My body lurched all through the night under cover. A large fish thrashing about on blanketed land. A breathless thing, gasping for water again. It was all wrong. This shirt on this breast. These socks on this flesh. Nothing to press my body up against. And that is when the open lidded nightmare began. The fever dreams so searing I sweat beastly through them. As though the sheer force of my longing,—for you—could slip me under your water again. Could make a home of my exile. Give me oxygen.
It is true that I could have slept endlessly in you. You who did not look at me, but looked through me. You whose stairs turned into rivers and balcons filled with a thousand thrashing seas. But I remember you when you were quiet and lonely. I remember you when you were mine, when I thought you were, the still crevices I would find that fooled me into believing I was the only one, switchbacking my way up your breasts, sliding into your navel, feeling you, a palimpsest. Yes, I am full of worship for this beauty, and I do not care who your zealots say it belongs to, because I know god is beauty and beauty is you and you are the first woman I loved. Beirut.
I never had a chance to say goodbye. I don’t think my grandparents did either. So many decades later, they still dreamed of you. Could you believe it? You were so young then. The golden years, they said again and again and again. I look at the photographs of my teta as a young girl in Baalbek, my grandfather as a young man on his motorcycle in Zahle. What would have become of them had they stayed? And I wonder if maybe it was passed down to me, this love, this grief, and that is just like you to not let anyone touch before they leave. I also know you have bigger issues to contend with than me. But, tell me, what is the word for mourning a whole country, the places it could have gone, the people it could have been?
When I receive news now of your decline, or let us call it your collapse, or as my friend says, the avalanche, I think I was not granted enough time. I wanted more. But I think whatever more I had it wouldn’t have ever been enough. Even when I was in you, I wanted more of you. We all did. We all still do. Your children, your lovers scattered across the earth. Did you want it this way? Did you want the whole world over to thirst?
Yes, I am full of worship for this beauty, and I do not care who your zealots say it belongs to, because I know god is beauty and beauty is you and you are the first woman I loved. Beirut
The news of your collapse reaches me in words too clean, too even for the great distance they've traveled. But I see in images, instead, two men approaching my door wearing the regalia of war, an envelope clutched in one hand, the universal still life. A diorama of the antechamber of death. I hold myself upright with all the poise and grace of a fresh widow (and there are so many of us), images of my betrothed, you, bloody and needing, lacerating the mind, until I can’t look anymore. And my knees buckle. And I fall to the floor.
My familiar stranger, my secret lover whose hot labored breaths first lapped at my shores, and then swirled furiously around me, and then throttled me until I did not know who I was anymore. My familiar stranger, whose cable wire sinew spread across an exhausted, yellowed sky. I knew you were beautiful before I understood why.
A friend from home, I remember her once asking what I found that was beautiful in you upon seeing photographs that I had proudly sent. I found myself wrathful. Perplexed. How could she not see what the rest of us did? I jumped on my makeshift soapbox, I monologued without relent, but all of it was cheap. None of it made sense. Why do we love what we love? Who in their right mind can answer this.
She is a sharmuta, he said, but she has been fucked so many times she wants to be loved… I forgave the crudeness of your child’s words, but I understood what they meant. And I loved you, didn’t I? Didn’t we all? Some of us even believed we had to suffer for your love because some kind of redemption awaited us. Something we didn’t even know the name of. Maybe it was god, and if it was, it was in you, and I tasted my freedom in my capture.
How did she die, I asked the men after you and they lowered their heads. And me, I gasped for air. What other words to describe to you what is happening in my chest. I find myself wanting to say in your tongue, but I cannot remember any of it. My throat constricts, my eyes roll back into a pounding blue bliss of nights I felt you breathing into me.
She is a sharmuta, he said, but she has been fucked so many times she wants to be loved… I forgave the crudeness of your child’s words, but I understood what they meant. And I loved you Beirut, didn’t I? Didn’t we all?
How did she die, I asked the men and they lifted their eyes to me at half mast, four limp and weary flags. It is difficult to say, the words came out like sandbags. Like clumsy men still trying to protect their valiance, their prestige. And suddenly the world dissolved around me and we were in a small boat just large enough for three. It was a slow death, they said. And I wept, first slowly and then wildly. All these months I feared you would disappear. The first woman I loved, Beirut.
Where do I go now, I ask the men. There is no land in sight. The boat rocks slowly, a brilliant sun at high noon above us. It is inconceivable to think such disaster could happen under it, but it does.
Where do I go now, I ask the men, but they are gone. And I am alone, oarless, rudderless, adrift. The world I grew to love and the woman who maybe never was, brought to its knees, and I, with it.