Tales of the Phoenix City – 29

Gaby was watching the ever expanding frame of her friend, taking pictures of her as she moved bare foot on her tiled floor, draped in a large lacy poplin white nightshirt. Nina was looking tired in the Beirut sinking sun, the sweet autumn wind finding its way into the apartment through the half closed green shutters, gently caressing people and furniture, reminding them that there were good reasons to stay, too. In spite of everything. Nina was arranging on her tray the delicious looking fig jam and homemade sweet anise kaak Lily had brought back from the Bekaa valley, pondering if her hunger was greater than the nagging nausea that had plagued her throughout the 36 weeks of her pregnancy.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, for the love of all that is good and holy, how, just tell me how, does your body manage to accommodate that alien in your belly?
Nina smiled patiently. After all, this was a question she kept asking herself, about four hundred times a day.
– Well, I’m not even sure myself. Sometimes I stare at my body in utter wonder, thinking it’s the most perfect, clever thing in the world…
– Please spare us all the hippy talk I am begging you, interrupted Gabrielle, all this hoopla about your body and its abilities yawn yawn yawn
– Ma hek, if you left me finish. So I was saying, sometimes I am amazed by what I can do, and other times I just feel so, well, full, so heavy, and achy, and moody…
– Are you naming the seven dwarves?
– No seriously, that whole pregnancy thing is no walk in the park. I will never understand the women who claim to have never felt better than when they were pregnant. It’s a huge strain on yourself, on your body and emotions, it’s like this tidal wave of change, you don’t recognize yourself. Everything swells to accommodate a person you’re creating, a person you feel jab and poke at your insides and punch and kick you. Sometimes I’d be sitting down and it’s like my bump has already a life of its own, it goes crazy from one side to another. How odd is that? It’s happening to me yet I can’t wrap my head around it.
– Well, you’d better start wrapping your head around it, seeing as you’re giving birth in about four weeks.
– Yeah no, i’m not.
Gaby started and looked up from her objective, trying to assess her friend’s tone.
– You’re not?
– I’m not.
– Okay then. What do you propose will happen? Will you keep that child inside your womb for all eternity, kangaroo style?
– No no,they shall take that child out of me, but I do not plan on ‘giving birth’ and ‘laboring’ and participating or cooperating in any way to the delivery of that baby. I’ll just let modern medicine do what it does best: fix things.
– You scared?
– To fucking death. The pain, Gaby, how does one bear the pain? I hear all that talk by the midwives about how beautiful and manageable everything is through breathing but i’m like, ‘quit lying to me, if breathing magically made the pain go away, women would not beg for epidurals and oxygen and the shit loads of drugs they ask for, half crying’. I’m not gonna lie Gaby, i am seriously wondering about how people deal with the fucking pain. I demand to know.
– Wait, I’ll go back to my extensive experience in giving birth to 14 children. How the fuck do I know? The whole process seems so foreign and remote to me. A bit like China.
– Nina chuckled, trying to get comfortable in her vintage upholstered wicker chair, putting her swollen feet up. Gaby resumed her frantic picture taking.
– May I ask why you’re all over me with your camera? You look like a paparazzi chasing Kim Kardashian.
– Who?
– Never mind. Just stop taking pictures of the sorry mess that I have become. And since we’re on the subject, please stop likening my vagina and its upcoming torture to China.
