A cat sat on his bed like a small disheveled black Sphinx. As Ziad drew near it, it turned to face him. “No!” it shrieked. It jumped around his bedroom, and he chased after its violent “No’s.” When Ziad got close enough to pet it, a stroke of its fur set the cat alight, and it exploded.
Ziad woke up. He wasn’t too startled. It wasn’t the first time he’d chased resistant detonating cats around in his dreams. He’d dreamt of that cat over three times that month. The first time around, he woke up panting, guilt tingling his throat. But since waking up anxious and confused more mornings that year than not, he was used to it. It was another morning and another exploding cat. Often on Sunday mornings, the outside world perforated the thin veil of his sleep. He stood outside of himself and watched the neighborhood kids beat a basketball over the cement parking lot, and he played with them. But ultimately, the dream would end with a massive loss and some scolding towering coach. Those mornings, he woke up feeling he let the world down. Every morning, Ziad woke up to an empty bed. His wife Racha’s day always started ahead of his.
Sunday mornings never lived up to their hype in the Afif household. After three years of marriage, Racha and Ziad grew tired of parading around every weekend, from door to door or bistro to bistro. In three years, they grew attached to the little home they made out of their Hazmieh apartment, and the silence. They had the day off, their parents weren’t sick, they didn’t have any children to entertain, and they could watch the Sunday service on TV. So why bother get the car out of the parking lot on the only day they didn’t have to?
They led a regular life, they’d say. Besides home and work, they had little to look forward to. They didn’t ask for much, or maybe they resigned to being grateful for what they had, given their limited finances. In the past, they managed to get each of their friends together, and for a while they had a diverse circle. But what resulted from this merger was a quite insulting abandonment after their friends realized they did not enjoy Racha and Ziad’s company as much, at least not when they were together. It was alright, they still had their work friends, so Racha was not the only one left to listen to Ziad’s repetitive accounts. He worked in insurance, not particularly a dream of his but it was what he could find at the time. Surely, Racha thought, he’d grow from there, at one point or another. She kept a stable job in marketing. She knew, better than Ziad, what she wanted.
They both agreed on one thing, however. Both managed to escape their families’ fate, or so at least tried to. It began with leaving Aabey – a mountain town overlooking the Mediterranean where they had grown up, skipping between the orchards, ages ten and eleven. Their parents were longtime friends, neighbors, and maybe even shared blood sometime in the history of the small tight-knit town they called home. Racha’s family was the first to move to the city. At twelve, Beirut worked her like clay, and she was convinced that with the loose grip her parents had — but did not admit to having — she could make her own way. She started feeling a visceral repulsion to her hometown and its now cruddy woods. Racha’s family seldom went back to Aabey. She stopped seeing Ziad after the move.
His family moved to Hazmieh only two years after Racha’s. Ziad often daydreamed of seeing her in the market, or that he was unknowingly enrolled in her school. But that was never the case, and their families had very clearly cut the cord, which seemed natural after "that thing that happened that they never talked about.” Their parents had no plans to get back to their hometown either, but the older they got, the more poetic their pining for the “land” became. Racha's father explained that “you can pick a flower out of the ground and place it in the prettiest vase, but it would only wilt — you cannot grow without your roots.” What does that make me? Racha thought. Has she become nothing but a flower with droopy petals? They moved back to Aabey soon after her younger brother, Shadi, graduated from college. She stayed along with Shadi in Beirut, but she would have the place to herself as soon as her brother left the country. That always was the assumed case to which no one gave much thought. Shadi left, Racha redecorated the living room, and word got out in Aabey of her solo occupation, spreading through the grapevine. It did as much as push her parents off a social cliff, or at least they reacted as such. They had not returned to town to dwell once more in the censure that made them leave. So her parents gave her an ultimatum: marriage or Aabey. They wouldn’t have her stay on her own in the apartment.
