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from the October 2019 issue

Vienna

Despite her family’s disapproval, a young woman pursues her career ambitions and resists monogamy in this piece by Sahar Mandour.
 

I was twenty-two and my husband, Yussef, was five years older than me. I always liked his first name but not his last, Bazaza, which made me Mrs. Bazaza. Me? Mrs. Bazaza?

His house on the waterfront used to overlook the Raouche rock before someone stuck a building right in the middle of the view. He also had a ton of money before inflation turned it into pennies.

Besides being an architect, he managed a department at the Architecture House and wanted, someday, a daughter to call Tatiana. He’d liked that name since he was a kid, kind of the way I loved the name Steve, except I grew out of it and he didn’t. I mean, sure, Tatiana is a pretty name. I had a friend in high school named Tatiana, so I get it. But Tatiana Bazaza?

To be fair, any name you put in front of "Bazaza" is going to sound ridiculous, even something like “Jade” or “Lynn.” Still, I fought with him about it. Argued with logic and failed. Tried religion and failed. Even suggested either of our moms’ names—and failed.

He always deployed the same dumb tactic when we reached an impasse. He’d say, “But, Vienna, I’ve dreamed about naming my daughter Tatiana forever. I’ve never asked you for anything, have I? Why would you deny me this one request?”

He used this syrupy voice that made it sound like he was about to cry. A grown man. God, I hated that voice.

So I’d go quiet and then say something like, “I guess I can’t refuse your one little request, Yussef,” while reminding myself to never get pregnant.

And I never did.

I used birth control for a while, but then he started nagging me when I went to the gynecologist, so I got off the pill and stopped going to the doctor. And I still didn’t get pregnant, thankfully, though it made me the black sheep of the family—his and mine.

In the eyes of my family, I failed at everything, and his family saw me as the barren wife who’d end the bloodline, but I was thrilled to be infertile.

My brother was happy about it too. He couldn’t wait for me to get a divorce. Ahmad never liked Yussef because my husband had a temper, never went out, and didn’t drink. Their conversations always stalled after some inane chitchat like:

“How are you?”

“Great. And you?”

“Fine, thank God.”

Ahmad never understood why Yussef lived that way. I used visits to my brother as an excuse to sneak out and party without Yussef knowing. Ahmad would pick me up, drop me at the party, and come back and bring me home at the end of the night.

I never kept it a secret from Ahmad that I cheated on Yussef.

When it became clear that I wasn’t going to get pregnant, I started going to a million different doctors, who all said that even if I wasn’t very fertile, it was still possible for me to have a baby. Actually, it was more Yussef’s fault. They figured out that he was entirely sterile. His swimmers were weak, lazy, and slow, not to mention dead on arrival. (Which also pretty much sums up our sex life.)

Their conclusion: Yussef will never have children.

Of course, Yussef didn’t believe them at first. He blew off the first five doctors and eventually, after four years of this, killed himself.

So then I was a widow and clearly very broken up about it. I had to stay at home for forty days, but Ahmad kept helping me sneak out at night, bringing me back at dawn to play at grief. I tried to negotiate the mourning period—I mean, isn’t the widow or divorcée supposed to stay home long enough to know for sure if she’s pregnant? Which, clearly, I couldn’t be. (I smiled a little slyly when I said this.)

My ears are still ringing from the family’s response. “Show some shame! Your husband died! He treated you so well!” and whatever.

Around the same time, my dad’s health declined. He started showing signs of heart problems—probably, if I’m honest, because he worried so much about me. But he was also old.

I love him so much. He’s the reason I’m named Vienna. He’d hum Asmahan’s song to me when I was small and I’d feel like a feather bobbing along to the rhythm. Is there anything more adorable than a father gently singing the song that inspired his daughter’s name? And my mother would get jealous of us—God, I miss those moments.

I’d hug and tease him, and we’d get into debates, but over time his playfulness dried up and he didn’t want hugs or jokes from me. He’d suggest my arguments were superficial. His tone went condescending, like, listen up and I shall bestow a sliver of my great wisdom upon you.

And of course that was super boring. I stopped debating anything with him, which made him feel guilty because he thought he’d raised me wrong. That guilt never really went away. It kept him from me for the rest of his life.

Sometimes I wish I’d finished my degree in psychology. But regret is pointless, and all of it was behind me. Yussef was gone and I was free. My friends stayed in contact and life went on.

