By Joyce Polance
As we thread through narrow alleys framed by walls without windows, their starkness interrupted by decrepit stalls hawking rotting vegetables and camel heads buzzing with flies, the aura of Death for Sale gradually gives way to alluring shops amid voluptuous Moorish arches, their naked curves cloaked in blindingly-intricate tile patterns. Crowding around us, denim-clad boys relentlessly bite at our heels for money: Guide? Need a guide? I take you to Big Square! The first couple of days, I was unnerved by their persistence; now I shake them off as easily as I do the feral cats whose plaintive mews – along with the shouting street vendors and the motorbikes roaring over the cobblestones – form the soundtrack of the medina.
“How many camels for this woman?” From nowhere, a man in a jibal drapes his arm over Larisa’s shoulders, pulling her into his souk where the apprentice immediately begins unfurling thick wool blankets as if we’re visiting royalty instead of four American tourists. Did Larisa even make eye contact with him, or is it just this thing she has?
This scene has repeated itself so often it’s become as intrinsic a part of Morocco as the Sahara, our daily protocol along with tagine and the ubiquitous mint tea. Larisa, in fluent and flirtatious French, expertly disentangles herself from the man’s amorous grasp and full-on sales pitch. Nonetheless, it’s as if richly-dyed filaments of silk – turmeric and indigo – have unraveled from sumptuous pillows, joining Larisa and the salesman’s wrists together as a symbol of the deep understanding they have already formed. I half-expect him to kneel and propose. Even as she demurs, unwinding the thread as we back out of the shop, the salesman grasps it tightly as if it’s a lifeline, more despondent over the departure of Larisa than the departure of our wallets.
As long as I can ignore the thin needles of jealousy jabbing into my veins, I find it all amusing. To Berber men though, I appear invisible. “Why do you care?” was John’s response when, last night, toothbrush in hand, mouth foaming rabidly with whitening paste, I pestered him about what it is I lack. “Do you actually want them to be interested in you?”
“No, of course not. I brought conservative clothes; I don’t want to be hassled.” Liar. I still
want to be noticed, thought of as beautiful – only not in a way that feels threatening. “But what is it?” I insist.
“I don’t know, Em. What do you want me to tell you? She’s outgoing, she’s maternal; maybe
it’s something to do with how women are repressed here; she clearly isn’t. Maybe it’s her huge boobs. You know I love her, but she’s not really my type.”
“Well, I think she’s beautiful.”
“Then it seems you have your answer.”
“Hold my hand, Danny” Larisa says, sliding her palm into her boyfriend’s as if he’d protect her from the hordes of unwanted advances. Walking behind them, I try to picture her naked beneath the tapering gray pants and peasant blouse. Really? That washboard ass sets all these men afire?
Embarrassed at my thoughts, at their taking me away from the spectacle around me, I drag my focus back to the crowded plaza, the Jemaa el-Fnaa (Big Square!) teeming with beggars and henna painters, dancing boys and medicine men. Dotted among the redolent food stalls, the day’s snake-charmers have been replaced by clusters of lantern-sellers, their flickering lights fragmenting the night into galaxies of sheer magical wonder.
Larisa and I sip coffee on the roof deck of our riad, gazing at the rosy walls of Marrakech aglow in the mid-afternoon sun; only the white satellite dishes breaking the rhythms of ancient
rooftops betray the presence of modernity. “Stay there” she says, snapping a photo of me.
“Perfect, now let me just post it to Facebook.” Acknowledging her social media compulsion, she grins an I know I’m hopeless smile; her brown eyes lined with dramatic black pencil sparkle over stunningly high cheekbones, incongruous in that round face framed by a shiny black bob – like a Russian doll painted with an exotic spice blend: saffron, cumin, ras el hanout.
Although I shake my head as if I’m benevolently surrendering to her “excesses,” I’m exhilarated by the warmth between us, that easy chemistry apparent since we first met a couple of years ago, when I’d taken a class on Crime and Punishment she was teaching. Within a few weeks, I was waiting for her after class; we’d walk together to the bus, drawing out our sentences to postpone the moment of parting.
“I’m going to get a riad in Morocco one day” she says, stretching her arms out to embrace the entire country. “I’m bored with America. Morocco in the winter, Paris in the summer. It’ll be fab-u-lous.”
