Sex on the Beach
The following story " Sex on the Beach " is from a collection written by M.M.Tawfik and translated by A. Amin entitled "The Day the Moon Fell".
"MY husband is mine
to do with as I please,
to wash and to iron,
to crumple and to crease..."
I can still hear Shoosho's girlish song, which takes me back to those days, when marriage for us was just another word, light years away from our earth, in a dream-like galaxy inhabited by illusion, fantasy, poetry and romance. Her laughter still resonates in my ears, as in pursuit of her girlish song it fills the house with its magical music and impregnates my heart with uncomfortable combinations of joy and premonition, ecstasy and hesitation, admiration and jealousy. In short, throwing my soul into total disarray and turning my world upside down with just one of her carefree giggles.
That was the effect Shoosho had on everyone, then.
As darkness approaches, our uncertain mirth has dissipated and silence engulfs the car as it speeds towards Cairo, home and bed. The roar of the laboring engine prevails, insulating us from one another. A lonely island surrounded from all sides by a mighty ocean of monotonous mechanical noise.
Shoosho sits next to me rocking in silence. Her plump body gently moves back and forth. Her beautiful black hair has preserved its magical shine, but her cheeks are bloated and her rose petal complexion has lost a pink blush color that painted a lasting expression of joy on her face. A violet-brown bruise covers part of her right cheek, just under the eye, forever erasing any remnant memory of how it used to be.
But when did this glutinous mass of flesh replace that delicate romantic figure which so aroused our admiration and envy?
It must have been sudden, the change, although it occurred over a number of years. Anyway, who could have ever imagined that this is how Shoosho would look like, before she even turned thirty?
Maybe she has fallen asleep. It has been a long time since I heard your wild giggle, kitten. Has it wilted away? Evaporated into thin air? Was it smothered or simply chased away by that new more dignified laugh, the less daring one you use these days? Or is it still there, hidden away in a safe part of your heart, where you shield it from others and from yourself?
Quite an agreeable day at Momtaz's desert farm. The kids chose instead to go camping with Mostafa in Sokhna. A male scheme with no place for me. Such a cruel desert with sharp-edged rocks, its color a harsh red that burdens the eye. Its sea teeming with ferocious sharks and blade sharp corals silently lurking beneath the waves.
So different from Momtaz's white desert of gentle sands, now gliding away on either side of us like an enchanted flying carpet that has neither beginning nor end. Distant from the sea, yet rolling in her very own waves. A desert laden with femininity. Cruel in her rebellion but capable of giving boundlessly. Willing to sacrifice to the extent of jeopardizing her own identity. If only she would receive the attention she deserves and the tenderness she yearns for.
It is indeed a great feat that Momtaz is accomplishing by turning the desert into a green heaven, selflessly rewarding everyone with her opulence. Yet the transformation is not without a profound sadness.
"Leave the desert to the rats and the lizards!" Retorted Fatma when Momtaz broke the news. Without telling her beforehand, he had applied for a lot of desert land to farm. She was angry, but the choice she was left with was either to jump onto the bandwagon or forever stay behind.
Fatma's head sways with the car's motion. Her dyed blond hair has been cast by the heat and minute sand particles into a shape somewhere in between a pyramid and a truncated cone. A visit to Antoine, the hairdresser, will no doubt be on the top of her list.
I thought I would miss the kids today, but frankly, I enjoyed above all a delightful solitude. A rare rendez vouz with one's self. Among the sand dunes, my present problems seemed to fade away. Memories took over and even old miseries brought a faint smile to my lips...
Suddenly we come to!
An explosion! The squeal of tires on asphalt. The car loses its balance and the world shakes violently around me. Momtaz's swearing comes out in screams.
Then, the sounds die out. The vibrations stop and matters take a different, more composed perspective. And the day ends in silence as it started in resounding laughter...
"With the broads I'm stuck,
the others are having fun,
and I'm out of luck
'cause there's no where to run,
from the broads, from the broads."
Momtaz finds tunes for his words, as if life were nothing but a big song.
Three women and a man merrily heading towards a so-called farm in the middle of the desert. Each is looking for a dream, or at least a moment of serenity, a breath of fresh air away from the crowd and the noise. Away from Cairo, which engulfs us like a chronic disease that, we carry wherever we go.