I decided to go back to college and finish that degree and was surprised to see how much the psychology major had changed since I’d dropped out. I would have to study hard if I wanted to pass, but I was tired of dedicating myself to one thing, so I gave up on the idea of school to become a cable news anchor instead.

Look at me! I am very beautiful. My name is beautiful. I am so funny.

I invented a resume testifying to my professional experience in news and television. My friends hooked me up with references from companies I’d never heard of before. Ahmad was especially helpful. One of his patients was a prince from the Gulf region and Ahmad asked him for “one little favor.”

So I became a news anchor:

“Good evening, everyone . . . we now go to our reporter on the scene in . . . thank you for watching.”

Then I was the weather girl:

“The temperature will be . . . chance of rain . . . elevations.”

Then the host of a TV show:

“The Lion released a new album . . . the performer Zeezee was caught on film in a catfight with . . . Najwa Karam has retired once again.”

Naturally, I became famous. I had my own show, Romance in the City, where I’d go to all the hot places to party and talk to strangers about their lives. Why were they out? Were they trying to meet people or were they sticking with their friends?

I’d ask them everything—the price of admission and how expensive drinks were in the club, their favorite songs, their college majors. I’d dance with them while interviewing them, sparking a trend in Arabic TV.

Yes, you heard that right: I started a new genre of Arabic television.

On one of my nights out, I decided to change it up and stuck with the same table all night to ask deeper and more detailed questions than usual.

One of the men at the table told me Haifa Wehbe was his favorite singer.

I said, “What’s a line from one of her songs that you think is iconic?”

He sang, “Ouch my boo-boo, kiss my boo-boo, and make it feel better.”

In my early twenties, I’d loved Haifa Wehbe, and I was psyched to hear him bring her up. (My interviewee’s favorite song was played at the club once our interview was over, so I got to hear it again.) He told me the “kiss the boo-boo” song reminded him of his nephew, Zozo, who stood on the living room couch as a kid and sang along while pointing at his own boo-boos.

My interviewee added that his nephew was in a self-discovery phase at the time, and the song helped him a lot.

“You really understand children,” I said.

“Oh, I don’t,” he said. “We took him to a psychiatrist because of his hypersexual behavior. We thought maybe he was turning gay. But the doctor said Haifa was helping Zozo love himself and eventually love girls, so.”

That was an especially good episode and everyone congratulated me for it. My fame grew and I started publishing magazine articles. My name became really well known, but only my first name. "Bazaza" would end my career in a heartbeat. I mean, I know I wouldn’t watch a show hosted by Mrs. Bazaza, so I buried it.

My late husband’s family tried to ruin me because of it. They said, “She killed our son! She rejected our name! The whore!” and whatever.

I went by my maiden name, Al-Shamee, and according to gossip about me, I arrived late to the drug scene. It’s true that I wasn’t addicted to anything, but I did stuff that electrified me at night without exhausting my body. It added to the humor of the situation, I think—a famous thirty-three-year-old woman dancing freely, smiling with the sort of happiness that only blooms deep in the heart.

It’d been three years since my dad died of heart disease, two since my mom died of boredom and loneliness, exacerbated by anemia and sudden complications, a quiet parting.

That was the first real period of sadness in my life. I’d just finished mourning my dad when I lost my mom. I thanked God the griefs combined into one great loss so that I’d only experience it once, but in truth, it all left me terrified to lose Ahmad. He was the only stable and certain thing in my life, the only one who laughed with me and loved hanging out without feeling like he needed to interfere in my life.

I started calling him like five times a day and having dinner with him often, every week sleeping over or having him over. I tried not to lose our parents’ house, but the landlord took us to court and made us give it up. He wanted to raise the rent, a present to himself after our parents died.

I’d had a lot of lovers by that time in my life, and there were always problems with our relationships, like with Ramy—he loved me, but his family couldn’t stand the thought of him marrying a widow. Pierre adored me, but his wife would’ve killed herself if he’d left her. Another, Mazen, emigrated. Then there was Danny, who, let’s say, uncovered my infidelity on the same night he proposed to me (very romantically, might I add).

The Danny story is wild. I did cheat on him, but only early on in our relationship. How was I supposed to know our love was the enduring kind? After I fell for him, I never cheated on him again, except that time in Paris when Danny was away, giving a lecture on Islam and terrorism. And that other time, when he became a recluse because his brother, who was only twenty-five, died in a car crash.

