The initial impression, a dating article says, is the most important. Brush your teeth, iron your shirt, shine your shoes before your first date. During the encounter, look at her posture. Is she showing her armpits to you? It indicates that she wants to be vulnerable, she wants to submit. Don’t forget to look at her lips – is she licking them? It’s a sign that she’s ready to shorten the distance. Follow the three dates rule and at the third meeting leap and kiss her, disarming with passion. Or have sex. However, keep in mind that there is no correlation between the number of dates before the first sex and the number of months or years you two will stay together…
Larissa, in a crumpled, cranberried baby-doll t-shirt, bites her upper lip, fingers a glossy device. Scrolls and glides on the smooth and spacious Citylink bus. So different from the one from Blanchardstown. That one sped up, freed itself from any restraints – and the tree branches slapped its hard face. Screeching, scraping, tumbling across its roof, causing as much damage as possible. Like a jilted lover. Just like Bashir.
This one is a smooth operator that glides towards Galway. Towards its gulls and the Claddagh. Larissa touches her tablet, strokes its screen with an e-mail:
“I’ll take you to the prom in Salthill. Would you fancy a swim? We’ll dip our feet in the water, but you have to mind the jellyfish. The last time I splashed near the shore, a jellyfish bit me. Two young women stopped to help me and inspected the bite, inviting me to their caravan to sprinkle some vinegar – like I’m a dish! I’ll show you the bite once we meet. There is still a mark on my thigh. And we can slow dance – since you wrote it was your dream to slow dance with a woman.”
Larissa’s white shirt is folded compactly, silk petals of sleeves on its chest. Her graphite pants packed in a guitar case are straight and narrow like a schoolgirl’s pencils. She plans to dress up half an hour before the bus arrives. She gets up from her seat, shoe-horns herself into the tiny toilet, squeezing out some toothpaste. With cedar perfume from L’Occitane she removes the weariness of the long bus ride and the long list of past disappointments.
She is travelling distances to meet her match and to melt.
Her date wrote to her, “I keep my body in good shape: a Metafit class at 7, Fitboxing at 9, Zumba at 5 in the evening,” and Larissa experiences a tingling sensation thinking of bodies.
The common words of the email sound foreign, uttered by a person with a special far-sighted vision, a newcomer from a faraway land. The land with gold and sand, with massive minarets and mint tea, with women ripened for love, who used to cover their denim dreams under a drab.
The bus glides towards Galway past the pastures, past Larissa’s past with paternalistic Bashir for whom their union was mostly a social function, to her new future. The future of feelings and a belief that something bigger will take place in Galway.
“She… felt suddenly the hunger of the land she lived in. The need – chosen by many people – to be loved.”
(Echoing the words of a Ballinasloe writer, once famous but who then disappeared into a rainy oblivion of gypsy shacks and postcards from the former Soviet Bloc.)
His pages open up, spread themselves on both sides of the bus.
Larissa reads Ireland as an open book.
Unknown text on green rectangular signs. Unfamiliar sheep grazing grass. Gliding to Galway, Larissa folds and unfolds a small piece of paper – her miniature wings. On it, `HELP ME.`
She touches the paper words with her eager lips, “If I find love in Ireland, I will not come back to Bashir.”
Larissa’s intense face, with immensely huge eyes and razor-cut hair, contrasts with the yellow square of paper with naïve, round handwriting.
Bashir is Larissa’s estranged husband from Syria. His grocery store in Gothenburg is called Red October. Pieces of feta in foetal positions swim in voluminous plastic trays. A cheerful cashier with slick black hair once showed them an Instagram picture from a San Fran deli with a tag “Lesbian Feta. Made on the Greek island of Lesbos. The best feta we’ve ever had. Eat it tonight.” Bashir’s stoney face immediately changed. He didn’t find it all funny.
