I had never, in my whole life, been able to understand love as a sickness.
Image by Jake Longstreth, Vacaville, 2006. Courtesy the artist
She met him in New York, during her visit to her brother. I alone knew the reason for her trip and encouraged her to go as a cure from the love that had long been rooted in her soul and ended with betrayal. I had always tried to convince her that love that ends that way should not be called love at all. She would answer through her tears, “How can I escape from two and a half years of wonderful memories?” In an effort to get through to her, I would reply scornfully, “You’re exaggerating. Those are certainly not wonderful memories because they are lies. Your sweetheart didn’t deserve your love or your loyalty. On the contrary, he abandoned you at the first opportunity to sell himself to a rich woman who would shorten the years of struggle ahead of him.”
She wasn’t shy about revealing everything to me, as I had been a friend through childhood, adolescence, and college. She hoped he would leave his rich fiancée and come back to her. Her weakness made me angry. Our sharp disagreement was over the understanding of honor in love. I would rail against her, screaming, “How could you accept going back to him if he left his fiancée?” She would answer dejectedly, “Everyone is susceptible to temptation. Love is what forgives.” I would become upset and say, “There are mistakes that are unforgivable because they expose a person’s essence, his choices and values. Your fiancé didn’t wrong you unintentionally. He chose money, and left you for a rich woman.”
Love should not destroy our dignity. Beautiful feelings should not make us hang our heads and burn our eyes with tears.
In resignation, she would say, “You’re right. But—” Her voice would choke up as she whispered. “I love him.”
I had never, in my whole life, been able to understand love as a sickness. Love should not destroy our dignity. Beautiful feelings should not make us hang our heads and burn our eyes with tears. When I suggested that she get rid of their pictures and letters to help her forget, she refused, saying, “I can’t shred two years of my life.”
She wrote to me from the plane, saying that she hadn’t stopped crying in the air, and that she regretted having listened to my advice and traveled. There is nothing more difficult than having our fresh wounds accompany us on our travels. She told me that her pain cut her off from her sense of beauty, and that she was at a loss as to how she would spend those weeks with her brother in New York.
Her letter reached me ten days after her departure. What could I possibly say beyond what I had already told her? I decided not to respond to her letter. My words might carry the scent of her betrayed love and fan the flames of her memories, many of which I was a part of. I believed that the best way for people to forget was to throw themselves in a strange new atmosphere, without pity, letting the waves toss them about. Either they are cured and become suited to a new life, or they crumble.
Three weeks after her departure, I received a phone call from her that woke me up before dawn. My heart sank when I heard her voice, as tens of bad possibilities besieged me. She apologized for bothering me, and hurriedly assured me that she was doing great, and that she had met a man who deserved her. She told me about him. He was a friend of her brother’s, a neurologist, and an immigrant in New York for ten years. She said that she met him the night of her arrival, that they met again repeatedly, and that he had declared his desire to commit to her. She said that she could not stop herself from thanking me because I was the main reason for her travel.
She didn’t forget to ask about me and send her warm greetings to my fiancé, with whom she had become friends, because of the strength of our friendship.
She extended her stay in New York for two more weeks. When she returned, she was completely different. She was radiant, bubbling over with happiness, and unable to hold back her smile. She was optimistic because she had found the elixir for eternal happiness. When I tried to examine the scar of her old love, she said, laughing, “I feel like he’s far, far away, as if we broke up years ago.”
They had agreed to be engaged, married, and live in New York permanently. Her delight overflowed, and she would take me by surprise with lightheaded kisses while saying, “My heart can’t hold this happiness. I almost can’t believe what happened to me.”
A seed of doubt gnawed at my mind. Something in my friend’s story didn’t convince me. What could it be? Was it possible that her storm-like affections toward her new love were like compensation for the failure of her old love, whose memory she had not had a chance to forget? Also, did he truly love her, or was he looking for a wife from his country?
We shook hands mechanically, but our eyes locked in a long gaze that we were incapable of breaking.
Did she mean to conceal the date of her arrival from me, and want to surprise me by visiting me at my workplace, since she had always loved surprises? I was sitting at my desk, examining road measurements that I had taken the last week with the crew from the engineering office, when she appeared, radiant as usual, preceded by the scent of her heavy perfume. She said, “This is Adnan,” as she grasped the arm of a tall, slender man. She then turned to him and introduced me. “This is my best friend Manah.”
