by Abdellah Taia
In another life I am looking at you; your face seems so familiar. You’re smiling. A long time ago, I got to know you. I slept with you one night After we made … After we made what? Love, love, I guess. But I don’t say anything. That’s how I know you … that’s how; it’s all coming back to me now … Maybe five years ago, the second time I came here to Paris … maybe the third time … I was alone … I can see you now, see it’s you … But I only see your face and only for a minute. It’s the face you had back then. You haven’t changed a bit, you know, not since. Your face looks exactly the same. You haven’t put on any weight, not one gram. Your pointed nose, very thin, slightly Greek looking, I remember how it looked and seeing it there, in front of me now, I see I haven’t forgotten it. There it was, ready to stir in my memory.
He touches my nose with his forefinger and keeps on talking. I let him do it. Your nose is the picture image of the rest of your body, you know … Tell me I’m wrong? Hard, bony, dry … Am I wrong about that? I know I’m not. In my mind I see this body where the bones are very important and the most important ones are visible, not hidden beneath the skin.
Yes, that’s the image I have of you, your body almost without flesh. Except … He stops himself. I know what he’s going to say, I do—people have already told me. Even beforehand, I’m turned on and terrified.
About the buttocks. Your buttocks. Not what you’d expect. Not at all what you’d expect. Your buttocks are fleshed out, plump with flesh that is nice and round, that moves from tangerine to orange … And it’s baby skin; you’ve got the butt of a young child. That’s what I think because that’s what I felt when I touched them: You’ve got the butt of a young child. You’ve matured, but by some incredible luck: You’ve kept the butt of a young child. I’m smiling. I’m shy. I make believe I’m shy. I want to lower my gaze. I don’t; I won’t. That was the night I told you everything, right there pressed against your buttocks. I told you all that to get you interested. I told you all that because it’s true.
Because it was all leading up to something, taking me to a place I couldn’t imagine. You were surprised, a little bit surprised. This is what you asked me: “What do you know about a young child’s butt?” I didn’t need time to think, had my answer all ready. I always knew the answer to that question and censoring myself around you was pointless. I said: “I know what my brother’s butt looks like.” That didn’t surprise you. Not in the least. You just smiled, not at me, smiled and closed your eyes. I moved in closer and told you: “My brother would lie there in front of me and do the same thing. He’d close his eyes and then guide my hand with his own. Me, I didn’t close my eyes, never. I wanted to see, to watch, to observe myself. I wanted to see every inch of my brother, see him from the inside out. I wanted him to guide me, step by step, my hand in his, right across his buttocks, tenderly, violently, but with more tenderness than violence. That’s what we do … What we did…”
All of a sudden, he seems annoyed. Maybe a little afraid as well. I smile. I close my eyes for a second or two. I open them again. Now he’s the one smiling. He feels reassured. He can talk again now. I won’t betray his trust. I really believe that. I swear to it in my mind. Then in my heart. I think he’s understood me. He doesn’t stop smiling. He could get anybody’s attention with that smile, I know he could. I’m not smiling anymore.
OnOberkampf Street, the street you lived on with your French boyfriend, we went out to buy condoms. It got dark a while ago. Only the Arab convenience stores were still open. You did the unthinkable. I was standing there, standing right next to you when you asked your Arab friend where the “rubbers” were. The word “rubbers” shocked him. He didn’t want to answer you. He looked at me, looked right at me, glared at me as if I were the devil’s own secret son now revealed to be on earth. And then he gazed tenderly at you. We felt ashamed, suddenly ashamed: We knew the exact moment when we crossed the line. And he knew it. We knew he knew exactly what we planned to do in just a little while. He saw you were an Arab, just like him. Maybe he wanted to talk to you alone, say bad things about me, remind you what your religion and its prophet had to say about sex between men, about boyfriends.
Maybe he wanted to suggest that you get yourself back on the straight and narrow path to salvation before it was too late. He didn’t get to do that, didn’t dare to. We left without even saying good-bye. When we left the store, he followed us outside, called out to you. You went over to him. He whispered something to you and then threw me these dagger glances. I was the enemy. The object of forbidden desire. The corrupted one. Were you friends with that guy? You never told me.
He stops talking now. I wait in silence for whatever comes next. He knows what that might be, not I. I remember a lot of stuff about that night. And those memories are blurry, but also precise. I can’t say for sure if it was summer or winter. It’s vague. What I picture in my mind is your body and parts of your story, but it’s all mixed up and I can’t find the paste to bind it together, to write about it clearly. All I can come up with are scenes, dreams and the night. We must have made love, on the bed, the bed where you usually slept with your French boyfriend. You were cheating on him and that turned me on. It turned you on too. Both of us knew all about indiscretions, knew only too well how quickly we got ourselves into something, got in way over our heads. There we were, two naked brothers, one pressed up against the other, one there to satisfy the other. We were to blame. I was to blame. I told you so. You said to me: “It’s my fault too.”