Talcum dust on his cans of tahini. Nuts priced like gold. Shelves looking like a war-torn warehouse. Olives in ribbed cans with metal edges reminiscent of military ammunition. Walls the colour of cement, Bashir’s clothes the colour of khaki. “Habibi,” – were Bashir’s words when Larissa would step in. He’d say “habibi” and fish some feta out of a plastic tray for a customer.
When they fished a stillborn out of Larissa, Bashir was tending to sage tea capsules, to third-world okra, to vine leaves sealed in round coffins of metal. Not to her. Larissa simply collected some things and left, hearing the call of the wild, the call of a recruiter from Google in Dublin.
The bus dips its nose into a depot. Larissa is already fresh and fragrant, with petal sleeves, with blooming lips, her heart watered by desire. A woman with hair the color of copper waits for her outside. The woman has a devilish grin and Middle-Eastern eyes like two soft, dark Iranian dates. Her hair stand up like a coil, like springy antennas.
“What cuisine do you fancy?”
“We could pick up food and prepare something at home,” Larissa imagines how the sun licks their plates. A well-lit room. The abundance of palatal pleasures. The ease of pairing the drinks with the first and second courses. The pairing, the matching, the melting, the coupling. Good wine and good olive oil making the beginning of the relationship smooth.
“Would you prefer balila or kofta?” – Neila asks and Larissa’s limbs fill up with warmth. She is that Middle Eastern bread that lies on its back in the oven. Breathing through all her pores. Opening up. But the promise of a slow dance makes her legs tremble.
As they walk through the market, they pick basil, garlic and carrots, a tricolor of hope. Larissa’s eyes follow Neila’s painted lips. The latter catches her. Larissa asks Lebanese-born Neila to say something in her own language.
“Whatever you say is so sensual.”
“Yes, Arabic is me.”
Larissa stands at the kitchen counter, Neila is undressing courgettes from their cellophane gowns. Larissa asks her about her past. Where does she come from, where is she going, if she favours affairs or a long-term relationship. Is she inter-dependent or co-dependent? Would she like to “merge” or be self-sufficient? (She poses questions from the online dating advice).
“I was the man of the house,” Neila says and touches her lip with her little finger. Then touches basil. Lips and basil stir a craving in her.
“There was the Lebanon War… do you know about the war?”
“I’ve no idea,” Larissa stiffens. She forbids herself to mention Bashir (whose uncles participated in this war on the opposite side) or the invisible divide between her and her estranged husband, even before the stillbirth… Her marital status should not affect the slow dance!
“Help me!” she silently addresses somebody above the ceiling. The yellow paper unfolds its wings. The words are written into the wind, I came to Ireland to love and be loved…
Neila continues, “I grew up during the war. When the bombs started falling, I gathered my younger siblings and we all ran to a bomb shelter.”
Larissa minimizes Bashir in her mind, changes him into a black dot. His strong fists like two round turnips dissolve. She takes a carrot. Peels its skin, unveiling its orangey texture and its springy demeanour. When Larissa is smoothing the carrot with her finger, removing the cuticles of brownish skin, she senses Neila’s nipples perk up under her orange dress.
Neila says, “I grew up during the war. One day we went to a cinema. It was totally empty. A projectionist asked, ‘You really want to watch a movie, don’t you hear the bombs?’ And we answered, “Yes we do, but we’re tired of hiding and running away, we want to live!”
Larissa times the sequence of events. At 5 Neila will put the dish in the oven. At 6 they’ll start eating. At 7 she’ll take the guitar from its case and sing “Bésame Mucho.” A slow dance could ensue from 7.30 to at least 8pm. With luck, she’ll miss the last bus back to Dublin. When Larissa tries to imagine what will happen at 8, her heart starts beating fast, accompanied by the soft percussion of Neila’s deep voice.
“Once we went to a beach, a sandy beach like the one in Salthill I’ll show you tomorrow morning. A woman approached us and asked how we ended up there. By bike, we told her. She pointed to the sea and asked if we saw bombs. When we looked closer, we saw fragments in the water here and there. But we still wanted to sunbathe, because we were young and wanted to live!”
