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Sunday
Mar182012

Just Say Yes

by Sean Lotman

 

 

The jet lag bad, the pot holes bad, the screaming babies bad, Fernando suffered his bad luck in the back of a crowded intercity bus wondering how to interpret Hannah’s failure to meet him in Casablanca. She had emailed him the night before his flight from Los Angeles, claiming it wasn’t feasible, this rendezvous in the capital. Besides, they planned to start their trip together in Chefchaouen, which was in the foothills of the Rif range, where she had been working as a member of the Peace Corps for the past year so it didn’t make sense for her to go out of her way.  “You don’t need any handholding,” she’d written, and then in a singe sentence paragraph, she’d ciphered, “You’ll be fine on your own.” Fernando was trying to convince himself that she was referring to Casablanca and the bus journey and not the dissolution of their relationship when the bus began pulling over yet again to load more human chattel, rumbling idly and polluting particulates for fifteen minutes, while elbows jostled and Arabic voices spat bitter remonstrations and unsolicited hawkers shoved peanuts, bananas, figs, and soft drinks into his small, cramped space. Fernando looked away, lost in the invented narrative of happy ending scenarios, squinting into the declining afternoon light.

He might have been feeling better if Casablanca hadn’t been such a disappointment. Sure it was never likely he’d find a drinking hole like Rick’s Café Américain or share brandies with doppelganger Humphrey Bogart or Peter Lorre types, but the city had been scruffy and tattered, full of shifty-eyed grifters and stoop-shouldered harridans.  And it had been frustrating, everyone yapping at him in French, of which he understood very little. And then there were the cafés, their Parisian table arrangements, the café au laits, and bow tie garçons— he felt as if he’d wandered into a right-winger’s dystopian nightmare in which the Mohammedans had taken over Europe, white people having left town or died out. You could have a lot of babies with four wives. Secularists, on the other hand, lived for pleasure. We used birth control.

Well, should he get her acquiescence, Fernando would gladly fill Hannah with his baby juice. He didn’t mind mixing a little bourgeoisie into his bohemia if it meant making Hannah a lifelong teammate. At the very least, he was excited for some tremendous amorous exercises and the loot weighing down his backpack was intended to facilitate such palpitations. Among the valentines meant to stimulate her heart and mind were two bottles of her favorite red, three bags of classic flavored Skittles candy, a large stack of the past year’s New Yorkers and Harpers magazines, and some very good recent documentaries regarding American imperialism produced by independent media groups. Fernando had even bought a bouquet of roses from some flower vendor in Casablanca but they’d wilted considerably in the stuffy, unpleasant atmosphere of the bus and one heavy-bottomed woman had accidentally crushed the petals while maneuvering into the seat next to him, leaving him with just the thorns.

Fernando reminded himself to appreciate the view… Africa! And it was momentarily exotic in places—the shepherds and goat flocks and isolated mosques — he’d only ever been to Europe and that had been Spain and France with Hannah— but his thoughts roamed nostalgically on America, his student days, and the woman whose affections he was determined to rekindle from whatever had been lost in a year’s separation.

                                                                        *

“But seriously, why…?” Fernando asked, receiving his separate room key.

“No problem, amigo. The rooms are next door to each other. This is just for appearances, you know…”

Hannah was smiling her strawberry chapstick smile at him as if it were their sophomore summer season and she had invited him on a camping trip up north, towards the Oregon coast and beyond. Back then she had hair clipped short, shaved in the back, long in the bangs, a tattoo of a Soviet sickle crossed against a goose feathered quill visible behind her left earlobe. But she had let her hair grow out everywhere in long, wavy tufts that trickled down her shoulders. She was a little rounder, too, not fat, not at all, but a little more womanly in the chest and hips— Morocco, it seemed, had feminized her. Even those flavored lips looked thicker, more kissable, though Fernando dared not lean over, not yet.

He wondered if he were still handsome to her— except for a real world job not much had changed in his life. There was a bit of the rural intellectual in his appearance: rumpled, dark hair; big, black-framed glasses; his seven o’ clock shadow; the worn jeans, muddy boots, and old flannels: a sulking ethnic firebrand with splinters, grievances and manifestos.

