Chapter 18: Give me some love

Lana’s first summer as a married woman was the summer of her wedding. And since Mark had already taken nearly three weeks off from work for their honeymoon in Prague, he couldn’t travel again throughout the entire summer. Therefore, whenever Lana felt chocked up by the heat of Cairo, her mother would send her a car with a chauffeur to drive them to their villa in Sidi Abdel Rahman in the NorthCoast, where she would spend at least a week with them. So basically, the following summer was the first summer for Lana to experience the holiday invitations and trips.

The first week was spent at Leila’s chalet in Marina. It was a cozy apartment with four bedrooms overlooking the lagoon; probably the only nice thing they had inherited from Mr. Ahmad Hassanein. Even though Lana had her own room to sleep in with Mark, she didn’t enjoy any form of privacy due to the family’s bizarre way of life. They spent all their times together, from the moment they deserted their beds till the moment they were reunited with those chunky mattresses. They all ate breakfast together, took off to the sea together, returned home together and had to wait their turns to take a shower in the only bathroom available in the chalet. And the most tiring aspect was that of the absence of the maid, which meant that Lana too had to help in cleaning the sand that got in with their shoes. Being already three months pregnant made Leila pardon her of almost all the house chores. Nevertheless, Leila had a way about her, a way that would make her guilt the person in front of her to do whatever pleased her. Mark had inherited this characteristic from his mother, but he seldom used it.

Despite the fits of madness and the times of extreme distress, Lana loved this week as it brought her even closer to Maya. Spending all their time together and sleeping in the same house meant being able to share a game of cards, watch a late movie, prepare some extravagant supper at 3 a.m, and paint the enticing view. Lana wasn’t much of a painter herself, but Maya was the real deal. For hours, Lana would watch her mix the spiciest of colors and lay them gracefully on the large canvas to come up with the most creative images of the existent vista. Mark would usually come by from behind, and photograph the painting before Maya would take it away and declare that it’s for her eyes only. The day they left, Maya gave Lana one of the paintings as a souvenir to remind her of their pleasant week in the NorthCoast. Lana gladly accepted the gift, though she saw no reason why she shall ever forget a week that was likely to repeat itself for years to come.

 

 

 

THE NEXT WEEK, they took off to visit Lana’s parents in Sidi Abdel Rahman. Now, this was a vacation Lana would be looking forward to. If not for being around her parents in one of the most beautiful spots in Egypt, then at least for the luxury of the Villa. With her own bedroom with the bathroom en suite, and the small balcony that overlooked the beautiful blue beach, Lana considered herself in heaven. And she had longed to share this heaven with Mark ever since the day they fell in love.

Her mother welcomed them in with a careful smile; one that doesn’t reflect neither hatred nor hypocrisy. Her father, on the other hand seemed much more relaxed. On one hand, he was actually fond of Mark. On the other hand, Sidi Abdel Rahman was a place were he could drink more and be blamed less. Sara remained her old self; never too intimate, but close enough to leave an impression, though she appeared rather distant on that specific trip.

Yet, that wasn’t all, for Mr. Masry usually invited his only sister to spend the summer vacation with them, especially now that Tonya’s family stopped coming over; Tonya now invited them to Mohammad’s villa in Sidi Kreir. Tante Shaheera, Lana’s aunt, was the sweetest person, truly. She had been widowed at thirty-five, and the rest of her life she dedicated to raising her only child, Tareq. Tareq, who was now twenty-two, constantly proved to be much of a challenge. He was never smart in school, barely made it through college after a miracle of praying and hoping for the best, and took at least four semesters to pass each academic year that by now, when he was supposed to have graduated, he was still in his third year of college. Many times he dropped out unaccountably, then he would return to take his exams, where he seldom managed to get through. The last time, he took some time off to join a rehab which Lana’s father had paid for; this was only three months prior to that trip. Even though Dalia hated him, or more accurately: feared him, the girls never held a grudge against their disturbed cousin. Perhaps they never got along quite well, but they never fought either, and that evened things up. Besides, inviting him to the villa was something nobody dared talk over with Mr. Sayeed, so they all learnt to acquiesce in silence.

 

 

 

“WHICH ONE OF them do you think I should wear?” asked Lana holding two different sets of Bikinis in her hands; one was brown with two sunflowers at the upper piece, and the other was pink with yellow linings along the edges. She was already unpacking in their bedroom, while Mark lay on the bed with the cell phone in his hand.

“What? You still wanna wear a bikini?” he asked as he looked disgustedly at the two sets of swimsuits. “I thought we already had that conversation back in Marina.”

“I thought your objection was because Omar was around and you didn’t think it appropriate for me to wear a bikini around him. Here, I’m only with my parents.”

“And Tareq.” Added Mark.

“He doesn’t swim with us. We’re not like you, Mark. Our trips to the sea aren’t synchronized. We go there when we feel like it, and we never go in groups.”

“I don’t care. I just don’t want you in a bikini.”

“You don’t get to decide. It’s my body; I shall wear what I see fit.”

“And you’re my wife. I shall have a say in what you wear.” Mark said, crossed. “Plus, a bikini would show off your already plump stomach. It won’t even look good on you with a growing baby inside.”

“C’mon, Mark. That’s how we do it here. They’re all gonna make fun of me if I go down there in a one-piece. And I paid an awful lot of money for this one,” she said indicating the brown bikini, “I would really love to see myself in it.” Mark remained silent. “Besides, you let me wear bikinis on our honeymoon.”

“That’s because it was our HONEYMOON, and it was just the two of us. Sorry Lana, but the parts of your body that a bikini exposes are so private that I believe they’re for my eyes only. Even religiously, I’ve got all the right to give you some dress code to follow.” With that he left the room.

For a moment, Lana decided she was going to wear it anyway. But after a second of reconsideration, she came to the conclusion that it was only going to cause a new fight, and she couldn’t think of anything uglier than fighting around her parents. Moreover, she wanted to be the one with the advantage, the one whom he owed. And most importantly, even though it was still relatively small – in comparison with Tonya’s large bump – Lana’s stomach was truly beginning to look inappropriate in a bikini. The baby was already starting to show. To the eyes of a stranger, she didn’t exactly look pregnant yet; she still looked like she had recently gained some weight on her one very flat stomach. Perhaps they would have made fun of her had she showed up with a bare stomach. Still, she decided to give Mark a hard time about it.

In her one-piece swimsuit, with a light chiffon summer-dress on, Lana departed her bedroom with the most unpleasant frown drawn upon her face. She knew it was time for her parents’ nap, so the frown was solely meant for Mark. As she walked down the hall, passing by the large veranda that led to the greenery, Lana overheard some voices. At first, she reckoned it was Mark and Sara. Moving closer in an attempt to surprise them, Lana noticed that the male voice was somehow softer and lower than her husband’s. When she was close enough to see the tip of his head and catch a glimpse of his curly, brown hair, Lana finally recognized him as Tareq. But the girl was Sara; she wasn’t mistaken about that one. She couldn’t exactly hear what they were saying, yet they seemed to be getting along quite well. Just when there was one step separating her from hearing them clearly, it occurred to Lana that she was not an eavesdropper, and that they deserved the privacy that she never had in the Marina chalet. That was when she took a different turn and headed for the beach.

 

 

 

SOMETHING HAD CHANGED. Lana guessed it had something to do with the show Dalia was constantly trying to play on whenever Mark was around. But Lana saw it as extremely preposterous. For some anonymous reason, only that summer, Dalia announced that dinner would be served at nine, and that this was the only time for eating. The twenty-four-seven open buffet that Lana had long been used to, where everybody could eat whenever and wherever they pleased, was no longer an option. From now on, they would all gather around the dining table at nine p.m to eat their dinner. Whether by making fun of Leila, Dalia had come to imitate her, Lana didn’t know. But what she did know was that Dalia was being absolutely ridiculous.

As they all sat around the large, rounded table, it was noticed that one person was missing.

“Where’s Sara?” Tante Shaheera asked.

“Taking a nap. She’s not feeling very well.” Was Dalia’s simple reply.

Those were about the only words exchanged around that table. It felt like no one could stand the rest, like all were suffocating with the absurdity of the new rule; not being even able to taste their food properly. Lana could tell that Dalia had an idea about her fight with Mark, yet she didn’t have a mind for gloating; it seemed she had her own arguments to think about. For a very short while, Lana felt that she missed Marina, with all its chaos and insanity.

Right after dinner, all got straight to bed. Jumping into her pajamas and slipping under her bed sheets, Lana immediately fell asleep. Vexation always got her drowsy, figuring she had nothing to look forward to. She had a few dreams about Maya’s paintings, Leila’s criticism and Mai looking behind her book to sneak a peek at her sister’s work of art.

“Lana?” Maya was calling her to see the painting. She was being gently rocked; a hand was patting her on the shoulder. “Lana?” Maya’s hands were at her paining, and the voice sounded too harsh to be hers. As she slowly opened her eyes, Lana realized that it was Mark who was calling on her. The room was dark; with only the lamp’s dim light on, she could barely see him.

“What?” she asked as she lazily opened her eyes.

“Get dressed.” He held her brown bikini in his hand.

“Is it morning already?” she was bulkily rubbing her eyes.

“No, it’s still night. C’mon.”

“Why on earth would I wanna wear a swimsuit at night?” she closed her eyes again.

“Don’t you wanna swim in your precious bikini? C’mon, now; get up. It’s your only chance; we’d be all alone at the beach.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Lana finally began to take him seriously. She got up in bed, resting upon her elbows.

“Ain’t no better time to go for a dive than in the middle of the night.”

“That’s only for mad people.”

“And you’re not mad? Sorry, if I’ve mistaken you for a wild tigress. Perhaps I just married the wrong kind of woman.” This he said while moving away from bed. Lana reached out to the switch, turned on the lights. It was only then that she could see him already in his swimsuit. It didn’t need any more resolving. Mark was trying to do a nice, romantic thing in his own kind of way; and Lana had learnt to appreciate all his little efforts.

In no time they were sneaking out of the dark villa, Mark  shirtless, in his swimsuit and Lana  with a transparent dress that allowed her bikini to shine through. Both were barefoot.

The beach was only a walking distance ahead of them, and the moment their feet got buried under the smooth, white sand, they began to run to the beach. Just when they were wetted with the splashes of the waves, Lana took off her dress and Mark drew her into the water.

“No, wait!” she cried in a whisper, still worried that someone might see them. “I know the perfect place for a calm swim.”

She led the way to a part of the shore about ten meters ahead of them. When they finally made it there, Mark could see through the faint flashlight hanging over the giant sunshade made of thick straws that Lana’s selected beach was one that fell between two large piles of rocks. The rocks decreased the blows of the strong waves, acted like the soothing shore around a bay.

Lana recklessly threw her dress into the sand and began pulling him into the water. But just as the water reached her bellybutton, she went rushing back to him.

“Oh, it’s cold.” She uttered with clenching teeth and a trembling body.

“It’s not.” He drew her closer with a quiet giggle. “You’re just scared. See, the water’s delicious. I can see your body through it.” It was true, for in this strategic place, there were hardly any waves to cloud the water. He placed his hand on her bare belly, gently rubbing it. “Is it moving yet?” He was referring to the baby. Lana silently shook her head. “Look over here,” his hand came across an old cut down her breast, “that’s the scar from your accident.”

“You only noticed it now?”

“I kinda lost track of its size and shape.” He tried to check it out through the weak lighting. “I’m surprised you didn’t have it removed by a plastic surgery.”

“I could if it’s bothering you.”

“Would I be bothered by a souvenir from the day you fell in love with me?”

“Who told you that was the day I fell in love with you?” Lana asked with a smile. “I was too busy struggling with death that I didn’t have any time to fall in love.”

Mark paused for a minute. “It must’ve been the day we kissed, then.” He added after some thought.

“Which kiss?” Asked Lana cunningly. “The one in London or the one in New York?”

Even though it was meant to be a joke, Mark never took it lightly.

“That’s not when I fell in love with you, though. I guess it all started the moment Tonya introduced us. You reminded me of someone; an old boyfriend who was a champion at swimming. See,” she ran her hands across his wet shoulders, “he had broad shoulders just like yours.”

“Great, so the first time you noticed me it was only because I reminded you of an old boyfriend.” Lana laughed loudly enough for her voice to echo through the sea.

