My Blessed Friend
Your hairy olive hand in mine. You're like a bear, Mahmoud. You've had hairy hands since you were ten. They've always been skinny hands, girly, but for their furriness. They all made fun of you up until you were the first to grow a beard. For a little while, you thought you were the greatest thing ever, with your wispy peach fuzz.
A Nordic woman holding a digital camera smaller than a pack of pack of cigarettes stares down at you from a tall billboard. She's beautiful. Her teeth are so white, and so visible, and you have no feeling for any of it. You don't know what world she lives in.
You wish you could take off that suit. Your pores drip salt water. The settlers on the beach look so comfortable, running around, playing volleyball in their swim trunks and bikinis, perfectly comfortable in their own skin. Their bouncing light hair never catches up to the speed of their bodies. If you could even just take off the jacket, just the oppressive, heavy jacket, you'd feel like a feather, but it is your weight. Don't be ashamed of your weight.
You could have stayed at home today. You could have bought some new and different teas, some nice mint nargeela. You could have swept up the apartment, and hung some photographs and some of your own paintings on the walls. You just finished your second painting, a green background with a splash of blue and no attempt at dimension or perspective, but yours nonetheless, and beautiful just the same. You could have even framed it. Things wouldn't have been so bad.
You bite your nails now. You've always been a cliché nail-biter, say you do it compulsively, all the time, but you don't. You do it when you're scared, I know it, and you're scared every day, at some time or another. Every day I see you, your nails are freshly bitten to pink nubs. You've always just been a little punk. No one listens to a punk. The neighborhood punching bag. The dumber brother. Scared to play goalie after that time Samir blasted you in the face with that shot that bounced straight into the air, back onto your bleeding nose and into the goal.
I remember when you were twenty years old and you said you were thinking about opening a shop to compete with Samir's, and it was a riot, Mahmoud. You're not a worker, not like him. Samir would stay in business all day and night if he could justify the electricity bill, because that's what you have to do sometimes. You're not like him. You're lazy.
That same year, you were smoking hashish on the roof with Jamal and Samir. The yellow glare of the street-lights blocking your view of the stars, you looked out over a town of twenty foot tall, flat-roofed buildings and olive trees. They were talking about blood pressure and red wine, and you said that you weren't afraid to die. You are fearless when you talk, because you think you are without audience, without anyone to either understand or criticize you. Jamal and Samir were workers, survivors. You weren't of this world. You were beyond reason, but you were wrong, Mahmoud. You are man.
I didn't say anything when you asked me this morning. There needn't ever be words. As you stood there crying I saw you shaking pepper onto your lamb until it looked covered in ash, and heard you coughing like a cancer patient like you've always done at the start of every morning since you were a baby, and I knew just where you had been and just how you got to staring out your window looking for me.
You had just woken up. I know you, Mahmoud. You fell asleep in the tan chair that spills yellow stuffing out the back while listening to your father's radio, in your day clothes, shoes untied but still on your feet. You woke up way too early, around five, and then had four hours, and it was too much time. You paced around, started to brew coffee but walked away, leaving the water to boil and steam away.
You thought about Aisha and her brown eyes and her brown hair. You thought about yesterday under the olive tree and the way she pursed her lips when she feigned interest in your stories, and those eyes, those shiny, little almonds that you love, bearing through to the back of your brain when she asked you, "Where are we going?"
You decided to smoke some hashish to calm down because that's your solution to anything nerve-racking. For a second, it made you feel so much better to taste the rough smoke in your throat, and you thought that maybe after you made that cup of coffee you'd feel okay, everything would be okay, and that's what made it all fall to pieces.
You looked in the mirror and ran your hands through your beard and saw the burn mark on your neck from the time Jamal flicked a cigarette that caught inside your shirt. You thought about your burning skin. You decided that you really did have your mother's ears and thought about her wrinkled brown cheeks and the green eyes right above them.
In a panic, you hopped out of the chair and walked the ten steps to the window, knowing I'd be awake. Never once have your revelations been able to wait just a few more hours, just until the sky turned pink.
You're like asthma, Mahmoud. I wasn't in the mood to hear any of it. I was entirely ready to tell you this time that it had become tiresome, that you shouldn't even tell me your business, because at five in the morning, even I truly don't care.
From a distance, I could only see the round outline of your head. I wanted to slap you this time, but already your whole face was striped with tears. They ran all the way down your neck, and I knew that you had tried to stop them, and you gave up, because you knew that I would understand that there were too many.
"Will you come with me?" you asked, hopelessly swearing to yourself that I would say no this time, because this time you had gone too far, and because no one ever listens.
And then I said nothing.
The Nordic woman on the billboard is still smiling at you, and you bury your eyes into the sand by your feet, but you must smile. The seal of your lips barely breaks, and the breeze blows sand into face, but you make the effort, just in case that camera is on.
Smoke your last cigarette. Walk to the volleyball net and take your time. Breathe. Wave back at the settlers. Think about your mother's green eyes, your father's radio, Samir and the lawn chair on his roof. Think about Jamal and his pockets full of chocolates. Think about Aisha. They love you.
The sand creeps into your shoes, but ignore it. You can cry, but you must smile. I am still holding your hand. Do you feel it? Have no doubt that it's there. Don't tell me what I already know. I've heard it all and know it all, I know, but we won't go back now, and you won't be alone. We are here. Don't worry about the sweat on your hand. I'll share it with you. Forget about the suit, the heat, the camera. Remember my hand. Forget about the settlers. Here, there is only us. We. And Mahmoud, we matter. There, you feel it. Now, squeeze. You are indestructible.
About the author:
John McKnight is currently a student in the New School's Fiction MFA program. He is working on a novel length piece and lives in New York City.