At that point, Ziad’s parents had started getting sick, and in their ailing pleas, they declared they’d only die in Aabey. The prophecy was prematurely fulfilled; his father passed away from a stroke seven months after his return. Grief was a reasonable enough occasion for the two families to awkwardly reunite. Racha and Ziad began catching up after that – fourteen years worth of transformation on their backs. They started getting together more often after the funeral. Ziad was starting out at work and living alone. He wasn’t particularly at his prime. Racha was still negotiating her stay in Beirut. They found in each other the potential to grow. Racha was active, and sure she’d give him the push he needs to pursue something bigger than his scanty insurance job. Neither of them believed in marriage, even in a love marriage. Their upbringing stood to discredit any such sentiment. They came to see marriage as a mere social ticket – a pass to avoid individual scrutiny by doing things as a verified couple. Racha saw in him a sponsor; someone whose support, albeit non-material, she could count on to get what she wanted. Racha felt marriage would take her from under the microscope, or at least take her a little out of focus with Ziad in the picture. It was a diffusion of responsibility, one which she thought she could share with Ziad. Racha and Ziad found it easy to build trust, and even a little love had started to develop after their engagement – which their parents weren’t too glad about but resigned to – and the first two years were pleasant.
On that Sunday morning, Racha got out of bed as soon as she awoke. She felt a sense of urgency, as she had for the past few months, to get things done before Ziad woke up. Before starting anything else, she drew out Ziad’s shoeboxes from under the bed.
The first contained, along with his brown formal shoes, two new neckties, red and purple, rolled in their plastics. The second had black shoes and a closed box of fragrance. The third only had a scarf she had not seen him wear yet. Racha returned the boxes to their exact positions just as she did every morning, and went to shower. She didn’t want to suspect the worst of Ziad, but he had really left her no other option. He did have his peculiarities, but to go as far as to deliberately hide seemingly harmless belongings was no peculiarity, she thought. They never hid anything. That was the foundation of their relationship. But he may have had furtiveness in his blood, Racha thought. What was to be left of her if she were to drag this on forever? She needed to set things straight.
“Come on. Wake up,” she said, running around the bedroom picking up the scattered remains of that long week, clothes and socks and plates and empty beer bottles.
“It’s ten o’clock. The day's over.”
“We’ve got nothing,” he said rolling over to face away from her. “Will you relax?”
“We’ve got nothing because you're still in bed. Yalla, up. We don’t have anything but we’ll do some-thing."
“Is something up?”
“Nothing’s up, alright. We haven't seen the sun for God knows how long,” she said. “We’re rotting. Let’s do something, you and me.”
“And you can’t see the sun without me chaperoning?” he said. She said nothing. Her face turned; her lips converged and every crease in her face traced her pout.
“And you propose?” Ziad amended.
“We’ll go find some place with some trees. How about that?”
“Want me to take you to the mountains?”
“You? You need someone to drag you up there yourself.”
“I mean I’d just drop you off.”
He sat up and smirked. It didn’t help loosen the tightness around her mouth.
“One of us has to have humor, right?” he said.
“Too bad it’s you,” she said.
“I don’t know, I just want us to sit together somewhere and talk. We need to talk.”
“All we ever do is talk though. Just talk.”
“I don’t know Ziad, is it possible that in the whole of Beirut we can’t find somewhere quiet to sit?”
“It is, yes,” he said.
She dragged the covers off of him. “Get up, try to look for something to do, alright.”
The closest, or rather the first plot he found was Sioufi garden. It had astounded him that in the thirteen years that he’d lived in Hazmieh, he had never once come across a park only a ten-minute drive away. Racha most likely was surprised too, but she never readily acknowledged her lack of awareness of anything. On the contrary, she had the tendency to put everything she noticed outright. “You’ve been wearing too much aftershave,” she’d say. Or “Your tie will attract bees.” It would deeply trouble him sometimes what she didn’t say. He’d go on to do the things he does, all the while thinking whether her perception had taken a dive or maybe she chose to brew inside her something too bitter to drink. Maybe people don’t want to hear about all the things they’re doing wrong: had Racha ever thought about that? Was it wrong, Ziad wondered, to want to be praised? In part, he felt he couldn’t tell her things anymore. He found that other people appreciated his stories, his coin collection, and his quirks. He began to find it harder and harder to go back home to Racha. God only knew what she wanted to achieve that day, and it worried Ziad what she might want to dig up.