“My jealous little Mark.” She said happily.

“I ain’t jealous. Just curious.” She continued laughing. “Forget about that.” He said in a desperate attempt to change the subject. “Tell me, how did you find this amazing spot?”

“Why, I swim here almost every summer. It’s only natural that I know the beach as the back of my hand.” She blocked her nose with her fingers and took a quick dive in the sea, coming out soaked up in salty drops of water and slightly shaking her hair. “God, I love this place.”

Mark cupped her head in his hands, gently stroking her hair. If he adored her hair when it was warm and fluffy, he liked it ten times better when wet. “You just love any place that’s far away from Cairo.”

“Except for the Zamalek duplex … and Grandma Dodda’s Manial house.”

“What about our house?”

“Eh-eh, not so much.” She said lightly.

“You know I should take that as an insult?”

“It’s not personal. It’s just that Cairo’s become so crammed up with cars, chocked up on smoke and dirt that it feels like a struggle to survive there. I just like to take some time off, somewhere with clean fresh air and brightly shining sun. Like here, and in El-Gouna.”

“What about Ein El-Sokhna?” asked Mark with a different tone; a tone which smelt of surprise.

“Why?” Lana, who was relaxing in the delicate water, suddenly turned upright, trying to make up anything of his mysterious facial expression. “What’s in El-Sokhna?”

“Nothing.” He replied casually. Bells started ringing in Lana’s mind; she soon remembered the Sokhna compound he had been working on lately.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “It’s gotta do with your work, hasn’t it? Don’t tell me we’re moving there!” She said hopefully.

“Not exactly.” Mark was still trying to play it cool. “But there is this little plan.”

“What?” Lana’s thriving curiosity was eating her up.

“I might, and I mean might, be able to buy a place over there some time soon.” He finally came clean.

“No way!” she gave out a shrill cry, covering her wide open mouth with both hands.

“Don’t get too excited yet. It’s still a ‘might’; nothing for sure. Besides, it’s only a little studio, no bigger than sixty meters large.”

“How did you pull it off?” she asked in disbelief.

“Uncle Ali’s business’s kinda’ asleep for the time being. You know, the financial crisis’s got everybody’s money tucked carefully in their pockets. Most people are afraid of buying, especially real estate. There’s a theory that the prices are gonna drastically decrease in the next few years, and nobody wants to take a shot. So I,” he referred to himself with extreme pride, “proposed we be the first to lower the prices a bit. And raise the bar with the extra services instead of the incredible costs. I also thought it wise to offer certain appealing discounts that would act as some sort of incentive for people to buy and spread the word about their new properties. There’s when I realized that I could actually make use of my own proposal.”

“You conniving genius.” Commented Lana, impressed with her husband’s marketing skills.

“What? I didn’t plan it on purpose. It just worked itself up. Besides, Uncle Ali was the one who offered me the discount.”

“So what’s missing? Why is it a ‘might’?”

“I still haven’t signed the papers yet. I’m still sorting out the money. I’m short for the girls’ college tuition.” He still believed it part of his duty to pay for his sisters’ tuitions. It wasn’t a very large sum, but there were times when he desperately needed it. “It’s nothing, really. I have some money coming up very soon. You know that money Omar’s been investing for me? It’s about time I start using it. But I would still prefer that we don’t tell anybody. Not a single soul. Even Mohammad doesn’t know yet; Uncle Ali still hasn’t told him.”

“God,” Lana kicked the water with her small, white foot, “if this happens, I’d be the happiest person on earth.” She looked at him with dancing eyes, gently allowing him to wrap his fingers around her waist, carrying her up and down the water slowly. “We could go there almost every weekend. You wouldn’t have to take any time off, since the trip there takes less than two hours.”

“I can even work over there.”

“Really? Oh, just promise me you’re gonna do your best to let this thing happen, so we could have our own getaway all year long.”

Mark paused for a while; no promises uttered. “But it is just a studio.”

“I don’t care.” She declared thoughtlessly.

“Really?” he obviously doubted her words, but not crossly, though. “You won’t tell me ‘this is too small, I want a villa like Baher’s.’ Or ‘we need to have a bamboo set just like my father’s’ or ‘we can’t survive there without’ … I don’t know, ‘a Busch fridge’?”

Lana gave out an embarrassed smile. “You make it sound like I’m an annoying whiner.”

“Sometimes you are.”

“I won’t say anything of that kind.” That was meant as a promise. After another short dive, she said: “C’mon, aren’t we gonna swim for a while?”

 

 

 

THEY SNEAKED BACK as noiselessly as they had gone out; Lana putting on again her dress which, due to her wet skin, stuck onto her body to make it even more transparent than it already was. For a moment, they thought it was a blessing they were barefoot, for it would definitely produce less sound. Then they remembered how sandy their feet were, and it meant that they were going leave a trail on that white, clean marble floor. Just as they opened the front door slowly, they noticed some lights on.

“We probably forgot to turn them off on our way out.” Guessed Lana, dubiously. Still, they decided to creep in slowly. Just when their backs were facing the hall and they were on their way up the stairs, they heard a sound behind them;

“Sara, is that you?” asked Mr. Sayeed in a rather relieved tone. Lana slowly turned around, her father was coming out of the veranda, followed by her mother and aunt.

“Pappy?” she muttered.

“Damn it, I thought you were Sara. Your mother went to check on her before going to bed, realized she had gone out. Her cell’s out of service and she didn’t even say she was going out or where to.” The words poured down his mouth so quickly that he didn’t even take a breath in between. Lana knew that it meant he was extremely anxious; talking like that. “Did she by any chance happen to tell you where she was going?” he finally asked.

“Sorry, pappy. No.” She looked down. It was humiliating enough for her parents to catch her sneaking into the house like a teenager who had messed up, but being in those garments, that was ignominious. Right at that moment, she could have strangled Mark. But then again, he was in the same mess.

Even though her father didn’t really seem to care, her mother eyed her with a shaming look. She then decided to shift her anger to a more appropriate corner. “For God’s sake, it’s almost 1 a.m. We gotta do something.”

“Call her friends, ask them …”

“I already called all of her friends; the ones here aren’t that much anyway. You know everybody’s still in Cairo.”

Lana looked around, trying to be of any help. “Where’s Tareq?” she eventually noticed his absence.

“Probably out.” Replied Tante Shaheera in an unsure voice.

“Where?” Mr. Sayeed asked.

“I don’t know.” She admitted, shrugging her shoulders helplessly. “He usually doesn’t tell me.”

“I thought the problem was with Sara’s disappearance.” Said Dalia loudly, voicing her displeasure.

“Maybe they went out together.” Clarified Lana.

“Why? They never get along. I can’t recall a time when they were doing anything together.” Said Dalia, doing her best to trivialize Lana’s thoughts.

“I can.” Said Lana. She shortly mentioned seeing them earlier chatting in noticeable harmony.

“My God,” wailed Dalia, “he must’ve gotten her on drugs.”

“What?” Lana was in disbelief. It was clearly an insult to her aunt.

“That’s the only thing that boy’s capable of doing. And now that he could actually be around my daughter, what else could possibly occupy them?”

“Mum, he just got out of rehab!”

“Yeah, c’mon Dalia. Stop your venomous words.” said Mr. Sayeed bitterly. Then he rolled his eyes towards his sister’s fragile existence. Instead of being grateful for being stood up for, she seemed worried.

“What is it, Shaheera?” asked Mr. Sayeed, noticing her change of face.

She remained silent for a moment. “I hate to admit it, but I think Dalia may be right. He just took two hundred pounds from me yesterday. When he asked for more this morning I said ‘no’. Then a few hours ago, I noticed that some of my money’s missing. He’d always get like that when he’s on crack.” Her voice was breaking down, yet she remained quite still. “I know my son very well. It sounds like something he would do.”

Struck by the shocking discoveries, Mr. Sayeed slowly took a seat on the off-white bamboo couch behind him.

“Just to give him the shadow of a doubt, I’ll look for the drugs in his room.” Resumed Shaheera, hesitantly. “If we find it there, then it’s for sure.”

As she made her way to the bedroom, Mr. Sayeed stopped her saying. “Forget it, Shaheera. He’s not stupid enough to leave it right in front of us.”

“Stupid, no. But reckless enough not to even care about hiding it.” Said Shaheera with a broken smile.

In less than a minute, she returned with a nylon sack full of dope.

“I told you this boy’s dangerous but you just had to …” blurted out Dalia.

“Dalia!” shouted Mr. Sayeed, shutting her up entirely.

“Well, someone do something; get me my daughter back.”

“We don’t even know they’re together.” Said Mr. Sayeed, annoyed. “It’s just a wild guess.”

“Are we gonna wait till this wild guess is proven correct?”

“Perhaps,” began Mark, after clearing his throat, speaking for the first time since the unexpected entrance, “Mohammad should know. I’m gonna give him a call, see if he has anything valuable.”

“Is he still on drugs?” asked Lana in a whisper just as he was making his way to his cell phone.

“Not exactly, but some of his friends are.” He vanished for a while, probably making the call, meanwhile Lana took a seat beside her mother.

“Where were you?” Dalia asked the question that had been long dawning on her.

“At the beach.” A silent nod. Lana could feel the tension. Still, she decided to play dumb.

Mark returned only a moment later.

“Any news?” asked Dalia impatiently, speaking to him kindly, maybe for the first time.

“He tells me Omar would know best. I’ll call him right away.” He was gone again.

This time, Dalia leant over Lana’s shoulder saying, “Omar knows best? Perfect! You married the brother of a drug dealer.”

“He doesn’t do drugs, mum! He’s just got a lot of connections.” Protested Lana, loudly. “Besides, I’m the one with the junkie sister. If anything, I should be ashamed of myself.”

“Could the two of you please shut up?” interrupted Mr. Sayeed. They complied.

This time Mark stayed in a little bit more. Nevertheless, he returned with more efficient news.

“Omar tells me if they’re on a trip for the dope, he has a pretty good idea of where to find them. Luckily, he’s here in the resort. He’s picking me up in ten minutes.”

“I’m coming with you.” Announced Lana, immediately standing up.

“Hell, no. This ain’t the place for you. Not when you’re pregnant in particular.” He put his hands on her shoulders as he spoke to her sincerely. “You just stay here and we’ll all be back as soon as possible.”

“He’s right sweetie.” Said Mr. Sayeed. “We won’t be long.”

“What? You’re going?” asked Dalia, astonished.

“I really don’t think it’s a good idea, uncle.” Intervened Mark, politely. “You’d better stay with the ladies. We can’t leave them all alone at such an hour.”

Mr. Sayeed reasoned and figured that it was true. Then Mark excused himself to go get dressed, with Lana right behind him. When they both left, Dalia started again.

“Don’t you think this excursion of theirs is rather inappropriate? I mean, what were they doing at the sea at such a time? And they came back wet, too. Why, it’s there all day long. Can’t they just take a dive when the sun is shining? Did you notice the way they sneaked in? I’m sure they were doing something wrong.”

“He’s her husband, Dalia. What could they possibly be doing wrong?”

“I don’t know; a number of things. Making out …”

“Even that they’re allowed to do. In case you haven’t noticed, she’s already pregnant.”

“Well, then why creep in?”

“Hasn’t it occurred to you that maybe they didn’t wanna annoy us? Wake us up?” Dalia looked at him with contempt. “And don’t you think we have other things to worry about? For instance, our missing daughter?”

With those words, they heard footsteps down the stairs. Soon, Mark appeared in his denims and white t-shirt, with Lana in his arms. Just as they had made their way downstairs, Mark’s cell phone began ringing.

“It’s Omar. He’s here.” He turned to Lana and kissed her. “I gotta go.”

“Be careful.” She yelled back at him as he reached for the door.

“I will. And please, take a bath and wear something thick. We don’t want you catching a cold.”

As he closed the door behind him, Lana excused herself to go upstairs, leaving her parents and aunt behind. Dalia was still enraged, but she finally decided to be silent about it, while Shaheera, who had so far remained as still as the chair she was seated on, suddenly burst into tears.

“Hey, hey, hey.” Said Sayeed, moving gently towards her. Even Dalia felt her need for compassion, to which she replied with a soft pat on the back.

“I’m just so tired.” She began, with sobs interrupting her words. “I can’t take this anymore. I’ve tried everything with him. He just doesn’t respect me enough to obey me.” She turned to face her brother, “he’s really good on the inside, Sayeed. I know it’s hard to believe, but you don’t see the way he takes perfect care of me when I’m sick. It’s just,” she broke down. “… I think he needs a father figure. Someone to fear enough to obey.” She paused for a moment, trying to resolve something in her mind. “If you could just … treat him like he was your own son. Punish him, scold him, beat him, even; do anything you see fit to mend his crooked behavior, ‘cause I’m all out of ideas, here.”

“Of course, Shaheera.” Asserted Dalia, pleased. “I’ve been telling Sayeed to intervene for a long time now, but he felt it wasn’t his place. He didn’t wanna hurt you.”

“I’m not asking, Sayeed. I’m begging. If he were your son, what would you have done to him? You were a wild boy once, you know how he thinks. Just … get me my sweet son back, please.”

 

 
OMAR’S SECOND-HAND FABIA was small, but fast enough to get them flying through the Matrouh road. Mark rode in the front seat, while a third guy, whom Mark couldn’t recognize, was in the back seat.

“Mark, I’d like to introduce you to Kareem who’s about to be our guide on this unusual trip.” Said Omar as he carelessly held the steering wheel with one hand, and adjusted the temperature of the A/C with the other.

“Kareem, if you’re getting my little brother on crack, I’m not sure it would be very nice to meet you.” Said Mark half jokingly.

“Don’t worry.” Kareem replied with a short laugh. “He’s already there; doesn’t need me for anything.”

Mark gave Omar an angry look.

“Relax, I only use it on vacation, and not that much anyway. Just like to know how far they’ve come with the new stuff every now and then.” It didn’t ease Mark’s mind off, but at least it got him to drop that poker face. “Whatever. Kareem over here’s familiar with the guy we’re after.”

“We’re after a guy?” asked Mark, confused.

“From what Omar has told me,” began Kareem, “your sister-in-law’s suspected to be at a drug dealer’s. Now usually, in the NorthCoast, we get our drugs from the nomads on the highway. You know those Bedouins you spot by the side of the road as you’re driving by? Most of them are in fact drug dealers. Today in particular, there’s this guy, Mass`oud, who’s selling new stuff for very fair prices. Almost every junky I know has paid him a visit in the morning. The problem is, after sunset, it gets really dangerous. When darkness prevails, the chance of muggers intervening gets higher. Usually, people won’t go to such places unless they’re really desperate.”

“And where’s this guy we’re looking for, exactly?” asked Mark, uncertain.

“We’re expecting him probably ten kilometers ahead of us. If we don’t find him there, we’ll keep going forward till we get suspicious enough to pull over.”

“And how would we know it’s him? Would you be able to identify him from inside the car?”

“Now that’s the trick. Not just because Omar’s driving on 150 km/h – seriously, Omar; slow down – but also because there are a hell lot of nomads on the road. Some are drug dealers; others are muggers, while there just a few people simply selling their fruits. So we’re gonna need to be very careful with choosing when to get out of the car.”

Mark remained silent for a while, overwhelmed by the bizarre world he had never realized had existed before that night. “But we don’t even know that Sara’s over there. Aren’t we taking a very long shot?”

“Actually, we are. But the thing is: there’s this off-chance that some mugger’s got her. In that case, he could take anything she possesses.” A pause. “Maybe even rape her.”
Mark’s face lit up with fear. “See, that’s what makes this ‘unusual’ trip worth the shot, even if there’s only a one percent chance they’ve got her.”

They remained silent for the next 10 kilometers. Afterwards, Omar was obliged to slow down to 80 km/h so that they’d be able to carefully look for the face they were after. In between the fig trees that covered the desert, they would spot a thin, lifeless Bedouin every now and then. They would almost pull over, trying to take a closer look at him, when Kareem would announce that it’s not the guy they’re looking for. After a while of that, Mark began to suspect Sara had gone to a different guy, possibly one of the numerous they’ve come across. By the kilometer 15, he was beginning to get really hopeless, when all of a sudden; the flashlights fell upon two humans squatting on the side of the road. It didn’t take Mark a long time to recognize Sara as one of them.

“Pull over,” he yelled passionately at Omar, “right away!”

In less than ten seconds, the three of them were running like maniacs out of the car. The moment Sara recognized him, she threw herself in Mark’s arms and began sobbing viciously.

“Oh my God, Mark. Thank God you’re here.” Her face was stained with dirt, her beautiful, straight hair was a mess and her expensive sleeveless top and mini skirt were torn to pieces. A black, loose male’s shirt – which didn’t fit her quite right – was the only decent thing covering her up. Behind her, came Tareq, in a white undershirt and with a face as dirty as Sara’s, yet his was decorated with a few fresh scars. “How did you find us?” she asked looking up at Mark’s face. She was almost as short as her sister; she had to stand on tiptoes to be able to face him.

“Long story. Are you ok?”

“They took away our money, our phones, the jewellery, even the car, and …” she broke down into tears, Tareq stroked her hair from behind, “… they were gonna rape me.”

“What? Did they …?” The words died out at the tip of his mouth.

“No, no. Tareq arrived in time, thank God.” Mark sighed with relief.

“It’s ok.” He said as she buried her face in his chest to nurse her tears again. “You’re safe now, it’s alright. We just have to get you home as soon as possible. Your parents are scared to death back there.”

 

 

 

THEY CAME IN slowly; Mark first, followed by Sara, and then Tareq at the tail. Sara flew immediately to her mother’s arms, with Lana trying to calm her down, while Tareq was surprised to find his uncle approaching him in a very vindictive way. Shaheera’s heart was pounding with fear, she didn’t know neither what had happened nor what was about to befall them.

“Would you mind explaining to me what the hell happened with you two?” Sayeed bellowed at Tareq.

“Uncle, we were …” his voice was almost inaudible, and his words came slowly.

“Speak up, God damn it!” No words. “Are you or are you not back on drugs?”

“Yes, sir.” Tareq bowed down submissively.

“Did you or didn’t you take my daughter to a drug dealer?”

No words again.

“What kind of a question is that Sayeed?” asked Dalia infuriated as she rocked her daughter on her chest. “Are you gonna waste your time stating the facts?”

“Dalia, could you please stay out of this?” Sara’s head moved up her mother’s breast; she looked up for the first time, yet she didn’t speak. In the middle, Lana stood like an idiot, knowing nothing and looking deep into her husband’s worried face trying to get her answers. “Now, listen to me,” Sayeed turned again to his nephew. “We’re all tired of your childish games. You’re a grown man, for God’s sake. Mark’s only a few years older than you and look at him; he’s got a house, a wife and a baby on the way! The way I see it, nothing’s gonna fix you up except for the army.” It fell on Tareq’s ears like lightening falling on a broken tree. He was exempted from the army, being an only child with no brothers. People go to extreme levels to secure an exemption. Could he be so stupid as to throw away his own and join the army? “That’s right. I’m getting you out of college and putting you in the army. And since you don’t have a college certificate, you’ll spend at least three years over there. That should toughen up the brat you’ve become.”

“You can’t do that!” Tareq screamed at his face. “Who do you think you are? You’re not my father! Where were you all those years? You suddenly remembered now that you have a nephew? Just because I have crossed paths with your daughter?”

“Pappy,” Sara called in a weak voice.

“I only stayed away because I thought your mother still had it under control. But after what I’ve seen tonight, there’s no way I’m letting you hurt my sister so. If I don’t do something, you’re gonna end up killing her with your selfish acts. Tell me why I should keep on paying your L.E. 30,000 college tuitions just because you couldn’t get yourself into a state-owned college? And if that’s not enough, you have to keep failing every year, too.” Lana couldn’t remember a time when her father had been more maddened; he was even steamier than the time he found out Nader had broken up with her. “That’s it young man; you’re going to join the army and that’s final.”

“Pappy, just listen to me.” Tried Sara again. This time she was more successful, for he looked her way for the first time. “What happened today’s not Tareq’s fault, I swear. It’s more like … my fault.”

“How come?”

She slowly and hesitantly stood up. “I was out of drugs.” That was the first shock. Even though it was pretty obvious, they all just hoped Sara had gone to the drug dealer just for the experience, not for the dope. “We should’ve gone in the morning, but you were all so anxious expecting Lana and Mark’s arrival. Tareq said we would draw your attention if we leave unaccountably. So, Tareq asked me to be patient; said he would figure something out. Yet, I just couldn’t wait. I sneaked out when you were having dinner. I’ve gone with him to this guy last week; it didn’t seem so bad. I disregarded his warnings of how different it’s like to go at night, especially for a girl.” She paused, trying to grasp the whole situation in. “I was wrong. The man took all the money and said he was gonna go fetch the stuff, he asked me to wait. All of a sudden, another stranger approached me, he started attacking me and … and …” she melted into tears again, this time only Lana sympathized with her. “He began tearing apart my clothes. That was when I realized it was all a set up, they’d conspired against me. I tried to run but couldn’t. Hadn’t Tareq realized what I had done, hadn’t he followed me, I could’ve possibly even died out there. They had a violent fight, out of which the guy came with our cells, our wallets, my diamond earrings and the car keys. We were stranded there. None of the passing cars would take us. That’s why we couldn’t come home.”

“How long have you been on drugs?” Mr. Sayeed asked calmly, looking down on the floor as he spoke, seeing her dim reflection on the white, shiny marble.

“A couple of months.” She finally dared look him in the eye; a moment that didn’t last very long, as it was cut by the vicious slap that befell her already swollen face.

“You and I are leaving for Cairo tomorrow.” He announced with a fearful tone as he pointed at her. “You’re going to a rehab.”

“What? No, I’m not an addict! I can still kick it off on my own.”

“Sure, that’s why you took that THOUGHTLESS,” he screamed the last word out loud, “trip all on your own; because you’re not an addict. You weren’t dying for a fix.”

“Sayeed,” said Dalia, “she deserves to be punished, but not like that. That way you’re punishing us all. What shall people say when they find out our daughter’s at rehab?”

“Silence!” he exclaimed. “We’re leaving first thing in the morning and that’s final. And you,” he now turned around to face Tareq, “are coming with us. Just ‘cause you probably saved my daughter tonight, I’ll only leave it to an ultimatum. But I swear to God, Tareq, if I hear you came just close to a smoke ever again, or if you fail just as little as one subject from now on, I’ll send you to the army. You know I mean it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t ever dream that your mother’s gonna cover up for you the way she used to do in the past. This is all over now.”

“Yes, sir.”

He took one final glance at his wreck of a daughter, then he left for his room.

“I’m very disappointed in you Sara.” Said Dalia looking at her disgustedly.

“Mum, please, I can’t go to rehab.” She knelt down at her mother’s feet, almost kissed her hand.

“I’m gonna do everything I can to make him change his mind, but don’t ever think I’m doing it for you.” She heartlessly disentangled her hand from her daughter’s and followed her husband upstairs.

This left Sara crying loudly on the floor. Tareq reluctantly approached her, with Lana right behind him.

“Are you ok?” she was the first to speak.

Sara shook her head.

“Did he – the mugger –do something to you? I’d understand if you were too scared to say it in front of mum and dad.” Whispered Lana.

“No, he just kissed me; that was all.”

“Then let’s go to your room. You need to get some sleep, and don’t think about anything that’s happened today. Alright?” she slowly nodded, as Lana and Tareq helped her up. They slowly led her to her room.

Later, Lana went downstairs to find Mark; he wasn’t there. She had to climb those tiring steps for the second time simultaneously, doubting if it’s any good for her pregnancy. She opened the door of her room to find him in front of the opened closet, picking up something to wear.

“What are you doing?” she asked with her hand around her stomach, as she closed the door behind her.

“Looking for my pajamas. The salt’s eating up my skin, I feel on fire already.”

“Oh, I totally forgot that you hadn’t taken a shower, yet.” Said Lana approaching him till her arms where wrapped around his neck. “I’m sorry we gave you this headache. If it makes you feel any better, I think mum looked lovingly at you, probably for the first time.”

“Oh, you mean when she spotted us sneaking into the house? Or when I was calling Omar?” Lana smiled, embarrassed. “Yes, I heard what she told you about my drug-dealer-brother. And it’s ok, I know she doesn’t love me and I’ve come to accept it. At least uncle Sayeed does.”

