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Heat and humidity enveloped London that June. The balmy nights enticed men out in their shirtsleeves and, even in restaurants, they could be seen without a coat and tie.
Before coming to England Ahmed would never have believed such casual dress acceptable in the city, regardless of the weather. Although, he’d never supposed it could be so warm. He’d imagined it as in Dickens, perpetually cold with cheerful, welcoming fires and cozy rooms behind frosty windows. He’d visualized himself in a tweed overcoat, sprinkled with salt-like snow, peering in.
Not much about the year studying at Cambridge had been what he’d expected. It had been easier academically than anticipated, the classes less formal, the other students more forthcoming. He’d thought they would all be fair with light eyes and had hoped some of the girls would resemble the new Princess of Wales. He’d discovered a sizable portion of the other students were as dark as he, or darker.
Although none of the coeds had the deferential grace of the princess, there had been enough fair and pretty girls to exhaust his interest and he’d come to realize he preferred olive skin and dark eyes. A greater revelation had been his discovery of an attraction to women who dressed and moved and spoke with abandon.
It wasn’t simply sexual allure. In his experience – a bit more than average for a man of twenty-two - women who appeared formal and staid in public could be quite liberated in private, especially if well paid. However, in Cambridge, they weren’t preforming for his, or any man’s, pleasure. He enjoyed watching the coeds, all shapes and sizes and skin colors, striding along the paths, running on the forbidden grass, punting on the river, wearing whatever they fancied, trousers, skirts, minis, shorts, in bright colors or black, baggy sweaters or clingy halter tops, chatting and laughing, their heads held high, as free and noisy and diverse as birds.
His sisters would never have license to behave in such a manner, nor was he sure they should. Yet it sometimes made him sad to think of them, both very smart, his twin Mira even more ambitious than he, stuck at home or in the company of relatives, unable to venture alone beyond the few blocks that comprised their neighborhood. Although Mira had prevailed on their father to let her study law at the University, she must live at home until she married and, unless she got lucky in her husband, her law practice would be limited to library research. It was unlikely that either of his sisters would see anything of the world outside Jordan.
He thanked God daily for making him male, as well as for the continued health and prosperity of his family and for the opportunity to study abroad and choose his own path in life. His father would have preferred for him to continue in the family business exporting textiles, but he understood his son’s restless spirit and desire for something more. Ahmed was the first of his immediate family to visit Egypt and Morocco, the first to graduate from University and finally the first to travel to Europe and England.
No doubt, the first to see the inside of a disco, he thought wryly that night, as he watched couples dance under the mirrored globe in the converted Chelsea warehouse.
It wasn’t his first disco; he’d been to three, and, although he would not drink spirits again, he’d tasted whiskey at a party in Cambridge. He’d gotten drunk and vomited and it had been weeks before he forgave himself. He’d also eaten half of a ham sandwich. These were his sins and he intended to confess them to his father when he returned to Jordan with his master’s degree.
He finished his ginger ale and turned to the bar to order another, glancing at the entrance as she walked in. At first he thought he knew her, she looked so familiar, like one of his cousins. She came with two girlfriends, both fair. He watched them standing near the door, affecting unconsciousness of the male eyes directed toward them as they laughed together and looked for a table.
She was dark, with shoulder length hair so black it caught the lights from the globe and sparked silver, and eyes so warm and animated he felt their magnetism halfway across the room. Perhaps the loveliest girl he’d ever seen.
It was around nine and there were several tables empty on the far side of the dance-floor. As they made their way her glance connected with his and for split second she looked quizzical, as if trying to place him.
Her friends were almost immediately asked to dance. She sat at the table alone, pretending absorption in her wine and the music; smiling and bobbing her head, as if enjoying herself, until a chubby guy with glasses came over to the table and she got up to dance.
