Spotlight: Summer of Sola

[fiction] 

Your lips taste of dust and salt. Your baby hairs glisten, limp commas and parentheses. In the mirror, you examine your freckles. You avoid looking at your chest.

You dip your foot in the water (too hot), force yourself to keep it in, smothering it with one hand.

You sink deeper into the bath, stopping only when the nape of your neck touches the surface.

Twice a week, you pay older men to burn your scalp. When, inevitably, the blow dryer gets too close to your ear, you don’t jump or flinch, not once. You wouldn’t dare. It would take so much effort, to tell them they’re hurting you, and you don’t want to be mean or bother them. Their hands are confident and assured as they tug on your curls and push your head down towards your chest. You let them, taking in the delicious smell of hairspray on a small brush with metal bristles. They move fast.

In the water, you remember various versions of your body. As a child of no more than seven: at one with yourself. Age ten to twelve: lanky, fast becoming a source of shame. At thirteen, a strange widening of the hips, prompting cryptic comments from your mother

(a figure fit for childbearing)

(you definitely didn’t get this from me)

but no chest still, and the legs and arms, same as always, only stretched out. And now, fifteen—with brand new stretch marks, caused by a never-ending growth spurt and treated nightly by rubbing expensive lotion on both sides of your ass, something you cannot remember whether you or your parents suggested.

In the bath, you observe the slow-rising arrival of asphyxiation with scientific interest. You pop your legs out and let them hang down the side of the tub.

School is out, and your days keep getting longer and deeper. In the afternoons, you spend hours in your room, straightened hair floating softly under the air conditioning. You squint to find patterns in the ceiling.

You stare outside at the beige roofs and the naked sides of buildings like the bare bodies of strangers and think: This one’s going to be a scorcher.

*     *     *

It’s the shoes you first notice: tattered, mournful, and brown, manifestly subject to many aggressions. Not once does it come to mind that this might be the desired effect. He has thick, curly black hair and what you assume, from a distance, to be brown eyes. You take one look at his outfit and conclude he is a beggar. You do not stop to think what a beggar might be doing at the Embassy on the 14th of July. You watch him lurk around the buffet, among throngs of people conversing in French, in Arabic, sizing each other up. He looks around, affects focus. Somewhere in this crowd, your parents are sipping wine.

You’re going to meet.

You won’t go over, you won’t do it, but you’ll let it happen, let him come over and say something as though neither of you has seen it coming. He can tell you’ll allow him, and circles the table a few more times, pretending to be lost in thought under the softly-swinging branches.

With the first word he speaks, when he finally approaches you after what has felt like hours of tiptoeing and ritual dance, you know you were wrong. He is not a beggar, but the least likable of varieties: an expatriate.

*     *     *

In the future you will remember nothing of this conversation. All your memories will be buried below the static of the words he wrote you later, in the letters.

You talk all night.

This is what you learn: He is a doctor. He is in his twenties. Works at the hospital near your school. Has only just arrived. Is only just getting used to life here.

In the future you chastise yourself for having wanted to look pretty. You must have known what you were doing. In the future, you will think: A fifteen-year-old isn’t a child. Look at me: I looked the same then as I do now. All grown up already. Same height, same weight. Just a slightly younger face.

But you sleep with braces in your mouth and a teddy bear wedged between the pillow and the headboard, and you’ve had your period for all of two years. When you watch Smallville, you think that your future life will be like Clark’s. You have never been kissed. You have never held hands.

That night you tell him about your plans for the future. What you want above else is to learn the electric guitar. Your dad told you he would buy you one if you got a good grade on your final exam. Then you can play Nirvana all the time, because you are totally Kurt Cobain’s biggest fan in the entire country, you even have a school bag with his face on it. And a poster. And the deluxe double CD. No one in the country owns as much Nirvana paraphernalia as you do.

What is it about you then? It could be your long hair, your sweet, fragile ankles. It could be your mouth, which an unknown kid at school once described as “big and good for blowjobs.” It must be something you are. Something you do without noticing.

Over the next hours, you reject him with all the polite despair of someone who has not been taught how to say no, someone for whom the desire of others trumps all else, starting with your own, which lies below unexcavated ground.

He asks to know what you are doing the following day. You have just recently learned that questions like these are not literal. They have a hidden agenda, a shrill ringing behind the soft deep voice. A year earlier and you would have given him the hourly schedule of your day, thinking he truly wished to be informed, questioning nothing. But you are wiser now. And you want nothing of tomorrow but for the sun to shine hard on your pink knees. Nothing but to be surrounded by blue skies, pool water, and the cold shade below the parasol. You want aloneness in the godly summer heat. You do not want a man, half-naked in the sunlight with all of his skin and all of his hair, too close to you. You don’t want him to come to the pool where you will be.

So why’d you tell him about it, then, Sola?

