Inspired by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s ‘Origami Prunes’.
You often asked how I came to know her, this is how:
I had egg yolks on my mind the night I met Salma. It was a humid New York evening, the type of August existence where it feels like the city is grabbing you by the neck and only letting you go once you admit that it is, indeed, “the greatest city in the world.” It had been two years since I’d graduated from NYU with an arts degree bankrolled by you and Baba. I’d spent every second since graduation doing backflips to not have to go back to Cairo. It wasn’t that I disliked Cairo, I really didn’t, but once I’d settled somewhere the thought of getting up and going somewhere else overwhelmed me. And so, I stayed in New York, reveling in the sludge and painting fingerprints on subway poles. None of this was on my mind that night, however. All I could think about was an egg yolk nestled in the warm caress of its white.
Elsewhere in the world, you were pouring salt into a pot of boiling water. When I was little, I worried that somehow the flame from the stove was going to engulf the whole house and so I would always stand by and watch when you cooked. You mentioned to me once that moving about the kitchen you still pictured me knee-height and latching onto your legs. As the grains slipped from your hand, did you stop to think of me? The city kept a mound of salt near my house for when it snowed. It was imported from home and I often thought of you as I traveled past it.
After work, I took the 4 train to Bowling Green Park with grand plans of lying on a bench and staring at the sky. I’d done the same thing the previous day, and the one before. By the time I got to the park, I had worked my way outward from the yolk onto the egg white. Or so I think. Perhaps I was not thinking of eggs at all, but an egg appears so prominently in my mind each time I revisit that night. I laid on a park bench chewing my thoughts. How did the egg white know to hold its yolk so gently and why did humans feel the need to build buildings so tall?
Elsewhere in the world, you were washing lentils. The water ran past your wedding band and down the drain. You had inherited the ring from Baba’s grandmother, the one named after the disposed Egyptian king’s sister. When I was little, we would go for walks by the water and you would tell me about diseases you could get from swimming in the Nile. My mind would conjure images of yellowed skin as we stopped to watch the skyline.
Cairo is a place that inhabits you. Although I now lived in New York, my brain was always stuck in an 11 PM Cairo traffic jam. I had grown up in Garden City, a downtown tree-lined neighborhood with dusty villas and a congregation of embassies. My building consisted mainly of retirees. I learnt football by playing against the guards at the embassies with British, Canadian, and American flags flying overhead. In my New York days, my primary interface with my hometown was through my weekly phone calls with you. When I first moved to New York, we would talk entirely in Arabic but over time English crept its way in and sat there on each call like a third caller on the line. I think you feared that the string tied between my ankle and the bedpost in my childhood bedroom was wearing thinner with time. I did also, but not enough to take any action towards shortening or strengthening it. Instead, I just lied on the bench. By this point, I had worked my way out to the shell.
Elsewhere in the world, you were chopping coriander. I called you once to ask about how much coriander to use and you said to trust my instinct, that’s what you always did. This was also the part of the ritual where you typically sat down and got some rest. Walking in on you on your brown stool always meant you had just finished with the coriander. At all other points, you were buzzing about the kitchen.
I sat up for a second and when I glanced at her, I knew the strings on our ankles led to the same place. Perhaps, somewhere over the Atlantic, the strings even crossed each other at a point. Like a non-stick pan, eggs slid entirely off my mind. Her curly brown hair sat comfortably on her shoulders, telling stories of nights spent in felucca boats, music blaring in the background. She looked to be about my age, perhaps a bit older. I walked around the fountain at the center of the park to the bench where she was sitting, typing away on her phone.
“إنتي مصرية؟” I asked.
Her typing slowed as she looked up at me.
“،أهلاً، أهلاً” she replied.
She put her phone away and I realized I should have prepared more to say. I raked my mind for a follow-up. No girl wants to be talked to of eggs.
“Do you want to come sit at the edge of the fountain with me?” she asked.
Elsewhere in the world, you were sautéing an onion and trying to count all the non-onion induced tears you’d shed in your life. Baba and I always told you to use yellow onions because they didn’t sting your eyes as much but you insisted that food tasted better with red onions. Did my name come up often when you were doing your counts?
We were by the fountain when I asked for her name.
“Salma. What’s yours?”
“Samir. Samir ElMasry.” I wondered about the color of her bedsheets. Had she bought a set from Target when she got to the States or did she lug her ones from home onto her EgyptAir flight? Perhaps she was more Neiman Marcus. Likely the latter.
“What brings you here, Samir?”
“I like lying on these benches.” I had never been good at making myself sound impressive.
“Do you lie a lot?”
I soon learned that she was a student. One year into her third master’s degree. This one was a program called Social and Cultural Analysis. Her parents didn’t know what that meant but they funded it regardless, and that was what mattered. She was also performing the acrobatics necessary to stay in the States, though I suspected her motives were different than mine.
Elsewhere in the world, you were operating a hand blender. Of all the weapons you’d held in your life, this was your least favorite. The heaviest was your silence. You taught me growing up that there was no such thing as an unarmed woman. You said that if a woman were to survive she had to carry any of her looks, money, or patience. Disarmament was never in style.
She dipped her toes into the fountain, this monstrous circular fountain that ate up the park. Her toes curled and I thought of a poem I read once that said that you only really meet the sea once in your life.
“You know why I chose to stay and talk to you? You had the air of someone who carries their sins in the same way I do.”
“I’m not sure I have any sins to speak of,” I replied.
“I ran someone over with my car, and I kept driving.” Her words floated into the late summer sky. Children ran around us screaming. Salma was lucky that there was nothing I could stand less than having to get up. Repeating her words at a police station seemed like the most exhausting task.
“Do you want to go swimming in the fountain?” I responded.
My legs were wet and then my back. In the fountain, her skin felt slippery. Above us, the sky was a celebration. I floated in the water, motherless and aching for fava beans. Salma was above and below and above again. We crashed and we fought and we pulled. New York was a dream but then again so was Cairo. I found Salma’s car floating at the bottom along with an array of coins thrown in by tourists and romantics. Salma’s ears made me want to cry. She was a peach.
Elsewhere in the world, you and Baba sat across from each other, lentil soup between you. You sipped in silence, staring past one another. I wonder whether you ever stopped to consider the eggs, and the way that the shell is tough until it isn’t, and the way that the whites work so tirelessly to keep the yolks whole.
Laila Gamaleldin is a fourth-year student studying Computer Science at Brown University. A Cairo native, Laila enjoys exploring her hometown through fiction. Laila's other interests include non-English computing and code's potential use as a tool for social change.