We shook hands mechanically, but our eyes locked in a long gaze that we were incapable of breaking. It was a gaze that materialized like a tight collar. It encompassed us as he and I stood there as prisoners. I felt something like a lightning bolt as I looked at him, and I think he suffered from the same sensation because he couldn’t hide the turmoil on his face or the strong, sudden reddening of his ears. I said what one must say: “Welcome! Please sit down!”
I was a witness to the birth of sudden feelings in myself I didn’t know the reason for. How did this man stir this infatuation in me? Why did the lifeless ground shake beneath my feet? Why did all boundaries and protections suddenly collapse between me and this stranger? We became two bare trees facing each other unceremoniously in the wind and lightening, in the face of the axes threatening to sever the trunks and branches.
I prided myself on my free will, on the fortunate harmony between my heart and mind. What was mocking and ridiculing me so? We noticed in amazement that we were wearing the same necklace, a golden chain ending in a small gold cube. It was a smooth cube with no inscriptions, symbols, or letters. We hid our embarrassment with laughter. I never expected to meet anyone wearing my cube. My friends made fun of this cube and asked what it meant. Conceitedly, I would explain my point of view: “I wear gold because it is gold. I hate when gold becomes a symbol. What does a gold cross set with diamonds even mean? The cross was made of wood.” I wondered what sort of sign it was that this stranger wore my exact same cube, my same peculiarity. Could this cube not be considered tantamount to a signal or warning of things to come?
I expressed my surprise, saying, “How odd that we’re both wearing the same cube.” I asked him, “Did you buy it, or did one of your friends give it to you as a gift?”
“No,” he replied. “I bought it because I believe that gold is gold. It’s that cursed yellow metal, the devil’s weapon. By the way, I don’t own gold besides it.”
Our gazes returned to their complicated tangle. Unknown roads were being revealed to me with wonderful surprises, which I could only guess about. I sensed his face burning. What if I reached out my hand to touch his cheek? Would electricity flow between us? How did all this happen? Which power was mocking the three of us? Or, rather, the four of us. It seems I had forgotten my fiancé, whom I was supposed to marry as soon as the carpenter finished making the furniture for our house.
The porter brought the coffee. It was my habit to sip the coffee then put the cup on the table, rather than its saucer. Once again, the surprise caught us off guard. We both drink coffee without returning the cup to a safe place. Why were we so quickly approaching the minefield, whose entry is forbidden? The electricity between us increased. I began to perspire hot sweat. I told myself that I was no longer sure of anything, and that the reins of power had slipped from my hands. I was astonished that the effect of this meeting should be so serious because after they left, I took out a small mirror from my bag and looked at my face. My features were the same, but my face wasn’t the same. There was something that didn’t look like me. There was a deep strain gleaming from my eyes. However, a strange sparkle shone through them as well!
Was this the “love-struck” I had been hearing about and made fun of? My god, my fiancé had turned into smoke in the blink of an eye, into a man of fog with whom I had not been in a relationship for a year.
But it was strange. Hadn’t I been convinced that it was a choice of the heart and mind together? Why did I feel in this moment that it was all in vain, that I never chose anyone except him, this stranger who wore my unique gold cube and drank coffee the same way I did, freeing the cup from its saucer?
Each moment confirmed the fact of our disastrous attraction.
My friend invited my fiancé and I to dinner the day she introduced me to Adnan. I tried to relax all afternoon. I regarded what I had felt to be silliness and illusion, and considered my fiancé the suitable man for me, which is what I had told him for a year. My god, how skillful the mind is in refuting logical arguments! But the mirror exposed me, as it reflected my limitless desire to look my best. I recognized from the mirror’s eternal malice that I was primping for him, my friend’s fiancé.
I couldn’t fight feeling guilty throughout the evening. Each moment confirmed the fact of our disastrous attraction. For his part, he was striving to avoid looking at my face. His glances stroked my hair with fingers made of air. He was tatooing my features on his memory so that he could recall me at leisure after the evening ended.
My friend simply commented, “I knew you would like Manah!” She then told me, “He hasn’t stopped asking about you.”
My look exposed the heat of my new, unexpected love. I was putting forth unbelievable efforts to fight it, and when I returned home—accompanied by my fiancé, as it should be—I let my cold, unfeeling hand surrender despairingly to his. I knew from that moment that it would never again feel alive while in my fiancé’s hand. I did not resist and in defeat offered him my wooden lips. This was the most miserable kiss of my life, and I felt in the midst of it as if I were betraying both the stranger and myself.
