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from the March 2016 issue

A Red Lighter in the Heart of M.

The weight of the world is visible in your eyes, heavier and fuller than the generous breasts of the unfamiliar girl seated across from you. She tells you her name is Hiba and says she lives in the next neighborhood over. She looks at you, dumbfounded, while you continue to play with the lighter that someone forgot in your apartment. You light it and let it go out, and think of the swamp of despair swallowing your heart. Hiba stands up and walks toward the large mirror. She adjusts her hair and applies some eyeliner.

The unknown girl who told you her name is Hiba may as well be Meriem or Nada or Jihan. It doesn't matter.

"What are we gonna do now?"

She asks you this, her voice uncertain, as if awakening from a bad dream. You turn your gaze back to your lighter and contemplate the feeble, flickering flame. You bring it closer to your face and the fire gleams all the brighter. You ask her to get on her knees between your legs. You unbutton your jeans, slide them down, and ask her to suck you. Hesitating, she remains quiet a moment before giving you a smile. Hiba's features make her appear a bit simple. She drops down. Caresses it between her lips before sliding it into her mouth. Moves clumsily up and down.

It lasts several minutes. You watch her do it as if it were another couple. On a muted television screen. Her long black hair falls across her face and gets in her way. You hold her hair in your hand, and her necklace with your fingers, as she goes up and down. She stops.

"My mouth hurts." She says this and stares at you with the same simple look on her face. You tell her that it doesn't matter and you help her back to her feet. Hiba's skin is beautiful, as is her body, like that of the women of antiquity. She's wearing a sky blue dress covered in white flowers and ballerinas. A short dress that shows off her nice legs. Over her dress, she had been wearing a white cotton cardigan that she took off upon entering the apartment, throwing it down next to her gray handbag on the tired red couch.

She quickly takes off her clothing. You ask her if it would be OK for you to step around behind her so you can unfasten her bra. You smile and remember certain things you used to enjoy doing. You do it like a junkie, with quick movements, self-conscious, and you stare with astonishment at her back as you touch it. It looks like a piece of polished thuya wood. Hiba's skin looks like a cafe creme. A body soft like a piece of silk. Without imperfections.

On the bed, she stretches out on her back and looks at you. You look at her too, focusing on the conspicuous green vein that covers half of her neck, disappearing a bit farther up. You lie down on top of her, pulling her to you. Awkwardly.

Then you listen to the screeching of the rusted metal bed, shifting your gaze from her closed eyes to the yellow wall.

When it's all over with, you're left drowning in despondency. In nostalgia.

You think about the blank sheets of paper on your desk and all the things you could write. And you think of all the things it's possible to lose on a crisp, clear Sunday morning. You leave for the bathroom, where you wash your body. Hiba waits for you in the bedroom. She's still sitting down, looking at herself in a compact. She once again touches up her makeup and adjusts her hair. You're very quiet. She smiles at you, and remains silent as well. She gets up and hastily pulls on her clothes. She tells you she's got to meet a girlfriend, that she should get going. You ask her to stay a little while.

"I haven't really had a chance to talk to you about much."

She shoots you that same simple smile and looks you in the eyes one more time. She turns her body toward you and assents with a nod. You tell her things she isn't supposed to hear. You talk about Melina and about God. About the screaming children who surrounded you in a lush garden in your dream. About the statuette of the winged woman with the cold, unfeeling eyes. You stop talking when she bends down to put on her brown nylons. You hadn't noticed that she was wearing stockings when she arrived. You look at her and think of the red lighter you're holding in your hand.

You flick the lighter on once again, and think of the cold winter nights that have just come to an end. Of Melina, in that cold, drafty bar the two of you had always gone to. Of a scrap of paper on which she wrote something childish and signed it "I love you." Of people who talk in hushed voices, but with the nonchalance of a conversation taking place over breakfast.

"I'm off"; Hiba, in a kindhearted voice. Then smiling a big smile.

You smile in turn and pull her gently toward you. She sits on your knees.

"You know, it wasn't to make love. I just wanted to have a little company," you tell her.

She replies without paying you the least bit of attention. "That's nice."

You smile lamely and get some bills out of your wallet. You put them in the top of her handbag before leaning down to kiss her on the cheek. She turns away, letting out a "bye," you barely even hear it, she shuts the door behind her.

You don't think she was wearing any perfume; maybe you just didn't notice, it's an unimportant detail. Except you miss the vanilla perfume you used to smell on Melina's body.

You sit down heavily on the couch, and you listen to a song on your phone. The lighter had been Melina's. When the song, one Melina had liked, has ended, you open the steamed-up window. A bit of fresh air enters the room. You squeeze the lighter in your hand before throwing it into the street. It hits the ground and shatters. As you look at the sliver of blue sky left unhidden by the building across the street.

ولاعة حمراء في قلب السيد ميم. © Mohammed El Khadiri. By arrangement with the author. Translated from the author's unpublished French translation. Translation © 2016 by Chris Clarke. All rights reserved.

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