All that remains are pitted dates. Everything else has been eaten. The plates have been licked and the glasses emptied. Residue lingers on the table: dirty napkins, forgotten forks, leftover crumbs and morsels, plastic water bottles.
“Would you pray more if I left you?” I ask Isabelle, a Cairo native and the girl of my dreams. She pretends to be religious, but I don’t mind because she’s pretty when her head’s pressed to the floor.
“Probably,” she says. “Are you going to?”
“Not yet,” I say.
Wendell laughs, but I don’t think it’s funny.
Wendell is a fat man with a twisted wit and he wants to fuck my lover more than I do. He is the best friend I have and I would loathe to lose him.
He has a glass in his hand and he raises it. I raise mine. Isabelle raises the entire bottle and we drink until the room spins faster than the Earth does, which makes us dizzy and prone to tipping.
We go outside and into the city, which is a messy conglomerate of heat and waste. We would breathe air if there were any, but instead there are varieties of emissions and so we breathe those instead. We dodge speeding vehicles as we meander blindly across highways and side streets. Isabelle whispers a prayer at each crossing. She says it for all of us so that we won’t get splattered. One street short of the Nile, a cat scrambles across the road and is squished halfway to the other side by a bus. Then I mimic the cat and scramble too, but I make it. Divine intervention or slop-fed luck, I don’t know which. But I’m the winner this time and I celebrate by cheering.
I turn to Isabelle and Wendell, who are both still in the midst of the car-fray, and she screams, “God exists!” over the beeping horns. I say prove it and so when she reaches the sidewalk, she pulls me into a taxi, gets naked, and we fuck in the backseat while the driver watches in the mirror. Wendell waits on the sidewalk and counts satellites in their slow flight through a bloated and black-brown sky.
Later we arrive at the Nile. We get on a felucca, which is a boat that looks like it sank and then was recycled, and we sail it into the night. We have tea and Wendell swallows all of it. Then he pisses into the river and Isabelle laughs, but I don’t think it’s funny. The river of life, and all.
I’m feeling sick now. And full of hate and prejudice, like I have a war-heart beating for slaughter. To be touched by a girl. To be commanded by one.
But I think I’m just hungry, so I kiss her.
We sail in circles—slow, fat ones—because the boat’s mast is too tall and we can’t fit beneath the city bridges, which blockade our path. I ask if the captain wants a drink. I pull out a bottle and swallow. But the captain says nothing. His head is on the deck. He is facing Mecca because it’s prayer time, which apparently I’m interrupting. I go to the rear of the boat and steer it while he is away. I turn the boat sharply and we are going in small, quick circles now. The captain is trying his best to pray and spin his body so that he may maintain his direction. Always face Mecca. Always face Mecca. Always face Mecca when you pray or—God won’t hear you.
So there is this little man spinning in circles on the deck of the boat. Now this is funny. Isabelle comes and hits me in the stomach and says I’m almost as putrid as the city that birthed her. She tells me to stop. I’m feeling sick now. And full of hate and prejudice, like I have a war-heart beating for slaughter. To be touched by a girl. To be commanded by one. But I think I’m just hungry, so I kiss her.
The captain finishes his duty and begrudgingly resumes his post at the wheel. He parks the boat on the shore and demands that we vacate. He says it just like that, in English that sounds chipped and angry. Wendell and Isabelle leave. I don’t tip the man and linger a moment to watch him. He grimaces at me and then says asshole to me like I owe him something, and so I show him mine like he wants it. He cringes. He shouts. Faggot, faggot, faggot. I walk backwards and pin him to the side of his boat with my ass, then ask him if he has the infinite forgiveness to love me despite myself.
He does not, so he tries to strangle me. I finagle an escape.
Ramadan. It’s almost over and I can’t wait. Then maybe I could go to the bank. Maybe I could go to the store and it would be open. I could drink water outside without being stared at.
Wendell says, “What do we do now?”
We are standing on the corniche. The river is behind us. There is a massive hotel on our left. And on our right. And in front of us. And on the other side of the river. And one behind that, which is extra special because it has a water slide, which seems strange in the desert.
“Let’s go home,” I say.
We go back to Isabelle’s. There are trees in her neighborhood, which makes it feel special. There are not many, but some. It’s better than nothing. Most of them are shit-brown even in the leaves. But it’s better than nothing.
We play that game. Truth or Dare. Thirty-something and still I’m playing that shit. I’m such a fucking circus tent. But my best years were my young ones so I regularly try to reproduce them.
I think about bridges, elevator shafts, balconies. Dare me, motherfuckers! Dare me to jump and I will! Which is not true because I’m scared of heights and I’m not so whimsical and tragic as I long to be.
“Truth,” I say to Isabelle, who asked first.
“Do you love me?” says Isabelle.
“Yes!” I say really enthusiastically. I think so.
“Dare,” she says.
I think about saying: Fuck me now in public. No taxis this time. We’ll go outside on the sidewalk and perform for those passing by. Maybe afterward they will bury us to our necks in the sand and stone us for our belligerence. But I have never been brave and I have never been honest, so I don’t say what I want to.
“Kiss Wendell!” I say.
She does and Wendell blushes and I know I’ve just given the man a gift: his first kiss. I know he’s never done that before because he told me so in a drunken panic. He told me and he cried while saying it. Like, I just want to hold someone’s hand and I just want to be loved but women don’t see me and then whoops I just choked on my sandwich and now I’m going to sob a while. I felt sorry for him then. And I feel sorry for him now, that a forced kiss seems a thing of beauty. I wonder what that would be like, to be that person. I’m glad I won’t ever have to know.