“Well, your mother doesn’t love me either, so we’re even.”

“No, my mother doesn’t treat you the way she does because she doesn’t love you. She treats my sisters in the same way; she’s just a piece of work.”

“A very rare piece.” Lana commented, rather to herself. “But trust me, my mother doesn’t hate you. She treats me in the same way too, and Tante Shaheera, and everybody.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll try to buy that. Now give me a towel. I need to take a freaking bath.” He said giving her a slight spank.

“There.” She handed him the towel, with an extra kiss on the cheek.

“And don’t fall asleep; the Fajr prayer is less than half an hour away.”

“You know who taught me to pray the Fajr at dawn regularly?” she asked as she took a seat on bed, while he had already gone into the bathroom and opened the water.

“Who?”

“Mohammad.”

“Baher?” he came out of the bathroom, shirtless and with wet hands. She nodded laughingly. “Hell, if I had a pound every time I’d seen Baher drunk at dawn, I would’ve been able to buy that house from your father.” She giggled loudly, then rolled up in bed after he had closed the bathroom door behind him.

Expectedly, by the time he was out, she was already snoring. He had always loved the way she’d fall asleep so quickly like a child. She was still in her denims; he had to pull those off of her.

“Lana,” he called as he unbuttoned her shirt and rolled the pajama top through her head, “c’mon, wake up; it’s dawn.”

She tiredly moaned.

“Don’t you wanna pray? C’mon.” she didn’t open her eyes until he had her fully changed in her pajamas.

“What?”

He slipped an arm under her neck. “It’s time for the Fajr prayer. C’mon,” he gently dragged her to the sink in the bathroom, “let’s go wash for ablution.”

It wasn’t until she got out of the bathroom and wore her Isdal, which was like a long galabiya with a headscarf attached to it, that she became fully conscious. After praying, they both jumped on the bed, starving for as much sleep as they could get.

“Lana.” Uttered Mark, just when she began to believe he was asleep.

“Yeah?”

“Is your father really gonna put Sara in rehab?”

“If it’d been me, I would’ve told you ‘absolutely’. But Sara’s got her own special way of making him change his mind.” Answered Lana with closed eyes. “Bet we’re gonna wake up tomorrow morning to find them happily having breakfast together as if nothing’s happened; especially that mum’s on her side.”

When they woke up the following morning to have that exact scene meeting their eyes, Lana slowly stood on tiptoes and whispered in Mark’s ear:

“What did I tell you?”

 

 

 

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Chapter 17: Out of my mind

If Lana’s life changed dramatically after marriage, Tonya’s life couldn’t have been anymore like  it had been back when she was still Miss Tonya Al-Shareef. She still went jogging first thing in the morning, had her breakfast while watching TV, practiced dancing for almost and hour, put something together in the kitchen as a small contribution to dinner (at her parent’s house, her mum usually prepared dinner, while now at her new house, the cook would prepare dinner), went shopping every couple of days and listened to some heartwarming music before going to bed.

Perhaps the one thing that had changed was her place of residence; now she was living in Baher’s house with his father. Despite Baher’s strong refusal towards this, Mr. Ali made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t going to give him a house of his own. The way he saw it: the house was huge and he was alone, and Mohammad was going to take it sooner or later after his father’s death, so why live somewhere else? Tonya didn’t disapprove; better yet, she saw this as a crucial part of her plan. This would be one of the things that shall make Lana wish she hadn’t married Mark. Tonya could tell how much Lana hated seeing her (Tonya) better than herself, richer than herself. If anything, that was probably the reason why Mohammad eventually gave in.

His father gave them the largest room in the house, more like a suite. Spacious and elegant as it was, it still had the air of a teenager’s room, for Mohammad moved his guitar, amplifier and record collection in. And that wasn’t the only stuff Tonya had to get used to being around, since Mohammad announced that Sugar would be sleeping with them! Neither being cats’ best friend nor worst enemy, it didn’t take her long to get adjusted to the fur flying in the air, the smell of her litter in their bathroom or her endless meows in the middle of the night. After a while, Tonya began to get used to her, and maybe even enjoy her company.

As for her relation with her husband, it wasn’t as successful as that with the cat. The only difference in their relationship now from their relationship before marriage was sleeping in the same room. And even in that aspect things weren’t so great, since they slept in separate beds. They spent their entire honeymoon celibate; all they did during those two weeks in the Far East was plot their revenge. Mohammad sometimes thought about making a move, yet he was always afraid of being rejected, especially that he saw no encouragement from Tonya’s side.

It wasn’t until they visited Lana and Mark’s home for the first time. Had there been one thing both of them saw as bright as the sun that night, it was Lana and Mark’s clingy habit. Lana nearly sat on Mark’s lap at one instant. And she wouldn’t take one step without giving him a kiss on the cheek first; it was like a confirmation of her every movement.

That night, Mohammad found Tonya dressed in a rather revealing nightgown instead of her regular pajamas. He was even more surprised to find her taking a seat right next to him on his fold-out couch.

“I was thinking,” she began less steadily than she had probably wanted to be, “that maybe since we’re already married, it’s time we start acting like a married couple. I mean, why should they have all the fun while we have all the misery? It’s the least of our rights.”

And that’s how it happened. Nevertheless, neither of them could feel any passion throughout the whole thing; not just the lovemaking part but their entire marriage. It was like they were performing roles in a silly play. At times, Mohammad would feel like he was just a puppet whose strings were in Tonya’s hands; she got to move him around whichever way she pleased, made him do all sorts of things that she thought had to be done. As much as he hated that, there were those times when he fantasized about Lana while Tonya was in his arms, that was when he would have wanted her to get hold of her strings, control him, strangle him, even , if she should, just to stop him from his obsessive delusions.

It was one of those times when Tonya popped up a staggering question:

“If there was one thing you could do differently about your relationship with Lana, what would that be?” she said as she looked at the ceiling. She was lying right next to him in bed, covered up with the blanket and with her hands resting on her chest.

“I would’ve called to check on her when she was in New York.” Replied Mohammad after a moment of consideration.

“What, you didn’t call back then?” asked Tonya turning to him, shocked.

“I checked on her, through Mark, and you.” He said slowly looking downwards.

“Still, you had to call her. Let her know that you cared.”

“Well, if it had been me, I wouldn’t have wanted her to call me. I wouldn’t have wanted to talk to her when I was so weak and down. I thought … I thought at such moments, people just prefer to be alone, at least ’till they’re strong enough to face the world again.”

“She didn’t want to be alone.” Remarked Tonya sarcastically. “And she found a hell of a company, too. God, Baher.” She still called him Baher when she was excited. She was trying to get used to calling him Mohammad, since it was absolutely ridiculous for a wife to call her husband by his family name. “You should’ve traveled to her. If you had done so, nothing would’ve been the way it is right now.”

“Well, I didn’t and that’s that.” Said Mohammad a bit worked up.

“What about you?” he asked after taking a moment to calm down. “What would you have done differently with Mark?”

“You know what?” she looked at him as she spoke so expressively, “Nothing; I would’ve done absolutely nothing differently. The way I see it, I didn’t mess up anything. I mean, I saw him, I liked him, I started showing him that I liked him and he started showing me that he liked me back, and before you know it: we were an item. Things were going so smoothly, just like a sweet dream. All until they went to London. I don’t know what the hell happened over there, but he came back totally different. He was cold and distant, and then he broke up with me.” Her words really got into Mohammad’s head, for he seemed so thoughtful. “Did it change things between you?” Asked Tonya, noticing the change in him. “The London trip, I mean.”

“As a matter of fact it did, but to the better. She left angry and bitter and returned tender and sweet.” They both thought about the mystery for a while, then Baher said:

“Forget about that. Can’t we get them out of our heads for just one second?”

“I wish we could.” rejoined Tonya, moving out of bed. “but as fate would have it, I’m meeting with her in half an hour.” She headed to the closet.

“Where to?” asked Mohammad, stretching his arms in the empty bed.

“The usual; shopping and then maybe dinner.” Bellowed Tonya with a distant voice coming from the closet.

“By the way,” she added coming out of the closet, fully dressed, “there’s something I wanted to tell you.”

“What?”

“It’s late.”

“What is it?”

“My period.”

Mohammad looked at her with raised eyebrows.

“Ok, I had a test and it came back positive.”

“Oh.”

“So I was thinking, with the hectically insane lives we’re leading, the last thing we need right now is a poor baby who would pay for our and their mistakes.” She looked at him in search of confirmation. “Don’t you think so?”

“I guess.” He replied hesitantly.

“So you’re with me on the abortion thingy?”

“I think it should be for the best.”

“Good,” she said picking up her purse. “I’ll tell you when I set a date, then.” And with that, she left.

 

 

 

IN LESS THAN three hours, she was back. Mohammad was trying some guitar riffs when she violently opened the door. From her red, angry face and her bright, burning eyes, Mohammad could tell something went wrong. And he didn’t need to ask, for she would tell him anyways.

“Change of plans.” She indignantly announced.

“What?” He asked laying the guitar down.

“We’re keeping the baby.”

“What? Why the hell would we do …”

“Lana’s pregnant.”

 

Chapter 16: Annie

Lana looked gravely at the guy who was squinting in front of her fridge. She was standing at his back, so if there was one thing she could clearly see, it was that penny-sized hole near his pants’ back pocket. The hole kept widening and shrinking as he moved the fridge vigorously; now plugging it in and then plugging it out.

“How many times did you say the electricity cut off yesterday?” he asked turning his neck slightly around to make it clear that he was addressing her.

“At least five times simultaneously.” Replied Lana, with her small, white hand covering her nose to prevent the smell of sweat (coming from the two dark spots under his armpits) from going into her nose. “It would go off, and in less than a second it would go on again. And then it would go off.”

He gave a nod and turned his neck back to face the fridge. Lana eyed him with interest mingled with a little bit of disgust. His fat physique, bald head and squealing voice weren’t all that made her deplore him. Neither was it his constant desire and endless trials to make it seem like he understood everything that had to do with her fridge. It was the fact that she had to spend her morning around him instead of being in the club or maybe out shopping. It had only been three months since she got married. And it was still difficult for her to get adjusted to her new life.

Nowadays, she couldn’t make one single decision without thinking of all the possible consequences it might have upon her marriage and husband. She had to call her mother-in-law every morning and check on her. That’s besides visiting her at least once every week. At first, those visits were more like a burden on Lana, especially when Leila, her mother-in-law, would start her talk about Mark and all the things he loved and the things he preferred. Even though Leila was probably only reminiscing about her cherished son’s childhood, Lana always took her words as some kind of lecture on how she should treat Mark. Nevertheless, Lana was beginning to get used to Leila’s annoying habits. Besides, she was now becoming great friends with Mark’s youngest sister, Maya. Particularly that they seemed to have the same interests, for Maya was very fond of dancing and she was now a freshman in college, faculty of Arts, CairoUniversity. Whenever those two were together, they just cliqued.

Mai, who was only two years younger than Lana, was the one everybody expected Lana to befriend. However, she struck Lana as some kind of a loner. She would spend most of her time either reading or studying. Now that she was in her third year in college, studying computer science, Lana realized she had to study a lot. But she also realized there was a part of her that focused on studying as an excuse to stay away from people.

As for Omar, he was the strangest of all of Leila’s kids. A devoted playboy, he probably dated all the girls in his class and even two classes up. Despite his bumpy voyage in college, once he got to work he seemed to change completely. He worked in the stocks, besides a full-time job in the bank. Yet, he always managed to find time for the ladies. Generally, Lana liked him; thought his reckless way of life was somewhat appealing, but he never struck her as a dependable man. She always believed that Mark was ten times better as a husband. But she still enjoyed the part of her duties that involved having him as her companion at least once a week.

Be that as it may, all the marriage duties which came with the territory were nothing compared with what she was doing currently;  taking care of all the house-related problems all on her own. Never in her life had Lana escorted a technician before; she didn’t even know how to behave around those people. Not even her mother, or father, had to take care of such dirty businesses back at her parents’ house. Things just seemed to get miraculously fixed back there, or perhaps it was the servants who took care of those kinds of chores. But now, she didn’t even have a full-time maid, and Mark made it perfectly clear that he couldn’t possibly take a day off just to hear the technician’s diagnosis, when Lana, who was entirely free, could do it instead.