It was our little secret. The second secret we shared. We were afraid. Afraid of God. We knew we’d be punished some day. Have to face … purgatory … Hell … me … you … sharing the same paradise, the same secret. Do you remember that?
I don’t answer. I want to know what happens next, what’s next, what happens after that. He speaks slowly, searches for the French word, and his Danish accent is like honey to my ears.
When we were in bed, you told me this story from your childhood inMorocco, about how you and your friends used to torture cats before you killed them. You felt no remorse. You were like some kind of lawless child. You talked for a long time. About your old life. And we slept. You fell asleep first. I can’t go to sleep when I’m left alone like that, expected to drift off all by myself. I always want to be the one who falls asleep first, who drifts off into the darkness. You were really mean then, like when you were a kid, with that gang of friends you had. But I closed my eyes anyway. And I started to count sheep. And God was not far off.
The next day, when I got up, the first thing I thought about was you. I sought you with my eyes. I didn’t get out of bed. There on the night table was this note for me. Even before I read it, the gesture alone was very touching.
It said: “You make me feel like I really want to be in love!”
I couldn’t believe it. Was that note really intended for me? Was I really the one who evoked such emotion, made you feel like you really wanted to be in love? Did I do that? I got up to go look for you, look for your body, look for your eyes, look for everything else. You were in the kitchen squeezing oranges. I didn’t say “Good morning.” I looked at you. Looked from a distance. I didn’t want to walk right up to you. I wanted some sign. I didn’t dare ask the question.. You looked up. I could see the concentration on your face, the anger, the slight display of anger. At me? You looked at me. I melted. And you said: “Making something for you? Of course I’m making something for you. I’m making this orange juice just for you. Wait till you taste it. It’s delicious. The oranges are fromMorocco.” You poured me a glass and I drank it in one swallow. Your juice is good, really good. You walked over to me. You took the glass back and I very distinctly heard you whisper or pray: “I am happy that the first thing I’ve ever given you to drink is something that comes fromMorocco! A small part of my country is inside of you now…” And you smiled. Smiled that I would find even greater happiness.
He stops talking. Hasn’t he got anything else to say? I continue, a true gourmet, to devour him with my eyes. And what happens next? I wait. I want to hear about what happens next. But there is no next part, no more images. None of me, none of him. No more anything. It all stops right there. Comes to a halt the minute that scene ends. Dream over.
I left. I don’t know how. And where did I go? MaybeToulouse, headed to my aunt’s house. It all stops right there. All I remember about you, well … it’s all the stuff I just told you. About the oranges. The juice. The way they tasted. Your country. Your skin. I ran into you yesterday. I smiled at you. You smiled back right away. I’d like to see you tonight, reconnect with you, watch you cry out so that you smile even more. Do you remember me? He asked that question twice. Maybe more than twice. I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was incredibly beautiful. Strangely beautiful. Was he real? No, I didn’t. I really didn’t remember him. I don’t. I am sure. Sure. I never met this guy before. Never.
Olaf talks a lot. In a soft-spoken way. Like a girl. But he’s no girl. Olaf appeared, right there in front of me, happened to be there like some kind of miracle. He was wearing a white shirt. It was cold that night in Bastille Books, the bookstore he worked in. I was looking for Les Letrres Portugaises and I was freezing to death. Not him. He found that book for me. He never read it but he knew about the secret love language of that book. Olaf was born a Jehovah’s Witness. Until he was eighteen, he lived with his very large family up near the German-Danish border. One morning, while they were eating breakfast, he told his parents that he was a homosexual, the greatest of sins in their belief system, and that he had no intention of changing. They didn’t say a word. They put their heads down and went right on eating. He got up. He left, left on an empty stomach. First he went toMunich. ThenRome. Finally toParis. He never saw them again. Never wants to see them again.
Olaf today is thirty-six.
Translated from French by Frank Stock
Abdellah Taïa was born in Rabat , Morocco in 1973. He is the first Moroccan and Arab writer to publicly declare his homosexuality. The French Editions du Seuil has published five of his books, including “L’armée du salut” (2006), “Une mélancolie arabe” (2008) and “Lettres à un jeune marocain” (2009). His latest novel, “Le jour du Roi,” was awarded the prestigious French Prix de Flore in 2010. His work has been translated into several languages, including English, Italian, Spanish, etc. He has also appeared in Rémi Lange’s film “The Road to Love” (2001). He lives in Paris .