Out of the car we rush in joy and anticipation. Momtaz immediately indulges in his farm chores. The clean air takes me back to my college excursions. I always took Fatma and Shoosho along. These were usually one-day trips organized by the faculty of engineering, to Kanater , Sakkara or Fayoum. My two sisters were still in high school, and thus through me they had an almost full taste of the beautifully rebellious university life. I later relived it through them when Fatma, and a year later Shoosho, enrolled in the faculty of arts. I had graduated by then and was shedding my spontaneity in the whirlpool of reality.
Fatma has brought a pot of stuffed vine leaves and a dish of roast lamb and potatoes, which she warms over a little gas stove. She and Shoosho have started to make the salad when I enter the living space used as kitchen, dining room and living room, in this tiny cottage. I cannot resist uncovering the vine leaves, stealthily tasting one followed by another then a third and a fourth, until Fatma bursts out laughing:
"Slow down, Chief Engineer. Slow down, dear. Lunch will be ready in five minutes."
"Fatma, how can you explain the fact that you are the only one of us three to inherit mother's cooking talent, despite the fact that you are the slimmest, and as far as I know the least of us to enjoy a good meal?"
A statement I utter with my mouth full, and my hands busy stealing even more rolls of vine leaves. My only intention was to prolong the conversation so as to grab some extra rolls, but the bitterness of Fatma's response takes me by surprise:
"One of you was blessed with all the beauty, the other landed all the brains, and frankly, luck and success, so why do you grudge me my modest gift of cooking what I don't even enjoy eating?"
Shoosho lets out a short nervous laugh, which reminds me that she has not uttered a word since morning. With a confused mind and a full mouth, I stand there, simply unable to say anything.
After a quick lunch punctuated by an interrupted, sometimes unintelligible, conversation, Momtaz sets off to the workshop. Then he heads for his young palm trees, barely showing their tops from the ditches they are planted in. He carries a wooden plank in one hand and a huge hammer in the other. Around the arm carrying the hammer he wears a roll of steel wire like an oversized bracelet. Intentionally, he passes in front of the terrace where we are leisurely sipping tea, and looks at us with apparent disinterest, adding, without actually addressing us:
"The broads, the broads,
the broads, the broads..."
"Would you like a cup of tea?" I offer him out of habit.
Fatma nods slowly. A vague grimace on her full lips is partly camouflaged by the thick layer of violet lipstick. With shifting eyes, she follows her husband's pronounced silhouette, until it disappears amidst his palm trees.
"Let him be," she says, "over here he is an overgrown child playing in the sand and building castles. He forgets himself here. He forgets everything."
I hardly miss the sarcasm in her words, but I don't really care to pursue the matter. My eyes roam the sea of sand and palms until they focus on the point where Momtaz has disappeared.
I peek at Fatma with the corner of my eye. Her gaze is also fixed on Momtaz's vanishing point, as if his absence added a certain appeal to an existence that fails to generate the least interest.
"What then is the job of the Lady of the farm, or to put it better Mrs. Fellah?"
A provocative question on my part, but her extreme idleness irritates me.
"It's no business of mine."
A predictable answer, Fatma. Everything you ever said was predictable, my dear. You're dull, to put it simply.
"He should be thankful that I accept to waste my days in this dump, while my friends enjoy their time at the club, in the company of civilized people."
After an uneasy silence, Fatma picks up a magazine that was lying on the table. Idly, she turns the pages, looking only at the pictures. But that's okay, the things they write in those magazines induce stupidity and you, my dear Fatma, already have your fill of that.
As for Shoosho, she is still playing the role of Rodin's 'The Thinker' and quite well too, except her palm is on her right cheek, instead of under the chin. An unconscious attempt, perhaps, to hide her bruise. This bruise business sends a chill through my body. A subject I avoid, if I can. It irritates me. I shout in her face 'You're crazy!' She answers meekly: 'Perhaps. But what about the children?' Then I always end up venting my anger on poor Shoosho. Definitely a matter that is best left alone.