“I’m sorry ma’am.” Said the technician after a full hour of complete inspection and failed trials. “It seems dead to me.”

“What?” cried Lana, taking her hands out of her back pocket, for this is where they had remained for most of that hour. “C’mon, this is a Busch. It can’t just die. For God’s sake, it’s brand new. Can’t we do anything to fix it?”

“Of course you can fix it.” he answered very confidently. “But it would cost you something in the neighborhood of seven, maybe eight thousand pounds. See,” he said trying to explain the problem with making shapes of his hands and fingers, “the turbulence in the electricity blew off the system. So fixing it would be almost like getting a brand new fridge, especially that you know how expensive its spare parts are. I’m so sorry, this isn’t usually the case, but you were very unfortunate with this fridge. I can see for myself that it’s as good as new.”

“What about the guarantee?”

“You do have the policy, but it’s not stamped.”

“So?”

“So it’s almost useless. It should’ve been stamped by the retailer who sold it to you. Or if you still have the receipt,” Lana disappointedly shook her head. Her father would throw those away as soon as he got out of the shop. He couldn’t have kept it.

“And if we fix it, it would be brand new?” asked Lana.

“Certainly! Shall I take it with me to get it fixed?”

Lana excused herself for a moment and went to the bedroom. She called Mark and told him about what had taken place.

“Shall I tell him to take it?” she enquired rather rhetorically.

“I don’t know, Lana. We could buy another new fridge for less than this amount of money.”

“Yeah, but this is a Busch. I mean, we bought it for twelve thousand pounds, it would only be fair to pay seven thousand to get it fixed.” Reasoned Lana.

“Well, let’s just think about that for a while, shall we? Give me a day or two and tell the guy we’ll get back to him later. Alright?”

So Lana passed the message to the technician and then she escorted him out of the house. Next, she called her mother to tell her about all that has happened – for Lana was in the habit of vividly describing to her mother every tiny event of her life – and asked for her opinion on the subject.

“What were you thinking, Lana?” said Dalia over the phone, “you can’t possibly get it fixed with the genuine spare parts for a fairer price. Tell your husband we’ll pay for it if he doesn’t have the cash right now. You can’t throw away a brand new Busch just because fixing it was a bit pricy!”

WHEN MARK CAME home that night, Lana was in the bedroom reading. In fact, she wasn’t exactly reading as much as she was going through some old magazines. As she heard the key move inside the door, she quickly rushed outside with the magazine in her hand. But just as she was about to walk in to the living room and welcome her husband home, she heard him speak with another man. Being in her nightshirt, she paced back into the bedroom and waited till she heard the apartment’s door close.

Coming out on tiptoes, with the rolled up magazine still in her hand, Lana moved cautiously until she was able to tell that the stranger was gone. Before she got the chance to ask Mark who this guy was, she saw a huge cardboard-box in the kitchen. She understood that the stranger was the one who carried the box into the house.

“What is that?” she asked kissing Mark on the cheek.

“It’s our new fridge.” He replied smilingly wrapping his arms around her waist and drawing her closer to him. Then he looked at her face in wait of the joyous expression he expected to find.

“You bought a new fridge?” she said moving away from him and roaming around the cardboard box, trying to read what was written on it.

“I figured we …”

Universal!” exclaimed Lana finally coming across the fridge’s brand.

“What’s wrong with it?” asked Mark, sensing the attitude.

“It’s Egyptian-made; that’s what’s wrong with it! We’ve been around a German fridge all this time, and now we suddenly have to get used to dealing with an Egyptian product with all its faultiness and malfunctions?”

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, our great, all German fridge is dead; after only less than three months of usage.”

“Exactly, so how long do you think this is gonna last? And by the way, the fridge isn’t dead. It just needs to get fixed.”

“For eight thousand pounds!”

“Pappy’s gonna pay for it. I mean, till you can pay him back.”

Mark impatiently looked at the ceiling as he wiped his face with both his hands. He would’ve snapped at her had he spoken at that particular instant, so he remained silent till he was able to keep his cool. “Lana, we can’t just turn to your parents every time we face a problem.”

“Consider it a wedding gift.”

“Another wedding gift? C’mon, Lana, I think your father’s proved his generosity already. And as much as I am grateful for this generosity, I’m gonna have to pass this one.” He paused a while to breathe. “Now, we already got ourselves a new fridge. And if we sell the old one, we’ll manage.”

He then moved to the fridge and began taking it out of its box. The sound of the cardboard in friction with the nylon surrounding the fridge failed at making Lana look at the new device. She just stood in the living room, with a distant look toward the window. Mark noticed.

“Check this out,” he began, trying to break the ice, “It’s 25-feet wide. That’s 7-feet wider than the old one.” Lana cast off a careless glance towards the neglected object. “And it also comes with a water dispenser. Didn’t you want one of those?” he asked looking at her. She saw in his eyes that he was begging for acceptance, and she complied. Slowly moving into the kitchen, she touched the aluminum exterior of the fridge. “Come here; let me show you how to use it.” he said smiling.

MARK WAS IN the habit of reading in bed before going to sleep. Every night, he would spend almost an hour reading anything before putting the lights out. It helped clear his mind and prepare him for a sound sleep. So usually, after the lights go out, Mark would be in no time snoring.

Nevertheless, that night, Lana didn’t hear the snoring begin after darkness prevailed. Instead, she felt Mark’s hand on her shoulder. She was sleeping with her back facing him, yet she was able to tell his every-second movement. His hand kept running around her body till it reached her waist. That’s when she felt him getting closer, with his hand stroking her chest. She had been trying to keep silent all night long, but this final move sort of triggered all her canned acrimony. She burst into loud tears.

“What’s the matter?” asked Mark startled as he sat in bed and turned the lights on. “Is everything ok?”

“Please Mark,” she began with a choked-under-tears voice, “if you love me, please just return that fridge and let pappy fix our old one, please.”

“I … I don’t understand. Haven’t we settled that already?”

“You don’t get it. I can’t just have people come into the house and see this. My mum alone is gonna go mad. And Tonya, oh my God! Tonya’s coming by tomorrow! If she sees it she’s gonna start pitying me in her all-so-considerate manner. It’s just eight thousand pounds Mark, please.”

“I don’t have them! Alright?” cried Mark, finally snapping. “All I had was the money with which I got the fridge tonight. I was gonna buy myself some new clothes but I thought, ‘hey, this fridge thing’s really bugging her, so I gotta prioritize.’”

“And I’m telling you, you don’t have to pay anything. You just let pappy …”

“I’m not letting anyone pay ANYTHING.” Screamed Mark so loudly that Lana fearfully trembled. “Pity! Now people are gonna pity you? For God’s sake, Lana, this is a four-thousand-pound fridge; it’s no junk.”

For a few minutes, Lana remained right next to him in bed, all shivering and crying. This time he didn’t apologize; didn’t pat her on the shoulder; didn’t even ask her to sleep. He just rolled around in bed with his back turned towards her. Gaining enough strength to walk on her feet, Lana quietly moved to the kitchen. She stood there in the middle, staring at the new fridge.

“Stupid, stupid fridge.” She cried kicking it.

Then, she sat on the kitchen bar and started going through everything placed there. She came across the magazine she was reading when Mark came home. It was the issue where her wedding pictures were published. She viciously grabbed it and began flipping its pages till she reached her wedding.  A very happy couple with fire in their eyes and love printed all over their faces stared back at her. She tried to look for all the love she had felt on that day; she found it all there. Yet the dreams weren’t really fulfilled. The life she had imagined to live with Mark was so different from the life she was currently leading. Unlike what she had anticipated, she didn’t have a job. And as much as she hated to admit it, money matters were causing a bit of an issue between them. And there were also the people’s expectations, especially Tonya and Sara’s; every time she got around those two, they would start talking about how beautiful her life ought to be now that she had married the love of her life, congratulating her on being able to come across material differences so largely. It all burnt her up inside; that she constantly failed at making her dreams come true. First, it had been the dancing, but screwing this up wasn’t her fault. She had adopted her marriage as her new dream; that was where she planned on shining and reaching the stars. However, there were times when she felt it was so challenging to move forward. And that night topped all her hard moments.

Then she remembered her mother’s words; how she had predicted that Lana wouldn’t be able to live happily with Mark due to his financial situation. She hated to be that materialistic. Even if it was a fact, she still wouldn’t admit it.

Her eyes rested once and for all on that detested fridge, and for the first time, she saw it in a different light. She saw Mark, walking out of work so exhausted and in desperate need of rest, yet making his way to the shop to buy the fridge. She saw his not-so-rich wardrobe, with many old, out-fashioned clothes and she saw how much that wardrobe must have needed refreshing. And most importantly, she saw him foreseeing the look on her face when seeing the new fridge – a look of relief, happiness and satisfaction, and how that look would’ve been worth all his trouble. And lastly, she saw her own reaction; ruthless and ungrateful as it was and saw how strongly she had hurt him.

With the tears still in her eyes, Lana ran to the bedroom. She found him lying there in bed, just like she had left him, but she could tell that he wasn’t yet asleep. Kneeling down on the floor at his bedside, she slowly grabbed his hand, all masculine and full of veins, and kissed it.

“I’m sorry.” She whispered truly remorsefully.

Even though it was dark, she could see his eyes open. They looked so bright; perhaps it was the tears that made them shine so. “I can never fully describe to you how much I hate myself right now.” She said pushing his straight hair backwards. “But I only hope you would have a heart big enough to forgive me.” Her hand was now on his cheek, which was so hot (probably with rage). His hand caught hers off guard and drew it to his lips. He engraved a tender kiss upon it. Lana sighed in relief. He then pulled her into bed and took her into his arms.

 

Chapter 15: Shine On

 

There were days when Lana woke up, opened her eyes and slowly got out of bed to make coffee, and then she thought about her life and what’s to be done with it. That’s because Lana couldn’t think, remember, calculate or approximate without those little atoms of caffeine going through her body and filling up her stomach.

However, this was not one of those days. This was one of the days when Lana’s pupils would widen the moment her eyes would open up; when it would take her less than a second to see things clearly, to realize what exactly has been done with her life. Then, she would jump out of bed, from intolerable excitement. And when she’d drink her coffee, it would be basically to cool herself down with a hot, soothing drink. And what could give her that feeling better than her own wedding day?

“Tonya!” she screamed running across the kitchen the second she heard the bell ring. It was indeed Tonya, in her denims and with a dress on her arm. Lana had to wait till the maid who had opened the door took the dress from Tonya so that she’d leap into her arms.

“Oh, thank God. Tonya, you’re here.”

“What’s the matter?” asked Tonya gently pulling her away to see her face.

“Sara’s still asleep and mum says I won’t have enough time to get ready. She’s already calling people and telling them that the wedding’s at five o’clock instead of three.”

“Hey, just relax, alright?” she took a deep breath, and so did Lana. “Now, is the dress ready?” Lana nodded. “Is the veil ready?” Lana nodded. “Have you shaved?” Lana nodded. “Have you confirmed with the hair dresser?” Lana nodded. “The make up artist?” Lana nodded. “Ok, that’s one, two …” she was counting on her fingers, “Five. No, they’re six. What are we missing? What … Your shoes! Oh my God. How could I forget? Of course it’s your shoes. Are they ready?” For the last time, this time probably more chilled than before, Lana nodded. “Ok, then. Let’s get down to business.

“We still gotta wake your lazy sister, though.” Added Tonya as they were climbing the stairs.

THE ENTIRE DAY was spent in preparations; the hairdresser and the make up artist tended to Lana, Sara, Tonya and Dalia. So, it wasn’t a short while before they had the time to get dressed. Between every couple of brushes on her cheeks or blows in her hair, Lana would peep out of her bedroom window to look at the garden being completely set up. The wedding was to take place in the garden. And even though Lana was the one who proposed the idea, now the thought of it was scaring her to death.

“What if it rains?” she asked as Tonya was zipping her dress. Dalia was dressing Sara up in her room, so the two of them were alone.

“Lana, it’s June. It’s never gonna rain.” Said Tonya as she tied the white ribbon around Lana’s waist.