– Oh for fuck’s sake, can we please stop with the whole pity party? I am told many, many women have done what you’re about to do before. Apparently it’s even very probable that your body will know what to do by itself. So breathe. Didn’t they teach you anything in that drab, God forsaken prenatal classes of yours? Grace came with you and she bored me into a proper stupor with talk of dilatation and effacement and perineum and pushing and ‘managing the pain’ by breathing and whatnots. Seriously, if you could handle the pain of the preparation to the whole ordeal, you’ll do just fine at the event itself. Oh and by the by, I take pictures because you’ve never been so beautiful and I want to frame a couple of those for your child to see how perfect her mother was while carrying her.
– I didn’t know you were such a thoughtful, kind poet.
– Well, there I fucking go, the sensitivity of Verlaine trapped in the body of Patti Smith
Nina planted her eyes in her friends’. The intense gaze rattled Gaby, who stopped being flippant and held Nina’s gaze with the same intensity and gravity. Now was not the time for jokes.
– Seriously, Gabrielle. What am I doing? Did you see the state of the country and the world I am bringing that child in? Am I doing the ultimate selfish thing? I don’t really care about my child not really having a ‘father’ figure…
– Yes she will, she’ll have me!
– Seriously, ‘father figure’ simply doesn’t mean anything anyway, except maybe patriarchal oppressor. But I feel like I am under so much pressure. My body is definitely not my own anymore, by nature’s design and by people’s will, by the constant stream of ‘well wishers’, telling me I should give birth without medication, telling me I should breastfeed because it’s better, and don’t even get me started on all the parenting advice perfect strangers are showering on me. Sometimes i just feel like escaping but It’s like I’m stuck. I just would like to be able to claim my life and body back, but people are trying to sell to me the sacrificing, long suffering mother stereotype as the ultimate and best mother figure that could ever exist and I just don’t want this for myself, and i don’t want my child growing up thinking it’s ok and normal to be a slave to motherhood.
– Your tangled web of questions has confused me,not the least because i think, of all your organs, the most fucked up as of now, is your brain. Since when did you start caring about what people say? Seriously, you’ve been renting your body for the past nine months, bloody do what you want to do with it when it’s over. You’ve always been your own person, I don’t see why that should change. Raise your child the way you want to, telling her what you think is right and then let her make her own experiences. The way I see it, just let people’s remarks and comments slide off your back and carry on.
– You know, you’re a good cheerleader…
Gabrielle saw where this was going.
– No, please, no
– And as a good cheerleader and my best friend, I’d like you to come with me the day I give birth
– OOooh for fuck’s sake, Jesus Fucking Christ, no, fuck, no, don’t do this to me, Jesus, no, can you imagine me with the blood and the cutting of things, and the whole butchering, no, I’ll probably be taking pictures for my gore collection instead of helping you anyway, seriously, take Grace, she’s strong and responsible and lovely and has been to the classes, or Lily, she’ll sing hippy welcoming songs to your child, don’t take me, please
– I want you. You won’t let them bullshit me when i’m vulnerable.
– But
– I want you. Gabrielle, will you be my ‘birthing partner’?
– Oh Jesus Fucking Christ, yes i will but don’t ever, ever refer to me again as birthing partner. Ever.
– Good, said Nina, closing her eyes and relaxing. You were not hard to convince after all.
– I feel like i’ve been manipulated in some way, mumbled Gabrielle, fixing her filter yet again. Fuck.