It was the last picnic they ever had together as families. Spring of ‘95 had just started as well, and a flock of tremendously arranged migrating geese flew in east in the direction of the apple and olive orchards Ziad’s dad tended to. Amine, Ziad’s father, had inherited three pieces of land distributed in and around town. Racha's mom always talked about the orchards and how it was a shame Jihad didn’t have any land. Her father would dismiss and change the subject. His eyes would tell Yasmine to never bring it up again. But she would, many times, and he would swallow his pride many times. The two families always had their picnics in one of the two orchards. Ziad couldn’t recall anyone besides his father ever visiting the third land, the farthest away from town. Amine had said its soil was haggard and stunk of rotten citrus. The car stunk too of a weird lavender that seemed to be forcefully masked by the musky aftershave Amine wore. Racha had ridden with them to make space for the coolers in her parents’ car; she remembered it vividly. She found it odd because Ziad’s mom, Amal, had smelled very distinctly of fennel, all year long, and not a hint of it was in the car. Or it could have been all the lavender her mom stuffed in Racha’s packed spring clothes that diffused into the air. Either way, the smell made her nauseous.
In the orchard, they had designated a spot with a small bonfire circumvented with big rocks, made for the autumn season when they’d usually get together to make jams, quince most often and sometimes apricot. The orchard was on the slope and it was terraced seven times, and their picnic spot was on the seventh terrace. The kids would rush out of the cars at the top of the slope and race down the steps, sometimes getting there in one piece and other times falling face first onto the fresh spring bed of clovers. The field was so big it was easy to hide anywhere or even get lost.
The adults were happy when they didn’t have to chase their children. They rode their cars down to the site and sat down for several rounds of coffee. Until lunch time, the kids would tire around the trees. Ziad would sometimes act grown-up and sit stubbornly with the parents. “Zuzu, get up! Get up! Why do you want to sit here?” Racha would shove him. “They’re having mom-and-dad talk, you do not know about that. Come on let’s play.”
“Go with Shadi,” he’d brush her off. But he would return no longer than ten minutes after that and she’d scold him, saying she knew he couldn’t understand parent-talk.
“Here, have this goat's udder,” he’d say, and he’d pick a flower of ten tubular pink petals with swollen tips. She’d grab the petals altogether in her palm and pull them out of the sepal, and she’d place the stem in her mouth and suck the sugary sap. It was their favorite little treat from the land, in part because no one really knew what it was, and their parents called it goat’s tit or udder and it made them guiltily giggle to hear their own parents say such things.
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up about this place,” Ziad broke the silence in the car.
“You never do,” Racha said coldly. “It might surprise you.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“We’re almost there, alright. We’re not going back now. What’s the deal with you? I don’t understand.”
“You know I don’t like these things, picnics or whatever,” he said. “We stopped doing that long ago.”
“It’s just a change of, you know, scenery,” said Racha.
Ziad drove slowly and kept his eyes on the road even as he spoke. Racha saw his eyes sometimes trail to her as he watched her in his periphery. He still would not turn. When they finally got to the garden, it was as shabby as they had both expected. But it would do for then. In a spot in the middle, wild weeds grew and intertwined with fine bushes, sucking out their color. Around the centerpiece, ficus trees grew out of the tiled ground, rising above rotting benches.
On their last picnic out in Amine’s orchard, Ziad came back to join Racha and her brother who were scouting for dandelions. But he came back with something on his face that Racha could not quite understand. “What's wrong with you, Zuzu? You look like you’ve seen a fox,” she said. He didn’t respond, he just seemed sadder.
“But there are no foxes around here, silly,” she said as if reassuring herself too.
“Sure there are.”
“Okay,” she said. “ Maybe you can help Shadi and I. We are picking flowers and we are going to give them to dad to give to mom, and maybe you can get your dad to give your flowers to your mom.”
“I don’t want that.”
“Why not?” she knelt down and picked a yellow snapdragon and added it to her bundle.
Later at lunch time, Racha sat at a pine tree that had grown alone in the orchard. She had assigned that tree to be her official spot and marked it with her initials. It had the strangest of trunks that was thin enough to almost fit in between her shoulder blades. The rest would sit on blankets on opposite sides of her. The grown-ups wouldn’t sit, or at least the moms wouldn’t. They’d either check on the barbecue or get the water and the wipes, or run around
chasing her little brother to get him to stay put.