“You’re right.” Lana was silent for a while. “God, it’s June.” She resumed again, obviously very worked up. “How could I be so stupid as to have an open air wedding in June? It’s too freaking hot.”

“Lana, relax, will you?” Cried Tonya with her hands around Lana’s waist.

Lana acquiesced. She decided to shut up for a while and moved instead to the jewellery department. She reached out for the jewellery box on her hairdresser and slowly opened it. It had two sets of jewellery; one was a butterfly-shaped diamond pendant with matching earrings and the other was a pearl necklace also with matching earrings and bracelet.

“You’ve managed to make me change my mind about my wedding, Lana.” Said Tonya as she was fixing her hair. “Up till this morning I wanted to have it done in the open air. I thought maybe Mohammad’s house would be a good choice. You know, his garden is almost as big as yours, so it could host a nice wedding. But after your pack of worries and insecurities, I’m thinking maybe a hotel won’t be so bad. Anyway, I haven’t officially discussed it with Mohammad yet. He still refuses to tell me what he prefers.”

Lana gave her an attentive smile. She was going to make a proposal, but she decided that maybe it wasn’t her place to do it. So she just returned to her jewellery.

“Which one do you think I should wear?”

“The butterflies.” Replied Tonya, rather spontaneously. “There’s nothing Mark loves better than butterflies.” She didn’t think about the words until they were already spoken. And when they were out, she realized that she had messed up, big time. Yet, she couldn’t take it back. And why should she feel impelled to take it back? Even if it made Lana’s face color, it was a fact; nothing could possibly change it. Therefore, she decided to finish off what she had already started. “I used to date him back in the day, and I can’t help but remember how fond he was of butterflies.” She slowly added.

After a short pause of awkward, uncomfortable silence, Lana said:

“Butterflies it is, then.”

Tonya helped her to put them on. Next, she readjusted Lana’s veil and tiara. Finally, she gently held Lana’s face between her hands and made her face the mirror.

“Now you’re perfect.” Lana politely smiled. “Ok, then. I’ll go downstairs and see how things are going, whether or not the groom arrived and maybe figure out how much longer you have to wait here. Alright?” Tonya kept smiling back at her even when she turned away and moved to the door.

“Hey, Tonya,” Called Lana, still seated by the hairdresser, stopping her, “I think you should stick to the hotel. For your wedding, I mean.”

“Oh really? You think that would be better?” asked Tonya, a bit pleased with Lana’s interest in her affairs.

I happened to date Mohammad. And if I remember correctly, he wasn’t a big fan of surprises. And clearly, an open-air wedding; full of surprises.”

MARK WAS STANDING in the hall when Tonya went downstairs. She couldn’t take her eyes off his fluffy, fair hair when she first set eyes upon him that day. Then she moved her eyes to his black tuxedo, and his bow tie. His face was red and his eyes shyly looked back with a nervous glance. She couldn’t remember him looking more appealing than he looked at that moment. Then she remembered: it was his wedding day, and she wasn’t the one in the white dress. And that struck her so coarsely, even more harshly than the sight of Mohammad standing right next to Mark with his hand on Mark’s shoulder. Its blow was so hard on her that she wasn’t even able to face the excruciating truth: that her fiancé was standing right in front of her eyes and yet she couldn’t see one single attractive feature in him. While she saw every feature of his best friend, his groom-to-be best friend, as breathtaking. She was about to scream, what is she doing to herself? But her thoughts were interrupted by Lana’s father, whom she noticed by her shoulder.

“Is our Barbie ready, yet? ‘Cause the maa’zoun is here and we should probably get started.”

“She’s ready.” Said Tonya looking down at her entangled hands. “I’ll go get her.”

In a few minutes, all the noise in the hall came to an end, and the violins started playing very tunefully. All eyes were turned upon the stairs; down descended the princess of the entire ceremony. In her sleeveless, white dress, tightening up at the chest and loosening down the waist, with a wide, white ribbon separating both parts, Lana couldn’t look more majestic. However, in Mark’s eyes; she looked simply angelic. The sight of her in that way made him remember the time he first saw her dance. He could see that pretty, diffident smile on her face, that same smile he would only see when she danced. After she stopped dancing, he thought that smile would disappear from his life. He knew it was a smile which expressed her utmost pleasure, and it pained him to think that he couldn’t whatsoever manage to draw it upon her face. But now the smile was back, and his heart leaped out of his chest when he watched it widen across her face, making her look all innocent and childish.

She was carefully seated next to her father, who was sitting on the maa’zoun’s right and who, in turn, had Mark sitting on his left. First, the maa’zoun got out some papers which had been prepared earlier by Lana and Mark; papers that legalized their marriage and recorded their marriage conditions. All they had to do now was sign them. And being signed, the maa’zoun stretched out his hand and Mr. El Masry put his hand upon it and then Mark put his hand on Mr. El Masry’s. Then the three hands were covered with a handkerchief. Doing that, the marriage ceremony began, with both Mark and Mr. El Masry, on behalf of Lana, repeating the wedding vows after the maa’zoun. When it was over, women gave out the joyous sound known in Arabic as a zaghrouta, and Dalia came over with the wedding ring. Mark slowly took Lana’s hand and pushed the ring through her finger. It was a beautiful, solitaire ring; even though the rock wasn’t that big, it looked so enchanting. Then they helped each other switch their wedding rings from the right hand to the left one.

Being finished, they greeted the maa’zoun and moved, followed by their parents, siblings and guests, out to the garden. That was when the fire works started going off, the glitter started flowing around and the slow music started playing. It was a moment to love and cherish forever. A moment that made both of them, as he looked into her brown, glimmering eyes and she looked into his green, cheery eyes, forget all about the tension they’ve been living in ever since their engagement. They forgot about his mother’s disapproval of the wedding program – wanting a real oriental Zaffa with the drums and the bagpipes, and of her mother’s disapproval on their place of residence – feeling that the apartment was too small for her daughter to live in. They forgot about the fights they’ve had, the hardships they’ve lived through and the obstacles they’ve faced. If there was one thing they both kept coming back to, it surely was their little kiss at sunrise. It was the only time they ever kissed – excluding of course that kiss in London – and they both couldn’t believe that they could taste this feeling again and not have to feel guilty about it. Life seemed so bright in their eyes, and for a while they seemed to be living in one of those love songs they used to patronize.

The time for cutting the cake came up, and their rectangular-shaped, four-level wedding cake made their mouths water as they cut it together with the same wish: that they should live in happiness and never part. At that time it seemed so ridiculous for them to wish for such a thing, for they couldn’t possible see any reason why they shouldn’t live happily ever after.

They were called, afterwards, to the dance floor for their first dance. The music started playing and their bodies moved closer. When she rested her face against Mark’s chest, feeling his strong muscles contract with nervousness, his breathing get louder and louder, Lana could hardly believe that she was in his arms. They were almost levitating; it felt as if they were dancing on a cloud up in the sky and everything else around them disappeared; all the things they had to give up to be married, all the sacrifices they had to make, all the hearts they had to break; everything, except for the beating of their own, excited hearts.

BEING SO ABSORBED, Lana couldn’t notice Tonya’s sudden disappearance. Nadia, who was watching the happy couple with a pinch of bitterness, noticed her sister’s escape. She glanced at Mohammad to see if Tonya was with him, and that made him realize that Tonya was missing. Nadia’s mind became less troubled when she watched Mohammad exiting the crowd and taking off to look for her sister.

He almost skirted around the entire house until he found her hiding by the shade of some abandoned tree by the back door. She was facing the wall and her arm was covering her face. He could tell that she was crying.

“Tonya, are you alright?” he asked dubiously touching her back. He twitched when the tip of his fingers got in contact with her bare back. Her strapless dress exposed it all.

She slowly turned around and faced him, and contrary to what he’d expected of her, he saw her eyes red with tears. “I can’t stand it Mohammad. Something inside me kept telling me that this day would never come. Despite all, I somehow thought I would never have to go through it. But now it’s happening, and I just don’t know how the hell I’m supposed to overcome it.” she spoke in-between sobs.

“But we have a plan.”

“To hell with our plan!” she screamed as she stamped her foot. “God, I’m just … I’m choking, Mohammad.” She threw herself in his arms. And he was extremely receptive. He kept patting her shoulder and going through her hair, thinking about their own wedding night. He knew they would never be as happy as Lana and Mark were at that moment, that they would never be so sincere about their first dance. Yet him marrying Tonya somehow seemed inevitable. She was the only girl he’d been with for the past three years, and he knew almost everything about her. Since marrying someone he loved was no longer an option for him, Tonya was the best wife he could currently think of. And he knew she felt the same way about him.

Nevertheless, despite his agony due to seeing Lana in Mark’s arms instead of his, he couldn’t help but ache when he saw Tonya crying so hard over Mark. If there was one thing he knew for sure at that particular instant, it was that he hated Mark, and that he couldn’t wait to take his revenge.