I tried to be kind to myself and analyze logically what had happened to me. Was it attraction to strangers? But what did that even mean? Wasn’t I supposed to love my fiancé? But did I truly love him? Or did I just find him to be a suitable husband, since marriage is imposed on every young man and woman, as we practice it here. In any case, I would marry him, and my friend would marry her fiancé who made my heart flutter.
I smoked a cigarette as I calmed down little by little, watching its dispersing clouds of smoke. It came to me that what I felt was nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. I assured my shaken self that all engaged and married couples deal with similar things, and that without commitment, all relationships would collapse. I didn’t stop congratulating myself on having the courage to exchange kisses with my fiancé in spite of the heat of the sudden love for the stranger that had afflicted me. But why did my tears flow with the abundance of a waterfall, and my shoulders tremble so from the emotion? What else could shake people like this except love?
The mirror alone exposed our reality. It said to me as I wiped the dissolving makeup from my face, “You are lovesick through and through.”
My friend was preparing for the ritual of engagement: the amazing gown that would be sewn by the most famous dressmaker in town, the invitation cards for friends and relatives to the engagement party at a hotel. Everything around me was real, but I didn’t trust anything. My certainty about everything had left me. I wished the carpenter would finish making the furniture for the house that would bring me together with my fiancé, who had magically turned into a strange man who meant nothing to me.
I started to think seriously about breaking up with him. I couldn’t deceive him when I would leave him to heal myself of my love of the stranger, and sudden bursts of crying that came even when I was measuring roads in the countryside and recording the numbers in my notebook.
The meetings continued because of my firm relationship with my friend. My fiancé accompanied us most of the time. Just us, her fiancé and I, knew of our beautiful yet distressing entanglement. His eyes started to corner me, as he was waiting for some hope or satisfaction. I flooded him with lost, aimless tenderness.
Two weeks of quarreling ferociously with myself left me convinced of the necessity of breaking up with my fiancé. But I decided to break up with him after my friend’s engagement. That way, I could satisfy my conscience and free myself from the strong, pressing feelings of guilt. This solution satisfied me, and I decided to disappear. I started to make excuses of imaginary activities to my friend so that I wouldn’t encounter her fiancé. I used the age-old excuse for the end of romantic relationships: a headache. But he surprised me a few days before his engagement in my office. He stood silent in the middle of the room without saying good morning. It was clear that he was sleep-deprived and tormented, just as it was clear that he was lovesick. My heart started to quicken in elation as I contemplated him. I whispered to myself how much I loved him. Each of us considered the gold cube hanging from the other one’s neck. In that moment, the gold cube was our shared space, our silent love that we had tried to abort. But it refused to die before being confronted.
He stared at me with rebuke, and replied, “I think you know that I meant to be alone, and that you know why I came.”
“Hi, please sit down,” I said in a contrived way. “Why isn’t your fiancée with you?”
He stared at me with rebuke, and replied, “I think you know that I meant to be alone, and that you know why I came.”
I searched for words. It appeared that the situation couldn’t endure falseness or politeness. He continued what he was saying in a sad voice. “My leaving has no meaning without you.”
His daring proclamation surprised me. “What does that mean? Will your engagement not take place?”
He replied definitively, “No, it can’t take place. But it would be a shame to leave without you, so I’m asking you.”
I cut him off. “Slow down, slow down. Have you thought how much you would hurt the people dearest to our hearts? I couldn’t betray her. I never imagined I would stab my dearest friend in the back like this, as well as that poor guy.”
He interrupted me. “The true stab in the back would be to the wonderful feeling that was born between us from the first moment, and became clear again and again. Look me in the eye and tell me, ‘I don’t love you,’ and I’ll leave immediately.” My tears poured forth, perhaps affected by the tone of his voice rather than his words. He reached out his hand to gently wipe my face, touching my damp skin. He told me as my eyes were closed, and I was being swallowed by the increasing circles of his voice, “Don’t hesitate to let your spirit go wherever it wishes.”
I let my cheek rest on the palm of his hand. I was drowning in longing and asking myself what meaning my life had without him.
Haifa Bitar is a Syrian writer and ophthalmologist from Latakia. She has published eleven collections of short stories and nine novels. Her collection The Whore won the Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabi prize in 2003.
Hannah Benninger is an Arabic instructor who currently lives in Virginia. She has long been interested in the peculiarities of translating from Arabic to English. “Love Struck” is her first published translation.