The talent show day came … and passed. Lana and Mohammad performed their piece with all the love and talent they possessed. If it hadn’t been for Mohammad’s little mistake with the riffs, they would’ve been declared the winners of the competition right at the spot. As for Mark and Tonya, their piece didn’t go on as smoothly as they had expected. Tonya’s choreography wasn’t that artistic, and if that wasn’t bad enough, she messed up some moves and forgot about others. Nevertheless, Mark’s voice never faltered throughout the performance, not even for once.
The results were out almost a week after the talent show. That day, things were a bit tense between Lana and Mohammad. It wasn’t so pleasant when Mohammad kept refusing to introduce Lana to his band. At some point, Lana accused him of trying to drive her away; that made the relationship a little stressful. But now the stress was even more, given the situation with the competition and all. As they were arguing about a certain chord that Lana insisted Mohammad had been strumming the wrong way all day long, Mark came running toward them.
“Lana,” he cried from a distance, “we won, we won the competition.”
“What?” screamed Lana, instantly standing up and turning her head toward Mark. “Who won? What competition?”
“The talent show.” Replied Mark, stealing air in between his words; he was now standing right in front of Lana. “You and I won first place! We’re traveling to London next week. Then, we’ll go to New York.”
“Oh my God!” exclaimed Lana, with her very red-with-heat face. She held her head with her arms as she span around to face Mohammad. “I can’t believe it.”
“Neither can I.” Said Mark. “I’ve been refusing to participate in that talent show for the past three years, telling myself I wasn’t good enough. Now, just look what happened.”
For all this time, Mohammad didn’t utter a single syllable; he was simply speechless. Not only had he worked his hardest for the past month to win the competition, but he also pushed Lana through some of her most desperate moments. Now, look who’s laughing! It didn’t hurt him that Mark had won. It hurt him that he had lost; Mohammad, the guy with the band! The professional musician! If anything, Mohammad had been yearning for that trip to London. He would dream every night that he went there with Lana, and that they spoke to Mark and Tonya in those red phone booths and kissed in front of the Big Ben. Now all his dreams where shattered; Mark had taken it all away.
“Congratulations.” He said trying his best to conceal the envy he felt deep down inside. “You were great, man; totally deserved it.”
“I’m afraid I’m gonna have to borrow your partner for the time being.” Said Mark jokingly as he wrapped his arm around Lana’s shoulder.
“Does Tonya know?” asked Mohammad. There was an ulterior motive behind his question, yet Mark pretended he hadn’t noticed it.
“Not yet.” He coolly replied. “I just thought about congratulating Lana first.”
“Why? What’s going on?” asked Tonya suddenly coming from behind.
Mark and Lana both told her at once. Her reaction was very different from Mohammad’s. She seemed extremely happy for them. Then she remembered the trip. Her facial expressions altered a bit at that, they weren’t as relaxed or happy as before. For one thing, she didn’t want to be separated from Mark for a whole week. And for another thing, she didn’t want him traveling with another girl, even if that girl was her best friend.
LANA’s CDS HAD been scattered around everywhere since the day she joined college. She wasn’t a very organized person, especially when it came to her CDs. But now, she was traveling to London. And those CDs had to accompany her just about everywhere she went. As she was collecting them one after the other from the theatre, Mohammad came in. She looked at him, then she looked the other way. She was nowhere near impressed with the way he had met the news about her winning the competition, and she decided to give him a piece of her mind.
“So the rumors are true,” he said approaching her with his hands in his pocket and his eyes on the floor, “you are packing.” Now his eyes were turned to her.
She was silent. Bending over the floor to pick up one of the CDs, she accidentally dropped her necklace. It was a necklace given to her by Mohammad as some kind of lucky charm back in the day when they were rehearsing for the talent show. She didn’t pick it up. Mohammad noticed that. He slowly moved toward the necklace, picked it up and handed it to her with his stretched arm.
“You dropped that.” He said. An ugly smile had worked itself to his face; he looked creepy.
“Thanks.” She said it while grabbing the necklace forcefully, sounding like she meant quite the opposite of gratitude.
“You’re still gonna need it in London, even with Mark with you.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she asked with a look of disgust.
“Nothing, it’s just that the two of you seem to be getting along quite well these days that to a stranger’s eyes, you would look like real partners.”
