I found the green color of the unripe almonds soothing, even more so if I dipped my hand into the wicker basket in which they were piled as to let them run through my fingers in the slow moving current that I created. Although Aziz did not mind me doing so I did not blame the others for forbidding this, conveying their disapproval with downward turned lips and had it been a particularly vexing day, adding a “Tsk-Tsk” noise to the look.
I had gone through the entire staff of the kiosk, everyone having admonished me once, I should now know better but still sometimes could not help myself. I memorized Aziz’s schedule. If he worked with someone else I would wait for them to go on break before going over. I would kill time at the patisserie across the way. They had strong coffee and three little tables out front, the other two of which were often empty. This was how I met Fatima. It was her family’s place and everyone who worked there except for one prep cook was related. Initially they found it odd that I would sit at one of their tables sipping coffee, since there were so many places close by better suited for such things.
In truth their machine had been bought secondhand from a now closed café almost as an afterthought but no one wanted to question me about my choice as to not risk bringing to light all my other real café options in case for some odd reason I had not realized.
Cinnamon skinned, she had the build of one of those pagan fertility sculptures, which I found appealing. The first time I saw her I thought that she had been taller as I was sitting with her standing over the table. Our relative positions also prevented me at first from noticing how limpid her eyes were. I wanted to ask her if she knew Aziz but that seemed such a bourgeoisie mistake, the assumption that all people of the same ethnic background knew one another. I also did not want to risk it because Aziz only had eyes for women who looked like the ones from the American Movies. Anytime I pointed out a woman walking by whom I found attractive, it did not matter what their charms were, he would shake his head and say;
“No, no blond is better…:
I could imagine in trying to appear cool and sophisticated what he would say about someone so close to the type he had grown up with.
Fatima’s mother looked like a slightly heavier, older version of her. She smiled but also watched like a hawk that every pastry which passed my lips was paid for. Fatima also had an older brother whom I had only seen briefly as a head peering through the circular window of the swinging door that led into the kitchen.
I would sit at the little table on the far left as it was the one which did not wobble and she would come out on the sidewalk to sweep while we chatted. I would take out my sketch pad to give my hands something to do. After a month of going there every day she felt comfortable enough with me to ask what brought me there. I was too embarrassed to mention the almonds. I did a sketch of her face giving it to her.
A few times I had happened by and if she was having a bad day and no one was around she hugged me. Laughing our foreheads banged together as we both went for the kiss on the cheeks, the lips confused about as where to go. Aziz knew about my infatuation, with a tasting lemon scowl he told me several times;
“Those type of girls very traditional.”
Still finding me at my usual table sketching, he waved and dropped it. Now and then I would run into her on her way to work as Aziz and I took a walk before he too had to start his shift. They would momentarily linguistically exclude me, his way of subtly reminding me that he knew what he was talking about even if I did not want to listen.
I was waiting in the small line to order my coffee. Only her mother alone was behind the counter. I said hello but thought better than to ask where Fatima was. I had not dressed warm enough and so decided to take the side street home which was quicker. A series of doors that were interspersed with dumpsters, by happenstance her brother was emptying the garbage and having a smoke. He saw me before I saw him.
He was supposed to eventually take over the place but had not ever bothered to learn much about the daily operations. He was busy giving away free cookies to pretty tourists and keeping a mental scorecard of who he could marry his sister off to. He had a plan already; he would sell the place, the estimated value being the other thing which he kept close track of and then use that money to travel. Of course he could not just throw his sister to the wolves, he would marry her off and therein lay the tricky part of the equation. The groom had to be able to take care of her but also could not be too well off as it would then be expected that the wedding be lavish and as he had to pay for it he did not want it cutting too much into his future nest egg.
He thought his trademark was the gold rimmed pilot sunglasses that he almost always wore. Two heads taller than me, he was still mildly apprehensive that I may get a good shot in and so took a moment to take his sunglasses off. My mind raced to find a phrase to diffuse the situation but his fist was quicker, catching me in my left eye. I had not slept well the night before and was tired, I crumpled to the ground with what I would like to imagine was a modicum of dignity. I raised my hands even with my chest, palms out, not to tell him to stop but that I was not going to fight. There was no point to it, besides being doubtful that I could even take him, a victory on my part would get me nothing except potential awkwardness from his sister and definite increased animosity from the mother.
I do not think he had meant to hit me as hard as he had or at least not in the face. My eye had already begun to swell, the sight of which made him realize that I would most likely be asked by everybody what happened. His hands went under my arms to help me up. He bent down again to grab my book bag which he then handed to me.
“Ca-Va?” he asked.
I nodded but as I went to walk away I wobbled a little. He took me to a nearby bar where two of his friends sat in the corner smoking a hookah and watching with curiosity as we drank Pastis with almond syrup. I felt I could now get home. We shook hands and I nodded.
I put my hat and bag on the table and let my clothes fall to the floor at the foot of the bed. I lay down but in my usual position, on my stomach it made my eye throb. I have always had trouble sleeping on my back. In the orphanage whomever had my bed before me had created a sort of divot. To lay on one’s stomach hurt the ribs and back but to lay in the concave space on one’s back was a little more tolerable. Even then though sleep had been hard to come by as it was not my usual position.
As to try to counteract the discomfort I came up with a mantra that I would recite in my head until sleep finally took me, the origin of which I can not remember;
“I have never had a wart nor broken a bone…”
I got up to get a glass of water, some aspirin and a cold cloth for my eye. I lay back down, cold shroud on my face blocking my view of the ceiling;
“I have never had a wart nor broken a bone….”
- Wayne H. W Wolfson 2014