We quit the game because we forget we are playing. Isabelle gets drinks. Wendell gets ice. I am alone on the carpet, thinking or dreaming or hallucinating vicious and pretty things.
Then I remember what we’d been playing, so I play it with the ceiling.
“Truth or dare?” I say.
“No, you can’t. Pick the other one.”
“Do you love me?” I feel dirty, as if I’ve plagiarized the question from Isabelle.
“Truth or dare?”
“Do the other one.”
Thought you said I couldn’t.
“You make the rules, remember?”
“I dare you to forgive me for everything I have done and for all the things I should have but didn’t.”
Only if you swear to love me. It’s conditional.
I shake my head and cry after this and Isabelle comes back and says, “Boy, why are you crying?” like she were Wendy from the movie about the kid in green tights.
“I’ve lost my shadow,” I say. She laughs but I don’t think it’s funny. I pantomime my heartache, but she thinks it’s a joke and claps for me.
Wendell comes back with the ice and throws some of it at my face. It sticks. Then it melts. Then he asks why I’m crying and I say it’s just the ice, idiot.
We sleep. I am on the floor. Isabelle is on me. And Wendell is on the couch pretending not to watch.
In the morning it is Eid ul-Fitr. Ramadan is over and so people can eat when the sun’s up. People look calm. They’ll tell you it’s because they feel closer to God. But really it’s because they’re not hungry anymore and, for the rest of the year, they can wake up and eat breakfast.
I am watching people walk down the street in hordes. It looks like a parade only without all of the balloons and all of the laughter.
Wendell wakes up too, so I throw a burrito in the microwave. When it’s done I throw it at him. It sticks to his chest. He peels it off and says thanks.
Isabelle wakes up and I kiss her. Wendell watches. I laugh but no one else does.
Time proceeds as it should: sideways and then diagonally backwards. I wait three hours and walk to the bedroom to eat breakfast again.
Isabelle comes in. “I want to play that game,” she says.
“The only one.”
She is such a terrible Muslim. She removes her clothing and we do outlawed things that feel good.
“Truth or dare,” I say.
“Dare,” she says. Always dare. She’s alive, that’s why. Already she is alive. Still she is. And I’m sitting here, waiting to be.
“Do the other one,” I say.
“What would you do if I left you?”
“Pray more,” she says. “Are you going to?”
“Not today,” I say.
There is a wider-than-normal space between the floor and the bottom of the bedroom door. Through it, I can see the soles of Wendell’s shoes. He is there, listening.
I sneak up quietly and hit the wooden panels with my fist. I listen as Wendell jumps in fear and falls backwards into the wall. I open the door and he is sitting on the floor looking like he’s either dead or wants to be.
What a wonderful gift I’ve given him.
“Sorry,” he says.
“Truth or dare,” I say.
“Dare,” he says.
Even Wendell is alive. And I am sitting here, waiting to be.
“Jump out the window,” I say. We’re four stories up.
“Do you think I will live?” he asks.
“Insha’allah,” I say. God willing.
He stands up, charges through the living room, and dives out an open window.
I go after and peek over the edge. He’s down there. Not moving.
“Wendell is dead,” I shout to Isabelle, who is sleeping. I go and wake her. “Wendell is dead,” I say.
She bursts into tears and asks me how, then why.
“He tried to fly but his wings didn’t work,” I say. “God’s will.”
She curses God and then promises to never pray again. She goes back to sleep. I feel first like I’ve robbed her and then, moments later, like I’ve gifted her something priceless.
I go outside and poke Wendell with a stick because I’m lonely.
“Truth or dare,” I say.
So a dead man is more alive than me. Now this is funny.
“No, pick the other one.”
“Do you love me?” I feel filthy asking it.
“I’m going to dare you now.”
“I dare you to forgive me. For everything.”
You don’t even have to ask. It’s done already.
For a moment I wonder what I would be like if I prayed to Wendell or something like him. If Wendell were a book and a carving on a pew. If he were a bumper sticker, a song, or a day of rest. I would not die for him and neither would anyone else. And that makes him perfect.
I poke him again to make sure that he’s dead.
Ian Bassingthwaighte’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Event, Annalemma, Adbusters, and many others. Last year he was a Glimpse/National Geographic correspondent and he recently returned from Egypt, where he was a Fulbright fellow for fiction. Currently he lives in New York and can be found at “flimsywhipped.com”:http://www.flimsywhipped.com/.
Jernigan by David Gates.
It’s a goliath of a novel. It will make you laugh while it wrecks you.
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders.
This book doesn’t underestimate a child’s ability to read deeply. And it doesn’t underestimate an adult’s ability to read whimsically. It is strange and beautiful, this world of gappers and goats.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
There is something bizarre about this book. Well, there are many of things that are bizarre about this book. The tragic story of its author aside, Toole has managed to write something imperfect and arguably too long. But I’ve read it again and again and each time it keeps me for its duration. It owns my attention. Like a fist to the stomach, it winds me. Maybe it’s Levy Pants. Maybe it’s the vagrant janitor at open “Night of Joy.” It’s probably Miss Trixie and her dementia. But whatever it is, it’s substantial and resilient and shouldn’t be missed.
Mao II: A Novel by Don DeLillo.
Read it slowly.
Homepage photo via Flickr by Nick Leonard