Chapter 8: She will be loved

The flight back to Cairo couldn’t have been more uncomfortable to Lana or Mark. They have managed to avoid each other the entire time, but as expected, their seats were booked right next to one another. Lana just sat down quietly, buckled up and opened her purse to get a book and read. Mark didn’t dare set eyes on her either, so he too grabbed the flight magazine and started going through it. When the plane landed, Mark tried to help Lana with unloading her luggage, but she politely pushed him away. That was when he realized that he had ruined his life by his stupid confession the other night. Everybody was waiting for the happy winners at the airport; everybody who had come to say goodbye almost a week before was now back to welcome them home. But there was one person added to the list, or at least this time he planned on getting himself seen at the airport; of course that would be Mohammad. Standing there, with a warm smile set on his face, Mohammad decided he was going to act cool. He didn’t necessarily have to apologize, but at least he could begin with a warm gesture. Lana ran toward everyone, violently kissing her parents and twirling around with her sister in her arms. Then, when she noticed Mohammad, she rushed toward him throwing herself in his arms and bursting into tears. Mohammad was very surprised; as a matter of fact, everybody was. Only Mark was able to understand her, and he wished he hadn’t. EVEN THOUGH MARK’S attitude with Tonya at the airport was normal, the way he treated her later was very different. She could feel him slipping away, and she wasn’t going to let that just happen. Studying the whole case inside out, she began to suspect there was somebody else. Then everybody became a suspect. If Lana hadn’t been avoiding any kind of contact with him, Tonya would have definitely suspected her. Lana’s birthday came up, and due to her investigative activities, Tonya did not remember it for the first time through their fourteen years of friendship. Lana didn’t seem to really care; she knew other stuff were currently occupying Tonya’s mind. And Lana felt very bad for seeing her best friend feel so strongly about someone who turned out to be no better than a cheat. She wanted to tell her that he didn’t deserve her, that he confessed his love to Lana and almost raped her, but she promised herself she was never going to open that subject up ever again, not to anyone. Why? Firstly because she knew that Mark deeply regretted all what happened that doomed night. She also believed that everybody deserved a second chance, and letting out such a secret wouldn’t only destroy Mark’s life but it would also tarnish her reputation. But most importantly, she had this strange notion deep inside; she almost felt that Mark’s true feelings toward her gave her some kind of pleasure. Ever since her break up with Nader, she had been having self-esteem issues. Now Baher’s love to her made things good, but Mark’s love made things even better. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy being in all hearts all at once? As those thoughts were running through her head, Tonya was rearranging her books in her purse as they were both seated in the auditorium; right after their lecture had ended. Out of the blue, Mark was in sight. He slowly and heavily dragged his leg and reached them. The second Lana saw him come into the auditorium; she put on her jacket, grabbed her car keys and took off. She didn’t even take her notebook; that was as badly as she had wanted to leave. When asked where she was going, by Tonya, she said: “I’m just gonna take a ride, to give you guys some privacy.” She did go to her car, turned the key and even started the engine, but she didn’t go anywhere. She realized she had nowhere to go; she had a lecture in less than two hours and she couldn’t possibly drive all the way to Qautameya then come back on such a short gap. She was just going to wait this meeting out in the car and once she sees Mark coming out of the building, she was going to get back to Tonya. Nevertheless, her simple plan was disturbed by Mohammad’s sudden arrival. He tried to surprise her but he failed; she had already seen his reflection in the front mirror. However, his wrapped up gift to her did manage to take her breath away. “Oh my God,” she said happily accepting it, “you shouldn’t have.” “Why not?” he asked with that same romantic smile on his face, “isn’t today your birthday?” “How did you know?” she enquired as her eyes moved from him to the gift she was trying so eagerly to open. “You told me before your birthday was on March 15th.” “You remembered!” she exclaimed as she finally managed to open the gift. It was a teddy bear; brown in color, the size of real cat, holding an iron chest with a heart-shaped lock between its arms. There was a paper inside the chest; Lana could see it through the iron bars, but it was locked and there was no key around. “What is that?” asked Lana quite astonished. “Is that a note inside?” “Yeah, but you gotta figure out where the key is first so that you’d be able to read the note, which is – by the way – a poem I wrote for you.” “Is this some kind of riddle?” said Lana, brightly smiling. Mohammad just shrugged his shoulders. She began by looking for the key in the car. Then she realized that he couldn’t have possibly had the time or the chance to hide it there. That was when she realized that he must have it on him. She started going through his pockets with extreme thoroughness; still he didn’t seem to care. It was when she took notice of his fist which appeared to be clenched around something. She gave out a sly look, then she threw both her hands on it, violently trying to unclench it. Just at that moment, they both burst into laughter, a laughter which was interrupted by Mark’s tap on her window. She let go of Mohammad’s hand and cast him a look of surprise. It was the first time she looked at him since that night. He made a gesture that meant he needed to talk with her, so she opened her window. “Happy birthday,” he said smiling and handing her a bag. “Thanks.” She said taking the bag. She opened it and out of it she got the book the kite runner by Khaled Hosseini. “Tonya said it was on your list of ‘must read’.” He said referring to the book. “It is, I mean was.” She said, a little less uneasy than he had expected her to be. That gave him hope. “Ok,” he said after some awkward silence, “I better get going.” It was a while before she realized she had been staring at him as he moved away from the car. Then she directed her stares to the book as she kept flipping its pages and going through it with great attention. She totally forgot about the key that was still in Mohammad’s fist. Seeing her negligence to his gift and her full devotion to Mark’s, Mohammad decided to withdraw, at least for the time being. “Where are you going?” cried Lana following him out of the car, barely able to run in her shoes. Wrong day to wear high heels, she thought to herself. “To my car” “But you still haven’t given me the key yet!” said Lana getting back on track. “Oh, good thing you remember.” Commented Mohammad cynically. “Stop,” she said as she finally managed to reach him after some jogging. She grabbed him by the arm as she said, “I wanna read the poem. That’s part of your gift, isn’t it?” He stopped running from her, took a heavy breath and looked her straight in the eye. He knew she was just making amends, that she neither cared about him nor about his gift as she pretended to care, but he just couldn’t resist her charm. He slowly unclenched his fist, and she took hold of the key and rushed to the car to get the teddy bear and open the chest. After some effort, she was holding the note in her hands and silently reading the poem. The smile on her face and the way she rocked her body as she moved from one stanza to the other made it all worth the while for Mohammad. WHEN SHE VISITED Tonya’s home that day, she was already napping. Even though her eyes were closed, Lana could tell from her wet pillow that she had been crying. When she woke up, Tonya slowly opened the drawer of her night stand, while she was still in bed, and got something out of it. Then she approached Lana and handed her something as she kissed her on the cheek. “Happy birthday,” she said trying so difficultly to smile. “Thank you.” Said Lana relieved. She had already given up on the idea that Tonya would remember her birthday that year. She opened the gift; it was a silver heart-shaped necklace. It looked very simple yet elegant, which assured Lana that Tonya wasn’t the one who chose it. “It’s beautiful, thanks.” Said Lana. Again Tonya tried to smile, but this time Lana could clearly see her puffed eyes and the wrinkles that were already gaining on her face. “Are you ok?” she asked rather hesitantly. “Yeah,” moaned Tonya turning around. “Is there something wrong with Mark? You two don’t seem to be getting along quite well.” Added Lana. “Yeah, well … maybe that’s why we broke up.”

Chapter 7: I really want you

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.

 

Chapter 6: Words don’t come easy

Thursday night; the official play-day of all Egyptian youth since it precedes the Muslim Sabbath, Friday. Tonya, who had escorted Lana to her home, was getting ready in front of the mirror. The girls knew it was going to be a cold night, and they put that into account when choosing their outfits. Tonya brought over with her her hot-pink, woolly, turtleneck pullover and her plaid Technicolor miniskirt patterned with squares in black, blue, red and pink. Even though they made her thighs look even chubbier than they already were, she simply adored those little skirts and shorts. As she admiringly observed herself in the mirror, Tonya helped herself in putting on her long, golden earrings with a small flower protruding at the end, and she buckled the thin, golden necklace with a similar flower pendant. She had borrowed Lana’s golden Tissot watch and was now adding the final touches to her make-up. The heavy mascara, the pinkish eye shadow, the brown lipstick, the peach-colored foundation with the soft blusher spread on it; every single cosmetic was used to make Tonya as alluring as ever.

As Lana watched her adding little, simple details to finish off her appearance, she finally realized how this disorganized shape she always found Tonya in got built about. To her, Tonya always overdressed, over-accessorized and over-embellished in a somewhat vulgar way. She had been taught by Dalia that simplicity is the key to irresistible beauty. And Lana always took that to extreme levels, for she would rather under-dress than dress properly for the occasion. For instance, at that particular instance, Lana was in a short black and white dress, all tight from head to bottom, slightly showing the turns at her waist, sleeveless and with a neckline which covered her chest completely and only showed fragments of her bare shoulders. She wore her hair up high in the form of a long ponytail of certain volume. Both she and Tonya were wearing black, opaque tights and black, leather boots, but Tonya’s had fur along their edges.

Turning around from the mirror, Tonya eyed Lana judgingly.

“What?” asked Lana, sensing some comment on the way.

“You look great.” It didn’t look like she meant it. “But the thing is, the dress is a bit bulky. It might need something to spice it up a bit, let’s say a … a brooch!”

“No way!” refused Lana immediately. “I’m not wearing one of those in a million years.”

“What about some long necklace with a relatively large pendant?” suggested Tonya, already going through Lana’s accessory drawer. “I’m thinking white gold, since you’re in black and white and all. There,” she said pulling one end of a necklace out, “with this beautiful dolphin-shaped pendant, this piece’s definitely gonna give you the edge your looking for.”

Lana wasn’t so sure. After all, she never liked leaving herself in Tonya’s hands. But this time it was different, for the necklace really did suit her well that she actually considered going for it. She took one final look at the mirror, believed that the dress needed a simple touch to make it shine, then looked at the necklace; saw that it was simple enough.

“Ok, then. Buckle me up.” She said holding out her ponytail and turning her back towards Tonya.

AS THE CHAUFFEUR pulled over by the side walk, Tonya immediately noticed Mark waiting by.

“There, Bassiouni,” she said to the chauffer hastily, “that’s where we take off. Thanks.” With that she grabbed Lana’s hand and pulled her out of the car behind her.

“Hey, Mark.” She said stretching her hand to meet him.

“Hey.” He replied, with less excitement. “Hey there, Lana.”

“Hello.” Lana wasn’t looking at him as much as she was looking around. “Where’s Mohammad?”

“Inside, getting ready.”

“So this is the Sawy Culture Wheel.” Said Tonya looking at the large gate covering some tunnel which stretched under the May 15th bridge curiously.

“Yes it is.” Answered Mark. “Shall we?”

The girls nodded, and he led them inside to take their seats.

ONLY OPENING UP in 2003, the Sawy culture wheel had presented Cairo with a new type of entertainment. It was placed in a very awkward position, though in Zamalek, one of the classiest districts in Cairo, The Sawy wheel was actually built up underneath a bridge, in a place that used to be a garbage dumpster just a few years before. Now, it offered all different types of courses, ranging from photography to guitar and even self defense courses. Nevertheless, what it really added the most was a place where all underground bands could perform for recognition. In the Sawy wheel, any growing talent had a chance to have their own show without much hassle, and perhaps that was the brightest reason why people were so high on it.

“So Lana,” began Mark, as the three of them were now standing in front of their seats, anxiously waiting for Mohammad’s band, ‘Bangels’, to make their debut appearance, “is this your first visit to the Sawy wheel?”

“Actually yeah.”

“What? You never performed here before? Never participated in any of the dance activities here?”

Lana shook her head.

“This is not exactly the place for Lana’s performances.” Explained Tonya. “She had done over a dozen performances in the Cairo Opera house.”

“Good God!” exclaimed Mark, surprised. “No wonder you find this place disgraceful.”

“I don’t find it disgraceful.” Protested Lana, heatedly.

“Then what do you think of it?”

“Good enough, considering it’s actually under a bridge. We all know what those unfortunate places are destined to become here in Egypt.” That is: garages, shelters for the homeless and, as in our current case, huge garbage dumpsters.

“So,” said Lana after a while of silence, during which Mark and Tonya exchanged a few whispers, “have you listened to Mohammad’s band perform before? Are they good?”

“What? You never listened to Mohammad sing?” asked Tonya, sarcastically.

“Of course I’ve listened to Mohammad. I’m talking about the whole band. Are they as talented as Mohammad is?”

“They are actually.” Replied Mark. “They have this certain style in performing; I’m sure you’re gonna like them.”

“Well, she has met them before,” concluded Tonya, “haven’t you?”

“No, actually I haven’t.”

“Seriously?”

“He doesn’t ever talk about them, even.” Replied Lana innocently.

“What do you talk about then? You’re always murmuring to each other. What do you discuss?

“He’s always asking me questions that sometimes I feel I’m with a secret agent. Hardly ever speaks about himself. Even when I ask him about the guys in his band, he usually tends to change the subject.”

“And don’t expect him to lead an introduction.” Said Mark with certitude.

“Why not?” asked Tonya, a little upset.

“That’s just the way Mohammad is. The smoke of mystery that surrounds him; it’s not an act. He really doesn’t like to talk about himself. I know it’s spooky, especially for girls, but it’s just who he is.”

Lana listened with a doubtful ear, somewhat mystical. “But don’t worry though,” continued Mark, returning to her, “I’ll tell you all about them if you want to.”

She suddenly became extremely attentive; Mark could see she was starving for his briefing. “Now the band’s made up of five members: two guitarists; Baher, who’s also a vocalist, and Mustafa; long, curly, black hair, small body, pale skin and a pair of blue eyes you’ll hardly see from over here. Very talented, but a bit unstable. Then there’s Ashraf; that’s the main vocalist, he performs in almost ninety-nine percent of the songs, usually alongside Baher. And of course there’s Youssef; short, brown hair, confident smile and sweet words. He’s the bass guitar player. But, beware of him, big time. He’s a serious playboy. And not like my brother; this guy can bring about disasters. He’s on everything that’s not in the book; drugs, alcohol, fornication. If you ever get worried that music’s gonna have a bad influence on Baher, that’s the guy to fear. And if he comes to say hello after the party, when he’s shaking hands with you very heartily; he’s not being nice, he’s being dirty.” He said the last words with a certain air of menace. “I mean it; careful.” He now turned his eyes towards Tonya, made her see that the words were also for her ears. Despite Lana’s disapproval of having to hear something like that from him, feeling that he had no right to give her such advice, Tonya couldn’t have loved listening to anything more, for this meant that he was trying to protect her. And when Lana would believe that she doesn’t need protection, Tonya would be thrilled to find someone willing to do the job.

“Last but not least,” resumed Mark, “is Assal.”

“Assal?” The name was an Egyptian equivalent of the word: honey.

“That’s his family name.” explained Mark. “He’s first name’s also Mohammad – so now you see why we all call him Baher. He’s a bit chubby, not very attractive for a rock star. But when he gets around those drums, he just sets the stage on fire. Outside the stage, though, he’s a little too shy. But he’s a good guy, no need to fear him.” Throughout this long clarification, Lana looked at Mark like a student looking at her professor, always nodding and trying to digest the whole information. “Of course, when they all get on stage, I’ll be able to explain a bit more, since they’re gonna be right in front of you.”

“That is if she could see anything from where she’s standing.” Interrupted Tonya facetiously. “One thing you don’t know about Lana is her struggle with her height.”

Lana gave out an embarrassed smile.

“She’s not that short.” Said Mark amusedly, checking her out. He noticed that her boots were of high heels, but not too high.