On their last trip, however, they all stayed standing except for Racha, who sat with the pine trunk between her shoulder blades and waited for everyone to sit down. Ziad was by his mother, clutching at the waist of her dress, with the same paleness on his face. Amal’s eyes, like her son’s, fixated on some distant nothingness, her mouth gaped slightly. Her eyes glistened, but it was not charming. Ziad let go of her dress and stretched out his arms further and caressed her, pulling her away with small but forceful tugs. Racha had the feeling that the fox he’d seen was in fact real, and his mom had seen him too. The clouds huddled up above them, as if their eyes had reflected in the atmosphere.
Ziad stuffed his face in his mother’s side. In the darkness, his mother’s fennel scent — intensified by the fennel she held in her hand — burned his nostrils. But he had found the aroma particularly comforting. When he straightened up to look at his mother, the glow he’d grown to see radiate from her was gone. They turned to face the bonfire. The air was so solid it burned like plastic, rippled and browned around the edges of the fire. In front of the fire stood the two dads, effectively motionless, peering straight into each others' sweaty faces. Racha’s father drew his shoulders way back, and had begun to raise himself over Amine. The capillaries of his face flooded the creases in his skin, and his temples began to bulge.
“Jihad,” Racha’s mother cried, but she had nothing to say after that.
“Move, Yasmine,” he yelled, flinching a little. Although she had her arm out, Yasmine couldn’t get herself to touch him.
Racha felt a tear form in her eye, but she couldn’t tell what was happening. Adults had the capacity to understand silences, but she could barely catch onto her mother’s screams sometimes. It felt like someone was supposed to scream, but they bit their lips like they were playing hide and seek. Ziad was stunned, somehow he might have understood. Maybe he wasn’t meant to, maybe he did, and it petrified him to. Amal with a choke in her voice gathered the kids. “Go up, go hide and seek, get flowers, go up yalla.” If she could move, she’d hold them by the hand and walk them up seven terraces, but she could only usher with her hands and hope they’d understand from the shooing of her fingers to go far. The children ran up to a higher terrace, where through an aged olive tree that branched out in split beams they couldn’t help but watch. They crouched silently, close, the air moistening around them.
“MY WIFE, YOU SON OF A BITCH, MY WIFE!” Jihad’s screams fluttered into the branches.
Jihad gripped Amine’s crossed arms and gave him a heavy shove, as if restraining himself from throwing a harder punch. Why should he though? “Don’t you have any shame? No values? I’m your brother. I’m your fucking friend.” Amine showed little resistance, he neither spoke nor resisted. He looked away from Jihad, only watching his rising and falling peripherally.
“Jihad,” Yasmine cried, her voice trembling. “Not, not in front of the kids. Please.”
“Yes, in front of the kids. You have the nerve to speak still, eh?” he yelled even louder. “Yes, in front of the kids. Let them see the whore of the mother they have. Your turn is coming. Do you have no shame, no shame you people?”
Amal stood by, gripping her wet napkin. Her rage was silent. She, like her husband, could not speak, but had a lot to say. She wanted Jihad to take him out. She wanted Amine to collapse, to bleed. She wanted him to be reduced into nothing but discarded matter, the way she felt. Amal looked at the fire raging behind them and down at the grass flattened under their feet. She had no one to look to. She wanted to watch Jihad as he popped the top off of Amine’s skull; as he drew the blood that had poisoned his bloodline. She wanted Jihad to break Amine’s ribs; unsheathe the heart that apparently beat for Yasmine and the lungs that inhaled her lavender.
Ziad sat on a bench, but Racha had awkwardly sat on the tiled garden floor against a young ficus tree. They drank orange juice she had made at home – his spiked with spirit. It looked nothing like what they used to do before, but it felt the same. She knew it felt the same. Racha was silent, her rage was silent. Ziad crossed his arms and looked away, the sun ablaze behind him. Maybe they agreed to escape their parents’ fates, but maybe Ziad couldn’t keep that promise either. She stretched out and tried to get the rough ridges of the deviled ficus to support her shoulder blades. She looked at Ziad, who did not look at her. Who smelled of strong aftershave, and some rosemary – which Racha didn’t care for. And it was their last picnic.