Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 7

Lili felt Ziad even before she was even in the vicinity of the coffee place, the way you feel a storm coming. She had a very sharp sixth sense: when she thought of someone, she’d usually hear of that person in the coming hours, and given the fact that she was always thinking of Ziad, it was only a matter of days before she ran into him. 

She had woken late that day, having stayed up all night to finish up a report on the women’s cooperative she had visited the day before. Going up to the Bekaa valley to talk to these women made her realise why Nina loved so much driving by herself to all parts of Lebanon to find the best fig jam, and if she was in luck, the best embroiderer. There was something truly exhilarating to arriving to Dahr el Baidar and seeing the soft curves of the sandy mountains spread before her, just as there was something very comforting about having the women of the villages fuss about her, tsking that she was too thin, feeding her labneh mka3zaleh and zaatar, her favourite thing in the world. On her way back, speeding along on the wide Sahel road, passing by farm workers finishing up their day, she felt light, content to have seen women proud of their work, showcasing what they did with great professionalism, explaining to her how they had set up the cooperative and how they had managed to have access to markets in Beirut and Saida. She had gone to Saghbin, AiTanit and Mashgharah, leaving late to get back to the noisy realms of Beirut in the afternoon with enough material and food to keep her awake all night and feed a small country. 

Nina’s phone call had awoken her. 

– For the love of God, do not, simply do not tell me you’re still sleeping, or worse, buried under the covers, listening to that dreary music of yours, pining after my stupid brother. There’s only so much Radiohead a normal person can listen to you know.

– Not even a bit. I was sound asleep, recovering from all the labneh 3al saj I have eaten yesterday. She stifled a yawn, feeling her chest as heavy as ever, a feeling she always had when she woke up. She sometimes thought she suffered from low level depression, which she probably was anyway. Or maybe her years of smoking had finally caught up with her. After all, she was 30 and a half. She didn’t know why she kept counting the halves of her birthdays. It wasn’t like she was six anymore, rushing to get to seven.

– How’s Fatmeh? How’s Wafa? How are they all? Listen, carried on her tireless friend without letting Lili answer, I don’t want to talk about everything over the phone. I have a million and one things to tell you, including some serious drama at the workshop with a desperate bride. And that stupid guy has phone me again, “expressing interest in buying shares in my brand”. I’ll give him shares where he can feel it. Anyway, can you meet me and Gaby at Bread Republic in about half an hour? 

-No. No no no no no no no. I know your schemes. You and Gaby are only trying to get me out under false pretence so you can harass me about being sad about Ziad. I’m very happy being sad over Ziad, I don’t ever want to stop being sad about Ziad, I want to be sad and desperate so I can keep thinking about Ziad. Ziad is gorgeous and he was the love of my life and I’d rather be lonely than happy with somebody else.

Nina sighed. She knew the tune.

– You’re pathetic and self centered and most of all, Lili, you are NOT Nina Simone, so just stop quoting her songs. Gaby wants to introduce us to her studio partner, you know, Ali, that computer genius she’s working with? Remember your friend Gabrielle? The talented photographer/graphic designer who has just opened her own business? Well she misses you, and so do I, so get out of Purdah, don your sparkling attire, and join us. I mean it Lili, we haven’t seen you in like forever and I have a new brilliant idea my desperate bride has given me without even realising it. Come on! What’s the worst that could happen anyway?

The worst had happened of course. She ended up running into Ziad, as luck would have it, while she was wearing her feelings on her face, something no amount of make up could ever conceal. Not that she tried anyway, the only make up she could bear being an old Bordeaux Lancôme lipstick whose shade was the exact match to her favourite wine. She saw him and she blanched. He saw her and reddened. And muttered something. Perhaps he was going crazy? Well, that’d make two of them. 

She saw him and it was like all the piercing, screeching noises of Beirut went muffled all of a sudden, as is she was swimming in deep, deep waters. She could hear in the distance Ziad Rahbani’s voice drawling that she was living alone without you, and without your love kid. She liked this song, she loved Ziad Rahbani, who didn’t and what’s not to love, Nina used to say, but right now, Lili felt her brain could only register the presence of one Ziad, and that was the nervous, red-faced Ziad sitting on a rickety chair, a copy of his beloved Catcher in the Rye next to him.

– Don’t you dare walk up to him, Lili come back, come back now hissed Nina, he’s my brother and so I can tell you he’s bad news and a lost soul and I’ll thump him. Lili!

Lili, however, was marching over to Ziad, barely aware of her friend’s warning, dimly listening to Gabrielle swearing (For fuck’s sake why can’t we ever have a normal coffee between friends? It’s either a crying doll in the middle of your studio or your apocalyptic brother! Nina! You’re a magnet for disasters!)

– I thought I had kept custody of this place, she grinned in spite of herself, the slab of concrete in her chest dissolving into warm albeit poisonous honey. 

– I love their coffee, stammered Ziad. So, tell me, am I the Antichrist now or is it normal that sister is signalling me to either go or die a slow painful death by hanging? I can’t really decipher all the miming she’s doing.

– Oh no, you’re the AntiChrist.

– I guess that’s why you felt the need to come here, our place, with a guy with you, spat Ziad with venom.

Jealousy suited him. Everything suited him. And then Lili did something both very stupid, and very un-Lili like.

She bent over.

And she kissed him.

Not even Nina’s gasp and Gabrielle Oh Jesus Fucking Christ could cover the elated whooping of her soul.