Fatma closes her magazine in boredom. I wait for her to put it down. I could do with a dose of its gossip myself. Before letting go of the magazine, the picture at the back of its cover attracts her attention. She takes her time studying it. I'm growing a little impatient. Her gaze is lost in the picture. What is it, I wonder that has grasped her attention to this extent?
I come closer to Fatma, until I find myself sitting on the edge of her bamboo chair. The page attracting all this attention is merely a cigarette advertisement. The chair is unstable under me, so I lean on Fatma's shoulder for support.
"Hey girls, let me join in."
A huskiness in Shoosho's voice. She is making an effort to sound youthful. I had completely forgotten Shoosho was next to us.
"What's the matter with you girls? It's just another ad. Obviously nothing worth all this attention. None of us even smokes." Words that pass through my mind, but my eyes are still glued to the photograph.
"Where in the world is this beach?" Asks Shoosho eagerly. "I'll jump on the first boat going there."
"It must be an island in the Caribbean," whispers Fatma as if to herself, " look how clear the water is, and the soft white sand and coconut palms almost reaching up to the ocean. Sometimes, I find it hard to believe that such beautiful spots actually exist in the same world that I live in."
"Even if you found the beach, where would you get a guy like that?" Notes Shoosho softly, "look at those biceps, and the blue eyes so confident and tender. There's a man worthy of a woman's love, a man worth dying for."
"What's all this talk, girls? Have you forgotten that our men are the handsomest money can buy?" I interrupt slyly, "Momtaz with his enormous belly, Mostafa with his shiny bald head and the Lady's husband whose name will never cross my lips."
Shoosho is silent, but Fatma giggles, adding:
"Besides, such a man would never pay attention to any of us ugly ducklings. Look at the gorgeous creature holding his hand, and her eyes, romantic yet bold. She was definitely not raised in the house of Ismail Elkattan, the respectable under secretary. Nor was she taught the fundamentals of proper feminine behavior by Mother, God rest her soul, who was known as the pilgrim although she has never visited the House of God or even left our neighborhood."
Fatma stops for a moment. Her eyes lose their previous concentration on the picture. Perhaps memory has taken her back to our late mother but she quickly takes a hold of herself. She turns back to the girl in the ad as if seeing her for the first time:
"Look at her dress wet with the ocean spray, pressed against her thighs by the island breeze, revealing her glorious figure. Which one of us would dare behave that way?"
Fatma looks at me, then at Shoosho. Maybe she is looking for an answer to her question in our faces. She soon loses hope and resumes:
"Besides, what do you expect to happen in the next shot? A girl bursting with beauty and desire. A man whose heart and soul have been captivated by her charm. The entire beach is only theirs. The waves are playing a wild sensuous tune, just for them. The sand, underneath their feet, spreads into a boundless bed, gushing with tenderness and warmth, and the youthful ocean breeze caresses their bodies, arousing their emotions and lighting their fire."
Shoosho's question stops short. Her voice gets stuck in her throat, perhaps by a succession of queries that crop up at the same time. No sooner does she starts uttering one, than the other closely catches up. Only a few of her queries manage to escape:
"Just Like that, in the open...?"
"Wouldn't she worry that someone might see her...?"
"Doesn't it scare her that a crab could bite her in the behind...?"
We all join in one big laugh. Then Shoosho continues:
"She has no shame. No doubt about it."
Our giggles tear through the farm, shaking the endless rows of palms, the frail watermelon bushes, Momtaz's workshop full of nails and scrap metal, the abandoned pigeon-house, the watchman's three wretched dogs, Momtaz's Lada parked outside the cottage, and Momtaz himself, singing in the middle of the sands. And we don't stop laughing until all three of us are on the floor with tears running down our cheeks...
Before we realize what has hit us, Momtaz has stopped the car by the side of the road.
Thank God we're safe. But what has happened?
Momtaz leans on the steering wheel. A long lock of hair from the side of his head, which he usually spreads carefully across his scalp, hangs to one side revealing his baldness. Shoosho, awakened from her rosy dreams by the panic, is sobbing, silently. As for Fatma, her hands are busy in a fruitless attempt at adjusting her hair. How cold you are.
"Is everyone all right?" I need to set my mind at ease.