Hannah had been there, as promised, at the city’s main roundabout when his bus pulled in an hour late. Before he could maneuver his mouth towards hers, she had embraced him with a friendly back pat. Greetings done she took him by the hand and led him in the direction of their hotel, talking a mile a minute (that, at least, hadn’t changed) about the water conservation project she was doing in the Rif and how it had been derailed by defective parts shipped from China but these local engineers, they could do anything with their tools, and then she launched into a technical spiel about what kind of consequences saving just five inches of rain runoff a year could have on crop yields, talking fractions and percentages as if it had any context for him… there was no baby I missed you how was your flight you haven’t changed a bit handsome as ever you young eagle-toothed hero you!

And now they were checking into separate rooms in some budget hotel, painted in quaint colors but its shared bathrooms and cell-like space felt lacking in real charm and comfort. Fernando, who made a decent salary as a web programmer for a well-funded NGO famous for its involvement in Africa and AIDS research, had volunteered to bankroll a splurge— he was visiting for the duration of her two-week break before she had to return to work in the village and he wanted to make the most of it, but Hannah had rejected his many offers: “Remember all those camping trips in the California woods? And in Europe, squatting with anti-fascists in Madrid and Lyon?” she’d asked. He did, but then she changed the subject to engineering, water levels, bushels per acre.

In his room, he presented his gifts: the magazines, the wines, the films, the candy—Skittles shells contained gelatin, a substance violating Halal dietary laws and thus unavailable anywhere in Morocco— the goods, laid out on the bed in their piles, might work as a lure to the homesick or nostalgic but they didn’t seem to stir Hannah’s enthusiasm. “I had some roses for you too…” he remembered, his voice trailing off, stung by the memory of the embarrassed fat woman and his tortured sighs. Hannah smiled nervously, as if aware that such an offering of treasure demanded some sort of reciprocity she didn’t have in her.  “I could really use this,” she said, holding up one of the wines, a Dominus Napa Valley Red 1999, and slipped it into a beat up tote sack they would bring with them to dinner.  “I’m starving,” she announced. “Let’s eat.”

Dinner was at one of the many restaurants in the main plaza, arranged along one side of a large open space facing the high walls of a medieval Kasbah and mosque. In spite of the lamps and a rich, swollen moon, Fernando could make out some stars above the looming jagged outline of the Rif Mountains. To his surprise, the tables were full of both tourists and locals and the conversation around him rippled in lively digressions. Musicians in bright, rambling tunics made their rounds, banging away on oblong goatskin guitars, snake-charming flutes, and relentless tambourine jangles. “Ramadan…” Hannah said, explaining the atmosphere, “When you’re hungry all day, every night’s a feast.”

To Fernando’s astonishment, she too had been fasting. But it made sense: their table was stacked with food: dates, hard-boiled eggs, minced lamb tajine, a loaf of French bread, a tomato vinaigrette salad, orange juice, mint tea. She had already put back more than half the wine, and her cheeks had taken the color of cloudy russet. Once she loathed the tobacco industry but now she rolled her own cigarettes with an agile wherewithal as she gabbed about spiritual revelations derived from extraordinary hunger. Talk: she had always been a better monologist than listener and the alcohol only fueled the massive superhighway between thought and voice. “I haven’t been drunk,” Hannah tee-heed, “in about four waxing crescent moons.”

Surfeit, they took a post-prandial stroll through the crowds in the plaza and then turned back, behind the common and up a very steep slope into the labyrinth of rich blue passageways branching out into the residential area. The colors muted at this hour, the mood remained lively, children’s laughter ricocheting in the dark and women murmuring in doorways. Faces flitted in the moonlight and men rearing up close whispered, “Hash,” in a long drawn-out hiss. Hannah said, “Yes,” to one and they followed a man in an acid-wash jeans shirt into a cul-de-sac. For the first time, Fernando heard Hannah’s Arabic, which was surprisingly fluent as she haggled over a fair price. Her voice seemed not her own then, changed, and he wondered seriously if this really were his woman anymore. Hands touched, fists unclenched surreptitiously and his strict once upon a time vegan Marxist girlfriend told him to pay the dealer fifty dirhams, which he did in spite of principled objections. The cash handed over, the man vanished and Hannah translated Fernando’s look easily enough, smiling it away, “Come on, amigo. ‘When in Rome’…” and she took his hand and tugged it for the first time.

