By Susie Gharib
I always wonder what it is about water that lulls my nerves. Is it the fact that it is forever amorphous and constantly changing colors and hues, mirroring exteriors that are shattered by only a ripple or two? I feel at home when I wade into seawater like a baby paddling in its womb. The foam that encircles my legs as they whisk the surface dissolves into bubbles that I puncture with my lips, an act amounting to kissing what is impossible to kiss, such evasive texture whose liquid softness enthralls. It always takes me a lot of effort to drag myself out of its bosom when the sunset is tolling the departure hour, my skin all shriveled by its cool embrace.
My life has abounded with various immersions in water since infancy to adulthood. When a child, my baths were a series of thrills, whose duration was prolonged with the aid of a magic bar of soap whose bubbles were hard to rinse. All activities were marked with rivers, lakes or the sea as backdrop or a platform. I was the amphibious of the group, abandoning games and food for the company of ripples, nymphs and tree-leaf boats.
In my speech, I tend to imbue water with a religious hue. On water was God’s Throne before He created the world. Noah’s Ark had a covenant with water in the form of a rainbow. Water is baptismal, conjuring up an image of John the Baptist with a laundry of people’s sins getting washed. On its turbulent surface, Jesus miraculously walked in the middle of a windstorm. Ablutions the penetration of water into many pores. The Red Sea was split by Moses, who led the people of Israel out of Egypt, Pharaoh pursuing to meet his doom.
The sea is not just a blue hymn scribbled by God’s quill; it is also a rippling tale of a man rowing his boat with two pairs of eyes dividing their attention equally between the motion of his arms and a phantasmagoria of things that the sea and anchored ships bewitch. The boat that bore my name was built before my eyes in our huge garden. It cemented a lifelong relationship with the sea and mermaid-simulation.
Nobody taught me how to swim. My father, who rowed us into very deep water, was always afraid of swimming further than any depth that exceeded the level of his chin. Alone, I learnt how to swim by audaciously challenging waves each time a further inch, confronting wild-eyed waves and crests that looked like mermaids’ stray locks of hair. Those aquatic rituals were only disrupted during my teenage because the growth of hair on legs posed a dilemma for a new timid phase. I eventually managed to weed out excessive hair and frequented the beach with my schoolmates.
Tradition has it in this conservative part of the world that a decent woman does not go to the beach unchaperoned but since my grown-up friends are now scattered all over the globe, I decide that I am entitled to some adventurous act and go to the beach alone.
As I am swimming towards the shore, my eyes bedimmed with salt and much vigorous swimming, I vaguely see two young men staring at me. My bikini is totally submerged in water and the only manifestation of any feminine charm is a tanned face whose half-closed eyes have their shortsightedness further blurred by sea salt and the sun’s fiery face, a picture that no one would describe as seductive. They head towards me on their whirring jet ski in an abrupt rush. Taken aback, I instinctively seek shelter beneath water. The blades feel as if they are furrowing my head as the furious jet ski proceeds above my sunken flesh. When my head emerges from water, I expect the sea to be dyed red with my shorn skull. The aquatic hit-and-run crew have their heads turned backwards to see the result. Another fellow on a more remarkable jet ski is nervously gesticulating to them to immediately move away. As I am shivering with the tremors of the vibrations of the blades, two swimmers who witnessed the scene anxiously rush towards me to make sure there are no wounds. The young woman holds me when she realizes that my feet cannot touch the sea floor. I have the comportment of an aquatic bird that people cannot tell whether I am standing or merely floating. My aversion to slimy seaweed strangulating my feet had me develop the habit of floating the moment I wade into water. My maritime skills can out-swim any chauvinistic shark but jet skis are a menace about which I did not think.
I arrive at Heathrow Airport on a very foggy day. London is not in its best of moods. I take a taxi to Rodney Court but the rooms are fully booked. I am asked to find another room until the end of the summer holiday. I stand rooted in the entrance hall and insist that I have nowhere to go.
“You can stay at a hotel for the night,” says the man in charge.
“I would not feel safe in a hotel and I am only a student with very limited means,” I answer, obstinately standing with no intention whatsoever to leave. I am prepared to spend the night on foot rather than venture out again. He and other security guards sense a resolute trait in my character, so after exchanging some meaningful looks with them, he kindly suggests that a room can be arranged for one single night to which I immediately consent.