"Yes, thank God." Answers Fatma, while Shoosho wipes her tears and wonders:
"An ominous day right from the start," whispers Momtaz after his voice regains its outward calm.
Then he goes out of the car, turns to the its right side, and stands with his hands to his waist. It is difficult to discern his features in the reddish rays of the setting sun. He nods then gets back inside he car.
"We've blown a tire."
I am not sure whether he means to inform us or if he is just talking to himself. He moves the stick shift into gear then goes out again. He opens the boot, then stops outside Fatma's window.
She rolls down the glass. Her dyed blond hair flies in a crazy dance with the incoming draught. I catch myself envying her for the first time in my life. In the past, I used to scorn women who dyed their hair --let alone those who chose Fatma's fake imported blond-- but suddenly, it occurs to me that Fatma has been spared, thanks to her dyed hair, from my present suffering. Strange. Could it be that my principles are eroding with every new white hair that appears on my head?
Momtaz puts the car keys in Fatma's palm:
"Hold on to them, we wouldn't want to lose them in the sand."
He turns his back to us and sets off towards the desert.
"What's happening? Is the man going to abandon us three damsels in distress in the middle of the desert? Will he leave us at the mercy of the monsters and the bandits?" As if Fatma's sarcastic tone held a real worry.
"Bandits. Where? How welcome they are to our virtue. At least we would get to meet some real men for a change. Just point to where those bandits are hiding. I'll kidnap them myself."
Shoosho's melodious childish voice gives way to her naive naughty laughter, for the first time in ages. As if the near accident's shock had set her free from the past seven years' depression.
A broad smile fills my heart. How I longed to hear that laughter. Fatma, on the other hand, is cackling in a rather exaggerated manner, which leaves me uneasy.
Actually, Fatma has been like this all day. I have tried hard to forget her weird comment, but how can I ignore the fact that Fatma is the only one of us not to have borne any children. As if this were a matter we can be held responsible for. As if I, personally, were at fault for her biological shortcomings. An irrational sense of guilt, which is my only inheritance from Mother. An indefatigable sensation, ceaselessly buzzing in my head, which knows no sleep at night.
"What's the matter, Fatma?"
My question surprises her.
"There is more to it than your usual hatred of the farm," intervenes Shoosho. " Admit it."
"On the contrary. You may find it hard to believe, but I have become more attached to the farm than even Momtaz. I swear it. It's the truth. I'm still convinced, though, that it'll bring us nothing but ruin, but the farm has become a major part of my life. But you're right, anyway. It's more than just the farm."
Fatma stops. Her eyes search for Momtaz who has walked to the top of a sand dune a hundred meters away. She rolls down her window.
"Roll up your windows. The desert wind carries sound farther than you think."
Her features are strained. The words flow freely. All along, her self-control was just hanging by a straw. Now it has collapsed, and she reveals what no eye should have seen and no ear should have heard. All morning she must have been waiting for a chance to pour her feelings out, but courage failed her, while each of us floated in her own universe, oblivious to her pleading looks and silent cries for help.
"His Royal Highness is having an affair."
"The son of a bitch!" Retorts Shoosho with instant impetuosity.
I'm not sure why Momtaz's form, arrogantly facing the endless ocean that is the desert, urinating into its horizon, and perhaps singing faintly: "The broads, the broads," reminds me of the girl in the advertisement who makes love to her man on a sandy beach by the ocean.
Maybe that is because both of them generate in me such a sweeping incomprehensible anger.
On my first visit to the farm, I eagerly asked Momtaz about the profits it brought him. In evident embarrassment, he explained that the project was still in its initial stages and that these things do not happen overnight. I went on in a senseless persistence:
"So when exactly will the project become profitable?"
"Well, not for a while."
I pressed even further. He says Allah will improve matters. He says all depends on the will of Allah. He fidgets. He grumbles. He digs his boots in the sand, but all in vain. I am adamant for a precise answer. Unyielding, I fire my questions like cruise missiles. Finally cornered, he submits:
"I don't know. It might take a hundred years, it might take five hundred. I just don't know."
Never have I seen Momtaz as disheartened as he was that day. I believe it was the last time I managed a serious conversation with him.