“That’s oughta be a compliment.” She was now obviously crossed, “I mean, we are gonna play partners in London. It would be great to seem convincing; just what we’re going for.”
“I can’t believe you’re excited about that trip!” Said Mohammad, finally dropping the mask. “It was our dream, our thing.” At both syllables, he strongly struck his chest. “At least pretend to be sorry we both didn’t win.”
“Well, at least you pretend you’re happy for me!” cried Lana overwhelmed. “God,” she turned around and moved away from him. “Your jealousy is unbelievable. Simply unbelievable! Can’t you see that I have won? It was my dream, and it finally came true.”
“I thought your dream was for the both of us to win.” Muttered Mohammad in a broken tone.
They both remained silent. Both saw themselves as victims and saw each other as errants. By then, Mark was already in the middle of the theatre, yet neither of them seemed to notice him till he spoke.
“Lana, they want us at the dean’s office. Probably gotta do with the passports or something.”
“Right behind you.” Said Lana picking up her backpack while her eyes were still fixed at Mohammad. She followed Mark, looked back at Mohammad one last time, stopped, held on to a pole near the door of the theatre, let herself go so that the only thing keeping her from falling was her firm grab to that pole, then she was gone. That was the last time she ever saw Mohammad till the day she traveled to London.
THE WAY TO the airport was very festive. All Lana’s family was with her in the car. Her father rode in the front by the chauffeur’s side. While her mother and younger sister, Sara, sat next to her in the backseat. They were all talking to Lana, each giving her advice on how to manage her time between shopping and sightseeing, how to practice well before the performance and never fear the judges. They kept reminding her that going there was the real prize, and all that followed didn’t matter.
It wasn’t Lana’s first visit to London, but it was the first time she ever traveled alone. The only thing that comforted her was that Mark was going with her; even though they weren’t great friends, they were close enough to enjoy each other’s company.
When they had finally arrived at the airport, the chauffeur rushed out of the Land Rover and opened the trunk. He pulled out two suitcases and a handbag. It’s a fact, Lana wasn’t traveling light. And why should she? She had millions of pieces of clothes to wear, an entire week to spend in London and lots of outings to look forward to. However, the only problem that faced her was who should carry all that luggage.
“Lana!” she heard someone scream as she was getting out of the car. She turned around and realized that she was face to face with Tonya. They had already said their goodbyes back at her house the night before, but of course Tonya had to drive Mark to the airport. She quickly ran toward Lana’s family and greeted them one after the other. Lana’s parents had always loved Tonya, but lately, they’ve been feeling that she was a bit distant from their daughter.
All that time, Mark was inside the airport with his family. Tonya led Lana and her family inside to meet him. For the first time ever, Lana was introduced to Mark’s mother. She had seen Mohammad’s father before; nevertheless, that wasn’t such a happy encounter to remember. But Mark’s mother was very different; she was this middle-aged, nice woman who looked very elegant and beautiful. Her loose, white shirt made her look so bright and her Hijab didn’t only cover up her hair, but her wrinkles as well. She had Mark’s green eyes, but hers were a bit larger. She shook hands with Lana’s mother with a bright smile. Also, Mark’s little sisters looked like nice people, even though they seemed a bit foolish and maybe even childish. As for his brother, he didn’t look like him at all. He was also tall but with a slim body and brown hair. He shared his sisters’ foolishness, but wasn’t as childish as they were.
The two families would’ve spent hours blending together if they hadn’t called for Lana and Mark’s flight. That was when they said goodbye to everyone, grabbed their luggage – Mark surely helping Lana with hers – and left. They spent some time at the boarding lines then they went to the cafeteria. All that time, one thing was on Lana’s mind; Mohammad didn’t come to say goodbye. Mark was able to tell, so he decided this was the best way to make conversation.
“He’s not gonna come.” He began, sitting down on the table with her right after they had ordered. “I’ve been friends with him for years now and I know exactly how he thinks.”
“Who is it you’re talking about?” asked Lana, trying to play dumb. Seeing that it wasn’t going to work from Mark’s sly smile, she said: “And how does he think?”
“He thinks you humiliated him, and that you should apologize first.” Said Mark, sipping some soda.
“What the hell have I done to humiliate him?” enquired Lana, her voice slightly raised.