Behind a bulky security guard, I drag my heavy suitcases with resurrected valor. It is getting very late. He opens the door and instantly leaves, inadvertently forgetting to hand me the key. I cannot leave my suitcases and go downstairs and the phone is not working. The room must have been in disuse. I sit disconsolate on the edge of the bed, feeling thoroughly limp. Barring the entrance with a heavy chair, then arranging my suitcases in a train to add to the barricade more force, I head for a much-needed immersion in the bathroom. As my aching muscles begin to lose some of its accumulated stiffness, somebody tries to open the other bathroom door that I share with the adjacent room. The lock is on my side but perturbation is gathering its gale force. He tries again with renewed zeal and the door-handle rattles as Planet Earth does in tremors of high-magnitude.
“Who is it?” I shout, snatching a towel and leaving the only comfort I have, after a long day of relentless fatigue.
He utters something in some dialect diluted in the heavy liquor of a Saturday night, then curses and threatens, getting more violent, so I abandon my bath and sit wet on the bed, shaking with physical and mental exhaustion and hoping he would not come to the lock-free, front door that he could easily open in his present, intoxicated state. He gives up after a while, since my feminine scent is no longer within his nostrils’ radar.
I lie in bed, my money tucked in my pouch, and with vigilant eyes I spend whatever is left of an unnerving night. In the early morning I saunter down the nearby streets to familiarize myself with my new milieu, but apart from some smashed bottles and a few drunkards staggering on the street, London looks completely deserted, so I retreat.
Another water saga is to follow during my stay in the students’ hall of residence. My serious-looking mates have courses to attend, the fact that adds impetus to my desire to re-pattern my days, but insomnia is not to be easily shirked off, for months filtering into my blood, and since I have grown quite averse to prescribed sleeping pills, I have to deal with each sleepless night as a patient with a different disease. Eventually my sleeping habits improve but there remain some odd nights, one of which makes me abandon bed four o’clock in the morning, seeking a very early aquatic dose.
As I am in the middle of inducing sleep by the aid of millions of water drops, the handle of the shower room turns twice. I assume that a flat mate has been inspired by my plan to slaughter insomnia with the Water Clan, and since there is no toilet in the shower room, I call out, apologetically stating that I would not be long. Instead of receiving an answer, the handle does another acrobatic turn, only this time with more force. I hold my breath and congratulate myself on the habit of using locks because apparently it is not one of my angelic inmates. My water thrill comes to an end, so I speed up my return to my tiny cell.
The front door of our flat is locked and everybody seems to be enjoying the serenity of sleep. I softly call each by name but no answer greets my anxious ears. I patiently await them to rise for their morning courses and ask my fellow nymphs whether they accidentally tried to open the door while I was in the middle of slaughtering insomnia at dawn. The answer is a flat No. I hold an emergency conference in the evening and the five of us sit round the rectangular table of our communal kitchen, looking serious and solemn.
“Someone persistently tried to open the door when I was having a shower and I need to l know who it was,” say I in an assertive tone, determined to solve the riddle before wrestling with another sleepless night.
The four faces are petrified.
“There was an intruder last night – I had a real scare and you do not seem to be concerned at all,” add I.
More ghastly looks.
“Certainly it was not a ghost stalking me all the way from the Necropolis,” I pause, recalling my last night in Glasgow, opposite the City of the Dead, my politeness beginning to give way to sarcasm.
I try to maintain some eye contact with them but the four pairs of eyes look narcissistically preoccupied with their own blurred reflections on the glistening surface of the table, newly cleaned in accordance with the gravity of the occasion.
“I am afraid I have no other choice but to inform the police and the five of us will undergo questioning and perhaps fingerprints would be taken,” say I conclusively in a resigned tone, watching their faces getting agitated.
The prettiest of all, Rosie Thornin, apologetically confesses that it must have been her boyfriend on his way out. She was afraid I would object to his presence, so she kept his intrusion secretive. I fail to understand how Rosie’s boyfriend mistakenly tried to show himself out when the door of the shower room had no keyhole at all.
The mysterious visitant of the night turns out to be a merchant who flies a lot and Rosie is probably one of his many stops since he hops from one airport to another seaport with exquisite and expensive trinkets. I tell Rosie that she can receive him on weekends and there is no need for clandestine meetings. They plaster the incident with birthday celebrations and tiny surprise presents which we exchange in the most amicable spirit, but the door to my trust remains bolted like that of the shower room when I am in a baptismal mood.