Rome, here, indeed, meant hashish: plantations in the Rif were responsible for the soft, dreamy detours of much of Western Europe and a certain looseness, if not pride in product quality, pervaded the town. For many hippies then, Chefchaouen, the most beautiful city in the Rif, was a sort of pilgrimage site, a notch in the peace pipe of the illusory life.

Upon returning to his room, they opened the second bottle, a 2002 Anakena Pinot Noir from Chile’s Rapel Valley (good wine had always been the inconsistency betraying her populist instincts). Absent of glasses or cups they tugged deep and straight from the bottle in giddy, Dionysian sips as Hannah rolled one of her magical, Caesarian cigarettes.

It had been a year since he’d smoked anything and after a few puffs they fell into languid, introspective poses on the bed, Fernando wondering why he’d ever bothered to hold a grudge against psychoactive drugs. Well, he knew: it was a sacrifice made for the revolution. Fernando’s father, a naturalized Mexican union activist, had been the sole Chicano member of the San Francisco chapter of the radical leftist organization, Weather Underground. According to him, drugs had ruined the 1960s: their inherent effect was that of self-absorption, aggrandizement, and incoherent thought. Not to mention they were illegal and thus an excellent punitive way of taking care of an unruly population whose freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, no matter how radical the resistance, were protected by the Constitution. Fernando’s father had wound up a disgruntled postman when it was over, a government job, pissed to the end and casting a quarrelsome but impressionable shadow on his son.

The apple does not fall far from the tree: Fernando, developing his own voice, believed in some kind of revolution as a counterpoint to all the materialism he witnessed growing up in the Bay Area. Building on his father’s theories, he argued that Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No program was so blatantly uncool, so ridiculously asinine, that its true intentions were to trigger natural adolescent rebellious instincts. Every firing of the bong or snort of cocaine was a fuck off to the flunkey D.A.R.E officer and his sanctimonious drivel. It was so obvious to him growing up. The true rebel could see through the charade to its very dark essence and abstain from the systematic conspiracy. Staring up at the ceiling on the far side of the world he brought his theory up yet again— he had to: it was a way of putting them in a place well-understood, even if she had heard his argument a hundred times past and thought him a nut for it.

“Please, Louise and ‘Jeez!’” Hannah exclaimed. She sang some snippet of a famous 1960s song referencing paranoia.

But the hash had taken hold of his imaginary powers of conjecture and he teased her about the Peace Corps being a front for the CIA— there were a lot of places in the country that needed higher crop yields but they had stationed her in the one region that was notorious for its production of—

“I’m a hydrologist, not a mole.” She looked disgusted with him.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m just talking out loud here.” He felt embarrassed. Was he really making an ass of himself? Changing the subject and getting to the point, he asked, “What about the struggle? Do you still believe in it?” the words, ‘struggle’ and ‘believe,’ sounding disingenuous in the loaded moment.

“What struggle?” she asked. “Yours? Mine? Some widow in Bangladesh stitching Nike trainers in a Dhaka sweatshop for thirty-three cents an hour?” Her rich blue eyes, the beauty of which had inspired him to compose rambling odes when he’d first fallen in love with her, looked hard and cold, frustrated they should be riled from the cozy, gentle cloud her body had fallen against.

She asked, “You still boring people with your revolutionary jargon?”

                                                *

It wasn’t really a ‘bath’ in the literal sense, for he thought of bathing as entering a tub of water. The hammam felt like a cave under a volcano, local men collected along the walls looking deliriously fatigued in their underwear, whispering gossip and news, their voices bouncing along the small, enclosed space like an echo chamber. It was comfortable but there was no pool to enter. There was plenty of steam. And buckets. He used a small plastic ladle to scoop small quantities of hot water to drop over his head and body. The sensation on his flesh was addictive so that he bailed the water faster until there was just a bit left and he dumped the big bucket over his head, which felt wonderful but subsided after a few seconds, leaving him cold and wanting more and in the end, deeply dissatisfied.