“I’m telling you how he thinks, not what I think.” Replied Mark defensively. He was silent for a while, then he rejoined, “just let it be. It’s gonna work itself out.”
“See! That’s the problem. We haven’t reached that place yet. Right now it either works or it doesn’t, no in betweens. And from where I’m standing, it’s not working.”
They were interrupted by the waiter’s arrival at the table. He placed down a plate of spaghetti with meatballs and another plate of French fries. Lana started nibbling on the French fries, while Mark worked his way to the spaghetti. He then took a look at her and said,
“You know, those fries aren’t gonna fill your hunger. You’ll want to eat again once we get on the plane. And with the economy tickets we have, trust me, eating is not advisable.” Lana smiled, for the first time since they were alone together. “C’mon,” he said, rolling the fork through the spaghetti and feeding her, “it’s delicious.” Lana opened her mouth and took the chunkiest bite she had taken in ages, then they both burst out into laughter.
Despite being able to make Lana laugh, Mark hadn’t been accurate in his words. For if he had known Mohammad well enough, he would have seen him standing at the airport right in front of the cafeteria and watching Lana eating spaghetti from behind an ornamental tree. Getting to that part of the airport wasn’t allowed for non-travelers; however, Mohammad’s father had his own connections. And when Mohammad told him he needed permission to get inside the airport, Mr. Baher couldn’t help but comply, owing to the dim hope that maybe this favor could narrow the gap between them. Nevertheless, standing like a fool behind that tree and seeing how happy Lana seemed and how she wasn’t even thinking about him, Mohammad regretted having asked for such a favor. His eyes were watering up with tears. That was when he realized how deeply he felt for Lana, how it wasn’t just a fling and that perhaps he was already in love with her. He could’ve gone straight to her, told her he was sorry and that he loved her. Yet, he couldn’t. He hated himself, but not to that extent. However, he loved her just about to any extent. In the end, he found it best to leave and pretend he had never come in the first place.
THE PLANE WASN’T any better than Mark had expected it to be. When the food was served, Mark winked at Lana and they both tried to conceal their laughter till the flight attendant moved to the seats in the opposite aisle. They watched a movie, during which Lana fell asleep on Mark’s shoulder. He gently tapped her on the shoulder to wake her up.
“Lana,” he said in a whisper, “the plane has landed. We’re here.”
She slowly opened her eyes and turned to him smiling. Then he unloaded their handbags from above their seats and carried them through the shuttle bus. From the shuttle bus, they moved to the airport and from the airport to the hotel where they would be staying.
“HELLO,” muttered Lana as she dimly answered the phone, still half asleep and her eyes not yet opened.
“Hey, it’s me.” The voice on the phone paused, then continued, “did I wake you up?”
“Yeah,” replied Lana seating herself up in bed and taking a look at her watch, “and for that I must thank you. I almost overslept.”
“Sorry,” said Mark in a not-very-apologetic tone, “but I was just wondering if you’d like to go out. I’ve been taking some rides around the city for the past few days and I know a place where we can go.”
Now Lana wouldn’t usually accept such an invitation, especially since she was extremely tired due to working around the clock the previous week on her piece at the festival and finally performing it the day before at the festival. Moreover, she was leaving the following morning so she needed to stay in and pack. And most importantly, she wasn’t fond of going out with people whom she didn’t very well know to places she didn’t know any better either; that was Tonya’s thing. But all things considered, she felt the need to chill out a bit after an extremely tiring week, and Mark was giving her this opportunity.
Dressed in a scarlet evening gown with a length an inch or two above her knees and wearing her bright brown hair down, Lana looked truly majestic. As Mark hesitantly knocked at the door of her hotel room, he realized that he was doing something very wrong. It could be considered cheating on his girlfriend, or even worse; stealing his best friend’s girl. He weighed his options and realized that if he stayed, he would be a hypocrite and if he left he would be a coward. And even though he was out of time, he made his decision; he chose to be a hypocrite.
But even that was weird in a way. Meaning, he did not feel the smallest remorse for spending such a long evening with Lana. Guilt didn’t even cross his mind when he asked her to dance to Lady in Red’s soft tunes. Tonya’s picture never came up in his mind; it was like she wasn’t even a part of his life. And that didn’t bother him, not at all.