An old friend of my father suddenly makes himself visible on my eventless arena. Ronald Addeross migrated to the States when I was only a toddler. I do not know how he found my whereabouts or why, instead of my distinguished sister, he sought me out, the poor twin whose hospitality is meager and modest. He is triple my age, very arrogant about his good looks, which he has retained despite the inevitable erosions on his handsome face.
He invites me to a classy Chinese restaurant, where he expresses his gratitude for the past generosity of my dad and begs to be allowed some recompense. He dwells on his nostalgia for London and insists that I should accompany him on some of his tours. I accept the invitation with a justified sense of apprehension: it pours upon us the whole day; I shiver with cold all the way and feel so lonesome and bored.
Ronald spends hours talking about his dead wife, his rewarding job, and his high lifestyle when I am attentively listening all the time and wondering what induced me to accept this narcissistic odyssey of a man who passionately fell in love with himself on the very same day he was born.
“You are a great listener,” says Roland, as a teacher commends a dutiful student. “Usually people are better at talking than listening.”
“Thank you,” I answer, with no further comments.
“Do you know that you are destined to have a very lonely life,” says Ronald, now prophesying my future by simply viewing his large glass of dwindling beer.
I instantly hear the bells of the word forlorn chime in my ears. I refrain from asking what merits this inauspicious omen.
“I understand that your sister Adele is doing very well,” Donald states with an abhorrent grin on his face.
“It depends what you mean by well,” I answer with some reluctance, anticipating a lengthy conversation.
“She has achieved quite a lot,” he observes, cunningly searching for a response on my placid face.
“Financially?” I ask, trying to reduce my verbal responses to mere adjectives and adverbs.
“Yes financially, but also in other ways,” he affirms with a twisted face.
“Such as?” I inquire.
“Personal fulfillment,” he answers.
“From strip-teasing?” I ask.
“You disapprove morally of your sister’s way of earning her money when the poor thing was abandoned by her parents,” he remonstrates.
“I do not have a judgmental disposition. May we change the subject, Donald?” I say after a spell of fortifying silence.
“You must think seriously about this vague future of yours. You definitely need financial stability. Hopping from one place to another will get you nowhere,” he says with contrived concern.
So deeply concerned for my welfare, Ronald invites me to live with him in the U.S.A. He extends his services to an offer of marriage of convenience accompanied with a pledge not to have any physical contact with me – he must have felt my sexual aversion to him. He wants to strip me of my identity, turn me into a fraud, and entrap me in an abhorrent marriage that only suits a whore, thinking his offer is the humble condescension of a childless demigod.
He orders a bowl of soup but I decline to have something to eat because I had begun to feel quite nauseous. I have my hand placed beneath the table on my abdomen, a mannerism bred by my very excruciating, monthly period.
“Do you refrain from having sexual intercourse when you have your monthly flow?” asks he, after an unusual spell of silence, looking extremely anxious and disappointed.
“I beg your pardon!” say I, pretending that I did not hear his insulting words, giving him a chance to retrieve what his lust had gored.
He forms a circle with two vulgar fingers and into the circle he inserts his other hand’s forcible middle finger, demonstrating his blatant question in a public place, teeming with tourists and natives.
“I don’t know what married people do during the red season. Sexual matters are not my expertise,” I bluntly answer, hoping to convey the idea to him that sexual intercourse for me is only a rite of hallowed marriage and thus dampen his ardent zeal.
When we arrive in the city center, Ronald invites me to a second sumptuous dinner. I have always been averse to accepting invitations to eat. Some men expect a reward after such a feast, and this mature companion is apparently not different from any other opportunist. I decline his invitation and apologetically inform him that I have to rise early for courses. Olympian wrath twists his contorted face and I feel it takes him a lot of effort to control his enraged feet, which usually serve as punching fists. The next morning I see a single note in my mailbox, a succinct message of goodbye. He has abruptly left London to cut his expenditure short.
About the Author:
Dr. Susie Gharib is a graduate of the University of Strathclyde. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various magazines such as Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Curlew, The Ink Pantry, A New Ulster, Down in the Dirt, the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Mad Swirl, and The Opiate.