She always recognized them by the trembling behind their bravado. From his first “Hello” she was certain he wasn’t one of them . . . that he had meant to call her, in particular.
He was not one of those triflers, the junior bureaucrats, young clerks, and drunkards who amuse themselves by dialing just any number, for a thrill or perhaps the chance of something more. She recognized their attempts to disguise their impulsiveness: “Is Ahlam home?” Or: “Is this the residence of Salim al-Samir?” Or: “Is my aunt there?”
She had grown accustomed to this type of opening, which normally came at midnight. She would not bother to reply and would slam down the receiver as if slamming the door in an intruder’s face.
When she first heard his voice, he made no attempt to disguise his purpose. He said quite simply: “I wish to speak to you.”
“As simple as that?”
“There’s nothing more beautiful than simplicity.”
She tried to estimate his age and cultural sophistication, and the motivation for this desire that stirred at midnight. She asked, “Why me in particular? Do you know me?”
He replied pointedly, “I wish I did! This is what I’m trying to achieve.”
“I haven’t thought why. I feel drawn to you, an uncanny attraction.”
She was in a mood to continue this dialogue, if only for amusement. She said, “Listen, Mr. . . . I don’t even know your name.”
There was a brief snort of laughter as he transferred the receiver to his other hand. He drew on a cigarette, and released a warm puff over the line as if sending it into her ear. “See here: my name’s of no importance.” He was silent as he sipped a drink . Then he continued: “You’re the important thing. I want you.”
“As simple as that? If you don’t mind your manners, I’ll hang up.”
He quickly apologized, “No, no: I beg you . . . tonight while I’m alone and sad . . . and considering . . . suicide.”
She laughed sarcastically. “Suicide? Just this once? What a hackneyed Romeo you are!”
He interrupted her: “No, no, I beg you: your rebuke is inappropriate, given the depth of love I have for you.”
“Love! I don’t even know you. Love for no reason at all?”
“I told you: an attraction.”
“Even attractions have reasons.”
“You’re right. Speaking frankly, I saw you on TV yesterday and wasn’t able to sleep.”
She replied: “You poor wretch!”
“Indeed I am a poor wretch . . . twenty-four hours a day. Listen to me carefully: You’re not beautiful. . . .”
“Thanks for your refined taste!”
“But you’re an exceptional woman. You captured my heart in less than five minutes.”
She did not abandon her sarcastic tone: “My goodness! Your heart must dwell in a cellar, three steps down or more.”
“May God forgive you. Love’s always yoked to cruelty.”
She guffawed. “God’s will be done! It started as attraction. In a minute it became love. Perhaps after another minute this love will ripen into passion.”
“You’ve hit the nail on the head.”
“Nail, snail . . . I could care less what you say. You’ve gone too far and I’m going to hang up.”
“Actually, I am passionately in love with you. You can’t stop me from being wild about you. I’m passionately in love with your voice . . . only your voice. Could you possibly allow me to hear your voice?”
“Only my voice?”
“Only your voice!”
“Fine. You’ve heard me on the television, so you said.”
“That’s the truth, so help me God almighty.”
“All right. I believe you.”
“Listen to me tomorrow on the radio.”
He had been taking another sip of his drink but stopped to interrupt her by protesting: “No, no, not the radio . . . .”
“Why not? Radio is television’s sister, or do you disagree with the director of broadcasting?”
“On the contrary, he’s an extremely cultured gentleman.”
“Fine . . . is it short wave radio that upsets you?”
“On the contrary, shortwave’s better than longwave.”
“Because I can embrace the shortwave completely with my arms and take full possession of her.”
“It’s wrong to say things like that. You’re abnormal.”
“Is an apple forbidden?”
She said quite sincerely, “No, of course not. Not an apple, not grapes, not even a quince.”
He said, “Who wants a quince? Oh, for an apple . . . Tell me, Madam. . . .”
Her hand grasping the receiver trembled. She frowned as if angry. She snapped: “Why do you say ‘Madam’?” Perhaps I’m ‘Miss.’”
He laughed and replied, “Even a miss may be a madam.”
“My goodness! How can that be? I’d like to know.”
“By virtue of her experience . . . everyone knows that.”
Feeling that he was wandering off on a tangent, she said, “Let’s go back to my voice. Why don’t you want to hear me on the radio?”
He declared, “I want to hear you over the telephone so your voice comes straight to my ear, to me alone. Does that sound threatening to you?”
She thought carefully about her situation . . . about all the possibilities. Might he be someone she knew, disguising his voice to make fun of her? Could it be a professional rival who wanted to record a compromising scene? Or was it . . . one of her relations spying on her? That would be a catastrophe.
She gathered her courage, puckered her brow, and pursed her lips. Then she said, “Listen, Mr. . . . .”
“Ab . . . .”
“I don’t want to know your name. That’s your concern.”
“Have I angered you?”
“There’s not enough of a relationship between us to warrant anger.”
“OK, then . . . let’s talk. I swear I won’t do anything more than talk, and I’ll keep it secret.”
“Secret? Are you crazy? What secret do we share?”
“This nightly conversation . . . limited to the two of us . . . which may provide you an opportunity to talk . . . and which will help me stay alive.”
“I told you: I’m all alone and despondent. My cure lies in hearing your voice. Is that too much to ask? Is that shameful?”
“I don’t know. But . . . why?”
“I told you: it’s a cure for what ails me. I want to speak with you.”
“OK . . . I beg you: take my hand. I mean, take my hand over the telephone.”
She brooded a bit: He’s obviously unbalanced, mentally disturbed. I might be able to play along with him without permitting him to take liberties with me. It’s equally possible that he’s a wicked man who is toying with my sentiments.
She said: “Fine: I’m shaking your hand.”
There was a moment of silence before he responded: “My God! Your hand is very soft.”
“That’s out of line! Let go of my hand.”
He replied determinedly, as if seizing her wrist: “I beg you. Permit me the happiness of touching it for one more minute. Is that possible?”
How dare he? This was insolence and bad manners. From the word go he was asking her to abandon her hand to him. Who did he think he was?
She furiously threw down the receiver, which continued to swing back and forth like a person on the gallows. “Uff!” She released the breath that she had been holding. Who is this? She wondered. What’s induced me to allow him to prolong this conversation? This is absurd, even if I wasn’t doing anything special. It’s still unwelcome . . . unwarranted . . . and in poor taste. This was especially true since she didn’t know who he was or what he wanted precisely. The important thing was that she was done with him. She wouldn’t replace the receiver on the telephone . . . to prevent him from calling back. She knew this obnoxious type who was impossible to shake off and who called her after midnight.
He was saying: “Your warm voice. . . .” Had he said “warm” or “affectionate”? Then: “Permit me to retain your hand a minute.”
God only knows what he’s going to want to hold next.
The receiver was still swinging back and forth like a pendulum, but his voice leapt from it: “Hello! Hello! I beg you, Madam.”
She smiled as she thought back over their conversation. Was he shameless or merely daring? She had told him, “I might be a miss,” and he had said: “We call even a miss ‘Madam’ on account of her experience.”
What kind of experience, you insolent wretch? I’m not going to respond.
His pleading continued in an agonized tone: “That’s the end of it. I repent. Mercy, Ma. . . .”
She was afraid she might give in, if only out of curiosity. She decided to move farther away. He must have heard her footsteps, for his tone of voice changed and his supplications became even more piteous: “No, don’t go. I swear to you, with God as my witness, I’ve finished. There’s one last thing I’d like to understand.”
She paid no attention to him, but her feet began to dance. She was delighted by his persistence, self-abasement, and determination. “I don’t care if he does die. He’s nothing to me.”
She went all the way to the end of the room, moving slowly, opened the refrigerator, and removed a soft drink. As she took her first sip, her eyes fell on the receiver, which had stopped moving and hung there like a corpse.
She muttered to herself: “You’ve gotten what you deserve.” A different feeling, however, was stirring in her heart.
What if he really were that dependent on her? Then . . . what had made her so angry? It was just talk: talk carried by lines or waves that didn’t understand its meaning. Suppose a small child said nice or ugly words, would we hold it against him? He’s merely an instrument, repeating words he doesn’t understand. That was precisely the status of the telephone: a chatterbox of a child transmitting talk it does not comprehend.
This analysis made her feel slightly better, but her anger revived when she ventured back toward the dangling receiver. His voice had died away completely. She assumed he had hung up. She leaned over to grab the receiver and said sarcastically, “Ha! One thing you want to understand? Have you understood it now, clever boy?”
Before she had time to replace the receiver, she heard him say, “I swear to God I understand, and this is unjust.” He said this submissively, with the utmost humility, and continued: “See here: the line’s been busy for half an hour.”
The phrase, “The line’s been busy” caught her attention. Where was he speaking from then?
She decided to find out and said recklessly, “ Busy or free: what’s the difference? Local calls don’t cost extra. Do you think you’re being incredibly generous, like Hatim al-Ta’i? Moreover, I didn’t ask you to call. I don’t want to speak with you.”
He replied gravely, “But you are speaking with me now.”
She laughed and set her soft drink down. Grasping the receiver firmly she said sarcastically, “Merely from pity!”
“Since I don’t know you, how could there be anything more than simple pity?”
“If you’ll promise to bear with me until I complete the introduction, I’ll tell you who I am.”
She laughed derisively. “My goodness, what a deal! All the same, what accounts for this enormous concession: you honoring me with your name?”
He did not respond.
She asked, “What’s the one word you want to know?”
“You won’t get angry?”
She thought a little and then said, “Fine. I won’t get angry.”
He said, “When will you permit me to touch your hand for real?”
Silence again; she managed to gain control of herself and worked through the possibilities: was he a relative, a colleague, a prankster with time on his hands, or someone who genuinely loved her?
She said, “The stars are closer. You’re definitely crazy.”
He interrupted: “I agree and confess to that.”
“I didn’t grant you permission to hold my hand via the telephone, and now you aspire to touch it for real.”
He sighed. There was the sound of a lighter clicking. Something poured into a glass. He released a stifled breath and transferred the receiver to his other hand.
“Listen: imagination’s stronger than reality. To me, touching your hand is the key to a paradise only I can explore.”
She feigned amazement and astonishment, raising her eyebrows as though he could see her. She imagined he actually did see her. For this reason, she waited for him to continue speaking.
He asked, “Why don’t you reply?”
“Since you’ve confessed that you’re insane, that’s the end of it. What can we say of the insane?”
“We should say they’re more intelligent than reasonable men. You haven’t asked me about the touch of the hand.”
With apparent derision that masked her curiosity, she sneered, “If I asked you?”
He said, “I would reply by asking you why the hand has five fingers. Can you answer that?”
“Frankly, I don’t know. Birds have three. Perhaps some creatures have four.”
“Exactly . . . but man has five, because the hand, with its five fingers, has the ability to simulate the five senses. The hand sees. The hand hears.”
She interrupted him disdainfully: “My goodness! What’s all this wealth of learning?”
He continued with the same gravity, “The hand touches, the hand smells.”
She echoed him: “It hears and smells?”
He declared decisively: “Absolutely . . . when we like a song, our fingers’ response precedes any other reaction. They snap, drum, and even dance.”
“And it smells . . . the hand smells?”
“Absolutely . . . the hand smells. I’ll explain but fear you’ll get angry and won’t like what I say.”
She quickly responded, “No, no. You may speak. I won’t allow a madman’s words to anger me.”
“The hand is an instrument of touch but transforms touch into sights and smells. For example—don’t get angry—if my hand were to feel your body right now. . . .”
She screamed at him: “What are you saying? You really are insane!”
He continued just as calmly, “My lady, I say ‘if’ . . . ‘if it were the case that’ and this is merely a conversation by telephone.”
“A discussion that has gone way beyond the bounds of common decency.”
“At times we put up with a violation of normal bounds of decency in order to learn something. Law students study crime. Medical students study diseases. I . . . .”
She interrupted him: “Fine. Fine. We’ve settled that. If. . . .”
“Yes, if . . . . With merely a touch in certain locations, nothing more than that, with the hand only, I would feel that I’m plunging into a warm bath. I would sense I’ve entered a garden planted with nothing but roses and jasmine. I would see lights and colors. I would slide over soft grass. I’d be warming myself before a stove.”
She screamed: “That’s enough!”
He said determinedly, “This is a prologue to entering the inferno.”
She screamed, once more: “Shut up!”
She slammed down the receiver, gasped, and trembled. Her body was inflamed. She looked at herself in the mirror opposite her and saw that her face was flushed.
She moved her hand about, stroking her body. Before these touches could be translated into sights and sounds, the telephone rang again. She headed toward it but then thought better of that. Then she thought better of thinking better. She lifted the receiver and brought it to her ear, although she feared the receiver had a hand that would touch her or teeth to bite.
She heard one of her girlfriends say, “Hello . . . Ahlam . . . what’s the matter?”
She replied with a sigh of regret, “Nothing. . . .”
“Nothing? You’re sick. Your voice gives you away. It’s shaking. I’m coming right over. I won’t rest until I’ve checked on you.”
She quickly interrupted her friend: “No, don’t worry about me. I’m waiting for an important call. Please hang up. I can’t have the line tied up right now. I’ll get back to you afterward. Hang up now; I beg you.”
She continued sitting there, waiting for the phone to ring again. The clamorous, expectant ringing inside her would not stop.
© Fatima Youssef al-Ali. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.