“Do you know I worked as a waiter for a while?” he began right after the waiter had served their drinks, “it’s not an easy job.”
“When was that?” enquired Lana, a bit disturbed.
“Right after I finished school.” He looked her straight in the eye, unlike Mohammad who seldom made eye contacts when speaking about his past. “My father had been dead for some years and my little sister was having some problems in math and she needed to take a private lesson we couldn’t afford. That’s of course beside the electricity bill which we had been doing our best to ditch for almost a month. My mother was working three jobs at once and she still couldn’t support us. So I had to stand up and do what I was obliged to do.” He took in some of his alcoholic drink. Lana sat opposite to him on the table. She had a facial expression which he hadn’t expected at all. Instead of pity or empathy, she looked at him with complete admiration, which gave him the courage to continue. “But then the freeze on my father’s bank accounts was lifted and life was so much better. And if that wasn’t enough, I got a scholarship in our college. It’s like … it gets worse, and worse, but then it can’t help but get better.”
“You never told me that before.” Said Lana slightly blaming him. Did she have the right to blame him? He didn’t believe so, but he wished she felt so. Because that would mean that he’s closer to her than he realized; that she considered him a good friend. Oh, just the sound of it felt so impelling. If she could just give him a sign! If!
The way back to the hotel was the closest Mark had ever been to heaven. The diner wasn’t that far from the hotel so they didn’t have to take a cab; they walked home on foot. As they stepped out of the diner, they saw a couple of guys who looked like muggers across the street. Lana uneasily engaged Mark’s arm and drew him a bit closer to her. A chill spread all over his body, one that he tried so hard to hide. A while later, just as they had moved away from those muggers, he felt her shiver.
“You’re cold!” he said turning to her while they were still walking. Her face was white and her lips were blue. Before she could say anything, he stopped, took off his coat and placed it over her shoulder. Then he slowly buttoned it with so much care. When he was done, he took her arm and they were on their way again.
When they had finally reached her room’s door, he just couldn’t let her go.
“Good night.” She said smiling. Then she turned around and opened the door. He took a deep breath, then he closed the door behind her … after he had stepped into her room.
“Look,” he said with a very quick pace, not at all caring about her very surprised condition. “There’s something I really need to tell you. The first time I saw you, it was long before the academic year; long before anybody else had seen you, even Baher. It was during the summer vacation. I was at college to pay the tuition and you were there with your mother, taking a tour around the campus. You probably didn’t notice me, but I did. And I was hooked.” He stopped for a moment to breathe, and very heavily he did. “Then I waited to see you again at the beginning of the year but I didn’t. Tonya showed up, and don’t get me wrong; I really like her, but just as a friend. She was the one who misunderstood the whole thing. Anyway, when I saw you again and knew (from Tonya) that you were seeing someone, I decided to let it go and stick with Tonya. I thought I was gonna be able to get over that stupid crush, except … it’s not a crush …”
“Mark,” begged Lana as she bit her lower lip, trying to shut him up.
“Don’t think this is easy for me: realizing I’m in love with my best friend’s girlfriend, who also happens to be my girlfriend’s best friend.”
“In love!” echoed Lana laughingly, though she was on the verge of breaking down.
“Yes.” Sighed Mark, “I do love you. And I know it’s impossible to believe, but if you search deep down inside, you’ll realize you love me too.”
She tried to utter some words, but he stopped her by gently placing his index finger on her mouth. He then approached her till their bodies touched.
“Please, Mark, no.” she said melting into tears as she pushed him back with her hands. He held back her hands, pushed her to the wall and started kissing her. She tried to get away, but she was too weak for his muscles. And also there was a part of her that enjoyed the drama. However, something suddenly snapped inside her when she realized that she could actually get raped. She started making violent moves and was about to scream at the top of her lungs when … he suddenly stopped. He let go of her hands, moved a step or two backwards, then he just covered his face with his hands.
“I’m sorry.” He said with the deepest degree of regret. “I don’t know what … I’m just extremely sorry.” He then turned around and stormed out of the room.
Standing against the wall with her dress slightly torn, her lipstick all over her face and Mark’s coat thrown at her feet, Lana still couldn’t catch her breath. Her wide nostrils contracted then relaxed as the mascara – mingled with tears – stained her fair cheeks. She then slowly moved to her bed, threw herself upon it and chocked on her tears.