Ahmed hung back, nursing his ginger ale for a half-hour, fancying he saw her for whom she was, through her head bobbing and wine sipping, through her smiles and ultimate disinterest in the occasional men who asked her to dance. Here was an English girl who wasn’t the highly prized rose they were so fond of touting, but rather an exotic, like the orchid. To him it seemed obvious she was the most beautiful girl in the room and yet the foolish Englishmen found her friends more attractive. Maybe, he thought with an internal smirk as he stood up to make his move, her family had an Arab hidden in the closet.
He extended his hand with a slight bend of his head and an open smile. She took the hand, looking him in the eyes and smiling back.
Her sleeveless black dress skimmed her slender body and ended just above her knees; decorous for a disco in London, daring for a party in Amman. He’d dressed conservatively; gray slacks, blue, button-down shirt, red, white and navy tie, very English.
Ahmed danced with smooth subtlety. He didn’t leer, or try for too much eye contact. On the surface he seemed contained, almost indifferent, but he was fully aware of her body moving to the pulsing beat, without artifice, entirely mesmerizing.
They continued through the next song and the next, whispering rushed questions. “What’s your name?”
“Andy,” he answered, using his English nickname. They touched, palm to palm and their eyes met as they moved their arms up and around in a circle, keeping their palms together, their hips moving slowly side to side, in unison. The music slowed and, as he opened his arms, she came forward into his embrace.
She was small and lithe and effortlessly responsive, he had only to suggest for her to follow.
“You’re a good dancer,” she said. Her whisper tickled his ear and warmed his neck.
“You make me look good,” he laughed, softly. He pulled her in closer without resistance so that their bodies touched along their length and he remembered George Bernard Shaw’s definition of dancing as the vertical expression of a horizontal desire.
The song ended. A loud, upbeat rhythm began the next and Ahmed reluctantly released her.
“Would you like something to drink?”
She nodded and followed as he led her off the crowded dance-floor. He checked his watch, surprised to see it was past eleven. Her friends had several boys at their table, which was loaded with empty beer bottles and no empty chairs in sight.
“ Maybe we should go somewhere quieter?” she asked, lightly touching his arm. “Perhaps a cup of tea? Or a coffee?”
“Absolutely,” he answered, with a grin. She laughed shyly and bent to say something to one of the girls, who glanced at Ahmed with a haughty, bored look The girls kissed cheeks and then Ettie picked up her purse.
Ahmed’s sport’s coat waited on a coat rack at the entrance, he slung it over his shoulder, holding the door for her and then offering her his arm. They walked along an alley out toward the streetlights; the night remained warm and humid, the city had quieted.
Ettie said she knew a place to get coffee and they walked several blocks along a commercial street. She told him she was studying philosophy at the University in Edinburgh, which explained the slight accent he thought he detected. Although his English was almost impeccable, he had difficulty distinguishing among the multiplicity of British dialects.
He’d just completed coursework for a master’s in nineteenth century British Literature at Cambridge.
“Which college?” she asked.
“Queens,” he answered.
“And what will be the subject of your thesis?”
“I thought I might do something on Dickens..”
She nodded seriously, “About his life or his books…or?”
They’d stopped suddenly, and her eyes sparkling with wit and warmth, caught him. He flushed and stumbled in the sudden heady rush. “I think…maybe his…the women in his life.” Although he hadn’t thought of it until that minute.
“This is it,” she said.
He had to duck under the doorway of the ancient pub. They sat at a heavy, deeply worn oak table. He ordered tea, she had a coffee, and they shared an order of chips with vinegar and salt.
She explained John Locke, he told her about Thomas Hardy. They stayed until last call and walked out into drizzly rain. Neither had thought to bring an umbrella and he insisted she take his coat.
She suggested instead they hold it over their heads together and, with a little awkwardness they did, wrapping their arms around each other’s waist and holding the jacket between them. She was staying a few blocks away.
“I’m using my uncle’s flat,” she said. “He’s out of town for the week and he’s given it to me in exchange for watering his plants.”