“Oh, oh, oh,” babbled Tonya, “since you’re both here, please stand shoulder to shoulder, so that I could see the difference in height.” That ought to have been enjoyable, given Mark’s relatively tall nature and Lana’s relatively short one.

“If someone hears you say that, they’d think you’re a tower yourself.” Lana punched back with the same sense of humor. She had a point, for Tonya was only a few centimeters longer than Lana.

“Do you know that she once had a boyfriend who made her wear heels so that people wouldn’t make fun of them when they’re walking together?”

“He did not!” exclaimed Lana fitfully.

“He did too! He was almost as tall as you,” she was referring to Mark, “and some of his friends told him he should dump her because they looked ridiculous together. She came to me practically begging for me to teach her to walk in high heels.” Lana looked haughtily away, yet Mark seemed to be quite enjoying himself. “Up till now, if you watch closely, you’ll notice how she can hardly hold her grounds when walking in heels.”

“You make it sound like I had a million boyfriends who totally controlled me.”

“But you did!”

“No, I didn’t. I only started dating in the tenth grade. They must have been only three boyfriends.”

“Five.”

“What? No way, I would remember if …”

“Five.” Insisted Tonya. “Ahmad, Sameh, Shereef, Nader and Baher.”

“Mohammad’s not my boyfriend.”

“Yeah right.” Tonya was again speaking only to Mark. “Another thing you should know about Lana is that it takes her at least six months to confess that she’s actually in love with someone.”

“That’s not true.” Objected Lana.

“And once she does, she begins facing the problems and all the imperfections in the relationship, since, you know, it takes those almost six months to surface. So technically, she misses out on the best part in any relationship during the period of time she spends in denial.”

“Don’t listen to her.” Now Lana was the one only talking to Mark. “She’s just tryin’a tarnish my reputation; paint a hideous picture of me.”

“I’m just stating facts.” Said Tonya defensively.

“Anyways, even if that’s your way of loving,” intervened Mark, after a while of indulging in the show they had both been playing out, “you still gotta claim Baher all to yourself if you really like him. For who knows? If the crowds cheer for him tonight, I won’t be surprised if some chick ends up steeling him away from you by the end of the concert. After all, he is gonna be a rock star, and that’s like: girls’ magnet.”

Lana took that as a joke, but deep inside, she knew that it could be true, for Mohammad was known in college as a womanizer.

Soon afterwards, the concert began and the ‘Bangels’ hit the stage. The moment they all took position, Lana began to apply Mark’s words on the scene that was right in front of her eyes. And she had to give it to him; Mark had been very thorough in his description, since even though it was the first time to see them, Lana felt like she had already seen the band members before through his efficient sketch.

“Better take off your coats, girls. You won’t be needing them anymore, since the show’s getting started and the heat is already on.” Said Mark, excitedly applauding and cheering for his best friend.

Tonya immediately took his advice, and threw the coat back at her seat. But Lana; she thought twice before making such a – in her opinion – rash act, given it was a cold night in November and she was only wearing a sleeveless dress underneath.

They began playing, mostly rock songs but no metal included; a relief to Lana, who adored all genres of music, yet hated metal and hard rock with all her heart. After a few songs, Lana whispered to Tonya that it seemed they were a cover band for The Calling. They weren’t Lana’s favorite, but she certainly enjoyed their music. Like Mark had said, it was Ashraf who performed most of the songs; his voice was so similar to that of Alex Band, harsh, masculine yet tuneful. It shared a similarity with Mark’s strong voice; Lana wondered for a second why he too didn’t make up a band of his own, but she dared not ask him.

In the end, and after a lot of cheering from the audience, Mohammad announced that they would wrap it all up with a song by Mohammad’s own words and musical composition. This was about the only song in which Ashraf hadn’t participated, for it was sung entirely by Muhammad. Before playing out the solo, Mohammad said that he dedicated this song to a beautiful girl who was currently gaining on his heart. Mark and Tonya glanced at Lana playfully; she was already in tears.

When it was all over, the three of them rushed to Mohammad to congratulate him on his huge success. From Mark, Lana had learnt that Baher’ band had performed in school and in college a couple of times. Yet this was considered their first official performance, and since it was very pleasant, Mohammad suggested the four of them leave immediately for somewhere where they could “celebrate”. This was a relief to Lana, for it meant that she wouldn’t have to shake hands with Youssef.

When they had all crammed up in Mohammad’s Astra, Lana riding in the front seat, Mohammad drove to the nearest outlet to the Nile, where he parked in some secluded place, hidden away from the people’s eyes by large, branchy trees. Anyways, Zamalek wasn’t that crowded with pedestrians around the Nile, especially if compared with other parts of the corniche.

The moment the engine stopped, Lana opened the CD compartment and began searching for some decent CD to play.

“’Bomba 2003’,” she read out from an old tape, “what the hell is that?”

“Just some Arabic mix tape.” Replied Mohammad.

“God, I hate those.” Joined Tonya from behind. “They always remove repeated verses and overlap the songs that you can hardly tell where one song ends and the other begins.”

“They were ok before downloading songs from the internet.” Said Mohammad. “You see, each invention has its time of glory.”

“Yeah, then so long mix tapes.”

“There, ‘Old is Gold’,” Lana held the CD up in her hand, “that’s gotta be oldies and classics, right?”

Mohammad nodded.

“I think I’ve found us something to listen to.” Announced Lana, pressing the eject button, replacing the CD in the player with the one she had just found, then pressing play. “There; enjoy.” She said as she turned on the volume. The first song was j’ai quitte mon pays by Enrico Macias. The boys were surprised when Lana began singing along with the song.

“You know French?” asked Mohammad, a bit astonished.

“She speaks it fluently.” Assured Tonya.

“Why, you went to a British school, right?” Lana nodded. “They don’t teach fluent French there, as far as I know.”

“I didn’t learn French at school.” Explained Lana. “It’s practically my mother’s first language. I think I learnt to speak it even before I could speak Arabic. None of you guys have learnt any French in school?”

“We used to take it when we were in national school, up till preparatory or something. But we weren’t really learning it, you know. Just memorizing some empty words that would get us through to the next year.” Mohammad said. He once told her that he and Mark used to be in the same school, Manor House, till third Prep, that Mohammad even attended the funeral of Mark’s father. However, afterwards, Mohammad’s father decided to transfer him to an American high-school while Mark joined the IGSCE division in the Manor House. They didn’t become best friends, though, until they met again in college.

“Yeah, but Mark’s mum knows French,” intervened Tonya, again, “doesn’t she, Mark?”

“Sure. She actually was in the Mer de Dieu, since it was a nuns’ school and all. So her French’s pretty good. But mine is not as good, though. Never took it seriously.” Lana listened with great interest. From what she’d heard about Mark’s mum – for Tonya gave her a full description of all their meetings – she seemed like a nice person to know.

“Enough about the schools’ talk here, alright?” said Mohammad, irritated. “How about you talk about something else?”

“Like for example, your performance tonight?” suggested Lana with a wicked wink.

“Well,” began Mohammad, smilingly.

“It was awesome.” Blurted Tonya clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Everything was great; the choice of songs, the music playing, the singing. It was all synchronized perfectly.”

“Yeah, man; you totally rocked.”

“Yes, by the way, Mark, you know what I’ve been thinking all through the show?” Mark was silent, waited for Tonya to tell him. “Why on earth you never thought about starting up your own band. I mean, you’ve got the voice, the charisma.” Suddenly, Lana felt red with embarrassment. Realizing that nobody noticed her state, she waited anxiously for Mark’s reply to the question she had longed to ask.

“Actually, it’s not my thing.” answered Mark. “I take music as a hobby, unlike Mohammad. Besides, those bands are all about folks who sing western covers. I’m all about Eastern music, on the other hand. It suits my voice best.”

“Well,” started Lana, looking back at him from her front seat, “how about the Opera? That’s exactly the place for a voice like yours, especially if you’re gonna sing Tarab; classic oriental music. As a matter of fact, I can hook you up with a few guys who might secure you an audition.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather it remained a hobby.” Said Mark politely. “My greatest dream is to become an architect. The whole singing thing is just gonna stand in my way.”

Just as the song ended, and a new song: can’t help falling in love by Elvis Presley began, Tonya and Mark excused themselves, said they were going to have a walk by the Nile. That left Lana and Mohammad by themselves. The awkward moment of silence was broken by Mohammad.

“So you never told me what you thought of my performance tonight.”

“Loved it.” Said Lana, shrinking back in her seat for a while. “But,” she now looked up, as if she had mustered all the courage to get her speaking honestly, “there is one thing I wanted to ask you about.”

“What?”

“Haven’t you ever considered singing for James Blunt?”

“God, you’re just obsessed with that guy, aren’t you?” Said Mohammad with a humorous laugh.

“Not exactly. But he is really good. I mean, his songs are so simple, yet they carry a certain depth within them.”

“And if I shall sing for James Blunt, which of his songs would you want me to sing?” asked Mohammad meekly.

“Any song. I love all of his album.” She was referring to his debut album, Back to Bedlam, for it was the only one released back then.

“Yeah, but which of them do you like the most? You’re beautiful?” Mohammad took the wild guess given it was the song she had chosen for their talent show number.

“No, in fact, my favorite’s goodbye my lover.” Confessed Lana dreamingly, in her mild, sweet voice. “When I really feel like dancing, I just turn it on and all the best moves just keep flowing by.”

“Why didn’t you suggest we use it in our number then? Instead of you’re beautiful, I mean.”

“Two reasons,” Lana held out her index and middle fingers. “First; because its performance depends solely on the piano, and you only play the guitar, so I figured it would be better if we stick to what you know best. And second; for me to dance perfectly to a song, I have to really feel its words. And since I haven’t gone through that painful goodbye yet, I figured it was best to take one thing at a time. Besides, I’m not really looking forward to saying goodbye to someone I love like that.” Mohammad couldn’t find something to say that would come up to that, so he decided to keep his mouth shut. “Oh,” she screamed excitedly, turning on the volume, “there’s another of my favorites.” The song she called her “favorite” was Moon River by Frank Sinatra. “I used to listen to this song by the sea in Hurghada when I’d go there with my family during my midterm vacation. It would be night and the moon would shine through the dark, shimmering sea as the wind would gently blow my hair. As much as I enjoyed the view, I would always imagine I was in truth overlooking the river. Can’t believe I’m living through it tonight.” She said as she looked romantically out the window. “And a full moon, too.”

That night, Mohammad discovered a number of things about Lana; things that made him fall deeper for her. As the songs rolled on, her excitement reached its climax, until she jumped out of the car and began dancing by the riverside. To fully satisfy her, Mohammad opened his trunk and connected the bazooka speakers he had installed in there. The sound they produced was scary in its clarity, all the better for Lana, who had already taken off her coat and boots, and was dancing like a crazy person. What amazed Mohammad the most was her rare gift of knowing how to dance to every single tune, no matter how different it is from the one that precedes or follows it. Whether it was slow, jazz, Latin, pop, or even soft rock, it didn’t matter; Lana always found a way around it. It suddenly occurred to him that their love for music was almost equal, but they loved it each from a different prospective.

After almost an hour, Mark and Tonya returned holding hands.

“We come bearing gifts.” Said Tonya shaking a plastic bag she held in her hand.

“What is it?” Lana ran lightly towards them, trying to peep through the bag and see what it contained.

“Ice-cream.” Tonya started distributing the Mega ice-cream sticks.

“I can’t believe ice-cream could be so delicious in this freezing weather.” Said Mohammad as he broke through the thick chocolate crust.

“Me too.” Added Lana. “Oh,” she exclaimed running back to the car with the uneaten ice-cream still in her hand, “I love this song!”

“What is it?” asked Mark clueless.

Words don’t come easy by F.R. David.” Answered Mohammad, walking slowly towards Lana. “Words,” he began singing, pretending that the ice-cream stick was his microphone, “don’t come eeeeasy … to me. How can I find a was …  to make you see I love you? Words don’t come easy.”

Lana fluttered from side to side, as she joyously sucked on her ice-cream. Mohammad leisurely approached her, and when his mouth was at her right ear, he tenderly whispered:

“You know that the song I sang tonight at the concert was dedicated to you?” Lana blushed against her will to stay cool, as she looked up to his hazel eyes. “And so is this one.”