Advertisements

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 27

This isn’t over.
He said it with a definite air. His crestfallen face tugged at her heart yet she shook herself and stood firmly her ground.
– I believe it is.
– Why the fuck are you doing this?
She sighed. He was not going to make things easy.
– I am not trying to push you away or to try and make you disappear. I’m just telling you I am keeping this baby and if you want to be involved that’s great we’ll have to work it out but I will not, shall not, marry you.
– It’s the right thing to do.
– It’s precisely why I don’t want to do it.
He folded his arms in a self protective fashion, pushing her out in a defiant stance. Jesus, she should have done this in a public space. This way he couldn’t have made a scene.
– This isn’t over.
– You already said that.
– You’re not going to be able to smarten your way out of this one.
He Was starting to get on her nerve.
– I believe the bump you see where my stomach should be is the living proof that I’m not trying to get out of anything, apart maybe from a lifetime with an almost stranger that I would marry because it’s the right thing to do.
She stopped and gulped some water. God she felt like vomiting. This pregnancy business was no walk in the park.
She needed to calm down. After all, she had just dropped a huge bomb on him and he was only trying to do what he thought was the right thing. But somehow, her courage seemed to be growing alongside her baby.
– Listen, Shadi.
He raised his eyes at the mention of his name.
– I know this isn’t easy. I know you must feel trapped or lost or even angry right now.
She paused. They had only talked about her. It hadn’t really even occurred to her to ask him how he felt about all this, save for telling him she Was not to marry him.
– Now that you mention It, how are you feeling?
His raised eyebrows and the flicker of a smile That passed on his face made her exhale for the first Time in the last hour. Perhaps It would not have to Be this hard.
– Well, first of all, thanks for asking.
She couldn’t place the sarcasm for sure. Let It go let It go she urged herself. Soon it’ll all be over and you will return back to your life of creation, on your workshop, with your assistant teetering on her high heels, polishing her nails in neon pink while convincing an umpteenth magazine to cover your brand. Just bear with him for a bit.
– I’m pretty damn happy.
She chocked on the ginger tea she was sipping in a desperate attempt at quenching her nausea.
– excuse me?
– Well yeah, I’m obviously not happy at the stark rejection you’re offering me on a silver plate, but I am happy at the prospect of having a child. With you, he added as an afterthought. I like you Nina. There’s something about you that warms my insides, somewhere next to my heart.
God why weren’t pregnant women allowed cigarettes?
– You don’t have a heart. You try and buy up perfectly happy small businesses for a living remember? You’ve tried buying up mine.
– Then you had sex with me if my memory isn’t cheating me?
She sprung to her feet. She’d had enough of this.
– D’you know? I’m a tired pregnant girl who’s in a desperate need for a nap and less drama. So bump, meet father, father, meet bump, it’s all lovely and nice, now please exit my house. Chop chop, don’t drag your feet.
– But…but
– But.. But nothing, this conversation is over. You and I are not having a child together, I am having a child and if you want to be involved then all the better but don’t you are come to my house and spring this happy shit on me, we’re not a family in that little Kodak moment you seem to have built in your head. Now bye.

The sharp noise of the door slamming was still ringing in her ears when Yasmine came in with the latest coverage of Nina’s dresses. As usual, Yasmine was dressed to the nines: her YSL sandals high as ever clickety-clicking on the beautiful old-fashioned tiles of her home, her perfectly cut 7 for all mankind skinny jeans an exquisite shade of blue, a simple oversized white top topped with a chunky statement necklace completing her look, Nina told herself she could not have picked a better assistant/PR girl. Her appearance screamed ‘I’m a DIVA and if you don’t oblige me I shall whine you into oblivion’, which guaranteed good coverage, which kept sharks like Shadi at bay and ensured clients kept coming to have their wedding dresses designed by the new hot designer, aka Nina Haddah, as long as she was in the papers and that word of mouth worked in her favour.

Yasmine had gained some self-confidence in the past few weeks, trying to rebuild bridges with her family while working on her independence which proved to be difficult at times to say the very least, so it was with a bit of surprise that Nina to see Yasmine plump herself on her chintz couch, take off her eyeglasses to reveal dark circles and reddened eyes.

– It’s been a while since the last time I saw you look like a rabbit in a hole like that. What’s happened?
– Nothing.

The answer came sharply, knifing the peaceful afternoon with acrimonious dryness, Yasmine’s tone a shield to ward off any attempt at comforting. Nina knew better than to fight it, and simply grabbed a box of tissues and the last issue of Oriental Elle, where her Grecian one- shoulder tulle and silk crepe dress was being showcased. Absent-mindedly, she turned a page, while handing over the box of tissues to Yasmine, who was quietly crying on the sofa, her honeyed tone hair gracefully falling on her delicate tanned shoulders.

– Life is a cross to bear after the other, as my devout mother who doesn’t speak to me any more would say. What’s the new cross habibi?

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 25

 The rain seemed to provide the right soundtrack to the heavy silence between the three people seated on the plush poufs and couches Nina had had especially made from Barjis. Bucketloads of fat droplets pouring over the warm grayness of Beirut, drenching the dusty city, giving it an air of sharp cleanness, an aura of fresh start. As streams of water scrubbed Beirut from its lies and dishonesty, Nina felt the conversation she was having with her mother under the benevolent presence of Ziad was doing much of the same: wiping away the pretense to reveal only the essential, the pure light of what matters, feeble attempts at the truth.

Her bump was now slightly showing, and she closed her hands on it, scooping the pulsating life in her embrace, giving it warmth as it was giving her strength. The ashen face of her mother would have defeated a lesser woman, but Nina soldiered on with the stubbornness of someone whose decision is final.

