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ARABESQUE

(or: I Swear I'll Go to Lebanon)

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By James Dunnigan

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The Montréal Review, January 2013

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On St. Catherine's Street (oil on canvas, 38x60 in) by Richard Borowski

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Saint-Catherine Street, at the height of Place-des-Arts, is not a quiet street by any means.

-Araby, Mat says. Was that the name?

-Yes, I say. Is that all you've read by him?

-Hey, he says, raising his hand in protest. You're the actor, you're the one who does the reading.

-Ok, ok calm down, I say. But did you like it?

-Sure I liked it, he says. Why?

-I was just curious, I say. I think it's a great story.

-Well it is and I admit it, he says.

-You admit it? I say.

-Yeah, I admit it, he says. What are you, the FBI? I'm supposed to be the one who's asking questions!

-Well ask them already! I say.

-No no no. No time, he says. We have to start reciting. Go. Recite.

The long flat concrete plaza housing Wilfrid-Pelletier hall rises low and even on the block in the long shades of skyscrapers, giving the grandest illusion of space. There is a café there, just before a row of fountains, where Mat and I meet every week.

As I finish reciting my lines, Mat speaks, letting go the pages of that script he has been clutching. He leaves on them the damp grey marks of sweaty fingers.

-Oh yeah, he says to me nodding. Yeah, it's working, all right.

-You think? I say.

-Oh yeah, definitely, he says.

We order another drink. Sinking deep into my chair, cracking my knuckles, I look out the window, to the mound of grass not far from where we sit; a familiar place.

Walking after hours on the westernmost side, by the fountains, I would think of all my troubles. The rich cool air of the mound, the lights in the gutters untroubled by the fountain jets would dampen my cheeks, giving the walk a pleasant freshness. I would bring girls there in earlier days and sit with them, staining my jeans on the grass. We would always come from the underground, out the metro doors walking where the fountains were and saying how much we liked the city. There would always be that pleasant city smell about the place, a smell of hot dry tar and green leaves, of red metal gnawed at by the sun, of lilacs and French fries.

I turn back toward Mat, pointing the script. He nods. I pick up the first few pages and flip through my lines, through all the biographic details.

-You think I got the accent too and everything? I say.

-Well, Mat says. The accent I'm not sure. I mean we don't really have any recordings of him because he died like in nineteen uhm -help please?

-Nineteen forty-five.

-Oh man, forty-five, really?

-Yeah. And there actually is a recording of him reading somewhere on internet.

-Wow. You listened to it?

-Yep. But I dunno, it was a pretty intense reading so I can't say if it's really his accent or if it's just acting.

-You'd never know. But you're gonna have to figure it all out anyway. We need to get his character right. The critics'll be anal about that.

I nod, putting down the script, not quite yet apprehensive, because in the middle of a daydream.

In the mid-spring, when we used to come, the sky would clear up and gently wring its blueness to a hue of cold purple, deep and soft, making everything look dark and jagged on the ground. With summer, the roads, thickly sweating, would throw the sun's heat back to our faces and the soles of our shoes. All those worldly things would blur and turn softer even than those purple spring skies. We, being worldly things ourselves, would feel ourselves blurred just as well, the edges of our hands seeming soft against that even softer pavement.

-It was a great story, Mat said. You're damn right about that.

-Of course it was, I say.

I look outside again. Briefly, Mat shakes my hand and says he has to leave. I pay my part of the bill, wish him well and tell him I will meet him next week for the rehearsal. After he has gone, I linger for a while, staring out from the same window. After that, once awakened from the things I was imagining, I get up from the chair, wave goodbye to the waitress and walk out onto the plaza.

In certain parts of the city we would wander, embracing under crisp old gothic friezes and oak trees that covered all the masonry in shade. We would follow the swirling patterns of each façade, winding through interminable phrases, ceaseless conversations of things we liked, things we remembered, things we knew or once knew and tried to remember. We would breathe in the cloistered smell of mosses long fouled by traffic fumes, an old imperial odour, beautifully faded. Breathing that air, we would feel thrown back a hundred years.