"Are you sure?" I ask Fatma in an attempt to deal rationally with the issue.
"I'm afraid so."
"How did you find out?"
Fatma chuckles nervously:
"Well, some women, the bright ones, discover these things by intuition. Others, the lucky ones, find out by mere coincidence. As for me, I found out that my husband is cheating on me through sheer stupidity."
She laughs again. Shoosho joins her this time, but only until the look on my face reminds her that this is no laughing matter.
"The mistress told me herself."
"What are you saying?"
"Just as I tell you. One day, the phone rang. I had just come back from work and was busy preparing lunch for Momtaz. You know how he hates not to find his food ready when he returns from the bank..."
"That's how they all are. Care about nothing but their bellies," interrupts Shoosho.
"Anyway. The phone rings and this woman explains how she and Moozo have been having an affair for over a year, and that their love is the purest and most intimate ever known to humanity. Then, she has the nerve to tell me that Moozo has only found happiness with her."
"Moozo?" Shoosho interrupts angrily. "The bitch!"
"I thought at first that it was just a bad joke, a prank like the kids play these days. I was about to hang up when she started telling intimate details only known to Momtaz and myself. When she realized that she had me, she burst out laughing and added that I should understand that Moozo keeps nothing from her."
"Moozo, the son of a bitch," interrupts Shoosho again.
"Anyway, I found out that Mr. Moozo has been having an affair with the lady for over two years, and I, in my sheer stupidity..."
"The sons of bitches," interrupts Shoosho for the tenth time. I turn to her and try to throw some light on the matter:
"My dear Shoosho, even when people choose to utter obscenities, it is still advisable to have some kind of variety, and thankfully the Arabic vocabulary is abundant in such words."
Shoosho is about to say something. The first syllables are about to take shape on her lips, but before the words are set free she screams in panic. A short shrill cry that soon freezes in her heart. To my right, I spot Momtaz silently watching us through the glass window.
"Lock your doors. Quick." Shoosho whispers anxiously. Spontaneously, I obey. Fatma locks Momtaz's door as well as her own.
"What's the matter with you, Shoosho?"
Her face, drained of color, is convoluted as if she had seen death with her own eyes. Her face seems to have grown smaller as the bruise on her cheek has broadened until it almost covers its right side. She bites her lip and lowers her eyes to avoid our scrutinizing stares. She finds nothing to say.
"Don't be frightened, silly. It's only Momtaz, not what's his name. In spite of being scum, I'm sure he's not capable of acting in an uncivilized way."
No sooner has Fatma spoken than signs of doubt show on her face. As if her words instead of reassuring Shoosho had awakened hidden fears in her own heart.
Momtaz taps on the window. We had forgotten, for a moment, his presence. A look of astonishment is on his face. No. An expression of imbecility, to be more precise.
"The Ladies may wish to step out of the car for a moment while I change the tire... That is, of course, if it doesn't inconvenience the Ladies in any way."
For some reason, I have never made up my mind all these years, whether to consider Momtaz a villain or a comedian. That may partly be because his facial expressions never coincide with what the situation calls for; smiles that reveal no happiness and singing devoid of emotion. As if he were embarrassed by the whole messy business that is his life.
"No. No, don't open. Please, I beg you..." pleads Shoosho, faintly.
"Don't be frightened, kitten." I take her in my arms like I used to when she was the most beautiful and delicate child in the world.
"Just get on with it, Momtaz. Get on with it, man." Fatma impatiently gestures to Momtaz as she does to the little peddlers who sell lemons and boxes of tissue paper in traffic lights.
Momtaz seems to lose hope of reasoning with us. He walks away talking loudly, but as usual to no one in particular:
"What punishment does the poor jack deserve to have to lift these elephants?"
It crosses my mind that the only one who fits this description is Shoosho. How treacherous the world can be.
Shoosho remains in my arms for a few silent minutes. My side of the car starts rising. Shoosho looks up at Fatma and myself from her low side of the car. We seem like giants to her. As if time has taken her back to being a happy little pampered child again.
She looks towards us but her eyes are drifting in distant space. Who can tell what is going on inside her head or where her imagination has taken her?