*     *     *

Sola says: You must understand. My parents loved him the second I introduced them later that night and he walked up to them carrying a crate of cherries from the hospital. You should have seen the spark in my mom’s eye: a doctor! Good going. Even my father approved. My father! The man who cuts my steak before he hands me the plate and won’t let me venture out alone. Yes, I wanted something. Wouldn’t you have?

Were there fireworks? I don’t remember. Did he drink? I didn’t. I must have flirted with him. I don’t remember. I think I flirted with him.

I told him my age a thousand times.

I was what you would call a tease. I teased him like an animal. I was nice. I was so nice. I was the nicest.

I wasn’t even home by the time I got his first text. I sat in the car with the crate on my knees.

It said he wanted to see me again. It said he wanted to rent a room in a palace. It said: “ah, did you want a room there too? Yalla!”

The next morning he’d written me a letter. How? I gave him my email address, that’s how. I would have given him my social security number if I’d known I had one.

*     *     *

15 July 2005, 1:15 a.m.

I don’t know when you’ll get this mail…We haven’t been apart for long but the need to see you again is eating away at my heart…

I guess I’ll try that Ashrafieh club, but something tells me this whole 900-dollar-club deal won’t be easy…But I’m starting to know people, I might be able to come in…Everything can be bought here…Laughs.

So why the desire to see you again…? That’s what’s so beautiful about life: its unfathomable mystery…You sail to the other side of the sea, to a country full of wealthy, curly-haired doctors and there you run into a princess in a black dress who immediately breaks the myth by saying that: One: she never wears dresses or heels; Two: she’s fifteen years old; Three: she’s fifteen years old; Four: her parents are never far, ever.

And curiously, no matter how many times she repeats those pretty reasons to turn around and hope for nothing, the more she talks, the more I want to stay and stay with her…

You are coming back to Europe in a number of seconds that is decreasing at the same time as I write you and in a sense that reassures me…Logically, the more I write the fewer the seconds between us, not a bad principle…

I’m worried about how little I care about this age thing…Can you imagine if I’d met a seventy-five year old instead, and she’d seduced me…I am a lucky guy. From now on I’ll watch out for the age thing…Friends from zero to 145 years old, lovers from eighteen to thirty-five…But…we could make an exception…You’re outside the norm anyway, right?

I’m happy with how fast you responded to my texts about the Pines…We’ll split the rooms one of these days…As soon as you get this mail, borrow your parents’ car and we’ll go for a ride.

Write me at ; yes, it’s a new address!

*     *     *

Sola says: I must have read the letter a dozen times. Sometimes my heart beat so fast I felt like I might become nauseated. I read it in two selves: the one that thought this was too much, too close, too soon; the one that wanted more.

*     *     *

Years later, you exit the metro station and walk along the cinemas of Montparnasse, speeding past the kiosks and strollers. When you arrive at the restaurant he is waiting on the terrace. He hasn’t changed. He looks down at the polished table, then up, nervously, and all around. You know that in a few seconds his eyes will be on you. You wait, and then there he is, and there you are.

*     *     *

Sola says: Of course, I wrote back. I wrote back again and again. I answered each of his texts. Sometimes I imagined my parents standing over my shoulder. When I turned around, they weren’t there.

*     *     *

By the next morning, he has asked you out. We can go somewhere not far from home, he says. He offers the name of a restaurant in your neighborhood and you hate him for knowing this place you have never heard of, even though this is your home and he has only been here for weeks. Already like the other Frenchmen he thinks he owns the place. He thinks he knows the good spots. He thinks he’s gotten the hang of Beirut. You don’t like him.

You can’t wait to see him.

You wear a strapless striped tank top and a short skirt. On your way to the restaurant, you focus hard to conjure his face. To see if this is a face you could like, a face you could find beautiful. Out of habit, after a while, it just might. Kind of like when you repeat your own name a hundred times and it starts making no sense at all and sounding foreign. Kind of like that but in reverse.

You eat nothing at the restaurant because of course you are allergic to everything. He knows this because you have told him, and because he is a doctor. He eats.

He asks if you’ll go see a movie after lunch. He has picked a movie, a comedy you don’t want to see. You don’t say anything. You think about how much you will have to tell your best friend when she gets back from Brazil in September.

You give him the sarcastic tour of the mall. You can do this, yeah, you can make this man laugh. You are smart enough. You are on home turf here. He knows no one, but you know every inch and corner of this place. It’s all good.

All the time you are thinking about sex, prodding yourself, handling the idea cautiously like something explosive. It’s a thought as foreign as the pictures of the universe in your astronomy book.

By the time the lights die in the theater you are worried he’ll try something. You no longer dare move your legs or arms. You practice perfect stillness.

His hair gleams under the blue sheen of the screen when he puts his head in your lap. You think: Is this when I am supposed to want him? You ask yourself, with growing despair: Are you sure you don’t like this? Are you sure?

After a while, though you cannot tell how long it has been, he sits back up. He grabs your hand. You hold his back. This, you can do. He moves his fingers across your hand and caresses it. You hate that word so much: caress. You don’t want to caress anything. You want to leave your body behind to rot in this stupid theater. You have no use left for it. Let anyone do with it as they will. All you want is to get your mind out of here safely. Back above the buildings, in the orange light of late afternoon outside, walls drenched in sun, the sky bleeding blue.

