This short story has been written for the exhibition Good Sex/Bad Sex/No Sex/Your Sex for World Health Sexual Day organised by AltCity in Lebanon. Pics available on Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Paola-Salwan-Lebanese-Author/194530360576882
This is how I felt, drawing the lines of my lips a shocking red in Tara’s overflowing bathroom. The things that girl kept, I tell you: sparkling oil that made her legs shimmer in the already bling Beiruti nights, all shades of eyeshadows known to mankind, moisturizers of all shapes and sizes, the whole lot. A splendid collection of potions and ointments designed and used for the sole purpose of Tara’s biggest hobby: the pursuit of (suitable) men. Tara had her own definition of suitable: the ones that would fuck her without getting too attached and clingy and the ones that would make the hair of her mother’s forearms stand in horror; and if she could put the two together, all the better. She was in full rebellion mode against what she considered was our two-faced, hypocritical society, and seemed to consider each name added to her ever expanding list of conquests her very own personal revolutionary victory. She therefore routinely had sex at the back of fleeting men’s cars, in bar restrooms, in chalets by the sea, in Faraya, in emptied apartments, everywhere except in her lovers’ bed, or in her own for that matter, for it was simply unthinkable that she would just wake up and share the family’s breakfast after a night of ravenous carnal feast with the household son.
Her attitude towards sex was in many ways much more open than any of the girls we knew: with Tara, there was no fake blushes, no eyes lowered in a gesture of false modesty, no game playing and obscure manoeuvres aiming at ravishing a man’s heart to convince him we were “the good girls”, aka, the ones you marry. No ornaments required: she only needed to be, and in less than half an hour, she’d have half of the club longing for her, desperately wanting to pierce her aura of flawless self confidence. It’s all in the attitude baby, and she had plenty of that, plus a generous supply of reservoir condoms. “I can have the guy perform all he wants on me, as long as he’s wearing a condom. If he won’t wear it habibti, he can go fuck himself for all I care”. See what I mean? An iron wrought will in a velvet setting, impossible to resist to, and lethal for those who thought they could understand her.
Needless to say, I envied her to no end.
She was honest to her body and to who she was, and that, in our Lebanon, was a luxury, an act of bravery as well as pure foolishness.
Unlike me, the schizophrenic gal who couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be a rare item, one of the braves, a fool, or just a regular young woman torn between what she wanted to do and what people expected her (not) to do.
I grab one of Tara’s “Midnight Blue” sparkling eyeshadow and start applying it furiously, trying to conceal the last remnants of my earlier fight with my dearest mother. In her bedroom, Tara’s probably taking a snooze to help her face her endless night, her delicate purple chiffon dress lovingly spread next to her.
There is something I simply don’t get about Lebanese parents: they want you to get married, but wouldn’t want you to openly date men. My mother didn’t take it too well when I pointed out to her the sheer absurdity of that reasoning, which led to our fight, that more or less went along these lines:
Her: I don’t like you hanging out that much with that Tara friend of yours. She has a bad reputation and is always seen with different guys. You have to look after yourself and make sure your reputation is immaculate if you want to meet and marry a suitable man.
Me: One, I’m 24, you don’t get to decide who I can or can not see, and two, you’re always on about how I should start thinking about marriage. Tara is introducing me to many men, that should please you no? How can I get married if I’m not allowed to go and choose from a wide variety?
Cue apoplectic rage on my mother’s part, exchange of pleasantries along the lines of me being a whore, taking of some clothes and toiletries and slamming of door of paternal house, although my father is so seldom at home I should call it the No Man’s Land of my Mother’s Broken Heart. Talk about whores. My dad’s probably serenading one right now. I guess Tara is right after all: the hypocrisy is every where. Here I was, living in a house whose supposed master was a notorious womanizer, who had his entries in clubs even I didn’t know existed, and I was being given a hard time by my frustrated mother because of my alleged serial dating. And wrongly, to top it all.
For I longed to be a serial dater: I just didn’t have the guts to do it, not in Lebanon anyway. My mother’s sap digging had been fruitful.
Just thinking about it, my eyes start welling up, threatening to ruin my whole make up. So I just add on a bit more foundation, and another layer of blusher for good measure, before starting on my hair.
My poor face seems to be taking the full blow of my rage, a rage I wouldn’t know where to direct to except on myself. I therefore pluck and straighten and pull and cover as if my life depended on it. I know my social life certainly did, and in Lebanon, it’s never quite sure where one stops and the other one begins.
My problem, you see, is that I only ever wanted two strong arms to hold my body. That’s all I want, and I haven’t found it and will never do if I don’t start actively looking for it. For the moment, I am the Maid of Beirut, but can’t help to be on the look out for that pair of arms.
But please let us be clear: this isn’t hopeless romance. I’m just obsessed by an image that seems to be carved in my retina since the day I saw it. It’s a photograph from Rasha Kahil, the third of her Untitled Triptych. It figures a couple, the woman has a beautiful, full, healthy, alive body. I don’t know why my attention was attracted to the whole serie in the first place, but there you go, maybe seeing a normal, vibrant body represented a nice change from the stereotypical lancet-style shapes that I’m used to seeing, bodies so unreal you’d think they’ve been live photoshoped. Anyway, the woman in the picture is wrapping her legs around a man, whom we can’t see, except for his arms and legs. And since the day I saw that picture, I can’t get it out of my head: the way he holds that woman, with elegance and grace and strength and tenderness.
Just like I want to be held, for all eternity.
But as I said, as I’m clipping my too long for words hair, nothing seems to happen, because, although I would love to at least try to find the perfect pair of arms to clasp me around the waist, each time I’m close, I can’t bring myself to go through it.
It’s as if the murmurs of judgement of this city and of this society had woven an invisible web, an unyielding fence that keep electrocuting me each time I try to break free.
I have society’s rules and regulations tattooed in my psyche and programmed in my brain.
And I’m starting to hate myself for it.
Looking at myself in the mirror, finally ready, I hear Tara’s high heels clicking in the apartment, on their way to another night of ecstasy, and can’t help but wonder if we’re both prisoners of our internal judge and prejudices; for what is the difference between too much and not enough? In a city where finding a balance that would be in accordance with what we truly, really want, having fulfilling, safe, satisfying sex seems to be like looking for the Graal: a beautiful mirage.
No wonder we’re friends: looking at one another is like looking in a mirror. Me in reverse, and no amount of make up would change that.
Dara, Are you ready? She finally says, joyfully opening her bathroom door, revealing herself in all her deep purple glory.
I am, yes, thanks for letting me use your space for so long. You look lovely, by the way. Did you know purple was the colour of wisdom and episcopacy?
Oh habibti, don’t kid yourself. It’s also, and first and foremost, the colour of passion and poison.
And with that, Too Much and Not Enough were out on the town again, looking for their Graal.