We can hear Momtaz chanting his cheerful yet melancholic song:
"The broads, the broads,
the broads, the broads...."
In silence, we sit, inclined to one side. Surrounded. Imprisoned. Awaiting the car to return to its horizontal state. It seems like Momtaz's senseless song has raised the car and will just as well bring it down.
"Well, Fatma, what did you do when you found out?" Asks Shoosho suddenly, as if the conversation had not been interrupted.
"Oh! I've thought about it a lot. I pictured myself catching them red-handed and just looking them over with disdain. I elaborated fiendish schemes in which they end up drugged and tied up, and I'm free to torture them in ways only I can devise. I dreamed up all sorts of plans, but when it was time to act, I did nothing."
Shoosho does not offer any reaction. there is sadness in her eyes. As for me, well frankly, I am confused by Fatma's story.
"But Fatma, all this doesn't make sense. Why would your husband's lover phone you just to let you know what's going on between them?"
Fatma returns my perplexed look with one that is even more confused. A sense of confusion engulfs the car. Each of us ponders on the unexplained events in her life. To our surprise, Shoosho's voice is clear and self-assured:
"Little do we understand what's happening to us. We can't believe what people are doing to themselves and to us. We get confused for a while, then we retreat into our shells, we don't even have the courage to complain..."
With every one of Shoosho's deliberately spoken words she rises. Her features fade in the shadows as if her bruise has spread to cover all her face. Then the car is back to its horizontal state, and darkness claims its postponed control over the desert and us.
Momtaz's face shows up in the dark at the driver's window. He sticks his nose on the glass. An irregular circle of vapor spreads until it hides his features. Momtaz seems like a ghost lost in the desert.
"We are truly phantoms. We live in a world long gone never to return. We do not understand or accept the world we were born into. Poor souls. Lost in time and blinded by illusions."
Shoosho's words pick up the rhythm of Momtaz's nervous tapping on the window, as if the two of them, each in their own way, were playing a common tune, composed by their agony. Momtaz cries out at the top of his voice, still singing to the same tune:
"Unlock the door, you crazy women!"
Nobody moves. It occurs to no one to respond to him. Shoosho picks up where she has left, in a clear rhythmic voice:
"They beat us up, humiliate us, yet we still believe it's our own fault... That's the way we were brought up. That's the way we shall die."
"Unlock the door or I'll break the damn window."
His words go unheeded. He picks up a rock and lifts it in the air, only to discover that he cannot bring himself to smash the glass. Quivering in anger, he dashes around the car, and still holding the rock above his head, he screams:
"The broads, the broads..."
Instinctively Shoosho chants:
"The fox whirls, and whirls..."
Unconsciously, I join in, together with Fatma:
"And his tail has seven twirls."
The anger grows. Momtaz's rotations around the car gather speed, while our chant grows louder.
"The fox whirls, and whirls...
and his tail has seven twirls."
The rage spreads in waves. I realize that Momtaz is about to smash the glass and pounce on us, yet Strangely enough, the prospect does not scare me any more. On the contrary, I find myself looking forward to the confrontation. Yearning for him to pounce on us, and us on him.
Our fury develops to a maddening rhythm. Breaking free of my control, the cries escape my throat:
"Moozo whirls, and whirls...
his tail has seven twirls."
The outburst lasts for a period of time, my mind cannot determine. It might have taken several seconds; it might have been hours.
Until, for no particular reason, I find myself feeling sorry for Momtaz, for Fatma and for Shoosho. I even feel sorry for Shoosho's husband, whose name will never cross my lips until the day I die. My pity for each of them has its reasons. But above all I grieve for myself, with no good cause, at least none I can announce to the world. They all have their excuses while I have none.
"Now stop fooling around girls."
Everything comes to a standstill. A simple sentence that I uttered, unaware of its magical effect. Out of breath, the three of us suddenly look at one another, in silence and bewilderment.
Everything goes back to normal. The door is unlocked. Momtaz holds the steering wheel. The car speeds towards Cairo and silence sets in, engulfing all... But the image of that girl in the ad, so beautiful and so bold, passionately making love to her man on the ocean beach,will just not leave me alone.