Still it was a place to close one’s eyes and turn inwards, to be enveloped in the hot, heavy air and think, better, to reminisce, and Fernando cut and pasted the psychology of adolescent Hannah onto her contemporary self: witty, fiery and burning for him. He hated the vulgarity of the term, ‘college sweetheart,’ but that was what she had been. Like Fernando, you could argue her politicization had been spoon fed; Hannah was one of America’s last red diaper babies—her parents being ardent fans of Ho Chi Minh. But she seemed vigorous in her beliefs and although they found few students sympathetic to their calls to resistance, radicalism had been a bridge to love, so much so that regarding his feelings for Hannah leftism and libido had conflated to become one of the same.

Taking score of the trip thus far, Fernando declared it a disaster. Right after Hannah denigrated him with her political apostasy, she professed tiredness, bid good night and took to her own room (removing the bottle of Pinot Noir with her). In the morning, she’d declined his calling for breakfast on the pretense she was fasting, which, of course, made him feel guilty for his cheese omelet and coffee. He felt real anger: he was supposed to be the one holding onto his convictions and she the one living on the terms of a borrowed culture. Definitely, the food hadn’t been tasty enough to endure the dirty looks of hungry and righteous passersby.

After the hammam and a clandestine snack he met Hannah for a walk but, hungover, peckish, and irritable her pace was desultory and her conversation skills unusually aphasiac. Claiming exhaustion, she told him she would nap so that she could be fresh for him at sunset. Left to his own devices, he wandered the narrow blue alleys on his own, often losing his way in its randomness. The few people he saw outside looked as worn down and grumpy as Hannah— their laughter was invested in the evening fêtes. Daytime and its oppressive hunger, thirst, and addiction jonesing was something you endured as passively as possible.

So it was for him and his personal longings.

                                                            *

“I feel much, much better, thank you,” Hannah tinkled in a singsong voice.

They had a place at the café, figs, eggs, orange juice, mint tea, a rolled up cigarette. All the seats were full and nearly every table had an identical jumble of eats.  The sun was nearly gone now and everybody in the plaza sported a healthy, superb cast. Talk was wild and gleeful and would become more animated the minute the muezzins yodeled, officially ending another day’s abstention.

“Shall we call the waiter for a corkscrew?” she asked. They had spent the last hour of the afternoon questing towards the town’s sole liquor store and there purchased two bottles, a French and a domestic. Before he could respond she had already waved down a passing waiter, calling for an opener and fresh glasses. “It’s a miracle he has one, you know, this being an Islamic culture and all,” she sighed, and then turning to look directly into his eyes, “But then you never know about people, do you? I mean he could be a Saturday night connoisseur for all we know. People have all kinds of secrets and they’re choosy how they share them.”

And then: the buzz of large speakers being switched on. Fernando glanced up and saw the sun truly vanished in an orange nimbus. A warbling wail of jubilance burst into the air and a trio of pigeons upset by the blast of ecstasy alighted from the minaret into a confused swoop over the plaza. Men put away their prayer beads and all around there were lighters flickering and tea slurping, conversation pausing a moment for breathless consumption. Hannah lit her cigarette and throwing her head back, exhaled gratefully. Fernando, having withheld the temptation to snack over the last four hours of daylight, hungrily slipped into a handful of figs. And though there was none of the spiritual pleasure of having successfully fasted, he felt touched by the collective relief surrounding him.

But then he wanted to know: what secrets did she have? But she smiled girlishly at the question, the grown woman fluent in Arabic and aquifers turning momentarily coyishly adolescent— it frightened him that this was the person he had fallen in love with, this person that existed in atrophied expressions— but she waved off the question, “Forget it. I’m an open book. Yakkety-yak and blah blah blah…” she said, laughing, and finished her glass of orange juice in one long swig. “Please…” she handed him the corkscrew: “Be inconspicuous, but pour me a tall glass.”

Fernando didn’t believe her self-deprecation but decided to let it go.  During his afternoon walk, he had realigned his attitude: he wasn’t going to play the part of the jealous and the jilted— he reasoned that Hannah had evolved into some post- leftist, small scale, one day at a time activist who had taken on a slight habit of hedonism when at rest. He knew he still loved her, irresistibly so, and that the only way to guarantee any future between them involved a court and spark in this faraway kingdom, reinventing their relationship in a fresh, dangerous way. He reminded himself to be romantic. He whispered to himself, ‘I will do anything for this woman.’

