when he was nineteen, his first kiss with a boy who thought he was a girl, his first humiliation in the form of a fist from another boy surprised by the extra appendage where none should have been, his first poem about wanting to break free, his first book—The Memoirs of a Butterfly—that catapulted him to controversy and literary fame. All that.
If there was none of that, was his life a lie?
“Who the fuck am I then?” he found himself saying. It was a little too loud, perhaps. Out there in the open, along the sidewalk, where he had stopped. Where the question volumed out of him like a panic. A slight wind was picking up. A red-haired woman, walking the opposite direction towards him, had stopped with him. She looked at him now, surprise written all over her face. Then she walked on, a little faster, and soon rounded the corner, disappearing quickly.
Pictures, Paulie thought, a seizure of delight taking him. But it was an inspired idea. Pictures would tell him a different story.
He moved quickly, matching the hurry of the red-haired woman as he walked down the street towards the groaning invitation of his hotel entrance. But there was a mad urgency to his pace, as if a second wasted would doom to oblivion a trace of a life he thought he knew, he thought he had.
In his room, he quickly turned on his laptop. It whirred to life, and soon he was frantically typing down the URL of the website he was frantic to log on to. There it was, finally. Facebook. He typed his username, his password. The screen blinked a moment, and soon he was on his profile page. He clicked the tab that said “Photos.” There they were, finally, all the albums that chronicled a life. He clicked on one.
“Party at the Rendals,” the album said.
That should do it. He had dressed to the nines for Ynez and Paolo Rendal’s wedding anniversary party, only a few months ago.
And so there he was. In almost every picture.
He caught his breath. But where was the Aubrey Hepburn look he painstakingly resurrected for that night? Where was the Givenchy little black dress that begged breakfasts at Tiffany’s? There was only Paul—short hair and all, an elegant man in elegant clothes, clad in a white dress shirt, a red tie, in a pencil-strip suit that recalled a young Frank Sinatra. It felt unbelievable. Paulie clicked and clicked. But it was all the same, everywhere, in all the photos.
Still, there were more albums to click through.
He was frantic.
When at last he exhausted every one of them, it came to a frightening conclusion: they all told the same story. There was no Paulie, not a single trace of the fabulousness in a dress.
He dropped to the floor, the computer screen fuzzy now from where he lay crumpled. A wave of nausea took over him, and he staggered to the bathroom, and under the inelegant white light washing over his curled, defeated frame, he vomited. Later, when he pushed the lever to flush away the vomitus, the sound of rushing water seemed to him the perfect rendition of his state of mind—a soundtrack of rushing to the void, everything lost in oblivion. It was the sound of erasure. He felt he did not exist.
He learned from the profile sheet they were all given, part of the information packet that Marta had distributed in the first day, that her name was Ghada. The Egyptian girl with the hijab. It was a beautiful name. She carried it with a patrician air, but buffered the effect quickly with a smile that proved infectious. Still, there was the reputation to contend: she was, after all, the Carrie Bradshaw of Cairo, and she was shocking the conservatives back home with her blunt confessions of life as a young woman in Egyptian society. Her first novel—about a girl hopelessly in love with the wrong young man—was a raging success, which meant also that she earned the ire of those who urgently felt there were things not meant to be discussed in public, much less written with such blatant descriptions on the printed page, much less by a woman.
“Which is why Iowa City feels so much like freedom,” she smiled at him. “Here, I can truly be myself.” Then she sipped her coffee. She only allowed herself coffee. Usually a double cappuccino.
“I told you once we would enjoy it here, didn’t I?” Paul told her.
“Yes, you did. And you were right,” she said.
It was a busy day in The Java House, the coffee shop right next to the Englebert, which was Iowa City’s premiere movie house. The Java House was where most of the university students hang out for talk with friends, for the endless stream of espresso, for their wifi fix as they waited for the next class, or the next adventure.
The café inside was full—it was the middle of a Thursday afternoon—which meant he had to go for the remaining available table outside by the sidewalk, which also meant sharing it with the next bearable stranger who needed a seat to park his espresso or brewed coffee. He was glad it turned out to be Ghada, who had come to his spot looking almost lost, her cup precariously hanging from her hands, her hijab—a pink one—brightening in the afternoon sun. At the very least it was someone he knew, someone familiar, someone from the program.
He invited her to sit with him.