 

When I left the café, I went from the plaza Westward down Saint-Catherine's Street, looking down every intersection, gazing on Mount Royal, its long green facelessness. The mountain was once a volcano, in prehistoric times, when all of Quebec was under sea. Had Noah not landed at Ararat he would have landed here. Maybe he did. They should look under Schwartz's, they might find a piece of the ark.

I walked down further West. I came to the intersection of those streets with noble names, which light never seems to leave even in the deepest of the night or the darkest of the morning; Crescent, Bishop. I could see, from the corner where I stood not quite into the road that the pubs were already running, their tables gleaming with half-empty glasses and napkins wet with dripping condensation. The tarp that shaded out the terraces was brighter with the afternoon sun and the waitresses walked sweating underneath, their pared hands burdened with trays and dull gold beer glasses. Having nothing better to do and a few twenties in my wallet, I thought I ought to go for a drink. It was a little early, but it was hot. That would give me the excuse.

They carded me when I ordered my Hoegaarden. I took that rather personal. I wondered if I really looked so young. I hadn't shaved. My beard, I expected, would have convinced them. I drank half the glass. For some reason, it tasted like spaghetti sauce, though Hoegaarden is supposed to taste like orange. I drank the other half with that in mind. All of a sudden it tasted like orange. I stretched myself upright, looking for the waitress. I saw a girl seated at the corner table, by the glass barrier that marked off the terrace. She was looking to the street, perhaps across the street, I couldn't tell. She pressed her palm to her chin, her index finger hooked into her lip and she drank from a glass of god-knows-what with vodka or rum. Whatever it was, it matched her skin, a delicate sandlike complexion, a tad bit undertanned, though it must have been the weak sun of this country that had made it that way. Then again, the sun wasn't always weak here in the summer. She had a hooked nose. It fitted perfectly with the rest of her face, along with that one dark eye I could see, the side of which was whitened by a barely visible scar not a half inch long, the size of a fingernail. Every part of her adorned her like a jewel, down to the slight shaded crease at her throat and the vaporous dress that held without sleeves or straps around her chest.

With two halves of a Hoegaarden brooding in my veins, I felt a little braver than I was, so I figured I should go and talk to her. I saw her order another drink. She smiled for a moment, thanking the waiter, then turned again, staring outward to the street once more. I found myself walking to her table and, carrying my empty glass with me, I came to stand beside her.

-Hi, I said. Do you mind if I sit here?

She glanced at me, nodding.

-No no not at all, she said.

She looked away, then back at me. She didn't look at me the way she looked at the waiter. I felt a sudden heat fall sharply into my hands, like when a drink finally gets you drunk.

-My name's Jacob, I said.

-Hi, I'm Nour.

-I'm sorry?

-Nour. It's Arabic.

-Nour. Oh! Nur? Noor? Nour.

-Yes.

-I'm sorry, it's just. You pronounce it so differently.

-Correctly.

-Oh yes, well I wouldn't know. So you're an Arab?

-Last I checked.

-Where from?

-Lebanon.

-Lebanon. I know it very well.

-You do?

-Yes I've been there. Once. And I know a lot of Lebanese people. They're mostly from Seirut or Baida. Or Beirut and Saida. Wait. I'm sorry.

-My parents were from Jnoub.

-And you?

-I was born here. Somewhere.

-Oh.

I ordered a drink. I told my waitress she could set up my former table for someone else. Nour's waiter came with her drink a moment later. She sipped from it and excused herself from the table. I saw the back her dress quiver as she walked. When she came back she had another sip of her drink. She squinted as I drank from mine.

-Um, she said. Just a question.

-Yes, of course, I said.

-Why did you come to my table?

I drank a very large gulp of my beer. It hurt when I swallowed it.

-Well, I saw you there and though I'd come over.