You tell yourself to pet his hand too but nothing moves.

At dinner later you tell your parents about the date like you are reading off a menu. They think it sounds lovely. You are satisfied.

*     *     *

The text comes at 11 p.m., a time by which you’ve been lying in bed in the dark for a time indefinite, weighing thoughts, examining them by the light of a tired brain.

Come outside.

Outside is seven floors below, in the small impasse where your father’s car is parked, between your building and the one opposite, decrepit and yellow, where white underwear hangs on a wire.

Outside in the dark is a plastic chair where a man sits waiting for you.

I’ve been here a while, he texts.

How can it be that your eyes meet as clearly, seven floors apart, as if he was standing a yard from you?

You wave at him. He blows you kisses. You blow one back.

*     *     *

17 July 2005, 12:55 a.m.

Subject: Here you are now, on the balcony, just like in my dream

Here you are, stepping forward onto the balcony…And I see you from down here, happy to be close to you, saddened by how unattainable you are.

Tomorrow I will come to the pool. If you get this mail, remember to tell the front desk you’re inviting me. There, I know the watchdogs are reassured when things are planned, organized, and smooth.

My darling…I upset you with my game of “yes or no.” You know, I spoke to you as if you’d grown up in our country, with that idea of “let’s go out together and see if, just as we believe and hope, love is born of this union” …Three weeks…That can be enough to make us really, really want to see each other again…and to do so. Life changes from one instant to the next. I don’t know what the next moment will hold. It could take away all the joy for life I had a second ago, but it’s no reason not to live that joy fully still. That, in a few words, is how I see things. But it’s not exclusive, and I also see the beauty there could be in being truly friends with you.

Here, you only date someone where you’re completely sure it’s the right person, at least for a long while. That’s not a bad thing—you can avoid the sadness that comes with mistakes, complicated moments when you say “it’s over…” But you also miss out on magical, unexpected moments that are so much more beautiful than you would have imagined…

The first girl who really mattered lived in French Polynesia and it lasted ten days…We never really left each other…But we both knew we wouldn’t see each other again for years…Now she has a child, how funny…If I’d stayed there it might be mine too. And you see, she’s still a part of me. And I’m happy to go with that. So is it stupid to want to spend these three weeks with you? As you can see, everything tells me it would be a really, really good idea. And I remain convinced that neither of us can know what would come out. But enough, I won’t say another word. I’m going to enjoy moments in your presence, with all the happiness inside me. Let’s play, talk, swim, walk, sing, dance…If you want to take my hand, take my hand; if you want to kiss me, kiss me. If you want to, shyness won’t stop you from making me understand, I know for sure.

*     *     *

The following night his text only says, “I’m here,” and you know exactly where to look this time.

Outside the humidity is stifling. You never replied to his second letter. Will he be mad?

You are cold.

Inside the pocket of your cutoff shorts, your finger curves around your phone’s power button until the screen goes dark. You kneel and crawl back under the half-opened rolling shutters.

*     *     *

The ones after, you don’t answer.

What has changed? Nothing. You are still eons from understanding. But somewhere in you there has been a spark.

*     *     *

Sola says: you should see the way he still looks at me at the restaurant, even after all these years. Why me? Why so much? Halfway through lunch his girlfriend calls from abroad. It turns out he chose a life on distant islands, where no one knows him. Have there been others like me? When he hangs up he tells me that his girlfriend is jealous, that she screamed at him. She knows about you, he says.

So does he.

What is there to know?

*     *     *

You count down the days until his departure. Sometimes you wonder if you made the right choice. At times you look behind your shoulder at the pool, on the street. In your emails to your best friend, you make it sound like something else, something to be excited about.

But every second spent alone tastes like sugar.

*     *     *

On the day he leaves, you go on the balcony around sunset. You can feel he is gone. You can feel the dust under the soles of your feet, the dirty tiles warmed by the sun. When you get to the ledge, you bend over and look down upon the empty street, at the plastic chair, at your parents’ green car with the two white stripes on its hood. And you laugh. You laugh until your head hurts, until your thoughts burst, until they spring out of you and melt into the air above, into the space between the buildings where you can see the sea. Your perfect blue line, flat colored like a trompe l’oeil. It is always there. It is the future. Nothing, no one can take you. Now your mind drifts to places above the words, places where no one can touch you, with no face in sight. Only light.

 

Marie Baleo is a French writer born in 1990. Her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award in 2017 and has appeared or is forthcoming in Yemassee, Tahoma Literary Review, Litro Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver Magazine, Chiron Review, Maudlin House, Split Lip Magazine, Cease, Cows, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere. She is the Travel Flash Editor of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Marie grew up in Norway and Lebanon and received a BA from Washington University in St. Louis and an MA from Sciences Po in Paris.