Larissa comes closer, intending to reach Neila’s hand, but instead only finds the courage to touch Neila’s dress. “This is so lovely. Is it from Lebanon?” They both stand near the sink with food in their hands (Larissa with a carrot, Neila with a large bag of spices). The body heat rises, their hips touch.
“This dress! I wore a very similar one during one summer… to the demonstration.”
The sun settles down. There is a noise by the window. Neila shrugs, “Travellers! They throw garbage in my backyard. I got used to it. The war made me immune to any disasters.”
She pulls down the curtain. Immediately the room is daringly dark. Neila lights a candle, asks Larissa to sit on the sofa next to her, forgets about the kofta. Larissa is preoccupied with her timing, “Since we skipped dinner, the next step should be “Bésame Mucho” and “Je t’aime” at 6. These romantic songs will naturally lead to a slow dance, lasting until at least 7:30, making sure I miss the last bus. But didn’t she say she’d take me to Salthill tomorrow?”
“What are you thinking about?” Neila sits next to her on the couch and touches her hand. Her breast is heaving so heavily that Larissa empathizes with the air reaching her lungs. She feels that she is this air. Neila strokes her hand. Her voice gets stronger.
“It was a nice summer day. A crowd gathered at the square. On the right there was a large bridge. On the left – a narrow one, almost hidden. I didn’t pay any attention to it. The sun. Students with flags. Feeling of freedom. Out of nowhere people in uniforms came and started shooting straight into the crowd. We couldn’t get away, there were too many of us, nobody expected this to happen. Sandals, solidarity, summer, a beautiful life – and suddenly bullets. One whizzed over my ear. The crowd rushed to the wide bridge for an easy escape. I knew I had to run to the smallest one, which was hidden… The militia started shooting towards the large bridge, straight into the people. Bodies were falling. But nobody was hit on our narrow bridge.”
Larissa’s head is spinning. She feels a faint smell of Neila’s skin under her orangey dress. Separate words morph into one long and high-strung line; English words with Arabic inflections; simple words with Neila’s distinct and careful uttering. Light-headed, Larissa continues to hear the story:
“When we lived on Mount Lebanon, our house was between two fighting forces. On the right there were Syrians and on the left – Israelis. We had to leave abruptly, to save ourselves. My mom hid a pistol in a baby carriage to protect us, and, with some belongings, we sped down a hill.
‘Slipping, sliding stealthily down, down… driven by the need to escape….”
Suddenly Larissa sees Neila naked, wrapped only in words. More and more see-through words. She grasps “baby carriage,” “summer dress,” “narrow bridge” but they are translucent as dragonfly’s wings and leave no trace on her fingers.
Neila’s childhood, hopes, past, torso are very warm.
Gathering courage, Larissa descends a grassy hill. A candle light smoothens the hair. It reminds her of golden fur. Mons pubis, a fuzzy compound. The gore and the glory of Mount Lebanon.
On the right there are Syrians, on the left Israelis.
Between the folds, inside, is pristinely white flesh.
A sculptured peak of pale wax.
Thick tender petals.
The tongue glides over them, travels through whorls, performs a curly dance.
It goes up and then down.
Down and then slowly up.
While we are descending the mountain.
While we are running away.
On the right, there are Israelis, death and destruction.
On the left there are Syrian militants with their rifles.
And in the middle, in a dark and deep well, between the folds, there is a pulsing sculptured peak.
The war and the bombs.
Neila’s voice reaches out. Her body is convulsing. She screams.
When the bombs fall into the sea, the sea stays impeccably beautiful, calm.
The lips, the whorls, the pearly white petals.
The soldiers chase civilians; the salty sand sticks to heavy ammo and sweaty skin.
The bombs drop here and there.
But we want to live.