Do you remember the place with the tall windows and the narrow balcony? One of the hotels along the Corniche, I forget which one. The damp air made the casements swell and crack. That first day we pushed open the shutters and looked out at the sea. It was glassy in the morning and invisible at night. It blew into the room and salted our skin and the fruit we left on the table. I liked the smell—fresh with a whiff of rot.
We came armed with wishful thinking. We believed we’d find my grandfather’s books, the diwans that he wrote in the thirties. I’d spot them;I’d know them by their crumbly endpapers,the color of eggshell, pluck them like leaves, and slip them into my pocket. But it wasn’t so simple. The city was a maze. We argued. The air was hot and dense with moisture. Our skin itched and our joints swelled, and the saltyair burned my eyes and made them red. When I handed my passport to the man at the hotel, he gave me a look, as if I’d been crying.
I grew up in a house near an inland bay. It connected with the ocean through a deep channel. You could see ripples where the two waters met;it was a dangerous place for boats. You grew up a few towns over. I didn’t know you then. There was an estuary with sea birds and birds of prey. Osprey built nests of sticks in the eyries along the edge of the marsh. There were oysters and clams, and sandpipers and plovers, and a bird called an oystercatcher. Twice a year, migrating geese came and left a trail of ruin. In the summer,there were mosquitoes and clouds of gnats that rose and fell like widow’s weeds. I grew up swimming in the bay and the ocean, and so did you. The air was briny, but it didn’t sting.
The hotel was quiet, nearly deserted. Our room was on the top floor. There was a sink in one corner, a table with two chairs, a pitcher and a bowl. We ate fruit we brought with us. I put a guava in the bowl,and you called it a still life. Mornings, we sat at the table to write. You worked and didn’t speak, and I sketched and made notes—drawings of people, streets, stray cats patched together from memory. We kept our work to ourselves. Later, we’d go for a swim. I was always loath to wash off the salt. I’d lick my lips and wonder why they tasted like the sea when yours did not.
You had lists of addresses of antiquarian bookstores and Greek pastry shops. You said the bookstores came from another era, and so did the pastry. You said the street names were changed after the revolution. You read them out loud to me like lines of blank verse: rue Al-Masala, rue de Francia, rue Motash Pasha, rue Fouad. I thought you had magic powers. I asked you how we would find the bookstores if the street names had changed. You said don’t worry, we’ll find them.
Each day, we searched. We carried bottled water and bread wrapped in paper. I tried to be patient. You thought this was important, you said this was for me. But I wasn’t sure. I tried to remember something my mother told me but I could not. By evening, we were hungry. I wanted grilled fish but there was never enough time. I would have wandered the streets forever, but you had a schedule. You were strident and unyielding. I hated schedules. I bore grudges like stones. We’d return to the hotel exhausted, fling open the shutters and let the wind blow fog into our bed. I could never fall asleep. You slept like a corpse. By morning, the room was stifling. I washed my feet in the sink to cool off. I stood on one leg and then the other, which madeyou laugh.
The days dragged. We asked people for help and they sent us in every direction. We asked one shop owner and then another. We asked a man selling flowers from a cart. We asked a teenager in a blue galebeya and brown plastic slippers. He knew of an old bookstore, he said he would take us there. He was animated, irresistible. We followed him down a street that became an alley and ended in a cul-de-sac. He smiled at us and vanished. As we picked our way back to the hotel, a gang of little boys circled and pelted us with limes. You pulled out your map, the one folded in sixteen parts, and brandished it like a weapon. You roared and the boys scattered, shrieking with laughter. You patted your map, but it wasn’t the map that scared them.
On our last day, we stopped at a textbook shop on the rue Al-Nabi Daniel. The proprietor sat working behind the counter. His hair was white and he wore wire-rimmed spectacles. I watched the fluid movements of his pen as it danced across his ledger. He came around the counter and listened kindly to our question, which had become our refrain: How might we find this and that street, and this or that bookstore that sells poetry from the thirties. He sighed. He said the old bookstores were long gone, and we should try the book fair in Cairo, in Ezbekiah, at the end of the month. We will do that, you said. It will be fun.
I mentioned my grandfather, the poet. I offered his name like the key to a puzzle. The old man asked how I knew of him. He said years ago, he sold him textbooks for classes he taught at the university. He said when the war was over, the poet took his family and left the country. It was in the news for a while, and then it wasn’t. He said he always wondered what had happened to his children. I told him the poet was my grandfather. I happened.
The old man’s eyes went all glassy. I inhaled his shirt, his skin redolent of cedar and sweat. Shafts of sunlight cut through the air and a thousand dust motes floated like stars between us. We stood like that in the shop, my face in his hands, you off to the side with your backpack. He searched my eyes but I don’t know if he found what he was looking for.
Maybe when you go I’ll stay behind, I thought. I’ll help the old man close his shop for the night. I’ll accompany him home and he’ll introduce me to his wife, and she’ll invite me to stay for dinner. She’ll feed me grilled fish and fruit that doesn’t taste of salt. He’ll tell stories about my grandfather, and about my mother when she was young. I’ll stay with them, just for a little while. I’ll spend my days by the sea, swimming and eating pastry. My Arabic will improve just enough so I can read my grandfather’s poetry.
We stood on the balcony and watched the mist rise and disperse in a fug that embraced the harbor. I closed the shutters and you threw away the guava. We hauled our bags to the train station. You couldn’t find your map. I told you I thought you left it on the table.
When my mother died, I helped my father empty his house. I found a box of her things, sewing patterns, spools of colored thread and old dry-cleaning bills. My pocket Arabic-English dictionary was in there, and a menu from a café in Madrid. Wedged between them were the two librettos we found that summer at the book fair in Ezbekiah. I didn’t know my grandfather wrote librettos. We visited the fair in a last attempt to find something, anything, before I headed home. We passed table after table, stack after stack of books. I spotted the librettos from a distance, their crumbly endpapers the color of eggshell, their cover illustrations of mythical creatures printed in blue ink.
I forgot all about that summer. I didn’t hear from you again. I gave my mother the librettos and she inscribed her name in them in Arabic. I forgot about them too, until I pulled them from the box. Something stuck between them fell to the floor. It was your tattered map folded in sixteen parts.