-Really?

-Really.

-So this isn't a joke or a bet or anything?

-A bet?

-Yeah. A bet.

-Never!

-Hm.

She tilted her head to the right, let her eyes widen, raised her eyebrows. She sipped her drink again and coughed a little. I drank whenever she drank. I wondered how well it would go tomorrow, at Mat's audition. If I kept drinking the way I was, it would be a hell of a day.

She pulled her IPod out of her bag. She placed the minuscule headphones into her ears. Two white strands of wire ran up on either side of her neck, from the machine, to lose themselves in her hair.

-So what do you do? she asked.

I drank again, tipping the glass up to finish it. Clearly it would be a hell of a day, tomorrow.

-I'm a writer, I said.

-Oh?

-You don't get that very often?

-No, I don't.

-Well yeah. I'm a writer.

-What do you write?

-What do you mean?

-I mean what kind of writing do you do?

-Oh um. I'm a short story writer for now. Mainly.

-Only short stories?

-Yeah. But I'd like to write a novel maybe one day.

-A novel eh?

-Yeah that would be great.

-And who's your favourite writer?

I drank again. After that sip, I pushed my drink away, thinking I shouldn't get too drunk. The audition was important after all.

-I like James Joyce.

-Wow. Light reading.

-I know, right?

-What's your favourite thing by him?

I curled my toes in my shoes.

-Araby. Definitely.

-Me too. I read it in college. Yeah, well, it's really great. The poor boy. He really liked that girl.

-You think, eh?

-It's a shame people can't love like they did in those days.

-Are you kidding? They still do.

-No. They don't.

-They do. It's just things are so much different from then. There are too many things to think about.

-Still. I don't think so.

She fiddled a while longer with her IPod and bobbed her head up and down to its faint music.

-What are you listening to?

She pulled her earphones out of the IPod and I heard the music. It was that song I always heard on the radio, about being young and burning the world. The part that sounded like a choir was playing, muffled through the IPod's tiny speakers.

-I'm ready to get out of here, she said. You want to walk a bit?

-Sure.

We left the bar, tipped generously. We went up the street to where Mount Royal stood, covered ever so thickly with maples. We felt the sidewalk turning steep as we walked. We spoke. I watched her dress swaying silent at her knees. The more we spoke, the more it swayed and the more she moved her hands as she was speaking. We came to the road that bordered the mountain. We walked beneath the trees. We passed by greener lawns, buildings whose cornices seemed older and older as we went. The street began to lose its straightness, curving gently with the shape of the mountain. I knew there was a breeze, but the beer had nulled its strength. I smelled the deep moist odour of the trees, the dark green wetness of the leaves, the cracked bark and sap that had flowed out and dried on the knots of the trunks. We came to the edge of a park. We walked in. She kept speaking to me, with a suddenly joyful voice, and as we walked beneath the friezes of the old buildings there, she was laughing at a joke I had made.

-So you've been to Lebanon, she said.

-Yes, I have.

-Well good. It'll make your stories better.

I grinned. She came close to me then. She was smiling, looking closely at me now, stroking her fingers as she spoke. She told me about her country, thinking that I had known it, telling me about her parent's house in Jnoub, about the deep vales and mountains in the South, where I'd told her I had been. Her smile made the skin fold on her temples, against her eyes. Her scar disappeared within them. In the silences between us she would sing:

wallah latla3 3al libnaan washrab 3ara2 w kayif
3a'2li men baani erjaal hal diny' saar msayif

wallah latla3 3al libnaan washrab whiskey w kayif
3a'2li men kizb elrjaal hal diny' saar msayif

I told her I had to find a washroom. She said there was one in the building. I got up, smiled and went up to the nearest water fountain, drank and washed my face, then went out the back door.

I've gone back down, now. I'm passing by the pub where we'd been sitting an hour ago.

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James Dunnigan is currently studying at Dawson College, where he edits the student literary journal, Creations.

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