  • Mama, I’m not doing this to spite you.

Her mother took another gulp of coffee. It was remarkable how thin her mouth could become, how the soft plumpness of her features could harden this much. A tiny part of Nina felt incredibly guilty for the ordeal she knew she was putting her through, while the freedom monster she harbored and that had led her to take her own decisions from an early age on, confronting stupid prejudice and society’s raised eyebrows at her actions, was roaring that this was her life and her body and that very few people were actually concerned by the choices she chose to make, ie, when it came down to it, no one but herself.

  • Mama, please say something.

Ziad’s unusually soft voice made their mother let out a deep guttural sigh and acted as a caress on Nina’s agitated soul. No matter how low she was, no matter how anguished, the presence and support of her brother were her treasured comfort. She had not wanted him to be there, yet he had come, rising above her somewhat childish urge to do things on her own, to rely on herself and herself only. ‘I am an autonomous being, and I don’t need my hand to be held, thank you very much’ had been her greeting when he entered her flat this morning, to which he had replied, in true Gabrielle fashion ‘ Jesus Fucking Christ, just because you can doesn’t mean you have to’. That had riveted her, and he had seized this moment to close the door behind him and started busying himself with making coffee. ‘You’ll see, she won’t be that bad, I mean, you already told her on the phone’. After repeating twenty times over that things were going to be fine, Ziad finally shut up and they had sat together in expectation of their mother heavy step on the threshold.

And now here they were, the three remnants of their family, sitting in a triangle of tension and reflection, their souls strained to their breaking point, the absence of their father and husband now more daunting and cruel than ever. Nina was sitting next to the semi opened window, unconsciously rocking her body to the sound of the storm, watching Beirut idly go by, oblivious of big and small tragedies and joys alike, carrying on with being equally a city of chaos and wonder, Ziad perched on the edge of the club armchair, his whole body leaning towards their mother, in a posture of anxious expectation and their mother, between the two of them, sitting on the edge of her seat as it to signify very clearly that this was not to be a long visit, that she was by no means staying.

  • You will have to get married.

Those six words set something off in Nina, as if her mother had detonated the hand grenade she had turned into.

  • No, I don’t. And I won’t.

The words were scarce and measured, sharp bullets fired at the wall of propriety her mother had built her world on. Ziad seemed to cower at the simmering anger slowly building up between the two of them. This was a war of wills whose outcome he wasn’t sure of.

  • What do you mean, you won’t? Do you think I will stand being shamed by my own daughter’s behaviour? Do you think I shall show my face to my friends after everyone has spoken about you until blue in the face? Pregnant and unwed! There is no glory in that you know, nothing to be proud of.

At this, Nina stood up, her delicate frame chiseled against the acid Beiruti light.

  • Mama. I love you, but if you think for one second that I give a damn about what your friends might think you’re cruelly mistaken. I will not be part of this circus you call good society, where the most evil of acts are hushed up, talked in low, muttering conversations behind closed doors, where pretense is the norm and hypocrisy is celebrated. I will not get married because I don’t want to. No need to look so shocked, I’m not done yet. Mama, please open your ears widely: yes, I have sex. Yes I had sex with this man who, frankly, I don’t know that well. I got pregnant, and I’ve made up my mind. I shall keep this baby because I have the privilege of deciding. The father doesn’t even know yet, I’ve decided to tell you before I tell him because honestly, after I’ve told you there’s no one I can’t take on anymore. I’ve made up my mind and it’s not for you, or him, or society to decide for me what I want and how I want it, it’s not for anyone to decide in my place what I choose to do with my body. And not mama, I won’t nor will I have you pretend that I’m going abroad or I don’t know what. I will give birth to this child in front of everyone in the smack banging middle of se7et el burj if I have to, but I shall not hide. Every day I see war criminals and crooks speak on my TV and they’re not hiding, while they should be covering their heads in shame. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m telling you, not asking for your blessing, your advice or your opinion.

  • Then I’ll leave, now shall I?

Banging her coffee cup on the wooden table, their mother exited the flat, making the door bang while she went, leaving a gaping hole in Nina’s heart.