They took a path alongside a large house, through a garden to the small building in back. Ahmed knew it must be a muse, once a carriage house now converted into a residence. Very posh, as the British said.
She stopped at the door under the eve and turned. He took her gently into his arms. Their kiss ignited like paper, flaring hot, immediate, and undeniable.
He would not remember how they got inside the house, or whether it was he or she who unbuttoned his shirt and unzipped his pants, or how exactly they got upstairs to the bed. He would never forget her burnished skin and its lush, musky scent, her unfathomable eyes; her searing tongue, the husky catch of pleasure in her breath, a laugh almost, his piercing need to join with her, to give himself, the sweetness of it, the unblemished sweetness of the love they made.
They held each other after, he stroked her hair and had to keep from telling her he loved her. It would be absurd to say it. As he drifted to sleep he had a vision of taking her home with him to Jordan, what would his family say he wondered. They slept entwined and made love again, with exquisite tenderness, in the darkness before dawn.
He awoke alone, the smell of coffee wafted up from downstairs and the sound of classical music. He pulled on his pants and walked downstairs buttoning his shirt to find her in the kitchen. Their eyes met and she smiled as the music ended. He walked toward her.
“Good morning….At the top of the news, Israel has invaded Lebanon…”
As one, they turned to the radio.
“…In retaliation for the assassination attempt of its ambassador in London, by the Palestinian organization Abu Nidal, Israel has launched Operation Peace for Galilee, in an attempt to route the PLO and Syrian forces currently occupying Southern Lebanon…”
“I will have to go home,” she said, more to herself than to him.
“Home? Why?” Then it dawned on him. “You’re Lebanese?”
“What?” She looked up, surprised. “No, I’m Israeli.”
He must have blanched, because her expression changed. They stared at each other.
“You’re not English? I thought…maybe you were Jewish…”
He stood appalled, staring into the depth of eyes within which he’d lost himself; her scent lingered on his body.
“I am Palestinian, from Jordan.”
She gave a low moan and crumpled into a chair, her head in her hands.
Ahmed ran upstairs and quickly gathered his things, his breathing rapid and shallow, his mind closed. She sat still at the table, her face hidden, as he silently passed the doorway on his way out.
Instead of staying in London as planned, he returned to Cambridge anxious to begin researching his thesis. However, after a month, when he still hadn’t settled on a topic, a letter from home in which his father told him of the engagement of his youngest sister and mentioned his mother had been quite ill with a fever, produced such heartsick longing he abruptly left for Jordan, abandoning his master’s.
His little sister married a religious man and moved to Irbid, near the Syrian border. Ahmed took a job with his father and within the year made an arranged marriage to a distant cousin he’d seen only a handful of times. Too hasty and ill advised, the union ended in rancorous divorce after ten years, without children. Meanwhile, Mira earned her degree, became a professor of law, and lived with her parents.
After the divorce Ahmed quit the textile business and returned to London briefly, working illegally as a busboy, in order to improve his rusty English. Back in Jordan he secured a job as a guide for an upscale hotel specializing in two-day tours. He would pick up wealthy, English speaking, tourists on the Jordan side of the checkpoint at the border between Aqaba and Elat, offering a patter of biblical history and geography, social commentary and a sampling of innocuous jokes, as he took them to tour Petra and various biblical sites, open markets, restaurants and tourist shops.
Occasionally on his days off he crossed the border into Israel and for a short time even carried on a clandestine affair with an Israeli tour guide.
One spring afternoon in Jerusalem he caught a glimpse of Ettie. She was across the street walking with some friends into the old city. He called her name and ran to follow, rushing through the narrow streets, searching the little shops frantically until he had to stop and lean against the corner of a building to catch his breath, with a dry laugh at himself. That beautiful, slender girl he’d just chased so recklessly could not have been much older than twenty.
Copyright © 2009 by Jessica Davis Stein.