In my defense, I cheated the first time because I thought he was cheating on me. I was very drunk and it was a one-night stand. The second time was because I was too empathetic—I didn’t know what to do with all that pain. I also didn’t know what to do with Danny in that awful time, but I had to do something. So I did.

We broke up on a Friday night. He’d asked me to reserve the evening for us to be together, alone, because he had this secretive plan that would be unveiled step by step throughout the night. He insisted on romance—he blindfolded me with a red satin cloth for the half-hour car ride. I wore my sexiest purple dress and my highest heels, sultry but not slutty. (Maybe a little slutty across the chest and waist, but those heels work wonders, seeing as I’m already pretty tall.)

My hair was loose over my shoulders, a casual look that’d taken all afternoon at the hairdresser to achieve. I’d said, “Make it look beautiful but unstyled.” I picked complementary pale green eye shadow, and when I was done, I looked and felt irresistible, a natural bombshell. 

Danny took off the blindfold and I found myself standing in front of the mountain cable car in Jounieh. He laughed at my discomfort—my clothes weren’t the best for riding a cable car—and I wished I could find it funny, too.

As we glided above the Lebanese landscape, he enfolded me in his arms and kissed me deeply. I’ll remember that kiss for as long as I live.

We talked about my outfit and hair, how good I looked, and his work. When the ride ended, he blindfolded me to preserve the surprise, and we started the two-hour drive to the next destination. He tried to make the drive less boring with wine and conversation, and of course he played some songs, mostly Julio Iglesias, Dalida, and Hany Shaker. (I hate Hany Shaker.)

I opened my eyes after we arrived to see Tyre Beach. My feet sank into the sand with every step toward a table loaded with fish, appetizing side dishes, and a bottle of wine from 1980.

Overwhelmed, I almost cried. He slid a fish onto my plate and when I picked apart the flesh, I found a ring inside. It was unbearably cute, and then I cried for real.

I said yes and we laughed through the night. Only at dawn, drowsy, did I start to fall asleep.

The alcohol hit me on the drive back. I dreamed of a wedding by the sea, where a pink elephant picked me up and brought me to a paradise so sublime I didn’t hear my phone ringing in real life. It was Ahmad, too curious about how my evening had gone to wait until I called him. (He worked the night shift at the hospital.)

Danny wanted to know who would call me so late at night (or early in the day, depending on how you look at it). He dug in my purse for my phone. Relieved to find it was my brother calling, he told Ahmad I was “passed out drunk” in the passenger seat and they laughed before hanging up. But Danny is the jealous type. He doesn’t trust news anchors—or himself, either.

I heard this story later from people who heard it from him.

He pulled over to the side of the road to go through my text messages, sent and received. He was thrilled because I don’t let anyone touch my phone, especially not my lovers. Danny used to say he liked that about me, that I acted like a cute little baby. He didn’t think I was a cute baby after he read those messages and compared the dates they were sent to when we started our relationship.

There was one, especially, that exposed my unfaithfulness. I hadn’t deleted it because, aside from some jokes Ahmad had sent me, it was the best message I’d ever gotten, a relic of a relationship that felt suspended in time. Relationships like those remained suspended in time for both parties, who murmur sweet nothings in the morning about their time together, feel nostalgic about their separation, and then feel nothing at all.

I never expected one day to read from Danny the sort of message I’d receive from a random lover. No husband or fiancé would write to his bride what this man (Patrick? No, Jim, or maybe Gisele—no, he was a man, Je-something. Jeal!) wrote to me in French:

“Vienna, a peaceful life resides in the flavor of your body. I live fully when I touch you. Better to welcome death than to live in your absence.”

Imagine! One reads such words in novels, wishing to be the one addressed. And these words were for me, Vienna. How could I possibly delete such a message, for God’s sake?

Anyway, in short, Danny read my messages and (as others told me later) drove the car in a blind rage. I was impossible to wake, so he parked and carried me to my brother’s front door, dumping me like a sack of potatoes (batata, not Bazaza).

Danny took off and I don’t remember a single moment of it—not even how long I was asleep on the doorstep before my brother came home from his shift. I woke up in bed, Ahmad smiling at me as he relayed the news ending that chapter in my life. He took the day off so we could triage at home. We laughed and tried to analyze the psychological and sociological factors at work that would drive Danny to dump me on my brother’s stoop instead of my own.

© Sahar Mandour. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Nicole Fares and Sarah Ramey. All rights reserved.

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