After what seemed like an eternity, Ziad’s voice brought Nina back to the shores of life, while she felt his hand on her shoulder, bringing her into a hug.

  • She’ll get over it. Give her time. Now, how would you like to arrange the birth on Sa7et el Burj? Should we put up a marquee with a sign ‘Unwed Designer Gives Birth to Child: 5000 LL to watch’?

From somewhere deep against her brother’s chest, Nina’s laughter met her tears.

Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 15

Lily’s project was simple.
It came to her as she was forever writing about style and fashion and things that seemed strangely unimportant at times of crisis, yet that magically operated on people no matter what, even more so in volatile times, as if the height of a heel was the best saving board one could hope for.
It puzzled her, but she did not judge. She seldom judged anyone anyway and belonged to the “If it makes you happy, then frankly my dear, I don’t give much of another fuck”.
Of course, those were the words of Gabrielle. Lily liked to call it “the live and let live” motto, which amounted to pretty much the same thing, minus her friend’s colorful language.
She had hung up on Ziad. A knee-jerk reaction which reeked of drama, as bluntly put by Nina who was once more her normal self, her bout of Baudelairesque spleen long gone. So Lily hung up on Ziad, took her purse like an automaton,and had made it straight to Nina’s workshop.
– La2! La2 Monsieur Antoine! No no no no no no! I specifically requested the Calais lace, and what you have given me is an insult to your house and my dresses! Perfectly so! Yes! I do not recall to have asked for mock-lace in nylon coming straight from a Manila sweatshop. This isn’t what I want and I’m returning them to you and if you prove once more unable to procure me the fabric I request, then I shall switch suppliers! Yes, you heard me! Yes, that’s right, make it express delivery, with a complimentary peonies bouquet! Yes Monsieur Antoine, I do love peonies.

Lily was miserably standing in the middle of the workshop, blankly staring at her fulminating friend, her eyes a little pink. She looked like a rabbit in a hole.

– What’s with you? You look like a rabbit in a hole!

Nina appeared most definitely all revved up.
Lily looked as if she were made of stone.

– Ok habibti, you take your own sweet time and root yourself to the middle of my space while I busy myself throwing away useless fabric and make us some tea.

Nina banged and plonked and slammed and jammed things unto stoves and pots and saucers. Evidently Monsieur Antoine was getting a little old and a little mixed up with Nina’s orders, something life threatening enough at the best of times without throwing in the mix a statute of a friend and shambles of a country.

Lily came to.

– I have hung up on your brother…
– So what else is new?
– And, carried on Lily,ignoring her friend’s sarcastic comment, he said he was an animal and his voice seemed to tell me he still loved me and I hung up.

Nina froze and seemed to try to get her head around that last statement. She also looked like she was trying to muster the very little patience she still had. She put her palm up in the air in a gesture signaling to Lily that she was not to talk.

– So let me get this straight: you love Ziad.
– Yes
– Ziad loves you, even though you broke up over his never ending questions and drama, although frankly, I’m seeing quite a bit of drama here but anyway.
– Yes
– You cry and you kick and you bore us to death with my brother, and when he calls you, you don’t hear what he has to say, you hang up on him and you make it straight to here.
– Yes
– Lily. Nina drew a breath. Lily. What. The. Fuck. Is. Wrong. With.You and my stupid brother? No, no, you listen to me now. I’m not saying you have to run back to him, all open eyes and dewy eyes and Celine Dion singing in the background, but you have been tossing and turning torturing yourself for hours on end, and an explanation coming from him might not have hurt. In any case, there is no point now telling you this, call him back.
– I don’t have his number
– It’s not nice to lie to your friends as we both know you know it by heart and you of course know I have it.
– No but Nina, what would I say to him?
– How about, errr what do you want from me now, stop jerking me around and make up your mind once and for all so that I can stop being such a wreck?
– Your temper is very short today Nina, stated Lily a bit startled. That behaviour was mostly out of character for her normally poised friend.
– Yeah well what do you know, I might have taken a Gabrielle pill, or maybe Lebanon is turning me into the fighter I should always have been.
Now call!
The Bakelite antique seemed to look at Lily with a threatening stare. Sighing, she picked the receiver.