And so he poured a glass for himself too and they talked and ate and drank and when the musicians approached their table, striking a serenade, he didn’t flinch but very gentlemanly slipped the blind singer in dark glasses a twenty note for his efforts. And couscous with soft, tender chicken and two more glasses, the bouquet never souring and stories about rural Morocco and her dour Arabic instructor and the privations she’d managed and then the next bottle and a little of the old Hannah came out: she started in on Morocco’s high unemployment, the inefficiency of the government to provide a quality lifestyle for its working poor, and over yet another glass she wondered whimsically how the imams could weld class consciousness into everyday Islam— he was keeping up with her glass for glass and loving her all over again but then Fernando and Hannah were full and the bottles empty. They paid their bill and hurried through the busy alleys for more. The store had been closed but the proprietor lived in the next room and he opened the door in his pajamas and, charmed by Hannah’s remarkable linguistic capacity, shared half a bottle with them in his small, humble room, grandchildren scurrying about excitedly as the old man reminisced over the days Chefchaouen was a Spanish colony— business had not been the same since the soldiers left all those years ago.

Corking the rest, they bought a ‘just in case’ bottle to return with them to her room where she kept the hashish. Rolling the cigarette, she’d recommended they visit the roof. Fernando was going to his room to retrieve a sweater when Hannah exclaimed, “Don’t do that. I brought you a present!”  The lit cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth, she dropped her bag upside down and Fernando saw toiletries and shirts and socks and panties tumble out, captivating him… he recalled her scent deliciously… Hannah handed him a plastic bag, from which he withdrew a long, striped robe with pointed hood. “It’s a djellaba,” she said. Most of the men in town wore one and she encouraged him to try it on. “You look like a Jedi master,” she howled, placing the cigarette in his mouth, stoning him. He felt silly but she complimented him and he knew to ride out the crest of that strawberry smile.

On the roof, they had their bottle and cigarettes and Fernando felt woozy and warm. For a cheap hotel, the roof boasted a fine three-sixty view and in the moonlight the city had a lovely storybook quality to it. “It’s late,” she said between sips, “But I’m happy, aren’t you?”

They were standing there by the railing, hovering over it all when a star crossed the sky in an auspicious arc. Fernando thought to himself: Here, I lean over to kiss her and it starts all over again, a new beginning…

But courage hesitates and a noise below… some kind of rhythmic cadence… and then squinting into the dark they spotted them, the drummer boys, banging on their instruments— Fernando checked his watch: two in the morning.

“Pretty late for band practice,” he mumbled.

Hannah was smiling. “They’re alarm clocks. They’re waking up the women to prepare tajine or salads or meat or something so that the family can eat before the sun comes out.” Fernando saw lights going on, candles flickering in windows. “It’s strange and beautiful,” she said in a tone of voice she’d once said, I love you.

But he was irritated. The moment felt somehow stolen from him, her sweetness concentrated in the wrong place. He asked, “What’s the point of purification if you just get drunk and stoned at night?”

She recognized the sound in his voice— its frustration with the way things were instead of how they should have been— and frowned. “It’s not just about purification. It’s more about empathy and feeling for the poor, understanding their experience in a sensory way, not a theoretical one. You could say it’s symbolic of course, but at least it’s a kind of effort—”

And then he moved on her, swooped in thoughtlessly, putting his hands on the small of her back and locking his mouth onto hers, impulsive, desperate, terribly hopeful and yet for naught as she pulled back from him. There were no theatrics in her withdrawal, neither apology nor scolding. In vain, he waited but no explanation came.

She turned away from him to face the drummer boys and the silhouetted female forms moving within the kitchens below. A pilot light went on. Water pipes gargled to life. A baby sobbed.  

A minute passed, the longest minute in Fernando’s life.       

Hannah said, sadly, “I’m so hungry.”

 

A native of Los Angeles living in Kyoto, Japan, Sean Lotman is a writer and photographer. More of his photography can be viewed at www.seanlotman.com and he has an ongoing photo-haiku project at www.idohaikuyou.com. 

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