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from the June 2018 issue

While He Was Sitting There

In this story of sexual desire by Mortada Gzar, an Iraqi student at a gay bar hooks up with an American soldier who drives home the side effects of war.

It’s got to be the tenth time this has happened to me. I go out into the back alley of this bar to smoke and he approaches me with a greeting. “Cheers!” he says, clinking his glass against mine. Then he laughs, utters a few words in ammiya, says he was a soldier at Nasiriyah or Baqubah or Ramadi. Then he starts crying, then laughs again and hugs me, squeezing my ribs, then leaves, vanishing into the shadow of the back door.

He’s the third white soldier I’ve met this month. If I went every Tuesday, I’d meet a whole battalion of them, all soldiers from the occupation. I don’t give them my real name, but say something like Jibran, Miran, or Uftan, starting up my mental crane and pulling out easy, musical names. If they ask what it means, I say Jibran is a mountain in the south, Miran means “happy boy,” and Uftan is the heavenly angel who comes down to rub the bellies of married couples to spark in them lust for a night of passion. Then there are Zabdan, Shahman, and Kashamshan––I pretend “zebras,” “darkness,” and “raisins” are faithful saints who lived in the last century and have famous shrines.

 “Oh, nice name, I like your name . . . ” they tell me. “Say that again, Kashamshan? That’s adorable, man.”

Even Jeffrey, the black soldier with a silver nose ring, likes my many names, repeating each with appreciation, stopping every time to listen to my conversations with the soldiers. Jeffrey is a regular at this bar, one of its features, part of its scent.

“What brings you here?” the soldiers always ask.

“Studying,” I always reply.

Jeffrey mentioned recently that someone was asking about me. “Which name did he use?” I asked. I remember well where each of my names travels; I would know who he was by which one he used.

 “He didn’t use a name. He said ‘that Middle Eastern guy who looks like he’s from India and talks like he’s from Puerto Rico.’”

“Do I really look like that, Jeffrey?”

“I don’t know, to me you look like one of those Saudi students and talk like you’re from Iran.”

During the four months that followed, I rarely left home except to go to class, visit the doctor, shop for food, and see a friend in the north of the city. My curiosity jinn slept, and I never thought about the guy looking for me at the soldiers’ gay bar. But when I passed my oil and gas exam, I decided to go get drunk. It was raining, so I bought an umbrella, then went out to wait for the bus going down the hill so I wouldn’t end up at the Tuesday bar.

After half an hour, I decided the downhill bus wasn’t coming and crossed the street to board the bus going the other way. Realizing this would bring me near the Tuesday bar, I surrendered to its alluring pull and headed that way all the same. I convinced myself that these soldiers, guilt-ridden as they were, could teach me a thing or two, and that it would be unkind of me to avoid them.

Happy to see me there, they all bought me drinks to assuage their guilty consciences. I stood in the middle of the crowded bar, soldiers surrounding me like a circle of dancers, their affection taking the edge off their regret. I didn’t fill up on all the bullshit; I knew I only matched their stereotype and perfectly performed the Hollywood image of me. An Iraqi like the Iraqis in Hollywood war films, encircled by Americans like the Americans in Hollywood war films. My reward: glass after glass of vodka and lemon soda.

My Tuesday bar is open every day; it’s cheap, and has filthy bathrooms, walls scribbled with insults and expletives. These are their memories and stories, their questions and jokes, their truths and lies. One of my made-up names is written on the wall in congealed grime, and what looks like my face has been sketched on the door beside a series of badly written Arabic letters, a soldier’s memory of the last thing I had tried to teach him.

Jeffrey told me, “That guy is here, the one who’s been asking about you for the last four months. There, in the corner.”

As I got up, I saw a gigantic pair of legs sticking out of the corner. This guy is made of legs and nothing but legs! I told myself, and, turning back to Jeffrey, whispered in his ear, “You never told me he was a giant!” Jeffrey's ears were pierced, like his nose. It made you feel as if words would have no effect, as if they would go in through the hole in his ear and out the one in his nose.

I turned toward the gloomy corner and approached the legs. The man sat on a stool at one end of the bar, his legs like two wings, like hands on a clock tower, like scissors, like two words with the same meaning.

Our conversation was unremarkable. I had anticipated a little more excitement from him, since I was the man he'd been looking for. But when he told me that he had been a soldier in a Baghdad battalion, he recited the words coldly. Was I not the one he’d been asking about all this time?

He seemed agreeable and at ease in spite of his coldness, untouched by the war. One thing I didn’t understand: Why did the eyes of the other men avoid him, even though his body brimmed with appeal, charm, and gay virility? I don’t think someone is beautiful unless he attracts the eyes of onlookers and passersby; those eyes belong to him, like accents and accessories on his body. Why didn’t they care about this man, adorn him with their gazes? Why didn’t they compete for his love, his attention? My ardor wavering, I forgot the issue of the Arab beast trapped in my pants.

I asked him, “How come you show no sign of shell shock, no side effects of war like they do?”

He got up from the stool, licked his lips, and said, “You want to see my side effects?” Without waiting for a reply, he walked out the back door and disappeared into the dark, narrow alley. Follow me, the muscular ginger’s shadow seemed to say, neither lying nor joking. I must admit, I had felt strangely aroused when he uttered the phrase “side effects”! My Arab beast, awakened by visions of his size and roughness, began to stir, and I went after the ex-soldier with the two gigantic legs.

I found him leaning against the wall and took him in my arms. He loosened my belt.

When I raised up his body, he asked, “How’s that for a side effect?”

I said, “Yes. I liked it.”

His breathing quickened. “I was looking for you to tell you about my side effect.”

I said, “Yes. I liked it.”

Then his body relaxed suddenly and my beast came out, now dangling like a rat kicked out of a mosque.

Afterward he asked, “Are you done?”

I said, “Yes. I liked it.”

I backed away from him, giving him a smile of thanks. He sat down and adjusted his khaki shorts, and while he was sitting there, while he was sitting there . . . something scraped against the pavement and I heard him curse loudly, and as I reached out for him I saw his leg, his plastic leg, tumble to the ground.

© Mortada Gzar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Claire C. Jacobson. All rights reserved.

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