While I know she’s just talking in that grandiose way she has, that a career as an academic isn’t easy to transplant on a whim, I feel the dread of her flying from my life as suddenly as she swooped into it, a gaping void in merely anticipating her absence. What comes out of my mouth to fill the space is: “Why does every guy here want to fuck you?”
She flinches, but almost imperceptibly, as if she’s expected the question. “You’re exaggerating.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. Though it is true. The driver from Merzouga gave you a shoulder massage when we stopped by the reservoir. Our guide in Fes made a pass at you when he took you shopping for babouches.”
“He tried to make a pass at me. I didn’t let him. And Danny doesn’t know, so shut up about it.”
“Of course I will. But every man we pass stares at you.”
Larisa stiffens. She looks hurt. “I don’t know why it happens, but it’s uncomfortable for me. Danny’s pissed because he thinks I’m inviting it. That’s why I haven’t told him about Fes.”
“I think you like the attention.” I sound bitter; I can’t help it. Unable to look at her. I poke my finger around in some sticky honey pastry that came with the coffee.
“What’s wrong with you, Emily? Part of me likes the attention. Are you jealous or something?”
“No…Yes… I don’t know. Nobody here looks at me that way.”
“Are you sure you actually want them to? Dostoyevsky said that man, like a chess-player, is interested in the process of attaining his goal rather than the goal itself.”
“You sound like John – except for the quote. You’re right; I don’t want them to…”
Allahuu Akbar Allahuu Akbar… The foreign sounds of the call to prayer emanate from loudspeakers on the minaret of a nearby mosque, joining calls from other mosques reverberating throughout the pink patchwork city. The summons has an oddly nasal quality, and even close by it sounds distant, as if it were originating from beyond the Atlas mountains, the snow-dusted peaks gracing the horizon. I lean over the roof to survey the scene below. Invariably, when the announcements are made, I expect to see people dropping prayer rugs in the street; instead, they take their time – peacefully walking to the mosques, bathing their feet, kneeling to pray – embodying the opposite of this urgency festering in my chest – the need to understand this thing, and the unusual tension flaring up between Larisa and me.
In the congested street, a man leads a donkey laden with bricks; I watch him until he disappears, turning by a house with one of those slatted second-floor windows that jut out over the road – they were built hundreds of years ago so housebound women could view the goings-on outside without being seen.
What is it about Larisa? Closing my eyes, I try to imagine kissing her; the vision refuses to materialize. Yet even an unformed picture scares me; it conjures up vague, grainy Super 8 memories of my parents sleeping with their friends when I was a kid in the ‘70’s – nothing as overt as a key party, yet there was always this sense that it was happening, and that inevitably I would be asked to participate somehow, drawn into a realm I didn’t comprehend, that I was both fascinated and repelled by.
Still facing the street, I watch a woman in a long tunic and hijab cover her face with a basket to avoid being photographed by a western tourist; it feels as if by witnessing, I, too, have somehow violated her. Swiveling my head toward Larisa, I seek the normally-safe terrain of literature. “Hey, I finished reading Claudine this morning.”
She puts down the phone she’s picked up again. “What did you think? I’m teaching Colette next semester.”
“I enjoyed it. I couldn’t get over how freely she depicted the women in openly sexual relationships in the year 1900. It must have been scandalous.”
“Very. It was largely autobiographical. She had lots of affairs with women.”
“Have you ever?” I ask her casually, noticing my thinly-disguised flirtation yet letting it float like a wispy indigo thread in the air between us.
“Have I ever been with a woman? No. You?”
“No. I’ve always been curious but that’s as far as it’s gone.”
“It’s the same for me” she says, applying a coat of the Swedish lip balm she always carries, looking at me mischievously. “You’re not getting any ideas, are you? You have a great booty, but you don’t come with a package.”
“Don’t worry” I laugh. “I’m not Colette.”
“Good. Me either.”
I am simultaneously relieved and disappointed. Larisa, I think, is like Morocco: alluring and extraordinary, yet I’m not quite adventurous enough to live there. Perhaps that quality of evoking desire without threat of fulfillment is what it is about her. I turn away. Buried somewhere among the ancient abscesses of my insecurities is the realization that it isn’t about her at all.
About the Author:
Joyce Polance is a Chicago-based writer currently at work on a novel. She is also an award-winning visual artist whose paintings are held in international collections. Her work may be viewed at http://www.joycepolance.com