“I hope you don’t mind me sharing this table with you,” she was saying after he had shifted his bags on the table to make way for her and her cappuccino.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” he said. “Besides, it gives me a chance to pause a bit from working.”
“Oh? You’re working? On what?”
“A poem. Several poems,” he said.
“What about you? How’s your writing?”
“I’ve written half a chapter. I don’t think any of it is good.”
He smiled. “We never think any of it is good.”
She laughed at that.
“That is so true. But at least we’re writing. Or at least we persist in writing,” she said. “We should all be writing. It has been almost four weeks since we arrived.”
“Almost a month,” he said, wondering himself at how time flew.
“Almost a month. It seemed that we only arrived yesterday, no?” she said.
He looked at Ghada’s hijab. He felt its pinkness pulsating. The color throb under the sun. He felt a longing to touch it.
“Ghada, do you remember when we first met?” he finally said, catching his breath.
“At the van? From the airport?” she replied.
“You told me this was a fabulous place,” she smiled.
“Yes!” He felt an ounce of excitement washing over him. He did not quite understand why.
“I remember also feeling very tired, and not very communicative,” she laughed a little.
“Do you remember everything about it?”
“Our meeting. How you met me.”
Why was he asking all these questions? he wondered to himself.
Ghada only looked down, almost too suddenly, into her coffee. She began stirring it a bit, gently breaking through the foam, and then, when she was done, she tentatively raised the cup to her lips and sipped. “It’s very good coffee,” she finally said. She would not meet his eyes.
He counted out the silence after that. But Ghada would only look onto what was happening on the street, to the cars passing by, to the pedestrians. She was soon making short, wry observations, as if they were what mattered most in this conversation. “That little boy looks miserable in his blue coat.” “That girl has too much red dye on her hair.” “I have a car like that once, in Cairo.” “That book that old man is reading is precious. You should get a copy.” And on and on.
But he didn’t ask anymore questions. He only smiled, and he, too, came up with the appropriate short replies to her observations. “He does look miserable. Poor little boy.” “She looks like a character from a German movie.” “You have? But it’s a quaint little car. I can see you driving it.” “I read it once. It was all right.” And on and on.
Later, she turned to him finally as the daylight went flatter, and she gave that usual smile.
Almost like an instinct, he reached for her—but Ghada did not flinch—and touched her pink hajib, gently, like a gesture in worship. He felt its texture with his forefinger and thumb. It felt soft and silken, like the wings of a butterfly.
She looked at him with the countenance of someone who came to expect such gestures as something almost ordinary. She looked at him gently. She gave that smile. “Are you all right now?” Ghada asked.
He withdrew his hand, and gave her a sheepish grin.
“I think so,” he finally said.
“Why did you do that?”
“I really don’t know,” he said. He thought about, and after a while, he turned to her and said, “I guess I just wanted to find out how it felt, how that fabric would feel around your head.”
He looked away.
She laughed a little, and then said, “Well, it feels—how do you say it—fabulous?”
He gave a small nod.
Then Ghada sipped the last of her coffee, and turned to go.
“I have to get going,” she said, standing up, picking up her purse, gathering her dress around her. “There’s more writing to do at my room—that pesky half-chapter—and you have to get back to your poems.”
“I’m sorry, Ghada,” he said.
“You have nothing to be sorry about.”
“I’ll see you around then?”
“I’ll see you around,” she smiled, then moved to leave.
Then, a few feet away, she stopped. She turned back to him from where she stood, and called out, “Your long hair, it suited you, you know.” She smiled once again, and continued on her way.
Paul nodded, and smiled, too.
My long hair? he thought suddenly, stricken by the whole idea of it. But what a strange thing to say.
But he brushed it off as soon as he felt the words coming, almost in a torrent, reaching to him as an aching in his fingers that required release in long hand.
They bore on him like a flood, it felt almost fabulous.
Ian Rosales Casocot teaches English and Literature at Silliman University. In 2002 he edited FutureShock Prose: An Anthology of Young Writers and New Literatures, nominated as Best Anthology in the National Book Awards. Widely awarded as an anthologist and short story writer, he published his first collection, Old Movies and Other Stories, in 2005. His novel Sugar Land was long listed for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. He was a fellow at the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa in 2010. Two collections of short stories, Beautiful Accidents and Heartbeak & Magic, are forthcoming in 2011.