There's a blackhead on my chin. I probe it every morning. I poke; I prod; I nudge; it won't budge. It's been there for a month. By now, I have given it a name. I call it Charlotte, mostly because it rhymes with harlot. I see it several times a day. It sees me, too. Sometimes, I catch its unsightly gaze staring back at me shamelessly, defiantly. “I'm here to stay.”
It’s a lesson in coexistence. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger—and every so often, uglier.
It’s Tuesday, and I think, today is the day. It has to go. It’s almost ripe enough to pluck, though not quite, but I think, it has to be today.
I leave work early and head home. By 17:45, I’m in the bathroom (the blue one); the tap is running (the water pressure is criminally low); and I’m gloating (prematurely, over my anticipated triumph).
Removing a blackhead is an exacting affair; one must be patient, determined, and persistent. Occasionally, too much meddling can make the situation worse—the blackhead becomes inflamed, or the skin around it gets irritated. As with most things in life, one should know when to bash away, but also when to call it a day.
My friend Sasha says that warm water opens up the pores and helps you pop pimples and remove blackheads more easily: “The hotter, the better. If it’s so scorching it burns, then it’s just the right temperature.”
With this dubious refrain nagging in my mind, I lean forward and let the water—now a touch warmer than my morning coffee—run liberally over my chin. Two minutes pass. I turn off the tap and pat my chin dry. With both hands, I gently pull the skin on both sides of the blackhead away from it. I lean toward the mirror to get a closer look. My chin skin is an awkward salmon, but otherwise, nothing to be reported. I perform the entire routine—tap on; submerge; hold; tap off; dry; pull—on repeat.
The bathroom light flickers halfway through my fifth episode of spasmodic yanking. It must be the generator.
My brother calls out from the next room (has he been here this whole time?): “Do you feel that? The floor is shaking.”
“No, but I think there’s something wrong with the electricity.” (He's always had a flair for drama.)
I go back to the blackhead—I think it’s been dislodged somewhat, but I can’t tell for sure.
My brother’s footsteps approach: “Seriously, you didn’t feel anything?”
Then it happens. We don’t know what it is, but it’s loud, I’m scared, and we hold one another, because that’s what you do—instinctively, mechanically—when you’re convinced of your imminent extinction.
I think, this is an earthquake. I've never been in an earthquake, but I think, this must be an earthquake. I had a dream once: a blackbird was pecking through my stomach relentlessly. I try to push him away, but his claws are dug inch-deep into my skin. It hurts more than his convulsive jabbing into my flesh. I've never been pecked by a bird, but I think, this must be what it feels like to be pecked by a bird.
“What was that? An assassination?” my brother asks.
It can’t be an assassination, I think, unless they went for the president. It feels very close, and there’s nothing else near here.
The first person who texts me: Sasha.
“Omg there was a bomb. In Zarif everything blew up dude. What is happening?”
The second person who texts me: Hisham.
My mother calls my brother (not me, of course), wailing hysterically (a euphemism—there is no milder way to put it):
“Where are you? Are you home?”
The first person I call: an old flame. The second person I call: my therapist. Neither of them answers, and I think, would I need to (want to) go to my former lover’s funeral if he died?—and what a hassle it would be to look for a new therapist and start over after five years of therapy.
Videos of thick, pink smoke, leading up to an explosion with a titanic mushroom cloud circulate on WhatsApp—all of them shot in the Port area. On the news, reporters say a warehouse full of fireworks caught fire. As the evening unfolds, we hear the words “ammonium nitrate,” though we don’t know what they mean, and my father calls with news of my cousin’s death.
For weeks to come, I am unable to cry. I confide in my friend and old mentor, Jim. “No one cries when tragedy hits home,” he says. “That stuff only happens in the movies. Human beings don’t react that way in real life.” I find great solace in these words, even if they may not be true.
Two months later, my phone falls into the toilet bowl. I retrieve it right away; the screen goes black, and it won’t turn on. I am unable to resuscitate it. Then, for the first time since the explosion, I weep.
I close my eyes, and my first instinct is to cover my face. I think, my face is all I have, though I also know I’m not that beautiful.
Maybe the computer screen exploded. This is a sign from God, telling me to stop playing The Sims, window-shopping for another life, and to live mine instead.
I open my eyes, and I think, this is war. I’ve never lived through a war, but I think, this is war. My father and brother are in the living room with me, and I can’t find my mother. The windows are all gone. The blinds are gone, too, and I look straight into the street. There’s black smoke everywhere, and I don’t know where it’s coming from. The air tastes like dust. I hear people screaming, but mostly, I hear the deafening sound of car alarms. I still can’t find my mother.
I don’t remember much after that, but I do remember getting into an ambulance with both my parents, while my brother stayed home (years later, he told me he was warding off strangers who were curious about the damage); the wounds on my arm, unstitched, festering; my mother crying over her beloved, shattered crystalware in the dining room; living in my grandmother’s house for three months; my brother getting admitted into the hospital for a kidney stone; our favorite nurse, Gaby, humming Beyoncé songs; my father’s friend, Jeannette, with whom I always suspected him to have an affair, driving me to university everyday; menstruating twice a month for six months; how terrible I looked in my first-year university ID photo, my eyes droopy, my smile stiff.
It’s Thursday 19 September 2007. Antoine Ghanem, an anti-Syrian MP, is assassinated in an explosion under my parents’ house. Seven other people are killed. No one remembers their names, just as no one remembers this story. Some things never leave you; you have to learn how to live with them.
This is to say, I wasn’t near the Port when the explosion happened, but I think, I wish I had been.
Muriel N. Kahwagi
Muriel N. Kahwagi is a writer based in Beirut. She is currently researching the politics of documenting sung poetry (zajal) in Lebanon, a project supported by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC).