Fiction

The Principles of Exile

by
Illustration by Kate Wilson

• 4,742 words

Illustration by Kate Wilson

My mother has sent me out to Saint-Denis by Métro, because Alsan, the cleaner at her office, has told her that the best halloumi is to be found floating in a bucket at the back of a Lebanese bakery in the market on Rue de la République. My mother would make the cheese herself if she could, just as she is making baklava from whisper-thin sheets of phyllo and honey produced by bees raised in fields of lavender.

For Monsieur Sarkis, a man whose picture sits framed on top of the piano as if he is a relative, nothing but the best will do.

My father tells her she needn’t bother—we’ll cater, we’ll order, we’ll dine at Le Paradis—but my mother is insistent: we will entertain at home and she will cook, for this is a man who for so long did not have the safety and comfort of a home, living in hiding, under threat of a fatwa calling for his assassination for the better part of a decade.

The fatwa was finally lifted last year and Sarkis’s new book is about to be launched in Paris. My father, his French publisher, has been talking of little else for months, even losing interest in the Swiss copy editor with the shiny black bob and pert breasts.

Ours is a small publishing house established by my grandfather from money inherited from his father, an engineer who built railway lines in Africa. My father, attempting to shake off the colonial residue when he took over as publisher in 1969, dropped the word “Dark” and relaunched the house as simply Continent Editions. He did not make any significant money, and did not expect to when he signed on a relatively unknown Lebanese-American author named David Sarkis who had penned a startling novella about a Muslim cleric’s sexual awakening.

The British edition was published first. We could never have anticipated the reaction. Radical Muslim clerics immediately denounced the book as a defamation of Islam, and others raised enough money to offer a million-dollar reward for Sarkis’s head. Our edition quickly followed, as did deals for publication in twenty-seven other countries. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, Continent Editions had a bestseller, and David Sarkis was a star.

My father thrived on this recognition, a reward that seemed worth the threat of the black Mercedes with tinted windows that started following him home from work, worth the inconvenience of having to change his route every day, worth the expense of hiring a driver, worth the seriousness of the bodyguard the government assigned to protect us, worth the threat to himself, to my mother, and to me. Until he received the letter threatening to kidnap me, at which point my mother, for all she shared in the excitement, for all it seemed to have reinvigorated their marriage, said: enough.

My father’s solution was to stop the driver outside a travel agency after picking me up from school the following day, and ask the agent to book me a ticket to the furthest place possible. At fourteen, I was sent off to Australia—and not to Sydney or Melbourne, but to the remote and desolate interior—without a return date.

The squat, veiled woman behind the counter has her eye on me as I scan the shelves, as if I’m about to make off with something. I’m taking it all in: the sweaty smell of cumin, the sizzle of frying falafel patties, the sour smell of vinegar emanating from the vats of Greek olives. A boy who must be her son—taller than her and pockmarked by acne—asks me if he can help me find something, while she slips behind a curtain. I tell him I have come for cheese. He says they have no cheese and I ask him: “Not even halloumi? ”

“Halloumi, we have,” he says.

“And isn’t halloumi cheese? ”

“Yes,” he says. “How much do you want? ”

The boy’s mother reemerges, realizing that I am harmless, just a man who doesn’t know exactly what he wants. She says something to her son in Arabic and he translates: “What are you using it for? ”

“I don’t know exactly,” I admit. “My mother, she’s making Lebanese food,” adding, “for a Lebanese man.”

The squat woman winks at me, evidently understanding. She pulls a plastic bag off a roll and plunges her hand into a white, plastic bucket behind her. She captures a big piece of halloumi floating in the water and deftly inverts the bag.

“He’s just a friend of the family,” I explain, “not a friend exactly, a writer, a famous writer, we published his book, perhaps you know him? David Sarkis? ”

The squat woman squints, opens the plastic bag, spits onto the halloumi, twists and ties the neck of the bag, and thrusts it into my hand.

I am left standing there holding this clear plastic bag at arm’s length as if it contains a dead goldfish. I hand over all the money in my pocket to the boy. Perhaps he shares the same view of Sarkis as his mother; he makes no effort to hand me any change. And I make no effort to ask for it.

I was not happy about being forced to leave Paris, particularly when I had just been introduced to the world underneath Isabel’s school uniform. I understood the principle behind having to leave, though I had trouble comprehending how it was that a fourteen-year-old boy from Paris should be sent away because of the publication of a book he had never read by a Lebanese-American man he had never met. It made me feel the world was very small and perhaps it is for just that reason that my parents had to send me away.

And big it became: endless. The dusty town in the middle of a continent on the other side of the world gave way to dusty desert on all sides. The schoolyard had no fences—what would have been the point? There was nothing but sand and rocks and sky and the occasional three-legged dog out there. There was nowhere for me to run except back to Trudy’s house, where I slept in a shared room wallpapered with palm trees on white sandy beaches.

Trudy was the sister of someone who worked in publishing in Sydney and she was a nurse, although there was no hospital in the town. Her husband, Mathias, was only home on weekends because he spent the week prospecting for oil in the desert. I was never sure whether either of them actually knew why I was there, but I was quite sure that even if I’d had the language to explain it, they would not have been particularly interested.

Mathias would sit across from me at the linoleum table in the kitchen drinking beer on Friday nights and talk to Trudy’s back while she stood at the counter chopping carrots. I could tell he was talking about me long before I spoke English. “You should ask for more money, Trude,” he would say. “You see how much he eats? ”

One of my first thoughts in English was a resolution to eat less.

My mother has always thought Sarkis very handsome. Perhaps a wanted man is always handsome. He is rather portly and olive-skinned, with a thick black moustache and beard, and eyebrows that nearly meet in the middle. His beard allegedly conceals a scar on his chin, the legacy of his having been knifed by a Mossad agent after seducing the man’s daughter—a story that is legendary and, most likely, apocryphal, but now immortalized as the plot of his new novel.

I only came to read his work years later. It was his short stories that moved me, particularly the one about a man in prison who helps a despondent spider mend its broken web by offering the spider his eyelashes one by one. That story was an enormous comfort to me. I was that web—that thin, near-transparent, hidden thing, torn in a corner. I was that spider, trapped in a prison without walls or cellmates.

Trudy and Mathias had a daughter named Tammy, about my age, as well as a son, Tommy, who was still wearing diapers even though he was nearly eight. Tommy stayed at the house of the lady next door while Tammy and I were at school and Trudy was at work.

Tammy found the fact that I didn’t speak English inordinately funny and took to calling me Frog Legs, a nickname she soon shared with the entire grade. By the time I was stammering just enough English to survive, I had suffered the humiliation of being made to crouch and croak and eat flies by older children in the schoolyard. They would stand in a circle, a circle of identical faces, lightly bronzed and wild-eyed and framed with blond hair, shouting orders, kicking up the dirt.

As much as I longed to be able to explain my presence to them, the English I was acquiring was not so much for conversation as self-defence. I quietly stocked my arsenal and waited for the inevitable. I had fast become attuned to the cues, the subtle shifts in classroom weather, the tension rising like a cicada’s crescendo in the heat. The day that a group of students standing in a bristling cluster during lunch break ignored me when I tripped over my shoelace, I knew my time was up. The cabbage I’d eaten started to pickle in my stomach.

“Hey, wait up,” Tammy yelled, as I pushed my way down the hallway and out through the swinging door. I turned around and saw her smirking through the glass, while behind me a group of boys assembled.

I stood in the middle of their shrinking circle, my knees about to buckle. And then I timidly raised my gun.

Something dribbled rather than shot out of my mouth.

“What’d you say? ” shouted one of the more thick-necked of the bunch.

“Can’t hear you mate,” another said, pushing me up against the school’s grey wall.

My chest inflated with the stink of his armpits and the desert dust and I bellowed, “Fuck you, you shitty buggers!”

The bully backed up and I wiped my mouth of the spit caused by all those hard consonants. Then the wall of boys crumbled. In strode Mr. Henry, the grade eight math teacher. He grabbed the back of my neck and squeezed. “Profanity, my little Frenchman, might be the way you communicate au Paris, but here it is completely unacceptable.”

I ended up on a bench outside the principal’s office. There was one other boy there—the only aboriginal boy in the school.

I tried to make conversation. “Have you ever been on a school trip? ” I asked.

The boy looked at me with raised eyebrows and said nothing.

“Last year my class took a trip to the Dordogne. To see the cave paintings,” I said, thinking he might know something about cave paintings.

The boy turned his full attention back to the scab on his knee.

“Hey,” I said then, lowering my voice, “tell me, what’s going to happen? ”

“Whippin’,” he said, popping the scab, by then wedged under his fingernail, into his mouth.

My mother is making fish, a whole white fish from her favourite fishmonger. She’s patting its silver back dry with a paper towel while she peruses a slim, photocopied booklet called “Cooking with the First Lady of Egypt.” There is a very badly reproduced photograph of President Gamal Abdel Nasser standing fuzzy and askew on the cover, followed by an introduction written in broken English about socialist revolution, collective harvesting, and traditional cuisine.

I am chopping onions and garlic while my mother stands beside me, sprinkling earthy green olive oil onto the fish. She is humming “Les enfants qui s’aiment.” She massages the oil into the skin and sprinkles it with cumin and salt and pepper. She lines the cavity with slices of lemon and threads of saffron. The fish looks proud in its dressing and my mother looks even more proud in her apron.

I cannot remember the last time she was in the kitchen, with the exception of the one time Marta came to visit. My mother was convinced Marta was my girlfriend, my first since Isabel, and so, despite my repeated protestations, she baked a cake in honour of her arrival.

Marta praised its delicacy, its subtle anise flavour.

“I’ll give you the recipe,” my mother said. “It’s Emmanuel’s favourite.”

Marta kicked me under the table.

Later, undressing in my room, Marta commented on the transparency of my poor mother’s attempts to engage her. The guest room was conveniently unavailable, my mother claimed, due to mould growing under the wallpaper because of the heavy spring rains. It was embarrassing enough that I still lived with my parents, but now Marta could see the pathetic evidence of the only victories in my life—chess trophies and assorted certificates of merit for things like poetry recitation—that covered my boy-bedroom wall.

I resisted the urge to look while she undressed, but I could smell the lavender talc of her skin when she removed her blouse and pulled her nightdress over her head.

My mother strains the soaking lentils over the sink. I sauté the onions and garlic and a small green chilli in a pot, and when they begin to brown, I tip in the soft lentils and stir.

“Marta wishes she could be here,” I say as casually as possible.

My mother stops humming.

“She just couldn’t believe Sarkis was coming.”

My mother sniffs her hands and grimaces.

I met Marta by chance a few years ago. She was accompanying her father, Sarkis’s German publisher, to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and when we were introduced, I was struck by her peculiar-sounding French. While I had been in Australia, Marta had been in a small town in Canada, though I did not know that at the time, did not know there were children of Sarkis’s publishers scattered about the world, living in its most remote and lonely places. Over a drink, Marta told me about her two years of exile in a small fishing village in New Brunswick.

The connection between us was immediate. For the first time, I felt as if there was someone other than Sarkis, author of a short story about a spider, who understood me. I would marry Marta if she weren’t a lesbian.

My mother no longer approves of Marta and would not have invited her to join us for dinner. It is not that Marta is a lesbian; it is that she has asked me if I will be a sperm donor, or rather, it is that I am considering it. My mother should be happy—this way I might actually stand a chance of being a father.

There were two boys at our school who really were not boys, but men. Perhaps they were as old as twenty. One had failed repeatedly because his brain had been damaged from sniffing glue, and the other, so they said, had missed two years of school while in juvie. When the aboriginal boy left, they turned their full attention to Frog Legs.

The one who had been in prison whacked me in the back of the knees with a stick. Once I was down, the one who sniffed glue shoved my face into the dirt and dragged my cheek over a rock.

Trudy applied antiseptic to my face that night and told me she didn’t need any more problems. Mathias smirked, then offered to teach me how to use my fists, which I declined.

“Pussy,” I heard him say.

I wasn’t even sure how to reach my parents then. The government had them in protection, moving them from flat to flat. So I sat on my bed and scratched at the ringed bark of the palm trees on the wall and decided that I would eat even less in the hope of becoming invisible.

When I returned home after eighteen months, my mother said I looked very handsome—I’d lost all my baby fat. She couldn’t see what else I’d lost. Perhaps I would have told her if I’d had the words. Strangely, the words only seemed to come with Marta, beginning that very first night in Frankfurt when she spoke her funny French to me.

At half past seven the table is set. My mother fills a large jug with water and ice and adds a slice of lemon. She toasts Lebanese flatbread. She changes her skirt twice; her blouse twice. She dusts her eyelids with blue powder. She sits down with my father in the library, then immediately stands up again. She paces around the apartment. She heats the oven, stirs the lentils, and turns down the heat.

At nine o’clock she finally speaks. “René? Where on earth do you think he is? ”

My father puts down his newspaper and peers over his glasses. “I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”

“But really, René, he’s already over an hour late.”

“What’s one more hour when we’ve been waiting ten years? ”

“It’s a burnt dinner, that’s what it is.”

“I told you we should have had it catered.”

“That’s not the point,” she says, pushing a stray hair out of her eyes.

“Emmanuel? ” she says, turning to me. “Ring the car service will you? Find out where he is.”

I return to the kitchen, turn off the oven, and call the dispatcher. He puts me on hold while he radios the driver. Madonna sings “Like a Virgin” in my ear and I smell the skin of the fish turning black.

Marta kissed me once. It was a couple of years ago. She was quite drunk when she suddenly tipped her barstool forward and leaned into my mouth, saying she just wanted to know what it felt like.

So what did it feel like, I wanted to know.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Confirmation.”

I must have looked hurt. “Oh, Manny,” she said, stroking my cheek. “It’s me, not you.”

As if to reassure me, she told me the story of losing her virginity. The man was a widower, though he wasn’t that old: his wife had died of botulism from a crab cake the year before. He was a cousin of the woman Marta lived with in New Brunswick and he had come to stay over the Christmas holidays.

I had a sudden flashback to my Christmas in the outback. Mathias had grilled sausages on the barbie, fatty squat things slathered in tomato sauce that he poked aggressively with a fork until they looked as if they had been shot twenty times with an air rifle. There were a lot of people getting loud on a lot of beer and Tammy mimicking fellatio at me with a sweating sausage behind her father’s back. I’d hated myself for getting hard and going to relieve myself in the toilet.

“It was partly that I felt sorry for him,” Marta said. “That is, until he was lying on top of me.”

He came into her room, which was just a converted closet, drunk on homemade booze. He crawled into her bed, lifted her nightgown, and without a word, pushed himself into her. When she cried out, he cupped his palm over her mouth, and quickly finished. He left her as silently as he’d come into her room but the next day, over breakfast, he looked at her with something like love in his eyes and she excused herself to go and vomit up her oatmeal. She chewed parsley every morning for the next month. The woman she lived with kept a bag full of it in the freezer.

The dispatcher comes back on the line. “He dropped him off at his hotel, sir,” he says. “At about eight o’clock.”

“But he was due here then,” I stammer. “Was the driver not instructed to bring him here? ”

“Apparently he said he was rather tired.”

I thank him, and put the phone down gently.

“So? ” my mother asks, suddenly standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

“Well, it seems there was some emergency and he had to return to New York.” I shake my head and shrug. “The driver took him to the airport.”

“My god,” is all she says, expressionless. Then: “René? René? ” and the clack of her heels against the parquet down the hall to the library.

Perhaps the world is at its most awful when you are fourteen years old and effectively orphaned, sacrificed for the sake of some higher principle that you have trouble enough understanding even when it doesn’t translate into having your face mashed into the dirt by five bullies high on glue. I remember two of them standing on my shoulders while Tammy tugged down my trousers and laughed at the sight of me. “Look at his sagging grundies! He’s got no bum! Oh my god, he’s got no bum!” she kept shrieking.

“What about a clacker? ” one of them said.

“Yeah, see if you can find his clacker, Tammy. Give it a burl. Or maybe he shits out his mouth.”

Two of them wrenched my legs apart and pinned them down. They took turns jabbing at me with a stick. I was already thousands of miles away from home; the only place left was beyond Earth, freed from gravity.

It was Tammy who went deep.

It was Trudy who saw the blood on the sheets the following morning and said: “I told you I don’t want any trouble. I have enough problems as it is.”

It was Tommy who cried.

It was Mathias who said: “I don’t think he can stay here anymore.”

It was my mother who commented that I looked good, I’d lost weight, become a man.

She had me sit for a photograph shortly after arriving home. And my mother chooses to display this photo above all others on the piano next to Sarkis—me looking like some thin, undomesticated shaft of wheat; Sarkis looking like a shining, plump stuffed olive.

Marta and I make a ritual out of the Frankfurt Book Fair. We spend every evening twisting on the same stools in the same bar, inventing the rest of our lives. She knows the Australian desert chapter so well it is as if it happened to her in New Brunswick. She knows everything I know about the two women I have craved in adulthood, including the sad fact that I have never found the courage to do anything more than pay for their coffee. She knows me so well she will never approach me unexpectedly from behind, never touch my back, or make reference to my appearance.

It was only last year that I told her about Isabel. When I returned from Australia, Isabel, unexpectedly, had been there; she said she had been waiting all year. And this should have meant something—I had never been terribly popular and here was one of the prettiest girls in the entire school reserving herself for me. It should have meant even more than that: someone had missed me, felt my absence, kept a place. But I just couldn’t respond. I didn’t feel anything. Isabel started weeping and I sat there stunned, in the wake of her naked declaration, unable to reach out or say anything.

Isabel refused to speak to me for the rest of the year.

Finally, desperately, at the beginning of the summer holidays, I found myself at the door to her flat. When she opened the door, I reached out and fumbled with the front of her blouse—I grabbed her breast, in lieu of speaking.

“What is wrong with you? ” she screamed. “Get your hands off me!”

And I remember thinking: but I thought this was what you wanted.

“You poor, poor darling,” Marta had said, her knees knock-ing against mine. She reached out and touched my cheek, then leaned in and kissed me again, lemon-flavoured, on the mouth. She took my hand and raised it to her breast.

“Marta, don’t,” I said, grabbing her forearms and pushing her back. “It doesn’t work that way.”

She bit her lip as she smiled and said: “Well, actually, Manny? I have an ulterior motive.”

I have always assumed it was just that Sarkis didn’t know about the legions of children who were torn up by the roots and forced to live out a year, if not an eternity, in unearthed desperation. I have always assumed that until tonight. But now the lentils are burnt. As is the fish. And my mother is in a collapse of tears.

“How could he not call us? ” she says, flipping the lid of the garbage can. “How could someone not call us? I cooked all this food.”

The fish slides off the plate. She tips over the pot of lentils. My mother’s mascara travels the rivulets of her face. She says she’s going to bed.

My father has fallen asleep in his chair in the library. In the silence of the kitchen I pour myself a brandy, lean back against the kitchen counter, and pick up the phone.

Marta does not bother with hello. “So? Is he still there? ”

“He didn’t show up, Marta.”

“What? ” I can hear her whole body subsiding, can picture the dramatic slump of her shoulders.

“I know. Apparently he decided he was tired and went back to his hotel.”

“I cannot believe it,” she says.

“He didn’t even call.”

“How difficult is it to call? How hard is it to say thank you? Or sorry, for that matter.”

I am silent. I never expected thank you. Or sorry. If I expected anything, I suppose it was more like an eyelash, a tiny renewable piece of self, given freely to another; a simple gesture that can facilitate the fragile restoration of a web.

“At a minimum,” says Marta, emphasizing each syllable.

Or the critical piece that allows for the creation of an entirely new web, one in which the donor is inextricably a part.

“I thought I might come for a visit,” I say.

“Really? Wonderful.”

“A serious visit. Perhaps for a month.”

Kiss me again, Marta, I will say to her. Kiss me again.